“Do you think what happened at Babel was a curse?”
The question caught me by surprise.
I had this glorious opportunity to participate in workshop at BSU for a class in communication & religion. I first met the prof when he took one of my Greek classes several years ago. About a month ago I ran into him at Barnes and Nobles, renewed our acquaintance, mentioned to him upcoming possibilities with me teaching Hebrew, and he ended up joining my latest Hebrew class. The first night of class I shared how just learning the Hebrew alphabet can start you on a journey akin to something out of Stargate. It’s a portal not merely to another time, but to a wholly different world.
It’s one of the benefits of learning a second language. To learn a second language is to step into a whole new way of seeing and naming the world – particularly if it is a language that takes you out of our western, Indo-European language neighborhood and across the great cross-cultural divide to a place where people truly see the world differently. Hebrew can do that. It makes you read the opposite direction, for pity’s sake, and the end of a book in Hebrew is where books normally begin for us.
Sharing all this with my latest class, my prof friend from BSU, Jerry, asked if I would be willing to come to a class workshop and share my scoop on the value of learning a second language and its potential implications and insights into communication across religious and cultural divides.
So there I sat with about twenty eager young minds, listening to a discussion about text and context, subtext and pretext, along with high- and low-context cultures, totally loving every minute of it. I so could have done this all my life! One point on which I wish I hadn’t listened to my dad. Should have majored in history (or linguistics!) and pursued that teaching degree. But then, I no doubt would not have been enjoying this session – or writing this blog. So move on, Mike, move on. So I do. I share my story and spiel about learning languages, about the potential insights personally, culturally, biblically from learning Hebrew.
Lunch break comes, the class disperses, except for several students who gather to me.
And then comes the question.
“Do you think what happened at Babel was a curse?”
I honestly hadn’t thought of the judgment at Babel that way.
Think about it. If we were cursed with different languages leading to different cultures and tribes, customs and traditions, waiting for Pentecost to undo it all, where would that leave us? What that say about God and about the ultimate story he tells? No, I said. That’s not the point of the story. Diversity of culture and color and custom and language were not a curse or an afterthought on God’s part. It was one of the ultimate fruits of his direction for humanity to fill the earth. As one Hebraist has pointed out, the Hebrew word we translate “create” in Genesis literally means to “make fat.” The God of Genesis 1 “fattened” creation with a huge, swirling, swarming diversity of creatures and critters. One basic model simply wouldn’t do. The Creator entity at the center of all things thrives on diversity of shape, size and form. He was no Henry Ford.
If anyone is prone to boring sameness it is a humanity that has lost touch with the Creator heart and thrives instead on homogeneity and uniformity. One tongue. One speech. One culture. One party. One religion. One tower. Yay. Can you pass the Grey Poupon?
Seen in this light, Babel becomes a judgment on our universal tendencies towards tameness, sameness, the bland blending of all colors into an ugly, lifeless gray. At Babel, God merely jumpstarts the process humanity had/has failed to embrace: to spread out, to develop their own cultures, identity and potential in life-giving ways. To develop and relish our own unique voice in the wide world. Of course, despite the Babel jumpstart, we have still failed to do this right. The rest of the biblical tale – the still unfolding saga of humanity – is one of increasing alienation and otherness; a hostile moving away from each other in our diversities.
Enter Jesus. Enter Pentecost.
Pentecost isn’t about eliminating divers tongues. The apostolic speech was not monochrome utterance. “We hear them speak in own our tongues the wonderful works of God.” All languages are uttered here, all cultures acknowledged. Diversity is not leveled; rather the hostile momentum of otherness is reversed. The crowd gathers rather than scatters. Humanity comes home to a diverse and colorful home that we call in its ultimate form the new heavens and the new earth.
So how very sad – wait, not strong enough – how very tragic to still be playing Babel on our religious, political and cultural tableaus, feeding our deep, adamic dysfunction and momentum towards an isolating, dehumanizing sameness. A tableau of external conformity masquerading as unity or harmony or love, while souls scatter to their cloistered closets to once again hopefully catch a glimpse of the unique glory placed within them.
How long before we wake up and embrace the blessing of Babel at the dawning of Pentecost?
What a question…