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Speaking the Same Language: Part 1 The Tower of Babel
The observance of Pentecost Sunday was almost overshadowed by a controversy that raged on social media.
Did you hear “yanny” or “laurel” when a sound clip was played? The people who heard “yanny” were adamant that was what they heard. The people who heard “laurel” were equally fervent in their insistence that was what the voice was saying. It was an issue that divided couples, friends, neighbors, siblings, co-workers—with each person convinced that he or she was right. And they were. It turns out you heard one or the other depending on the frequency it was played on and the frequencies your brain interprets, or something like that. I was a little skeptical. I had played it on multiple devices and always heard “yanny”. Then they played it over the sound system at church and I heard “laurel” plain as day. Mind blown.
It actually couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was going to be teaching about the Tower of Babel that Sunday. Speaking the same language as those around you is pretty important. If you don’t understand them and they don’t understand you, it can create many hindrances. Informal sign language will only get you so far before you are doing charades to figure out where to find the nearest ladies room. However, even speaking the same language can bring misunderstanding. Your words can be misinterpreted by someone because of their filters. Someone may take offense from something you said when no offense was intended. In other cases, accents or local vernacular can trip up communications. Think about someone from Georgia talking to someone from Massachusetts, or someone from Louisiana trying to converse with someone from New York City.
Unfortunately, most of us in the USA speak only one language. While most of us take Spanish or French in high school, we rarely become conversational in those languages. I can tell you “I don’t know” and “I am tired” in French, but that’s about the extent of my ability. I really wish I had learned to speak another language, aside from “hillbilly” and “sarcasm”. (I am quite fluent in both, y’all.)
The story of the Tower of Babel was always bothered me. I didn’t get it. Might as well call it the Tower of Baffle, I thought. I was baffled by it. But when God tells you to study because it has some tie to Pentecost, you roll up your sleeves and pray and ask Him to reveal the mystery to you. I always start by looking up the definitions of important or key words. The word origin for Babel is from the Hebrew for “gate of God”. Its location and name would indicate this would be the place that became known as Babylon. The word babel (lowercase) means a confused mixture of sounds or voices. Imagine walking into the lobby of the United Nations building during a large gathering. You would hear people talking in many different languages at the same time. It would be a confused mixture of voices, unless you spoke or understood one or more of the languages being spoken. The word babel is often confused with babble (2 b’s), but they are different words with different meanings. Babble means to talk idly, excessively, foolishly, meaninglessly; to chatter. It is talk that no one would want or need to understand. It’s cute when babies do it, but otherwise it would be unprofitable or even not translatable.
Genesis 11: 1-4 Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
The whole earth had one language, but there wasn’t the huge population like we think of the world today. These people were the descendants of Noah and his sons. It took many generations to increase the population from 8 people to this group of people in the plain of Shinar. In Genesis 10, which is referred to as the Table of Nations, we read about the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japeth. Shem’s descendants become the Hebrews, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Persians and Syrians. Ham’s are Canaanites, Egyptians, Philistines, Hittites and Amorites. Japeth becomes the Greeks, Thracians, Scythians. When you think about these peoples you can picture the different parts of the world where they were found and how they spoke different languages, among other differences. This was all part of God’s plan to repopulate and fill the earth after the flood.
Genesis 9:1 So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.
God was pretty clear in His expectations. He wanted them to grow their families and move into all areas of the earth. And multiply they did, but at this point they were all still together. But they are having growing pains. They know what they are supposed to do but they don’t want to do that. They wanted to stay together, like a baby bird not wanting to fly out of the nest. But then they come upon the plain in Shinar with its wide open spaces. There is plenty of room for everyone. It is located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The presence of water means plant and animal life. It was almost paradise. So they decide they should settle there, rather than be scattered. Unfortunately, they were both short-sighted and disobedient. Shortsighted, because one day even this plain could not hold all of them. Worse, they were disobedient because it was in rebellion to what God’s plan was for them to fill the earth. He didn’t say settle – He said go!
Christians often get caught in these growing pains. God is growing us in a direction of our calling and we are resistant. We don’t wanna. It seems scary or too hard. We find ourselves in a sweet, comfy place and we don’t want to move from there. We know we are called to do something more but we are content to stay in our lane and ride it out. But that course is short-sighted and disobedient. You are doing God’s work today, which is good, but there is a higher calling for you for tomorrow and you are avoiding it.
The descendants of Noah are smart. They are industrious. They can make bricks to use in place of stone. They can make asphalt which would hold the bricks together to make them sturdy and waterproof (you know, against potential flooding). The say “come let us”, meaning us men of the world, who can do things on our own without help. They did not seek God or ask for His help or direction. We can make bricks. We will build a city and in the city a tower whose top is in heaven. It was a high monument to man, to self, to manliness, to rival God. No flood could top it, they likely thought. They wanted to make a name for themselves, not lift up the name of God or glorify His name in the land. They wanted to promote themselves and prevent the people from being scattered. We humans like control. They were tightening down on everything. If they could keep everyone together in one place they could control their lives. If everyone started scattering all over the world, they would have no longer have that control.
Genesis 11:5-7 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
God did not stop them from building the city or the tower. He will let you go through with your plans because sometimes we have to learn things the hard way. Ever sit back and let your kids do that? Certainly you don’t let them do anything that will cause them harm, but sometimes you allow them the opportunity to learn something the hard way. They didn’t want to listen to your advice or direction, so let them figure it out on their own. And sometimes you have to step in and intervene.
These next verses were the ones that baffled me as a young Christian. The first time I read it sounded to me like the people posed a threat to God and if He didn’t do something to stop them it would be too late. Maybe they could build a tower straight to heaven? While I was reading it in a language I understood, I didn’t interpret it or understand it the way it was intended.
As Christians, we know the value of being in one mind and one accord. These people were in one mind, one accord and they all spoke the same language and wanted the same thing. They were smart and industrious. Truly they could do just about anything they put their minds to if they worked hard enough. They could have stayed on that plain and in that city and lived their lives without God. We all have that choice. But this was not God’s plan. He had already started over once and He had promised not to destroy the earth by flood ever again. He doesn’t say He wants to destroy them, but He wants to keep them on track to fulfill His plan because that is what is best for all mankind. I love having freewill, but I also love having a Father that knows when I need to be saved from myself.
The light bulb goes off for me when I read, “Come let Us”. Notice the capital U in Us. Who is Us? The Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together. God had a plan. It was His will that the people inhabit the whole earth, not just one comfy recliner, bean bag, porch swing corner of it. It didn’t matter how smart they were or how industrious or clever or strong willed the people were, they were never going to be stronger than God. The creation would never best the Creator. And instead of punishing their rebellion with something like earthquakes, fire from heaven, fiery serpents or other natural disasters or predators, He found a simple way to get them moving by changing their language. This was when all the languages of the earth were born of the Spirit through the Godhead. Those who could understand each other were drawn together, just like the people who heard “yanny” or “laurel” teamed up.
Genesis 11:8-9 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
With the people naturally separating into language groups, the Lord then begins to scatter them. It’s hard to know how long this actually took, but it was under the guidance of God – He scattered them. This would not be the only time God scattered a rebellious people. When Israel became a rebellious nation under the rule of evil kings, God allowed them to be taken into captivity by their enemies. This was known as the diaspora (which means “I scatter”) or dispersion of the Jews. Israel was taken first and then Judah, ironically enough by the king of Babylon. They had turned their backs on God, serving idols and other gods. In captivity, Jews lived all over the world and adapted to the languages spoken in their new countries.
In Part 2, we will fast forward to Acts and the Day of Pentecost. Anyone see that coming?