The Spirit of Pentecost may transcend the diversity of languages, but the message of God’s love may still sound alien to the world.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit that is celebrated in the Christian Pentecost includes (1) the language miracle of communication among foreign-speaking people of faith, (2) the testimony of prophets and apostles to the age of the Spirit, and (3) the birth of the community of believers later called the church.
(The alternate reading; the Pentecost story will be the Epistle reading below.) The Genesis reading tells a story about how there came to be many languages over the earth. In its familiar English form, this story is about “the Tower of Babel” (rimes with “table”). In its Hebrew form, however, it is the story of the Tower of Babylon. The place mentioned in Genesis 11:9 has the Hebrew name Babel ( rimes with the name of the French composer “Ravél”), which is the usual word in Hebrew for “Babylon.”
The story presupposes awareness of a legendary monument in Mesopotamia consisting of the ruins of a brick temple tower (a pyramid-like structure, when completed, called a ziggurat). In the ideology of such temple towers the top-most structures, accessible only to priests and royalty, were in heaven. This tower, associated with Babylon, was remembered as a ruin and was popularly thought of as a mighty enterprise never completed. (Old Babylon flourished as an empire under Hammurabi in the early 1700’s BCE, about 800 years earlier then the time of David and Solomon.)
The story of the Tower of Babylon is that of a grand enterprise that failed to make it. There is a certain note of pathos at the grandeur aimed at, including some admiration for the technology of the builders. There is also, however, some mockery at the hubris and foolishness that aspired to reach the heavens and to avoid succumbing to the wide diversity of the peoples and nations.
As in some other stories in Genesis 1-11, the human players seem to come off better morally, if more tragically, than the divine ones. As with the humans in the paradise garden, acquiring advanced knowledge and skills becomes a threat to the powers above.
Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech (verses 5-6, NRSV).
When the heavenly powers carry out this proposal, the great enterprise is abandoned and the foreign-speaking peoples are dispersed.
Peeking out of this story, pretty conspicuously, is the polytheistic background of the good old Canaanite culture stories that were absorbed into Israelite teaching materials. Israelite youths aspiring to high office in the Kingdom of Judah were forced to learn some foreign language(s). Here, as they practiced their reading and writing in Hebrew, they discussed why there were all these languages! In the long perspective, they learned, the diversity of languages was a judgment of God because of impious ambitions or perverse disobedience by humans. Only prophetic powers of later ages (see the Pentecost story) would transcend these human divisions.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
The Psalm reading is the last portion of one of the great hymns of praise for God’s work in creating and structuring the world. The earlier sections of the psalm fondly viewed the organization of God’s heavenly residence (verses 1-4), the establishment of the earth within the cosmic waters (verses 5-9), the blessings of waterways and the harmony of plants and animals in the lands (verses 10-18), and the rhythms of time obeyed by animals and humans (verses 19-23).
In our reading the psalmist pauses in wonder. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! / In wisdom you have made them all…” (verse 24, NRSV). The particular interest in God’s Spirit is as the agency of renewal in the cycle of life and death in the world of animals and humans.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath [their ruach, spirit] they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit [ruach], they are created
[the verb of “in the beginning God created”]
and you renew the face of the ground. (verses 29-30)
The psalmist portrays the dynamics of life in the harmonious created world as dependent on the sustaining and renewing work of God’s Spirit.
In the reading from Acts we move to the work of God’s Spirit in transcending the diversity of human languages, producing a kind of reversal of the Tower of Babylon event. The Acts passage emphasizes the unity of the assembled group, like the oneness of humans in Genesis 11:1-4. “They were all together in one place.” As they are thus gathered, a mighty wind and tongues of fire fall upon them, and they were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues…” (verse 4, NRSV).
The passage elaborates the language miracle. It presents a long list of peoples and regions (verses 5-11) whose languages were understood on this occasion. The hearers were all foreign Jews resident in Jerusalem. The phenomenon of speaking in tongues (called “glossolalia,” from Greek glossa, tongue) was familiar in the New Testament world (see I Corinthians 14:1-25) and right on down to present times, but that phenomenon does not involve speaking in other languages. At Pentecost, Acts describes what was thought of as a one-time event. (Later references in Acts to speaking in tongues after the Spirit is given, 10:46 and 19:6, make no reference to speaking other languages.) Here, however, a bunch of religious ecstatics are heard to speak languages native to many foreign-speaking immigrants in Jerusalem. Skeptical onlookers, of course, regarded them as tipsy (verse 13), but we hearers are assured that the speaking had meaning to many. The message of repentance and forgiveness through Jesus the Christ transcends limitations of language. The power of the Spirit breaks through linguistic boundaries among people of faith.
What the foreign-language speakers heard, presumably, is what we learn from the speech that Peter makes to all Jewish people present (verses 14-36). In our reading we hear only the first part of that speech, the part that proclaims that what has happened is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, quoted at length by Peter. That prophesy tells us that the pouring out of the Spirit of God on “all flesh” will be the beginning of great and new wonders of God’s work, and the outcome of that work is that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (verse 21).
Peter and the disciples are there to make known what is that Name that is to be called upon.
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
The Gospel reading may be an anticlimax after the previous selections. Chapter 14 of John continues a series of dialogues that began with Peter’s question in 13:30. There are four questions asked by disciples, Peter (13:30), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8), and Jude (14:22). Each question gives Jesus an opportunity to spell out further to uncomprehending disciples how he can go away now and yet be present to them in the times ahead.
For purposes of a Pentecost text, verses 16-17 are the primary statement.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever [literally “until the (new) age”]. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” [Some early manuscripts and the great mass of later manuscripts read the pronouns here as neuter, “it” instead of “he” or “him.” The Greek word pneuma, spirit, is neuter.]
This is about as clear a promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit as Johannine rhetoric will allow: “You know [the Spirit] because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” Only the actual bestowal of God’s Spirit in 20:22 is a more direct statement of the coming of the Spirit to the disciples.
The effect of the Holy Spirit on the disciples will be to alienate them from the world. (“…the Spirit of truth, whom the world…neither sees…nor knows…”) The world cannot know the reality brought by the Spirit; but that reality is the “truth,” the divine reality that will be fully manifested when the world has passed away in the age to come.
The final problem of the Spirit in the world is not just language; it is the lack of that gift of life that unites humans with the divine reality —agape, love of God and neighbors.