May 15, 2016
While the commentary below does not include Acts 2:1-21, see below, Preaching Genesis 11:1-9 as a Pentecost Sunday Text, for observations on the Acts Reading.
Commentary on the Texts
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
Chapter 11 of Genesis plays an important role in the theological flow of the book of Genesis. It stands at the conclusion of what is known as the Primeval History that comprises Genesis 1-11. As such, Genesis 11 is the interface between the pre-historical material in these first chapters, and the beginnings of the story of the Israelites and the unfolding of the Patriarchal narratives from chapter 12. We should note that "pre-historical" here implies nothing one way or the other about the events themselves. It only suggests that these early narratives cannot be placed in any certain historical context with which we are familiar outside the narratives themselves, or beyond only the most general cultural background. That means that "history" is probably not the best category by which to hear the message of this text.
Since we cannot really relate this text to a definite historical setting, it might be helpful on some level of study to try to identify the historical context of the community that produced the narrative. This might help us hear the theological concerns of that community as a basis for relating the concerns of the text. However, such an undertaking would be highly speculative at best, since there are few clues and a plethora of theories ranging from Moses (14-12th cent. BC) to the post exilic era (4th cent. BC). Such an approach would provide little substantive basis for understanding the passage beyond appealing to other points of interest outside the text (for example, the assumption of a Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch). And such an approach might cause us to hear the wrong things.
A better approach is to hear this text as story, as theological narrative. This approach would focus on the story line within the text itself and the narrative flow of which it is a part as a context for hearing the theological perspectives of the text. That will not answer all the questions we might want answered about the text, but it will put us in a better position to understand the significance of this text as theological communication (See Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narrative). To do this, we will simply lay aside all of those other questions that we might have about the text, and focus on the story line as it unfolds through Genesis and as that tracks through Genesis 11.
The story line in the Primeval History has been marked by two overriding theological concerns: the repeated and continued failure of humanity to recognize God as God, and the incredible grace of God as he interacts and responds to willful and disobedient humanity. The four major narratives in Genesis to this point, Creation (ch. 1), the Eden story (chs. 2-3), Cain and Abel (ch. 4), and the flood (chs. 6-9), have all traced these two interwoven themes. Human beings have been portrayed as in rebellion against God almost from the beginning of their existence, and their failure to live within the boundaries of God's creation has unleashed an ever widening circle of consequences into the world.
There had been a steady progression of the effects of sin in creation, both in scope and in severity, until God decided to intervene with the flood (6:5-6). Yet, the flood did not eliminate sin, since apparently the problem of sin is a problem of who human beings are (note 9:21). So God responded to sin, not with final punishment, but with grace as he had earlier responded to Adam and Eve and to Cain. This does not imply that God has approved of sin; only that God's response to sin would now be one of grace ("never again," 6:21, is a tremendously important theological concept here).
The story line, then, of the Primeval history, has been the up and down movement between sin and grace. When the focus has been on humanity and their actions, the emphasis is on sin. And just as surely, when the focus has been on God and his actions, the emphasis is on grace. As we shall see, chapter 11 is on the down beat of sin, which leaves the stage set for chapter 12 which is again the upbeat of grace (see commentary on Genesis 12:1-9).
Chapter 11 returns to a focus on humanity after the focus on God in chapter 9. Chapter 10 occurs between these chapters as a way to provide a setting for what follows and place it in a wider context than just the stories of individuals. Chapter 10, sometimes called the Table of Nations, functions to place Israel, even though she has not yet emerged in the story line as a nation, in the context of all the nations of the earth (Israel was traditionally traced from the lineage of Shem through Eber, 10:25). The emphasis there is on the diversity of people in the world, and yet affirming that Israel is (will be) at the center. This is not to assert any kind of superiority, but in light of what follows serves far more to emphasize responsibility and purpose.
Chapter 11 opens with the interesting comment that the whole earth had one language (v.1). The problem immediately apparent is that all through chapter 10 there have already been references to other languages associated with various groups of people (10:5, 20, 31). Rather than scrambling to find some historical or logical resolution to this discrepancy, this should be a rather immediate clue that we are not dealing with simple history here. That is, something more is at work in this text than simply tracking the historical, biological, or evolutionary development of human speech or even of national identity. The questions that we need to be asking here are theological questions, and those must arise from the context of the story itself.
The contrast drawn in this text is between two interwoven contrasting themes that move to the heart of the passage: one/unity and scattering. The first comes from the perspective of the people. They have "one language . . . the same words" (v.1), yet fear being "scattered" (v. 4). What they attempt to do arises from this unity for the purpose of preventing their scattering. The second is from the perspective of God who sees that they are "one people . . .one language" (v.6) yet acts so that they will be "scattered" (v.8).
The theological question that emerges here, especially for Christians in light of a consistent New Testament emphasis on the need for unity, is why God would apparently destroy the unity of humanity in such a way? The question becomes even more acute as we recall the long history of humanity marked by discord and disunity, often expressed in hostility and violence. Why would the text portray God as bringing such disharmony into a world that apparently is unified and working together for a common goal? We will return to this question in a moment.
The people of chapter 11 migrated from the East and settled in the land of Shinar, an ancient name for the land of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, known to us more familiarly as Mesopotamia or Babylonia (Isa 11:11). Since there is no specific antecedent for the plural pronouns in these verses, in context they refer to the "nations" of the preceding verse (10:32). However, the great diversity of chapter 10 is nowhere in view here. The entire narrative at this point depends on the assumption that, in spite of the reference to "the whole earth" (v. 1), there is a single group of people here who are migrating together as a large family. Again, historical questions that try to sort this out will probably miss the point of the narrative. This is simply a rhetorical technique by which to address the theological issues.
These people decided to build a city and a "tower." There are interrelated goals and purposes given for this building project. The idea of building a city was not new (note 4:17) and may simply have represented the movement from nomadic to sedentary culture. Since there is no real hint in that direction in the text, it probably should not be read as any critique against urban life or the development of technology (note 4:17-22). The focus of the story is clearly on the tower. The immediate goal is to build a tower "with its top in the heavens," in other words, a very tall tower. How tall this tower would have to be to reach the heavens, and the issue of whether such a task is possible are questions that come from our logical and physically oriented world view, and will lead us astray from the story.
The tower portrayed in this story is not itself unusual culturally. We know from ruins in that part of the world that the early inhabitants of Mesopotamia built a type of huge step pyramid called a ziggurat. It served as a temple of the gods, who were all personifications of various aspects of nature including the heavenly bodies. It may well be that the narrator was familiar with the Babylonian ziggurats and used that setting as a vehicle for dealing with the theological issues he wants to address. The issue here is not the building of the tower itself, but the reasons for building it.
The immediate goal was to "make a name for ourselves," with the longer range purpose that they would not "be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (v. 4). The concept of having a "name" in the ancient world was close to what we mean by the same expression, except perhaps even more pronounced. A person's name not only represented the person and their reputation, but it also communicated something about the character of the person (cf. Prov 22:1). For example, Jacob's name meant "cheater," and yet his name was changed to "Israel" when he began to move beyond his scheming nature (Gen 32:27-28).
As in many places in narrative, a specific meaning for the story is not spelled out directly here, and it is left to the reader (hearer) to draw the connections. As suggested, the significance arises in seeing this narrative against the background of the unfolding story in Genesis. The implication here is that the people are depending on themselves to define who they are, and what they are about in the world. This stands in stark contrast to God's promise to Abraham in the following chapter: "I will . . . make your name great" (12:2). The subtle implication, perhaps too subtle at this point to emphasize heavily, is that God is the one who should make their name great (cf. 2 Sam 7:9, 23; I Kings 1:47). This introduces an element of self-sufficiency and self interest here. It will take other images to develop this idea.
The second element here is the fear that they would be scattered. And yet, since early in the creation story, this has been God's stated purpose for humanity: that they would "fill the earth" (1:28, cf. 9:7). In fact, the term "scattered" is used in chapter 10 to describe the spread of the nations throughout the world (10:18; a synonym is used in 10:32). And yet this text finds the people unified around a common goal with the fear that they will be scattered. This again raises the question of what would be wrong with such unity.
As is obvious from the response of God, the problem here is not unity itself. The telling theological commentary of verse 6 provides the crux of this passage: "this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." This reveals that the issue here is not unity, but is really one of arrogance and pride.
From early in the Genesis narrative, we have heard that a fundamental problem with human beings is that they do not like boundaries, they do not like anyone, even God, setting limits on what they can do. The temptation, or even tendency, of human beings is to aspire to "become like God" (3:5, 22; See The "Fall" - A Second Look). That unwillingness to acknowledge God as God, and the corresponding need to replace God with gods of our own making, or with ourselves as our own god, lie at the core of the disruption and alienation we experience in the world (which is the theological function of the curses in Gen. 3:14-19). This tendency is again evidenced in the Cain and Abel story, and is expressed dramatically in the flood story in the negative assessment of humanity (6:5-6).
That basic idea crops up again here. The unity of these people is not something positive, because they are unified around the wrong center. The focus of their unity is their own ability to establish themselves in the world apart from God (note the same idea in a scathing prophetic denunciation in Habakkuk 1:11, 16). Here echoes the same problem that was evidenced in the Eden story: they aspire to become like God, themselves establishing their place in the world and implementing their own rules by which they live in that world.
There is a certain sarcastic tone in verse 5 that serves to highlight their arrogance: "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower." They intend to build a tower to reach into the heavens to make a name for themselves. The irony is that God can't even see this tower. He must come down and find this puny tower that the mortals had built. The implication here is that these people aren't ever going to become gods.
And yet we dare not take the threat expressed in the following verse too lightly and dismiss it as mere rhetoric. Somewhere in our theology we must make a place for the seriousness of this threat. God says, "This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (v. 6). Is God really afraid that they will succeed? Can they become gods? It really raises the same question that was raised back in the Adam and Eve story. Was God really afraid that they would eat of the tree of life and live forever? Is God so controlled by human action that he has to be afraid of what human beings can do?
On one theological level we want to answer, "Of course not!" to this question. We want to preserve the sovereignty of God and not allow human beings to usurp that sovereignty. But this is not really about the sovereignty of God on any ultimate level. The setting for this passage is the ripple effect of sin in the world. It is far more about human beings and their capacity for sin and disobedience. The very real concern here is about the tremendous capacity of human beings to bring disruption into the world, the incredible and sometimes horrifying ability of human beings to perpetrate the most unspeakable actions against each other. Perhaps, God's concern here is justified in the light of human history, not only at this point in Genesis, but from the wider perspective we have on humanity after several thousand years!
It does not take much effort here for our thoughts to turn to the Holocaust or the killing fields of Southeast Asia, or the ethnic purges in Africa, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. Even in our lifetime, we have seen the fact that human beings have a tremendous capacity for doing evil things. Part of the dynamic of this story is that when people become unified for the wrong reasons, even if the immediate goal is not necessarily evil, the potential for horrendous harm is there. The problem, then, that emerges in this story is the problem of people who unify for their own interests rather than God's. And such unity that runs counter to God's purposes for his creation poses great risk to the world.
At this point, God entered the picture and confused their language so they could no longer communicate with each other (v. 7). Here, as noted above, we will likely miss the story almost totally if we hear only an account about the origin of diverse language. Since the whole issue to this point has been unity around a false center, the "one language" can now be seen as a metaphorical way to talk about that false unity in this story. It is a unity that cannot stand, because it has a base outside of God. We can now also understand the various languages and the scattering as a metaphorical way to talk about God's actions to accomplish his purposes for humanity. But this does not necessarily mean that God will intervene directly in history every time humanity poses a new threat by our own selfishness and sin (that issue was addressed in the flood story, 8:21-22, 9:11).
What if this is a way to talk theologically, not just about what happened in history, but a way to describe how things are? That is, how would we hear this story if it were not just an account about events that happened in the far distant past, but a way to express a penetrating insight into the human condition? It really says that the judgment of God upon sin is confusion or, from a different perspective, that God has made the world to work in such a way that sin brings its own disruption.
This expresses the idea that when human beings go against the purposes of God the result is confusion. The arrogance and self-centeredness that compels us to define the world in our own terms results in a world in which we can no longer even talk to each other. Even when we try to be united, if the basis of that unity is only ourselves and our own ambitions and goals, we will find that we cannot even communicate adequately. There is left nothing but babble, confusion, and disorder.
When we pick up the newspaper tomorrow, the question forces itself upon us. Why is this world in such a mess? Why for so many years could not Catholics in Northern Ireland sit down at a table and talk to Protestant Brits? Why could not Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo sit down and talk to each other instead of killing each other? Why could not Hutus and Tutsies in Rwanda set aside their differences and sit down and work out their problems instead of slaughtering each other by the tens of thousands? Why cannot Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East find some common ground beyond killing each other? Why can't people just talk to each other? Why do we as human beings only seem to be united against each other?
This is the question that this story is told in order to answer. We simply have not unified around the right thing. We have wanted to go our own way. We have decided that we are going to make ourselves our own gods and make a name for ourselves. We have excluded God's will from our lives and that introduces confusion and horror into our world. The answer is because we are suffering under the effects of sin. As Walter Brueggemann observes, "all human language has become the language of disobedience" (Genesis, Interpretation, 97).
The scattering in this story (v. 8) is ambiguous. On one level, it is a judgment from God on a self-centered arrogance that wanted to ignore God's purposes in the world. And yet, on another level, that scattering is a fulfillment of what God had wanted humanity to do, to fill the earth.
That suggests another dimension to the story not yet told in this text that will explain how the scattering can be a fulfillment of God's purposes for his creation. That part of the story will begin in chapter 12 on the upbeat of grace. There God will call Abraham to begin a journey that will take him into a future he does not know, to places he has not yet seen, and will begin a new scattering that will not reach its climax for many centuries. In fact, while it is not directly connected to this story, the account of Acts 2 seems to have been constructed to provide a deliberate positive counterpoint to this narrative.
The themes of alienation and disruption provide the heart of this story. While in the past some church traditions have focused too exclusively on the negative dimension of sin, and have neglected an equal emphasis on grace, this dimension is much more evenly balanced in Scripture. It is an important fact of Christianity that even though the message is clearly focused on the good news of grace, it is always set against the background of sin. That is why Easter and the resurrection cannot authentically be celebrated truncated from Good Friday and the crucifixion.
This suggests that the preaching paths for this text will lead from the background of the negative dimension of sin and self-centeredness, and the turmoil they bring into human existence. And yet, just as Genesis 11 cannot stand alone apart from chapter 12, sin can never be the end of the story. As is the case in all of Scripture, a place must be left for a path to grace, even though this text does not itself lead that direction if taken alone.
The clear warning of this text is the danger of constructing human existence around a center that will not hold, a center that is comprised of only human ambition and effort without God. Even at their best, human beings cannot comprise a center strong enough to sustain themselves apart from God. And at their worst, human beings have the capability of bringing unspeakable pain and horror into the world.
We live, especially in the Western world and in the United States, in a world of individualism and cultural pragmatism that says we can accomplish anything that needs accomplished. We have even developed various forms of religion that emphasize the worth and capability of human beings to make their own way in the world even to the point of becoming our own gods. It is easy to assume from such pervasive perspectives that this is really how the world is, and how things really work. If we add the criteria of success dictated by such perspectives, it is easy to conclude that worth and value can, indeed, be measured by how great a name a person or nation can make for themselves, or what great buildings they can erect. Then, it is only a short step to measure the worth of people who have attempted to "make a name for themselves" and conclude that this, indeed, is the way to success, that this is how human existence should be defined. So, why bother with the purposes of God in the world, or, indeed, why bother with God at all?
Yet, this text challenges all such construal of the world in terms of our own efforts or in terms of our own ambitions apart from God. As capable as we think we are or can become, this text reminds us that God must look hard to even see our grand efforts! This text is a critique of any human effort, no matter how noble it may sound, that is united around anything but God. This is not to discount human achievement in art or science or other areas, nor does it assume the perspective of the "religious despisers of culture" (W. Brueggemann in In Man We Trust) who promote the idea that no human activity has any worth or value apart from some religious system. That is its own form of arrogance and spiritual self-centeredness.
Still, this text proclaims that human effort apart from God will finally end in confusion, alienation, and disruption. It asserts that people who neglect God as the center of unity will eventually see their grand schemes abandoned and wander off in their own paths, speaking only to themselves.
If we place this text for just a moment in the context of the following chapter (Gen 12), where God enters the dead-end of a world thrown into total confusion by self-centered arrogance, we begin to understand the other side of this warning (see commentary on Genesis 12:1-9). The only avenue into authentic human existence is through the unity of human beings as they respond to a call of God to leave the barrenness of a world defined by themselves, and enter a world of possibility that is defined by God speaking and calling.
The Lectionary Readings for Pentecost Sunday pair Genesis 11:1-9 with Acts 2:1-21. Beyond the surface similarities, these two texts have profound theological connections. The writer of both Luke's Gospel and Acts has taken great care throughout both books to establish a continuity between God's actions in the past with Israel and his new actions in the coming of Jesus and the establishment of the church. Because of that, it is hard to believe that the author has not deliberately constructed the Pentecost account in Acts 2 as a counterpoint to the Babel story in Genesis 11. This does not at all suggest that the Acts 2 account is in any way fictitious, or that Luke has somehow distorted the account. It only suggests that the author has carefully shaped the Pentecost narrative to make a theological affirmation against the background of and in conjunction with the Babel story of Genesis 11.
Of course, the major point of contact is the diversity of language. In the Genesis narrative, a common language was a symbol of unity around a false center of pride and arrogant self-sufficiency. The diversity of language was a symbol for the confusion that results when human beings attempt to go their own way without God.
In Acts, the focus is still on both the diversity of language and the center of unity, but with a radically dissimilar emphasis. Apart from what some would like to maintain, it is clear that the languages in Acts 2 are representative of the various national and/or ethnic languages of those who were in Jerusalem for the festival of Shauvot (2:6-11). The coming of the Holy Spirit enabled the diversity of people there to hear what was said in their own native language. It is possible that since they were Jews, they already had the common language of Hebrew (or Aramaic), or perhaps even Greek or Latin. But that is beside the point of the narrative. The emphasis in the Acts account is clearly the unity brought by the Holy Spirit on the level of language that would otherwise raise barriers.
So while the judgment in the Babel story was against a false unity built around human ambition and independence, the unity here is around the activity of God in giving the Holy Spirit. There is no hint of arrogance in the Acts narrative; in fact, the people are gathered together in prayer, following the instructions of Jesus to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is not something they can accomplish. They are totally dependent here on the action and timing of God at work in their midst. They are not out to make a name for themselves here, but are simply waiting for God to empower them to carry out the task that he has assigned them to do.
In the Babel story, the people fear that they will be scattered, and so try to avoid it, even at the cost of going against God's purposes for his creation. In Acts, they are waiting, knowing that they will be scattered. Oh, they do not yet comprehend exactly how that will occur, and likely have no hint that massive persecutions will indeed scatter them to the ends of the earth. It is not a scattering that they would likely choose. Yet, Jesus had already told them that Jerusalem, the place where they are waiting, would be only the beginning of a much longer journey to Judea, to Samaria, and throughout the whole earth. And so, they wait for the power to become witnesses, for the power to be scattered.
In the Babel story, the people are attempting to define their own existence, to make their own way in the world apart from God, to give their lives meaning by their own efforts. In the Pentecost narrative, it is God who defines who they are by filling them with the Holy Spirit. It is God who enables them to become witnesses of his grace. It is God who gives them meaning and purpose in the world. While their own efforts result in confusion and disunity, God at the center brings a unity even amid their diversity.
It is important to note that God's gift of the Holy Spirit in power at Pentecost does not make them all speak the same language. It is not a coercive conformity, but a unity in the midst of diversity. Each still speaks their own language. They will need to be able to speak those languages as they return home throughout the world to become the witnesses they are commissioned to become. But they hear the message all together at the same time, and understand it. This gift of unity in the Holy Spirit does not erase who they are; it simply gives them something beyond who they are that brings them together.
Now we begin to understand the ambiguity of the confusion of languages in Genesis 11. There it seemed that the diversity of language was a curse intended to bring division to humanity. Instead, in Acts 2 we learn that even diversity of language, people who cannot talk to each other or understand each other, is no barrier to God. When God is the power behind human relationships rather than human wannabes, there is an understanding between people that language barriers and the resulting confusion and even hostility cannot impede.
This is one of the strongest affirmations in Scripture that God, and his purposes in the world, is the only adequate center of unity in the human family. Any other attempt at unity will only end in confusion. We do not have to seek the same experiences as on the day of Pentecost. Those particular phenomena were likely for the inauguration of the church in the world. If we focus on the manifestations themselves, we run the risk of missing the deeper and far wider ranging significance of the message of Pentecost.
But we do need the same power from on high if we are to be witnesses to the world so that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21). We do need the same unity around the only center that will hold, enabled by the presence of the Holy Spirit among us and in us. We do need the same infilling of our hearts that will so fill us with the love for God and each other that there will be no more room for pettiness, for selfishness, for arrogant ambition, for sin. When we wait for that enabling power from God, and employ it for his purposes in the world rather than ours, it may just be that "this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." The remainder of the book of Acts bears marvelous witness to that truth!
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