The events which took place at Babel most definitely fall into the category of judgment. Genesis eleven describes how the early peoples of the earth all shared one language. And contrary to God’s desires, they did not spread out and fill the earth, but decided they would band together, build a city in the land of Shinar, and construct a tower to challenge the heavens. In this way, they would “make a name” for themselves. You don’t have to be from an honor-shame culture to understand that making a name for yourself essentially means working to build up your own honor and reputation. It was pride, pure human pride – and that accelerated because everyone knew the same words, the same language.
God, not in the least threatened by this little rebellion, comes down to see what the residents of this city of Babel are up to. There’s some rich irony in the text here – the tower builders are not nearly as high up as they think they are. After seeing how the linguistic unity is enabling their prideful building campaign, God decides to instantly scramble their languages by means of a miraculous act of judgment. Once this has been accomplished, everything falls apart. Faced with mass communication confusion, the building of the city stops and the peoples end up spreading out over the face of the earth after all. Their dispersion is largely involuntary, a forced obedience of sorts thrust upon them by their dysfunctional language situation. Babel was judgment. Judgment for human pride. Judgment for neglecting the creation mandate to go forth, multiply, and fill the earth.
Yet Babel was not only an act of judgment. It was also an act of creation. Creation through judgment. Apparently, when God acted, dozens of languages burst into existence instantly and then began to live and move and have stories and descendants of their own. These languages would be the first ancestors of the language families in our world today, with language families meaning simply groups of related languages. For example, English, Latin, Farsi, and Hindi all come from the Indo-European family of languages. While Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic come from a different family, the Semitic. However, while languages within a given family are clearly related to one another, separate language families don’t seem to share any common descent. Historical linguists can try to reconstruct ancient languages like Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Semitic, but they can’t seem to find any links suggesting these early languages emerged from a common ancestor. Similar to the problem facing speciation in Darwinian evolution, what seems to emerge from the data is not one connected tree from which all the descendants are traced back to a single ancestor, but rather a forest of trees that seem to have been there at the beginning. Like subspecies, languages branch back toward these early independent trunks, but not further, posing a great mystery for historical linguists. Christians of course have a good answer. We believe in a humanity created in the image of a speaking God, and in Babel, the source of this world’s incredible language diversity.
It’s curious to note that the result of this judgment – a world of linguistic diversity – is never promised to disappear. The restoration of all things does not seem to include a future where we are restored to being a monolingual species. Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 instead suggest that noticeable language differences are actually preserved in eternity. John can tell that the great multitude before the throne is made up of those from every tongue. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!'” (Revelation 7:9, 10). Our unique languages don’t seem to melt away into some heavenly tongue, like cast off vestiges of a divided past. Rather, God’s plan from the beginning seems to be the redemption of humanity’s diverse languages, a restoration where they are finally free to perfectly glorify God in a great multilingual choir of the saints.
We see hints of this plan in God’s choice to reveal the Scriptures in multiple languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. At various points in history, these multiple fallen languages are given the honor of being the vehicle by which God reveals his eternal word. Even Persian gets a bunch of loan words in the Bible. Then, when the Spirit comes at Pentecost, what does he choose to do? To empower the apostles to preach and worship in the foreign languages of pilgrims who had come to the feast from dozens of far-flung lands. Put together with the visions of Revelation, the picture we get is that both at the birth and at the final destination of the Church, the many languages of the world do not fade away to be replaced by some heavenly tongue, or some chosen earthly tongue like Hebrew. No, instead we see the languages of the nations transformed, employed in the praise of God.
It seems as if, as he so often does, God has chosen to bring beauty through judgment, a greater grace and glory than would have existed had the judgment never taken place. After all, this is the logic of the cross and salvation history. Yes, judgment falls. Yet amazingly God’s grace shines even brighter for it. Should we be surprised that God delights to also do this with the arc of language history? It reminds me of how God gave a king to Israel in 1st Samuel chapter eight. Being granted a monarch was a judgment, a consequence of Israel wanting to be like all the other nations, and their rejection of God as king. And yet we know that God’s plan was, through this rebellion, to raise up David – and eventually the eternal son of David. God’s forever king for his people was the plan from the beginning. And yet an initial hint of this mystery’s unveiling was a story of human failure, and divine judgment.
What might God be up to in his plan to redeem the languages of Babel and their many descendants? Here I’m helped to remember the limitations of a single language. Languages are good, wonderful even, but they are limited. Everyone who has learned another language has experienced the frustration of a perfectly descriptive term existing in one tongue, but not in another. In my home we have terms from Melanesia as well as from Central Asia that have made their way into our daily household English. This is because English lacks a word for those particular situations or feelings. If languages are thus limited to describe everyday realities, then how much more limited are they to describe eternal realities? To describe the Godhead?
In Greek, and my adopted Central Asian language, God can be called Lord Heart-Knower (Acts 1:24), and yet this title simply doesn’t work in my mother tongue, English. On the other hand, English has so many wonderfully-succinct terms for God’s attributes like omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent that require multiple words – or even a whole sentence – to communicate in many other languages. Alas, as with the sons of Adam, so every language has also fallen short of the glory of God. No, when it comes to the task of glorifying the Trinity for all eternity, a single language was apparently not enough. Rather, God seems to have desired thousands of them, all working together to leverage their unique strengths and beauty for his eternal praise – and the enjoyment of his people.
For surely languages will also be redeemed and preserved for the sake of our enjoyment. While polyglots delight in the freedom that comes from being able to speak and think in a dozen different ways, even my four-year-old cracks up when a good pun is made (and scripture is full of witty puns and wordplay). Language was created for our enjoyment, and even in this broken age we get small tastes of the fun that is coming to us beyond the resurrection. Perhaps in eternity the Spirit will give us a supernatural ability to speak and understand all languages, in a sort of permanent Pentecost. Or, perhaps we will use the time provided by eternity (plus a resurrected mind) to learn all of the many tongues spoken by our brothers and sisters. We simply don’t know yet. I tend to hope we’ll get to learn them the old-fashioned way, maybe a little easier, but still getting to make funny mistakes.
What we do know is that God wanted a universe with thousands of unique languages. And so, even though Babel is a reminder of human pride and God’s just judgment, it is also the start of something which will ultimately become an amazing tapestry reflecting God’s glory. There are eternal upsides to the shattering of humanity’s united language. In Babel there is beauty, unexpected, but even more wonderful for it.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.