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Politics of Scripture

Language and Diversity in the Divine Intention—Genesis 11:1–9

Rather than portraying human difference as the punishment of God, Babel and Pentecost are complementary stories, each highlighting God’s intention for cultural and linguistic diversity. As we draw near to Pentecost Sunday, may we also consider the inherent value of language as a cultural identity marker and partner as advocates for language preservation.

11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, ‘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. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was 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.

In the Northwest Territories of Canada, a young mother of two has spent the last five years petitioning the territorial and federal governments for recognition of her children’s names in legal documentation. The woman is Indigenous Canadian and chose for her children Chipewyan names, both of which contain glottal stops—symbols that are lacking in the Roman alphabetical system used by the Canadian government. Although the Dene font is used in the NWT for signage and correspondence, it has yet to be recognized and incorporated, even by way of transliteration, at a federal level, thus making obtaining legal documentation, such as birth certificates, with these names nearly impossible. [1]

The young mother’s decision is a powerful one in a country where Indigenous languages were specifically targeted as a part of the nationwide assimilation project of the Residential School System, wherein thousands of children were forced to use only English or French and often received horrific punishment for communicating in the languages of their own peoples. Indeed, in Canada, as in much of the world, Indigenous language use is at risk of death, with only 15.6% of the population able to converse in one of the more than 70 Indigenous languages in the country. [2]

Choices such as those of this young, Chipewyan mother highlight the importance of language as a cultural identity marker, one which shapes persons and communities as distinct unto themselves. Yet, such markers have not often been celebrated and protected in nation states like Canada. Rather the colonial project has sought and continues to seek ‘progress’ and control by enforcing uniformity through the erasure of differences such as language use.

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” Genesis 11:1

For the ancient writers of this week’s lectionary readings, the nature of language as a marker of uniformity or difference, of unity or disconnection was also a facet of life occupying a place of interest in the cultural memory. Thus, we have the story of Babel paired this Pentecost with the bringing of tongues by the Spirit in Acts 2.

The story of Babel, often identified with the tower built by the people in verse 4, has a long history of interpretation, a history that considers it a tale of punishment and woe. The people, in their hubris, set out to build a tower with its height in the heavens, encroaching on the dominion of the Divine and thus challenging God’s authority. God, in response to the plans of humanity, confuses their language and scatters them abroad, effectively preventing any further attempts at a unified rebellion against the divine will. Read this way, we might walk away with the impression that the division of language and dispersion of peoples—activities that offer an etiological explanation for the cultures of the world known to the ancient writers—are the punishment of God. Difference, then, might be lamented rather than celebrated.

Indeed, read this way, we might then turn to Acts—as the lectionary encourages us to do—and find there a reversal of Babel as the Spirit overcomes language for the sake of the unifying work of the Gospel message. Pentecost undoes Babel.

But does such a reading hold up under closer scrutiny? I would like to suggest that, rather than presenting linguistic and cultural diversity as a punishment inflicted on humanity by God, Genesis 11:1–9 portrays these aspects of the human experience as an integral aspect of the divine intention for the world.

“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:4

The story of Babel is structured symmetrically, with verses 1–4 and 6–9 forming the two main parts of the story and also framing the turning point of the narrative in verse 5. Indeed, these two parts also illustrate the contrasting elements of the story and, as a result, highlight it’s the key tension. The first half, verses 1–4, tells of humanity’s intention for unity through uniformity in both language and place. The second, verses 6–9, details the Divine intention for plurality within the human population, represented by the division of language and dispersal upon the face of the earth. At the centre stands verse 5, wherein the gaze of God turns toward the work of human beings and witnesses the success of their project of longevity. Structurally, then, the narrative holds uniformity in tension with diversity, the human will in tension with that of the Divine.

It is in verses 1–4 that the traditional understanding of humanity’s building project as one of sinful rebellion has been rooted. In this reading, the height of the tower, “its top in the heavens,” represents the pride of the people as they challenge God’s rule by encroaching on God’s domain. Notably, however, the text makes no mention of pride, nor does it explicitly mention sin or rebellion. The mention of the height of the tower, a common element in descriptions of ancient building projects, is further downplayed in the narrative at verse 5. [3] There God must descend to see it, an observation that relativizes the scale of the building. Indeed, the tower’s absence at the conclusion of the tale, where only the city is mentioned as being abandoned by the people (Genesis 11:8), further illustrates that the tower itself is not the main concern of the story. If the height of the tower is an indication of pride, the narrator is not keen to make that known explicitly.

But if not the height of the tower, what about the desire to “make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4)? Is this not a desire spurred by self-oriented pride? Again, the text lacks such an accusation. Indeed, where the desire for and establishment of a name is expressed elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is not used to communicate pride or self-centeredness. Instead, to have a name established by God (e.g., Abram in Genesis 12:2) or to make a name for oneself (e.g., David in 2 Samuel 8:13) is an activity marked with approval and honor. [4]

Further, the traditional reading of these two activities—building a tower and making a name—misses the primary motivation of the people as expressed in verse 4: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city . . . otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’” According to the narrative, the people are motivated by a desire to stay in one place, not by a spirit of rebellion, nor by pride. Indeed, an attentive reading of the first half of the passage reveals no condemnation of the people’s activity on the part of the narrator.

“The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.” Genesis 11:5

If there is no condemnation in episode one of the narrative, then we might further ask whether or not there is punishment in the second. Two aspects of the Divine response are relevant for such a question. The first immediately follows the turning point at verse 5, where the NRSV reports the speech of God as, “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” (verse 6). While the translation, through its use of the future tense in English, suggests that God is concerned about the ability of human beings to achieve any activity collectively planned and agreed upon in a time external to the narrative, there is no such tense specification in the Hebrew.

Indeed, the text might just as easily read, “Look, there is one people and one language for them and this is the beginning of what they are doing. Now it will not be impossible for them, all that they are planning to do.” Given that God has just visited the building project, there is little reason to suggest that the plan mentioned in verse 6 is anything other than that referred to in verse 4, namely, to build a city in order to remain in one place. Thus, God is not anxious about the plans the people may make in some future time, but concerned with their current intention to settle in Shinar. Although it is possible to read the flood narrative’s assertion of the evil intentions of the human heart into the plans of the people here (Genesis 8:21), there is no textual justification for doing so. Thus, God’s articulation of God’s own reasons for mixing up language and dispersing the people is not grounded in any inherent sin of humanity, present or future.

What then can be said about the actions of God to divide and disperse? Is this not punishment? Simply stated, if there is no expressed disobedience on the part of humanity in the text, there is no reason to understand God’s actions as punishment. Rather, the narrative articulates contrasting intentions for life in the world, that of humanity for geographic stability (a state enabled by a shared language) and that of the Divine for linguistic and geographic diversity. The narrative gives no indication of God’s motivation, but such a desire on the part of God in the primeval history is of no surprise to the reader, given the divine imperative in Genesis 1:28, repeated in 9:7, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Indeed, the Table of Nations, directly preceding our tale in Genesis 10:1–32, provides an alternative accounting of the fulfillment of God’s intention through the descendants of Noah.

“Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the languages of the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the earth.” Genesis 11:9

The diversity of human cultures and the languages that mark them as individual and unique is communicated in Genesis 11:1–9 as an aspect of the divine intention for the world ordered by God in Genesis 1. It is not, contrary to the history of interpretation, the result of Divine punishment and is certainly not an aspect of human life to be overcome. Given this, we may turn once more with the lectionary to Acts 2 and attend carefully to the empowerment of the Spirit through language, noting that those gifted with the Spirit’s presence “began to speak in other languages” (verse 4) so that all those in the crowd “heard them speaking in the native language of each” (verse 6). The Spirit does not overcome language—indeed, the Spirit does not choose to allow the people to communicate clearly in the lingua franca, the language of Empire—but affirms the diversity of peoples and language desired by God in Genesis. Each individual hears in their own language. Diversity, rather than uniformity, is affirmed as, once more, the people go into all the world—this time for the sake of the Gospel message.

Babel and Pentecost are complementary stories, each highlighting God’s desire for cultural and linguistic diversity. They further invite us to align our human intentions, all to often caught up in the projects of empire tied to our own colonial history and its projects of assimilation through the erasure of difference, with those of God. As we do so, we may find that this Pentecost we become enamoured with actual language, both those miraculously experienced in the text and those we encounter in our own experiences of the world. And as we fall in love with the beauty of diversity intended by God, we might lament, not the loss of uniformity, but the loss of difference as languages die in our own nations.

The United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. A year for increased recognition and for the mobilization of stakeholders for collective action around the globe, allowing for the preservation of endangered languages and the cultural identities tied to them. [5] Particular action steps will look different in each context, but I suspect that in Canada the preservation of Indigenous languages will mean a recognition of their place in the already bilingual nation state as national languages with cultural and societal value—in the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action—and the subsequent use of such languages on government documentation such as birth certificates. [6] Perhaps aligning ourselves with the Divine intention enacted at Babel and affirmed at Pentecost will mean that we stand together with those who lobby our governments for recognition and who work for language preservation.

[1] “Mother Lobbies MLAs to Get Indigenous Symbols Recognized on Birth Certificates.” CBC March 1, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/mla-northwest-territories-indigenous-symbol-1.5039622
[2] Statistics according to 2016 census data. “The Aboriginal languages of First Nations people, Métis and Inuit,” Statistics Canada, last modified October 2017, accessed June 1, 2019, https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016022/98-200-x2016022-eng.cfm
[3] For a detailed exploration and deconstruction of traditional readings of Genesis 11:1–9, see Theodore Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 (2007): 29–58.
[4] See, Hiebert, “The Tower,” 40.
[5] “2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages,” last modified January 12, 2019, accessed June 1, 2019, https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/2019/01/2019-international-year-of-indigenous-languages/
[6] “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action,” Winnipeg, Manitoba: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, accessed June 2, 2019,

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