All ancient cultures have myths and legends that came about to explain certain things about the world.
You can see it at the Giants Causeway. When my brother and sister-in-law came to visit last October we went with them to see the Giants Causeway and learnt 2 explanations about the origin of the Giants Causeway.
The scientific version: Around 50 to 60 million years ago, Antrim was subject to intense volcanic activity. During that time highly fluid molten basalt came up through chalk beds to form an extensive lava plateau. As the lava cooled, if left pillar-like structures.
Then there is the mythic or folk explanation: in which the causeway is said to be the remains of a great bridge created by a giant Finn Mcool that stretched from Ireland to Scotland when he was challenged to a fight by the Scottish Giant Bennadonner. As with many ancient myths and legends, there is embedded within it a deeper reflection and commentary on life: a reflection on both the ancient connection between Scotland and Ireland, but also something of the ancient rivalry that has existed as well.
In the Bible, you see a parallel phenomenon, especially in some of the old Testament stories. For example in the story of the Tower of Babel, you can almost hear the voice of a child asking a grandparent: “Why do different people speak different languages?”
And in response we hear the grand-parent begin to tell the story of the tower of Babel. The story itself is what we would call a myth or a legend. On the surface of the story, it is not historically true, but when you begin to explore something of the inner meaning of the story, one discovers that there is a hidden wisdom in the story... a little bit like the parables of Jesus.
The parables of Jesus are fictional stories. None of them are historically true, but as parables they contain a wisdom that invites the listener to think more deeply about the nature of the Kingdom of God, which is the theme of most of Jesus parables.
Marcus Borg, a contemporary Biblical scholar who died about a year or two ago tells the story of a Native American Indian story-teller. Whenever he would tell his tribes creation story or creation myth, he would begin with the words: “I don’t know if it happened exactly like this, but I know this story is true”.
When one comes to the story of the Tower of Babel, I believe that it would be appropriate to preface it with the same words: “I don’t know if it happened exactly like this, but I know this story is true”. In other words, I don’t believe that this story is historically true, but if we have ears to hear, we will hear a wisdom and a spiritual truth embedded within it. Rob Bell puts it another way. A story like this is true not because it happened but because it happens. It is reflective of our human experience.
In the story itself, we read that the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. The plain of Shinar is in fact a reference to Babylonia, and thus the origin of this story is probably again the time of the Jewish exile in Babylonia. Having settled in Shinar or Babylonia, we read that the people learnt how to make bricks and began to build themselves a city. Next they desired to build a tower that would reach towards the heavens, because we read they wanted to make a name for themselves.
The story continues however that the Lord caught wind of their plans and so came down to see what they were up to and was clearly rather disturbed by it. Maybe if the people built a tower to the heavens, they might try and take heaven by force and usurp the power of God himself. This is implied in verse 6 where the God voice suggests that nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. And so God decides to intervene before it is too late and confuses their language and scatters them all over the earth.
The tower of Babel in the story is probably a reference to the ziggurats or pyramids of the Babylonian empire. The word Babel is therefore a play on words. On the one hand it carry’s overtones of the word Babylon but also carry’s overtones of the Hebrew word Balel which means “to be confused”. For the Hebrews, listening to the Babylonian language it would have been a little bit like saying “It’s all Greek to me”, its all Babel or Balel to me.
At one level, the story of the Tower of Babel reveals something of the Jewish prejudice against the Babylonians, and perhaps that is understandable when it was the Babylonians who had invaded Jerusalem and then taken them off into exile. Underlying this story is the accusation that the Babylonians with their impressive Ziggaurats are in fact a people in rebellion towards God.
But if one reads beneath the prejudice, there is a commentary on human beings as a whole. We all in our own way want to make a name for ourselves. Sometimes that is not a bad thing, but often the rush of pride goes to our heads, we begin to think we are God, in the sense of being all-powerful and in the process our pride brings division. The message of Jesus is in fact that we can become like God, we can share in God’s nature as we grow in love, humility, service. But many human beings are not interested in becoming like God in that way. For many human beings they want to become God by seizing power, through dominance and control and not through humble love and service. The moral of the story is that humanity’s pride and tendency towards domination and control leads to a division between people, a fragmentation between communities. Communities and peoples are no longer able to live in harmony with one-another.
And perhaps that is where we switch over and begin to reflect on our other passage today, the passage from Acts where we read of the Pentecost Story. Did the Pentecost story happen exactly like that “tongues of fire”, a violent wind, people speaking in different languages and tongues? I cant be sure? Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t.
But at the very least I would repeat the words of the Native American Story teller. I don’t know if the story happened exactly like this, but I know this story is true. In other words there are a spiritual truth's in the story for us if we are open to hearing them.
And so what, we might ask, is the truth that the Pentecost story seeking to communicate?
For a long time, theologians have suggested that in the Pentecost story what we see happening is a reversal of the Tower of Babel story.
In the Tower of Babel story, the arrogance and the pride of humanity has brought to division to the world and division between people. People are unable to communicate with one-another and are scattered over the earth. But in the Pentecost Story you have a movement in the opposite direction. People from all over the known world have come together in Jerusalem, and through the gift of the Spirit the former divisions caused by language are overcome. The apostles, those who have been anointed with the gift of the Spirit of God, are able to communicate across the language barrier or divide as they begin to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to do.
Human Sin, pride, arrogance, unbridled ambition brings division, but the Spirit of God which is also described in other passages in the book of Acts as the Spirit of Jesus, heals divisions and brings people together. Sin divides, but love unites.
The message of the story I believe is this: When people truly begin to be moved by the Spirit of Jesus, when people begin to speak the language of Christ’s self-emptying love, the divisions of this world begin to heal. But the more we act out of distorted, unbalanced self-interest, the world begins to fragment and become divided.
But when people begin to be moved by the spirit of Christ’s self-emptying love, putting others needs on a par with our own, then an undoing of the tower of babel story begins to happen all over again.
In Ephesians Paul speaks of the division between Jews and Gentiles – one of those ancient rivalries. In chapter 2 Paul says that Christ himself has now become our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility. His purpose was to make a new humanity out of the two thus making peace and to reconcile them through the cross by which he put to death their hostility.
I have always wondered how the cross of Jesus can heal our divisions, the more I have reflected on it, the more I have come to believe that the cross heals our divisions by teaching us the way of self-emptying love.
On Penetcost Sunday, we celebrate the gift of the Spirit of God. It is none other than the Spirit of the crucified Christ, that teaches us to speak the language of Christ-like love. The Pentecost story inspires us to believe that the healing of this world is possible. The story of the Tower of Babel can be reversed when people’s lives are touched and moved by the same spirit that was at work in Jesus.