Sunday, May 27, 2007

Scripture Reflection: The Feast of Pentecost

(This post is an entry for the Catholic Carnival #121.)

Compare the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) with the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11).

Why did God confuse the tongues of men at Babel? First, let us understand what the men were doing. We hear from the men themselves: "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:4). I can spot two problems with their plan. First of all, it was God's will that mankind be "scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4): He had already told us to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28)... three times (cf. Genesis 9:1, 7). Why, then, was man afraid of being thus scattered? Second, these men sought to make a name for themselves rather than for God. The city and tower were not for the glory of God, but for the glory of Man, and unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. (Psalm 127:1)

So God, seeing that mankind put His will beneath their own and sought to elevate their own names rather than the name of the One True God, confused their speech and scattered them abroad. This was a punishment of sorts for not keeping the covenant of filling the whole earth, and for preferring their own glorification over God's.

But on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus the Christ had been crucified, raised, and had ascended into Heaven, the Holy Spirit filled the Apostles and those with them (including Mary, the mother of Jesus, cf. Acts 1:12-14) and "confused their speech". God granted the same gift (not punishment) to these holy men and women again, so that His will might be fulfilled.

Jesus told his friends to "make disciples of all nations" (cf. Matthew 28:19). But how could they do so without being able to preach to those nations, using words the nations could understand? Here is the beautiful Wisdom of God displayed: yet another foreshadowing of the New Covenant in the Old. Just as the sacrifice of Isaac prefigured the sacrifice of Jesus, just as the ark of Noah prefigured baptism, just as the manna in the desert prefigured the True Bread from Heaven, so to did the confusing of tongues in Babel prefigure the confusing -- and understanding -- of tongues in Jerusalem.

The disciples of Jesus spoke in various tongues -- not the languages they already knew, but the languages of the devout Jews visiting Jerusalem, the men who were "Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians" (Acts 2:9-11). This was for the furthering of the Kingdom and the glorification of God, that all the world might know the saving power of Jesus Christ and believe in him.

Instead of building a city of men, now we are building the city of God.


TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Great insight. Some of these things you would think would be so obvious after you've heard them. As many times as I've read both accounts I never linked the two together (Pentecost and Babel).

Before I was Catholic, I never even connected the Passover with the Eucharist! (Except in a very very loose sense) How could it be more obvious?

Great post.

MMajor Fan said...

Very interesting comparison and I agree with what you are saying. Here is another insight that can be gleaned from the comparison/contrast of Babel and Pentecost.

The scripture that you wrote only refers to they, as if to speak of all men collectively.

"Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:4).

And indeed in the next line we read "And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built." The term "son of man" will later become the title of Jesus Christ. So why would the Lord be observing what the "sons of men" had built? Besides the obvious that these were the generations of the sons of the men after the flood of the fathers Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japeth. We see why when we read Genesis 10:32: These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their generations, within THEIR NATIONS; and from these the NATIONS spread abroad on the earth after the flood. I capitalized "nations" to draw your attention to the fact that these were not a clan or tribe or family based collective of "men" but already organized into the power structure of "nations." And it is only a powerful ruler of a nation who can order the construction of "a city, and a tower." This is what the Lord observed, that a ruler ship had evolved that had power to instruct the people to create such a works with such an unholy purpose. Think pyramids.. it's not like the people got together and said, "let's build a pyramid." It would have been the beginning of slavery, in the hands of one concentrated location. This is why the Lord said "this is only the beginning of what they will do." It is not as if the Lord is worried about them challenging his authority, but rather, he could see the inevitable development, due to sin, of absolute power and tyrannies. So Babel is the first documented "distribution of power as a check and balance" you could say.

Compare this to beautiful Pentecost, where the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is not coming to the rulers, to the leaders of nations who command big buildings, and to the high and mighty. The Holy Spirit descends into the hearts and souls of the same average people, from all walks of life, and "residents" of many lands. Jesus tells them to preach to "all nations" yet the Holy Spirit did not descend onto the heads of the self proclaimed rulers of the nations. The Holy Spirit descended upon the residents of various lands and nations, humble people of no wealth or power, and they were the ones who receive the gift of language and understanding, and the ability to do the works of the Lord in the name of Jesus Christ. This is what I think is one of the loveliest contrasts between Babel and Pentecost.

japhy said...

TGFF - I've found it interesting how so many people think Christianity was formed in a vacuum, how it has nothing to do with the many covenants that God made with His people in the past. They're fine with the prophecies announcing Jesus, but they ignore all the foreshadowings and prefigurements!

MMajor - I too have heard the analysis that the city and tower in Babel were not "volunteer" efforts, and that clearly there were some people being forced to make bricks and build, and other people ordering them around. In that case, the confusing of tongues was as much a benefit to the workers/slaves as it was a detriment to their masters. But, hey, even slavery crosses language boundaries.

Thanks for your input, you two.