I often tell my Sunday school class that I’m glad that nobody, more than likely, will ever commission me to make a translation of the Bible. Not only would it be a lengthy endeavor; I would also no doubt make enemies with the body of choices that I would make verse by verse, sticking with traditional readings here and deviating there. When I came to Genesis 11, for instance, I would almost certainly depart from the tradition of rendering verse one as “all the earth,” preferring “all the land.” I’d have a perfectly logical reason, of course: if all the earth settled upon the plain of Shinar (v. 2), not only would that depopulate most of the earth, but there would be little need for them to “make a name” for themselves (v. 4). I realize there is a long and established tradition of seeing these settlers’ motivations as “making a name” in heavenly places by invading whatever corner their tower penetrated, but I’m more inclined to think of this endeavor as an etiology, a story that explains how the Babylonians’ roots go back much farther than Nebuchadnezzar or even Hammurabi. The way that the Bible tells the story, the superpower that terrorizes Israel more than any superpower before and whose memory is so bitter that the hated Roman Empire gets called Babel in the Apocalypse has roots even more ancient (by a chapter) than Israel’s own.
The impulse to find roots for evil does not stop in those early chapters of Genesis, of course; Jesus in John says that the devil is a liar from the beginning, and English literature would not be nearly as rich without Grendel, whose grand-sire is Cain the kinsman murderer, and Milton’s Satan, whose origin stories themselves fall victim to the web of deceit that surrounds him. What interests me is that, even in the origin-stories, something like Augustine’s theory of privative evil seems to be operative: a liar is parasitic on the goodness of truthful discourse, and a kinsman-murderer cannot be such unless the loyalty inherent in kinship is already there. Here, on the plains of Shinar, the impulse to make a name and avoid being scattered does not itself pursue anything but the goods of being-known and security, things that chapters later God promises to Abraham. But the desire to make a name for one’s self is always at the least suspect in the Bible: Lamech is the paradigm case, the one who sings for himself a curse eleven times as severe as the curse of Cain on anyone who would raise a hand to him. Babylon is the Lamech of political orders, destroying kingdoms and gods across the fertile crescent, swallowing the mighty Assyrians and subjugating Syria and Judah almost as an afterthought. And as the final version of the tale of Babel relates, the grand destroyer of rulers and of priests, the model for evil through the New Testament period, does not invent its own evil in the era of Jeremiah and Ezekiel; on the contrary, they are conquerors and fortress-builders from the start, and their murderous desire to make a name and to hold fast when the world would scatter them dates back to primordial moments.
All of this makes the visitation of the Spirit at Pentecost all the more interesting: as any first-semester student of New Testament history knows, the conquests of Alexander some three hundred years before Christ and the adoption of Greek education by the Romans in the ensuing centuries created a situation in which all of the folks gathered there in Jerusalem were likely to have at least a conversational familiarity with Koine Greek, so they could have spoken their own Empire’s lingua franca easily enough. But the way the Spirit operates is not to consolidate and to assimilate the peoples of the earth but to speak to them in their own languages, so that they could hear not in the tongue of the conqueror but in the words that their hearts speak the glorious news that God had forgiven the city that crucified the Son of God and had extended that forgiveness to any who would repent and believe. That earliest proclamation, through the power of the Spirit, was a centrifugal motion in the same way that Babel was a centripetal one, going forth to the souls of the nations and establishing Christianity’s strong missionary impulse long before Peter’s grand vision of the formerly-unclean food.
As all of us continue to attempt the making of disciples as we go along, may God deliver us from the temptations of Shinar and enliven our imaginations so that we can see Pentecostal moments before us.