Recently I reimagined the Tower of Babel story with the help of Rabbi Jonathan Sack's book, Not in God's Name. We often conclude, he says, that the scattering of people that results from the confusion of tongues is divine punishment for human overreaching. If read in such a way, diversity was not God’s original plan, but a result of our sin. Difference, then, might be lamented rather than celebrated.
This reading overlooks the fact that Genesis 10 already describes the division of humanity into many nations each with their own language. The "common speech" referred to in the opening of the Tower of Babel story is thus not natural, but forced, a description of how one imperial power conquered smaller nations, imposing its language and culture on them. Sacks argues that when God “confuses the language" of the builders, he is not creating a new state of affairs, but restoring the old. Read in this way, God actually saves them by confusing their language, so that the domination project cannot be completed. God chooses variety over uniformity (Sacks, Not in my Name, p. 193).
That God favours diversity should come as no surprise. When the Spirit comes at Pentecost, those on whom the Spirit descended “began to speak in other languages” (plural) so that all those in the crowd “heard them speaking in the native language of each”. If Pentecost was meant to be a reversal of the “curse” of Babel, you would expect that when the Spirit descended, they would all speak in a common language. This isn’t what happens. Quite the opposite. The Spirit affirms the diversity of peoples by allowing a great diversity of languages to be spoken on Pentecost. 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.
When the Gospel message goes out into the whole world, it is literally for the whole world. In Colossians 1:23, Paul writes that the gospel has been “proclaimed to every creature under heaven”. It makes me wonder what other animals were present on that first Pentecost. Were there any birds on the windowsill? A mouse in the wall? Did they hear the Gospel proclaimed in their own language?
This week I came across a poem by Mary Oliver that got me thinking:
The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now,
And never once mentioned forever.
When we celebrate Pentecost, we don’t think often enough of what it means for the more-than-human world to participate in the outpouring of God’s Spirit. Do you believe God can have a dog voice, a crow voice, a frog voice? Or maybe we should say dog voices, crow voices, frog voices. If God loves a diversity of human languages, surely he loves a diversity of other creaturely languages too. Why else would there be so many different kinds of bird song? There’s the coughs, grunts and wheezes of the tui, the liquid notes of the bellbird, the trill of the riroriro/ grey warbler.
How can we continue to proclaim the Gospel to "every creature under heaven". Perhaps we proclaim the Gospel with our lives every time we choose to walk or bike instead of drive, every time we make a decision to reduce our consumption of meat, every time we plant a tree, every time we stop to enjoy a sunset or a starry sky. In doing these things, we are partners in the Gospel as we aid and abet the diversity of life on earth.
It makes so much sense that God would love diversity, given that God is a Three-in-One kind of God. As we approach Trinity Sunday, it's worth thinking about how we reflect God's love of diversity, not least in the ways we interact with the rest of the created world.
We have invited these writers to share their experiences, ideas and opinions in the hope that these will provoke thought, challenge you to go deeper and inspire you to put your faith into action. These articles should not be taken as the official view of the Nelson Diocese on any particular matter.