Breaking the language barrier

When I was in middle school, I began studying French, and continued taking French courses all the way through high school and freshman year of college. That year, I also took a course in Spanish. But when the instructor heard my pronunciation, she stood in front of me and scoffed, “You’re one of those horrible French people.”

So much for Spanish.

I also took three courses in German, one in Mandarin, and one in Greek.

So, how many languages can I speak? Let’s see…

One. English. The one I grew up with.

Actually, when I was in the south of France for a conference, I managed to limp along in the language when I had to: telling a cab driver where I needed to go, ordering a meal from a waiter, or buying a treat at a patisserie.

I probably wouldn’t try that now.

But all of this just makes me a little more appreciative of the miracle that happened at Pentecost. Think about it: if all God wanted to do was announce the arrival of the Holy Spirit, he could have done it some other way: wasn’t wind and fire enough?

No. What was needed was a sign that God wanted once again to create one people, a human family that stretched across the language barriers that separate us.

Reading the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, we might think back to an older story, one of the strangest in Scripture.

The story of the Tower of Babel can be found in Genesis 11:1-9, wedged awkwardly into the record of the descendants of Noah. The gist of the story is that once upon a time, people all spoke one language, and they used that language to coordinate in a massive building project that would reach to the heavens. For the arrogance of that presumption, God confused their language and dispersed them around the world.

The story reads like a myth, an ancient tale explaining some aspect of our existence — like why the human race speaks so many languages. Biblical scholars, in general, don’t take the story literally. It’s important, though, that what’s considered to be the historical record of God’s people begins in the very next chapter, with God’s appearance and promise to Abram. That promise includes these words:

I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you. (Gen 12:3, CEB)

Many Bible readers have noticed that the story of Pentecost seems like the obverse of the story of Babel. If language is what separates the peoples of the world, then the miracle of Pentecost foreshadows God’s redemptive plan for that world: one in which there will be one redeemed human family, in which “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

But notice how Paul completes that thought: “Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). After the story of Babel in Genesis 11 comes the story of Abram in Genesis 12. Abraham and his descendants were always blessed so that they might in turn be a blessing to the world.

That is what we see on Pentecost. Jesus’ twelve apostles, symbolizing the new people of God, are given God’s Spirit — for what? To go to all the world with the message of the cross and the resurrection.

And it all begins with gathering the nations in a place where each could hear God praised in their own tongue.