Acts 2, the story of the Holy Spirit’s coming at Pentecost, is a text about names. The text centers on names—a list of the many nations represented there in Jerusalem—and crescendos in a name—Peter’s invocation of the one name upon which the many might call and be saved.
Names also form the background to Pentecost in its Old Testament precursor, the story of the Tower of Babel. In Genesis 11:1-9, the settlers of Shinar aspire to “build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens,” in order that they might “make a name for [themselves].” For their arrogant plans to undermine God, their project receives a name not of their own choosing: “Babel,” a sign of the “confusion” that their pride engendered. Usually, the story of the Tower is interpreted as an explanation for the diversity of human language, with the logic that the many tongues of Babel were God’s punishment for the sin of the builders. Read within its actual context, however, the story suggests not an original oneness of speech from which all languages arose, but an unjust assertion of the language and culture of one people over the many.
How is this so? Although the Tower story begins with the statement that “the whole earth had one language and the same words,” the preceding chapter, known as “the Table of Nations” (Genesis 10), assumes an original (or at least post-flood) diversity of languages. Indeed, in listing “the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth,” the text sounds the same refrain for each genealogy: “These are the descendants of ..., by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.” In other words, according to the biblical narrative, linguistic and cultural diversity existed before the Tower, and, therefore, was not the consequence of human sin but an expression of the God-ordained goodness of creation.
Even so, what then was “the one language and the same words” which the Tower story claims was common to “the whole earth?” Again, the Table of Nations exhibits strong links to the story of the Tower. In the midst of its simple listing of names, Genesis 10 pauses to detail one name, Nimrod, the son of Cush in the line of Ham. Alone in the depth of his characterization, Nimrod was a “mighty warrior” and “hunter”—and the builder of cities, most notably Nineveh and Babel “in the land of Shinar,” where his kingdom began. Consequently, Nimrod in Genesis 10 bears a striking resemblance to the settlers of Shinar in Genesis 11. And just as Nimrod appears as a name above names, so the architects of Shinar devised to “make a name for themselves.”
Given the weight of the evidence in the text, then, it seems likely that “the one language of the whole earth” preceding the building of the Tower was the speech of Nimrod and his kin, an ancient lingua franca, one language that came to occupy a place of privilege among the many due to the conquering, imperialistic power of its native speakers. Seen in this light, what God frustrates is precisely Nimrod’s—or any empire’s—attempt to undermine God and suppress the God-given linguistic and cultural identities of others in the cause of self-glorification. In the face of Nimrod’s prideful project, God protects God’s identity as the God of “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). In spite of his own pretensions, Nimrod is but one name among the nations, not the name above all names.
God’s will revealed at Babel carries the same meaning as God’s Spirit unleashed at Pentecost. For indeed, just as God reasserted linguistic diversity in the face of Nimrod’s suppression of others, so the Holy Spirit communicates through the languages of the many nations gathered together at Pentecost. Though the speakers were all “Galileans,” the nations heard about the wonders of God “in their own languages.” Moreover, just as God reasserted God’s own name as a name for others in the face of those who would “make a name for themselves” at others’ expense, so the Holy Spirit, speaking through Peter, pronounces a name upon which all who call will be saved. The Wind of the Spirit gives birth to the Word of Jesus Christ, the “name of the Lord” in whom the many names might find their unity.
Such unity, of course, will not arise with a Tower reaching up to heaven, nor result from its bricks burned thoroughly in the fires of human scheming; rather, the fellowship, the one body made up of many members, is forged in sudden tongues of Spirit-fire, which touch all names and confess the name of Jesus.