pentecost and the subversion of empire

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel (1563)

In the Bible there are perhaps few images of “empire” more poignant that that of the Tower of Babel.

This narrative tells the story of an attempt to build a city and a tower with its top in the sky. This is of course no mean feat – the building of such a magnificent tower, historical or otherwise, is an accomplishment of considerable time, effort and determination.

It also exacts a severe cost from the humans involved and the natural environment.

The Tower of Babel, a thinly veiled allusion to the Babylonian Empire and a parody of human pride and self-reliance, implies the abuse of humans in its building process (as with the Israelites in Egypt). The use of handmade bricks and bitumen rather than naturally occurring stones and mortar made of mud (Gen. 11:3) is, in the narrative context of Genesis, a move away from the providence of God through creation.

This building is not being constructed to meet a need. No – it is a symbol! It represents the seeds of empire.

This intention is not missed by God, whose action in the story highlights the mediocrity of empire – he must “come down” from where he sits in order to see the tower, built by the “children of men”, because he apparently cannot see it from that position.

God then scatters the people, diversifying their languages so that they would not understand one another’s speech. French philosopher Jacques Ellul has this to say about this story:

By the confusion of tongues, by non communication, God keeps man from forming a truth valid for all men. Henceforth, man’s truth will only be partial and contested.*

To summarise, in this short episode the author makes at least two potent points about Babylon, to whom this story alludes, and more generally about human empire – 1) they are human-made and not divinely sanctioned (as was claimed about Babylon) and they seek to control, both humans and also the flow of truth.

Yesterday the Christian Church celebrated Pentecost Sunday, a remembrance of the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled the first disciples. On this day, inspired by the Spirit, they began to speak in other tongues, proclaiming the “mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11).

What has been pointed out by many biblical scholars is that Pentecost, among the many things it represents, symbolises a reversal of Babel. Whereas in Babel the language of the people was confused, it is now united.

The community created out of Pentecost is the reversal of empire. It does not exploit or oppress. It is not human-made. It does not dictate truth.

On the contrary, this community holds things in common, provides for one another and is inclusive of all. It is animated by the Spirit of God. It seeks to tell the truth of a new Way, out of empire.

And it certainly does not build towers for its own pride and glory.

I’m not sure that overall we still embody this beauty, but I know that we can.


*From The Meaning of the City (1970), p.18-19. I owe this reference to Wes Howard-Brook from his book “Come Out, My People!”

Posted on May 28, 2012, in Biblical Studies, New Testament, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. G’day Matt. Good post. I was only talking about this with a mate the other day.

    You can add to it that they were building a walled city (or a watched and guarded city) with a tower. I reckon this is in response to the Noah narrative and in direct opposition (rebellion) to the promises of God not to destroy the earth. The implication is that God can not be trusted to keep his word and that have to ‘make a name for themselves’ – claim their own self-sufficiency, almost divinity – in defiance of YHWH.

    This is the final story in the journey to the east from Eden. It is in response this stand of opposition by in humanity (the empire) that God calls Abram. Such an act of grace!

    We need to be the ‘children of Abraham’ not the slaves of empire.

    Maybe George Lucas was more right that we give him credit for!?

    Cheers mate,
    (Slowly working my way though that book)

    • Thanks for the input brother, love it!

      I think you’re right, that the act of attempting to build a tower to the heavens is an act of attempted divinity, not unlike the Egyptians et al. Everything about the story plays into that attempt to set up an alternative to God, the very thing empire does.

      Take the book slow, it’s worth every minute.


Leave a Response

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: