Bible Babble and Babel Fish

In the Douglas Adam’s book The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy there is a unique little creature that our main character, Arthur Dent, discovers as it is being shoved into his ear by his friend Ford Prefect. That creature is the Babel fish. If you’ve read this book, you’ll remember that the babel fish is

“a universal translator which simultaneously translates from one spoken language to another. It takes the brainwaves of the other body and what they are thinking then transmits the thoughts to the speech centers of the hosts brain, the speech heard by the ear decodes the brainwave matrix. When inserted into the ear, its nutrition processes convert sound waves into brain waves, neatly crossing the language divide between any species you should happen to meet whilst traveling in space.” (Wikipedia – quoting the movie?)

While Douglas Adams never makes the biblical reference explicit, to those of us who have read or heard the stories in scripture that we did today, we can see why it might be called the Babel fish.

The Holy Spirit is the Babel fish of the Bible. After that great rush of wind, and the disciples were compelled outside, and something like flames had lit on each of their heads like candles, that great crowd of people who were in Jerusalem from all those other nations noticed this odd sight.  Who wouldn’t if it was as Luke describes it? And not only did they see something quite out of the ordinary, the crowd gathered was ‘bewildered, because each one heard in the native language of each.’ And they were asking each other, ‘how is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language?’  And they say, ‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ And they asked, ‘What does this mean?

Apparently Galileans had a reputation for being hopeless at languages. Or maybe just for being backwater, uncultured hicks. I don’t know where this rep came from, but the experience of those gathered seemed to be especially astonishing, because those who listened could not believe that Galilean, of all people,could do such a thing. There they were speaking in such a way that they were understood by all who listened. So that ‘each one heard in the native language of each.’

Because of the business about language and scattered nations, hearing and understanding, the story of Pentecost is often connected with the story of Babel. We heard them both today.It’s commonly understood that when each of the listeners in Jerusalem – gathered from many nations – suddenly heard and understood what was going on in their own languages, this moment is the reversal of what happened in Babel. Because at Babel language was confused and no one could understand each other. I think it’s a good connection to make – it’s an obvious connection – but not because everyone was suddenly on the same page, and speaking with the same voice and in the same language, having the same perspective, but because they all heard the same thing. Something emerged out of the chaos and mixed up language that created unity.

I spent more time with the story of Bable this week than I ever have before and I found it fascinating.  One of the tools that I put into my belt when I was in seminary for examining scripture is to ‘contour’ a text.  That is, play with the words and phrases with indentation, separating things out, highlighting similarities or repetition so that you can literally see the shape of the text and the patterns that are formed. It’s often more revelatory to do this in the original language, but even in English when you look at this text a few things pop out in the topography: It’s got several parallels in language, it repeats certain words and phrases often, it guides the reader to the center from the edges.

So in contrast to the Acts text in which we learn of people from all over the ancient world speaking all kinds of languages, here in Genesis we see the first line of this text ‘the whole earth had one language (literally ‘lip’) and spoke the same words.’  And of course it ends with the people scattered over the whole earth and their language confused.  Speaking of this text in terms of shape, these first and last lines are the pillars that hold the text together – bookend it and give it form.

One step inside those bookends is marked by the words “Come let us”  But spoken in the first case by humanity and in the second by God.  The humans are afraid.  Now I always thought that this story was about people wanting to be better than God, about pridefulness,  They build a tower that is as tall as heaven and God punishes the presumptiveness by exiling them from each other – putting people in their proper place.  The short and pithy lesson being, ‘Pride comes before the fall.’  Like in a Jenga game when the player get too cocky – down come the bricks.

Actually the people of Babel are acting not out of pride and arrogance but out of fear. When we hear that marking phrase ‘come let us’ from human voices, they say to each other, ‘come let us make bricks,’ and ‘come let us build a city.’ and ‘let us make a name for ourselves.’ Why?  ‘Otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”  They are afraid that they will be spread and separated from each other and they are seeking to remain together, to find unity and to coalesce as a society in the form of a city.

If this text were a tower, like that the people are building, and the first and last lines are the pillars, the middle, and the top, of the tower – the part around which the text builds – is the phrase (ironically?) “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the mortals built”  Before this phrase we hear the ‘Come let us’ injunctions of the human actors.  After this, we hear the voice of the Divine. “Come let us”  And God proceeds to go down, to mix up language and to scattered, just as the people had feared.

So if God had gathered up the people together in Pentecost, why would God have dispersed and divided the people at Babel?  What’s wrong with seeking community?  what’s wrong with wanting to be together?   Isn’t that just what, in Acts we find?  A final coming together of diverse peoples?  Yes and no – the key is in the diversity.  God’s intention in spreading the people over the earth and creating many languages is not punishment, it is more like prevention.  God had already given instruction to the earth’s inhabitants to spread abroad on the earth.  There is blessing in the scattering of God’s created people through the world.

“What may be discerned in our text as the judgment of God may also be another way of forming a community genuinely loyal to the creator and dependent upon God’s gifts and purposes. In such a community there may be different languages attending to distinctive needs, yet the community is not divided in its primary loyalty.”

It seems antithetical.  In so many other places in scripture exile and division is equated with loss, sorrow, being wrenched away from the place of worship.  Yet the thread is always that primary loyalty.  In this case, at Babel we see humanity working against God’s intention.  God says after viewing the people’s handiwork: “Look, they are one people; and they have all one language.  And this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”  God can see the human potential.  People are gifted; we were created that way from the moment God breathed the Spirit of life into us.  But God can see the way those the potential that the more humanity depends on each other then more they build a ‘fortress mentality’ (Breuggeman), the less united with and dependant they are on God.

So when God mixed up the languages, not only is the gift that of dependence on God and therefore a unity found in that trust and dependence, the gift of language is also given.  Language, we all know, can create, describe and give permanence, liberate, mystify.  And it can deceive, manipulate and destroy.  It is a gift for us to use wisely and with care.

I feel like I have had many opportunities lately to think about the gift of language.  One of the things that frightens me most about moving to another country is not knowing how to communicate.  In every situation in my adult life when I’ve travelled to places where I didn’t know the language, I’ve been in the company of others who could translate for me, or on whom I could depend to do the important communication.  So it scares me to think about what I might miss, or what I might misunderstand and the consequences of that.  But let me tell you a story about how that might also be a gift.

A couple weeks ago Michael Bade came to show a couple of his videos about the Mennonite church around the world.  He told us a story about when he was in Indonesia and waiting in the airport for a short hop flight to a close-by island called Jojakarta (?) from Jakarta where he was.  Of course Michael doesn’t speak any of the local languages of Indonesia and could understand little or nothing of what was being spoken over the speakers at the boarding gates.  He boarded the plane that he was sure was headed to Jojakarat after seeking assurance for others boarding.  After being in the air for a hour or so in what he thought would be a half hour flight, he asked a flight attendant and discovered after some confusion, that he was going somewhere else entirely.

When he finally arrived at the plane’s destination, he found himself graciously cared for by a local business man and politician who happened to overhear Michael’s confused conversation with the flight attendant.  The man and his wife offered Michael hospitality, found him a place to stay, and made sure he found the right flight back to where he was supposed to be.  Michael also saw with new eyes a mutuality of relationship that between this man Muslim and his wife which made him look again at his assumptions about how women and men interact in a Muslim society.

Many of us who have traveled can probably tell similar stories of God’s grace and human generosity that bridged the difference in language and culture and led to a deeper appreciation for humanity and deep thanksgiving in God’s provision that does not come from the creation of our own hands.

Language is also a gift in the way it shapes us, shapes our culture, our prayer, shapes ideas.   And each culture and language bring something a little different.  And difference brings conflict, yes, but it also bring a richness and depth of many different notes sung together.  I think for many Mennonites, music can be said to be a universal language – especially when the music finds praise of the creator as its center.  My most recent foray into the non-English speaking world was last summer in Paraguay.  One of the absolute highlights for me took place in the dark.  I did not find worship particularly impactful or spirit filled in most cases – it often had to be translated and so was a little sluggish, I didn’t connect to many of the speakers, and there was never enough music for my taste.

So one day in the cavernous church building we were meeting in the power failed.  This interrupted a very dry iteration about the trans-Paraguay highway which Mennos helped to build.  The lights went out and there were three tiers of thousands of people sitting in the pitch dark and someone shouted out: let’s sing.  The worship band was on top of it in a flash and began to sing ‘Siyahamba ekukanyen kwnekos” “We are marching in the light of God.”  “Nous marchons en la lumier de Dieu,”Caminaros en la luz de Dios” and there in the darkness we were walking in the the light of God.  If the Spirit can be measured by spontaneous joy in music, and delight in the music, and the joining of thousands of voices in song, then the Spirit moved powerfully in that moment.

On the one hand, I can imagine the fear of those first humans when they built the tower.  What if we are separated from one another?  What if there is uncertainty and distance?  What if I end up somewhere where I can’t understand?  These bricks and this mortar will provide security.  On the other hand, I have experienced God’s presence in the uncertain.  I know that God’s Spirit can speak to me in spite of language or theological distance from another.  We hear in Romans: “For you did not receive a Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a Spirit of adoption!” (Rom 8:15) One body, one family, one Spirit, but a blessed and almost daunting diversity of tongues and experiences.

One commenter I read wrote that
‘The language of the spirit is not communicated with perfect or heavenly diction, free from the marks of human identity; it is the language of particular human groups, spoken in their idiom. God works in collaboration with real people – people who are filled with the Spirit to work on God’s behalf in their own world.”
And indeed after that wholly Spirit filled few moments of song, the lights came back on, the mics started working again and we were launched back onto the trans-Paraguay highway. We humans can get caught in towers of our own making – or the highways of our own making in that case. But in Pentecost we are taught of the gift that the Spirit can be in uniting in wind and flame and the miracle of holy listening.

Douglas Adams says of the Bable fish, that “the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” I may have said at the beginning that the Holy Spirit is be the Babel fish of the Bible but of course the true movement of the Spirit brings not bloody war, but holy listening that will allow us to understand in spirit of barriers and lead to greater peace, as Jesus promised in John’s gospel: The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubles, and do not let them be afraid.”

This Spirit of holy hearing blows over and past and through not only language and culture but is poured into young and old, men and women, slave and free, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. So Peter preached, and so it continues to be. Amen.