The Undoing of Babel

Jennifer ponders Pentecost and the power of language.


When our children were little and misbehaved, we didn’t talk about punishment. Instead, we talked about consequences. We wanted our children to understand that their choices were theirs: every moment is a fork in the road; they could make good choices, or they could make poor choices. We talked about the fact that there are always consequences. There can be good consequences or bad consequences. However, when our kids were little, we felt that different wording would more effectively communicate what we were trying to teach. With this in mind, we talked about “happy consequences” and “unhappy consequences.”

I’ve been thinking about the Tower of Babel this week: the arrogance of humans, their inability to get along with one another, and the creation of language as a consequence. I wonder: was language the punishment? Picture the mother with bickering children who sends each to his and her corner. Was the creation of languages a way of “sending us to our own corners?” Was the creation of language an unhappy consequence?

Or, is it possible that God meant for good to come from the creation of language? So much humor comes from language — in the understanding, as well as the misunderstanding. And yet, so much sadness and hatred and misunderstanding also comes from language.

I have found that there is great value in learning a new language. I think there is special value in learning a new language — even just simple words — with a friend who speaks another language. Both of these tasks form our minds and hearts in the direction of compassion and understanding. When we discover words in another language, we gain insight about our own language. Language itself forms concepts in our minds. Given the opportunity, language can be the beginning of empathy — feeling with the other.

Is it possible that learning a new language could be part of the undoing of Babel? Could learning a language prepare us to be part of God’s New Creation when all wrongs will be righted and all of Creation will be renewed?

In this Pentecost season, we celebrate the birth of the Church. We celebrate the undoing of Babel, when all the languages could be understood, bringing unity among God’s people. Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of the first Pentecost and simultaneously embody Pentecost in our own lives and communities by learning a new language and working to understand one another.