Pentecost as a Reversal of Babel

Reading from the vantage point of Pentecost also means a cross-cultural, globally sensitive reading. Pentecost is for all peoples; its repetition among Samaritans (8:14-17) and Gentiles (10:44-48) emphasizes that believers from among new groups of people also receive  empowerment for mission and become earlier believers’ partners in mission.

Many scholars understand Acts 2 as a reversal of the Babel story and believe that Luke patterned his narrative after it; some ancient commentators made the same connection. Such an approach would certainly fit Luke’s theme of mission transcending cultural and linguistic barriers. Some object that although the connection may be a legitimate theological inference to draw for Luke’s sources or others, the text gives no indication that Luke made the connection.

I contend, however, that the accumulation of various specific allusions seems compelling reason to affirm a deliberate connection, and Luke offers subtle allusions even in the narrative’s structure. If we surmise that the table of nations in Genesis 10 informs Luke’s list of nations in Acts 2:9-11 (as Gen 10 informed most Jewish lists of nations), an allusion to Babel in Gen 11:1-9 in the same context seems likely. This suggestion becomes even more likely when we consider that Babel represents the only scattering of languages in the OT and hence the only potential background for Luke’s story shared by all his ideal audience. This is Scripture’s seminal “language miracle.” (Certainly, the Babel story, as part of the very popular book of Genesis, was widely told and retold and was reapplied for new settings.)

Differences between the narratives are clear, of course. God scattered nations at Babel for trying to deify themselves (Gen 11:4), paralleling Adam’s revolt and his expulsion from the garden (3:5, 22-23). By contrast, the disciples at Pentecost are waiting for their Lord, who has ascended to heaven (1:9-11), to send them the Spirit. In Gen 11:7, God descended to confound the transgressors (the wording reflects their rebellion in 11:3-4), but at Pentecost God descends, in one sense, in a different way (Acts 2:33). In Genesis, God descended and scattered tongues to prevent unity; in Acts, the Spirit descends and scatters tongues to create multicultural unity (1:14; 2:1, 42, 44-46).

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

For more on how to read and interpret Scripture in light of Pentecost, read Spirit Hermeneutics (2016).

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