March 15, 2016-Day of Pentecost

May 12, 2016 | by Leah Laird

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 11:1-9 Psalm 104:24-34 & 35b Acts 2:1-21 John 14:8-17 & 25-27

What do members in the Divine Community look and sound like?

The first week of May the lectionary focused on who belongs in the divine community. The second week we learned of the benefits and expectations of community membership. This week there are two focuses: 1) an encouragement to embrace diversity within the community, and 2) the promise, description, and fruition of the divine spirit which the deity uses to be in relationship with creation.

Gen 11:1-9

The Tower of Babel. This myth was likely written during the Persian Period (6th-3rd centuries BCE). Often read and translated as prose, but it is a beautiful example of a text that can be read either as poetry or prose. The poetic features include:

a chiasmic structure,

 A One language                                                                                                                                                        Introduction             (v 1)

B They journeyed and settled                                                                                                                                 Narrative Report     (v 2)

C Dialogue introduced, action, result                                                                                                                                                       (v 3)

C Dialogue introduced, proposed action, proposed result                                                                                                                    (v 4)

D Yhwh goes down to see Fulcrum:                                                                                                                     Narrative Report     (v 5)

C Dialogue introduced, observation, result                                                                                                                                             (v 6)

C Dialogue continued, proposed action, proposed result                                                                                                                     (v 7)

B Yhwh dispersed, they ceased                                                                                                                              Narrative Report     (v 8)

A Diversity and dispersed                                                                                                                                       Conclusion               (v 9)

and consonance and assonance. This passage is where the term babel comes from. The Hebrew letters and L occur often in the passage, when read aloud it sounds as if one is babbling. Though all of that is very interesting information (and one might nerd out over it for hours), it is only the aesthetic dressing for the text’s meaning.This passage is multivalent; multiple meanings can be drawn from it and each finds support in the text. One possible understanding is that the God of Israel despises pride and as punishment for prideful behavior (and a safe fail against future prideful collaborations) confuses the language and the people are dispersed.

Another possible understanding of the text considers it to be a polemic against a lingua franca, and a divine endorsement of diversity.* A support for this view can be found in the absence of “sin” language – nowhere in the text is there a reference to sin, iniquities, forgiveness, or definitive punishment. Therefore, arguing from absence, it cannot be stated with certainty that the people were transgressing here.

Yet, there is stronger evidence is for divine encouragement of diversity. Understanding that I write of the received text, as we have it today. The context of this passage is to encourage spreading of humanity. Prior to the flood humanity is given the command to “fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). After the flood this directive is to be resumed; yet, we have a people gathering together rather than spreading to fill the earth. The divine response is to confuse the language and scatter humanity over the face of all the earth (Gen 11:9). Membership in the Divine Community is diverse. In Acts 2 there are echoes of this embracing of diversity as we will soon see.

Psalm 104:24-34 & 35b

The Tower of Babel myth specifically deals with diversity among human creation/persons. Lest we begin (or continue) to believe humanity is superior to non-human creation/persons we are reminded here, in Psalm 104, that the deity is committed to the support and protection non-human persons. These persons were not merely made by the deity and let go to care for themselves; but (according to the psalmist) they too receive food, good things, and a soul from the creative force. Notably, as human persons desire to be blessed by the presence of the face of the deity; so too do non-human persons, who become dismayed in the absence of the divine face. Membership in the Divine Community is not species specific.

Acts 2:1-21

As is the case in so many places throughout the biblical text (Gen 1:28; the Tower of Babel [above]; Ruth [for so many reasons]; Psalm 104 [see above]; Matt 28:19; to name a few) diversity is encouraged and celebrated by the divine. Acts 2 is no different. If homogeneity had been the divine purpose for creation and the end goal, would not the deity have made all those in Jerusalem divinely inspired to know one tongue on the day of Pentecost?**To the contrary, when the tongues of the divine spirit came to rest upon the followers of Jesus, they were blessed with the ability to speak new languages. A blessing that is reminiscent of that bestowed upon creation in the Tower of Babel myth.

As was the case with the Psalm, here too the biblical author insures that the reader not be quick to exclude any group from the community. Peter is quoted as making the specific point to include, as recipients of the spirit, all flesh: sons and daughters, young and old, male and female slaves – all.

John 14:8-17, (25-27)

This final passage of the lectionary gives the reader context for Acts 2 and the bestowing of the divine spirit on Pentecost. In this passage Jesus describes the special relationship he has with the creator (vv. 8-14). He also expounds on the benefits that relationship brings to his followers (vv. 15-17). And he promises a method of continued relationship with the divine even after his own departure via the spirit.


*Special thanks to James Butler, Christopher Hays, and Matt Thomas of FTS with regard to the formation of my understanding of this text.

**Pentecost existed before Christianity. Though Christians often refer to this date as the “Birthday of the Church,” its significance is in part due to its historical context. This day was set aside to celebrate the harvest and is called the Festival of Harvest in the Hebrew scripture. Read more about this holy day here.