One Kingdom, Many Languages

RosettastoneApparently a lot of people were offended by Coke’s Super Bowl commercial, in which “America the Beautiful” was sung in eight different languages, one of which was Arabic. And because a good number of those who seem to be offended are evangelical Christians, I thought it might be good to take a look at what the Bible says about the diversity of languages.

The most obvious places to go in the Bible on this issue are the story of Babel in Genesis 11 and Pentecost in Acts 2, but I’m going to start before Babel, with the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. This comes after the Flood narrative, and lists the descendants of Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth.

After each brother’s descendants are listed we are told, “These are the descendants of (Shem, Ham, Japheth) by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.” So they are all part of the family, but they each develop their own language.

This is natural. People move away, become geographically separated, sometimes isolated from each other, and over the course of time they develop a new language. This new language is related to the first language, but the greater the geographical distance, and the longer the time, the more the languages diverge. The languages are still part of the family, however; in fact, linguists group the different languages according to language families.

Different languages just happen. It’s certainly not a punishment. It is actually a natural result of God’s command in Genesis 1:28 that people should “multiply and fill the earth.” Chapter 10 ends with this being done: “These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” (Gen 10:32, emphasis mine)

In the story of Babel in Genesis 11 the sin of the humans is not primarily that they built a tower into the heavens, but that they wanted to make a great name for themselves i.e. they wanted great power on the earth, and power diffused is power that is weakened. To be increased, power must be concentrated, and a literal concentration is what they did—they built a great city and gathered in it.

But they were supposed to scatter, not gather, so God confused their common language in order to send them on their way, scattering across the land like they were supposed to do in the first place. So now, different languages are not only natural, they are the means that God used to get the humans to fulfill their God-given purpose. He didn’t want there to be just one language.

In Acts 2, all of these foreigners were in Jerusalem. Why were they in Jerusalem? For the Feast of Weeks—Pentecost in Greek—which was an annual celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. Why would foreigners be celebrating a Jewish religious festival?

Because they were Jews. Some lived in Jerusalem (vs. 5), while some apparently came for the festival (vs. 10). But they were Jews. Part of the family. But not from “around here.”

It’s possible that they all spoke Hebrew, more likely that they spoke Aramaic, perhaps even more likely that they spoke Greek, which was the common language around the Mediterranean, the language of commerce, much like English today.

So they might have had a common language that everyone, or at least most everyone, could understand, but that is not how God decided to have his message about Christ proclaimed.

No, he chose to have the apostles speak in the language of each and every nation. “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Act 2:8) This question is followed by a 1st century Table of Nations (vs. 10-11), and then the key question:

“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12)

It means, Peter says, that God is pouring out his Spirit not just upon one nation under God but upon all people of every nation (vs. 17).

It means that God has been driving toward this all along, and telling us about it every step of the way through prophets like Joel. (vs. 16).

It means that the things that make us different from each other—ethnic differences, gender differences, economic differences, national differences, even language differences—should no longer be seen as barriers between us (vs. 17-18).

It means that this is why God sent his son Jesus, and it’s what he taught, and what he died for, and what he was raised for, and what he is and will be ruling over (vs. 22-36).

It means that in the kingdom of God, we all may sing “Amazing Grace” together, but we won’t all be singing it in the same language.

And instead of it sounding like a bunch of Babel, it will sound like beautiful harmony, because that is how God wrote The Song to begin with.

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