I’ve proposed that for cross-cultural understanding to take root, shared space leads to shared language, which leads to shared experience and values. So what happens when that process unravels?
We explored the Pentecost in Acts 2 as a defining moment for the early Church, specifically in how the Holy Spirit enables cross-cultural communication. There's a related moment in the Old Testament, way back in Genesis 11, where rather than acting to bring people together, God moves to pull them apart.
What's most interesting to me about this Tower of Babel moment: It's a near mirror opposite of the Pentecost, where people come together in one room and proclaim "the mighty works of God" in different languages. Let's have a look:
Genesis 11: 1-9
1 The whole earth was of one language and of one speech. 2 As they traveled east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they lived there. 3 They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. 4 They said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches to the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth.” 5 Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. 6 Yahweh said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do. Now nothing will be withheld from them, which they intend to do. 7 Come, let’s go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So Yahweh scattered them abroad from there on the surface of all the earth. They stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there Yahweh confused the language of all the earth. From there, Yahweh scattered them abroad on the surface of all the earth.
Making a Name for Ourselves?
In this Tower of Babel story, people are pursuing their own priorities: "Come, let's make bricks …. Come, let's build ourselves a city … and let's make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth." No one seems to be thinking about God.
This is very different from the Pentecost story, where believers are staying in Jerusalem on the orders of Jesus, waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit before pursuing the Great Commission that Jesus gave them in Matthew 28. In the Babel story by contrast, the people are following their own lead and seeking their own glory: a city for themselves, a name for themselves — a mighty work for themselves.
Is it any wonder that when Yahweh (God) comes down to see that work, from what we can tell He is unnoticed by and unimportant to the people? They're busy. They lack either the focus to realize God is among them, or the ability to sense His presence. So He scatters them.
Now, when I was a child I always thought it was strange that God comes down to check out what the kids are working on, sees that it's going according to their plan and then ruins it. What kind of a parent does that? In my early readings of this story, I equated it with peeking in on the kids on Saturday morning, seeing the Lego set they're working on together and then smashing it to bits. Viewed this way God’s action seems not very productive and not very nice, but offers a fun story to explain language differences.
But now I'm a parent. And now I read this through the lens of the Pentecost, and I see God’s actions differently.
Babel Building and Screen Time
Now I think God's reaction in the Tower of Babel story is more like a parent who peeks in on the kids on a Saturday morning and finds their eyes glazed, their faces bathed in the glow of iPad games. They don't look up or notice that a family member has entered the room. They're connecting with strangers on the Internet without regard to the dangers; they're obsessed of what seems good to them, not what is good for them. When I think of kids getting a bit too lost in mindless games and unhealthy communication, it gives a new resonance to God's observation in verse 6: "Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do."
The kids have all this time, all this potential. And this is what they’re doing with it? They're wasting it because their priorities and values are off.
So in Genesis 11, God disrupts their iPad time. He cuts off their Internet connection. He sends them outside.
That's how I now read the moment when God confuses their language. It's not about ruining their plans — it's about making room for a healthier focus. It's not about separating them from each other, it's about giving them space to look up and notice God when He walks into the room.
You know what adds to my sense of this interpretation? Abraham.
The Example of Abraham
His name is still Abram at this point. But the very next action the Bible notes God taking after He scatters the people at Babel is speaking to a young man who, unlike the Babel builders, is not too busy to notice Him. God says to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3:
“Leave your country, and your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who treats you with contempt. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”
Do you see that? After God hits the reset button, He speaks and Abram listens. God says, "I will bless you and make your name great," unlike the people at Babel who wanted to make a name for themselves.
What does this have to do with cross-cultural communication? Well, by considering Babel alongside Pentecost, we can see both the importance of shared language and the importance of keeping God’s priorities at the center of things. Yes, there's the moment when God scatters the people from the Tower of Babel, a moment of confusion that mirrors the Pentecost. But there's also the promise in God's call to Abram afterward.
Abram, who starts with obeying God, represents the reset that God brings. Rather than have Abram make a name for himself, God promises to make Abram's name great. And in a statement that foreshadows the cultural unity that can come through the work of the Holy Spirit, God promises "All the families of the earth will be blessed through you."
Wherever they are, whatever languages they speak, those who were scattered at Babel because they ignored God now will be blessed through one who obeyed.
Did you find this helpful? Please share it, and invite others to subscribe.