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“The beginning” is always a mysterious concept because it is a reaching to the primordial, the time when things were not as they were now, and most of all the time which explains why now is the way it is. The beginning is a seed where everything later exists only in a hidden way, only in its potential. Who but an expert could guess, by looking at a mustard seed, what sort of plant it could grow into? And yet everything it becomes later is in the seed already, in its blueprint, in its capacity to become precisely this type of plant. Thus, the accounts of the beginning in the Bible are explanations of a fact already here, a plant that has already grown and, sometimes, already died and rotted out.
The eleventh chapter of the book of Genesis is an explanation of the fact that there are many different languages in the world. The story of the Tower of Babel is therefore one of the “seed” stories that show how the world became the way it is. “Now the whole earth had one language and few words…” A harkening to a wonderful past: not only was there lingual understanding between everyone alive, but also “few words,” that is, perhaps, less of a need to explain, and less of a desire to talk about oneself. Mar Ephrem is quoted as saying that the wise man “talks little and listens much.”
At any rate, this early innocence was lost when the people who had migrated to the land of Shinar decided to build a city and a tower “with its top in the heavens,” for the purpose of “making a name” for themselves. Their ultimate motivation, however, was a social one: they feared separation: “…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” This human endeavor was not only a failure, however, but the very cause of the confusion found today. The attempt to force our way into the heavens, connected, in this primordial context, with “making a name” and preventing a scattering of peoples, caused the very thing they had feared. It says specifically that the Lord “came down” and that the final result was that he “scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”
The Light of the World
The next time that the Lord “came down” in the context of languages was on the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, fifty days after the Resurrection of Christ. The account of this event is given in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The similarities between this account and that of the Tower of Babel are striking: the apostles were “gathered in one place” as the people of Babel had “settled” together; there was a “sound from heaven” as the Lord had “come down” from heaven. Most dramatically, the apostles “began to speak in other tongues,” exactly like the people of Babel. Even the result was the same, for the apostles ended up going to the “ends of the earth” just as the people of Babel.
The difference, of course, is that the miscommunication caused in Babel was undone at Pentecost: the people of Babel became unable to communicate with each other; the apostles gained precisely that ability. Those who were there, hearing the apostles preach in so many languages, were people from all over the world (including also “residents of Mesopotamia,” where the Tower had been built), and were amazed. The primordial separation of tongues which had forced the people of Babel to spread all over the earth was now fixed.
Moreover, the unwilling “spreading” of the people of Babel was replaced, not by a “coming together” of all the people of the world, but by another “spreading,” one now done willingly, by the apostles. They became, as Christ had named them so much earlier, the “light of the world.” That is, unlike the people of Babel, they were not interested in isolating themselves from the rest of the world; on the contrary, they took the Gospel to all nations and peoples. They realized that a lamp does not exist to brighten itself but others:
The Holy Spirit who was sent from God, the Father of Truth, to the assembly of Apostles by a graceful gift strengthened them, encouraged their minds in his Gospel and instructed their simplicity by his teaching through a multiplicity of tongues, that they may henceforth become ambassadors among all peoples, proclaimers of the kingdom of heaven, evangelists, and preachers of the Trinity.