The Word, the Spirit and Babel

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Jn 1:1)

Christians toss around the word, "word," rather easily. Jesus is the Word made flesh; the Bible is the word of God. Our text from John’s Gospel is quite illuminating in this regard, but requires some understanding of Greek. The Greek word for Word used in this text is Logos; what does this mean? Its meaning is somewhat rich, involving a communication of mind. It can be used to mean mind, as in the processes of the intellect. It can also mean the spoken words generated by such an intellectual process, which communicate that process to others. Either way, the logos is a thing belonging to a person, in this case, to God.

In this case of John’s prologue, he is clearly referencing the beginning of Genesis, which also began with the phrase, “In the beginning…” In that primeval narrative, God spoke (the Word) and creation happened. John is reminding us of that concept, while introducing a new one: the word spoken by God in the beginning was, in fact, God Himself. If logos means a communication of a person’s mind, then when applied to God we have an extraordinary case: God’s communication is generative – it creates. And that communication is God Himself; in fact, it is another Person: the Son.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (Jn 1:14)

There is something radical about God, such that He is communicative and His communication is a second Person, and that communication is generative: reality happens as a result. This is food for much contemplation. For this bible blog entry, though, the key point is the remarkable relationship between God and communication.

Let’s look at an element of this relationship, wherein human communication is a type of the Divine. As a kind of “anti-word,” let’s look at the famous Tower of Babel narrative:

1 Now the whole earth had one language and few words. 2 And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. " 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gn 11:1-10)

These people in the land of Shinar (Babylon) are prototypical of humanity without God; they want to go to heaven – the realm of God - by their own actions. In v.5, we see how well they did, in that God had to “come down” to see their tower; i.e., they didn’t really build up to the heavens as they wanted. Two bits here are of interest. First, it seems their words were united and God’s response was to end that unity. If God’s Word is ontologically creative, then secular humanity’s words are not, so God broke a powerful similarity between the two. Second, note the motivation of the people: they wanted to “make a name for themselves.” A fundamental of ancient Jewish theology is the importance of God’s Name – worship consisted of ‘calling on His Name.’ The idea behind this is that God’s people know Him by name, as they are intimate with Him. God’s Name is, then, the great name; in contrast, these people wanted their name to be great. This is a simple, yet powerful expression of self-love – we replace God with our own selves. The element chosen to express this in the Tower of Babel story is name, a type of word.

Such is a kind of ‘anti-word’ imagery. Now we turn to the NT reply to the Tower of Babel story: Pentecost.

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?... But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15 For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; 16 but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:1-8, 14-18)

God has restored His covenant in its definitive form. God’s people, in intimate union with God Himself, express the power of the Word, of the Son, through their own words. As such, the dis-unity of words at Babel is lifted; unity of words is re-established in a miraculous way. Peter explains that such is the fulfillment of prophecy, that the Holy Spirit was been communicated to God’s people.

The story of Pentecost includes direct contrasts with the Towel or Babel story, not only in the dis-unity/unity of languages. For example, at Babel, the people are scattered over the face of the earth, while at Pentecost men were gathered “from every nation under heaven.” Notice also the people at Babel built a building by which they could reach up the heavens, while at Pentecost the Apostles were inside of a building when the Spirit came down to them from the heavens. Further along this line is that God “came down” in both narratives: at Babel to scatter the people in dis-unity, and at Pentecost to gather in unity of language. Notice also the people of Babel burned the bricks to make the tower, while at Pentecost tongues of fire settled on the Apostles – they who were the living stones of which the Church is built were ‘burned’ to build a spiritual tower that reaches to the heavens.

Now let’s wind back to the beginning, where we saw that God communicates in a generative manner through His Word, His Son, the second Person of God. At Pentecost, Peter taught that such divine communication is really the Holy Spirit, the third Person of God. The Holy Trinity is, then, the God who communicates to us. We call this communication life, that is, an intrinsic principal of life that goes beyond mere biological life. As John continues in his prologue, describing the Word:

4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. (Jn 1:4)

This intrinsic principal of life we call spirit. It is God’s own life, shared with, communicated to us.