Exegetes and theologians have long argued that Pentecost should be seen as a reversal of Babel – the scattering of the human race through the proliferation of languages healed through the unifying power of the outpoured Spirit. But, if these are two events are key bookends in redemptive history, doesn’t it seem odd that relatively little is said about this in the intervening narrative? Does the OT have any concept of Babel as a problem in need of resolution, or is this a brand new theme suddenly tossed into the mix at Acts 2?
These are the questions that Paul Pastor raised in the paper he presented at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Paul is an MA student at Western Seminary, and the paper was a summary of his MA thesis, “Echoes of ‘Pure Speech’: An Intertextual Reading of Gen. 11:1-9; Zeph. 3:8-20; and Acts 1-2.” Paul has graciously allowed me to upload the complete thesis here.
The basic thrust of Paul’s argument is that Zephaniah 3:8-20 provides the intertextual link between Babel and Pentecost. As he summarizes:
Pentecost as a reversal of Babel has been widely seen by exegetes since the early days of the Church. However, these two stories are by no means simple “bookends” with empty narrative space between them. Rather, it shall be shown that an extremely significant instance of textual connection comes from the often overlooked text of Zephaniah.
It will be argued that the Babel narrative of Genesis 11:1-9 is accessed and developed by Zephaniah 3:8-20; and that that text in turn provides a guiding paradigm of Babel-reversal that is utilized by Luke in the Pentecost account of Acts 2. Seen in this way, Zephaniah’s prophecy provides an indispensable link between the two texts of Genesis and Acts; simultaneously looking back into the seminal history of the covenant community and forward to the radical in-breaking of the Spirit at the harvest feast of Pentecost.
Intertextual “echoes” of themes and motifs will be traced at length through the three texts, noting linguistic parallel, narrative similarity, and intertextual dependence for the developing trans-biblical narrative.
The thesis that follows is a fascinating example of intertextuality in biblical exegesis. After a brief summary of his intertextual method, Paul argues that the Babel narrative itself is “incomplete,” leaving the reader in suspense as the story never comes to satisfactory resolution. Paul then argues Genesis forms the clear backdrop for much of Zephaniah, setting the stage for identifying further intertextual connections between the two books.
The heart of Paul’s argument comes in the third part of the thesis, where he identifies a number of textual connections between Gen. 11 and Zeph. 3. In my opinion, intertextual linkages like this always bear the burden of proof as they need to establish real textual connections rather than mere linguistic or thematic similarities. And, Paul does a remarkable job of identifying and defending the connections at work, though you’ll have to read the thesis for yourself to follow all the different lines of argument that he offers.
Finally, Paul turns his attention to Acts 2, arguing that Acts 2 bears many of the same textual markers as the first two passages. Given the strong thematic and linguistic connections, Paul concludes that Luke intends for his readers to see Acts two as the conclusion of a narrative arc that begins in Gen. 11 and runs through Zeph. 3.
And, to wrap everything up, Paul offers a few closing words on how a study like this can impact the life and praxis of faith communities:
It is my sincere hope that this study may also impact the thinking and practice of our local churches and communities of faith. I believe that when scripture is seen with the literary intricacy and vitality that a study of this type highlights, it is compelling and powerful for those who cling to the scriptures as the word of God. The narrative excellence in view here, the thorough intentionality, and the development of a single coherent narrative across the span of centuries and as the product of three very different communities of faith should capture the attention and imagination of modern believers.
Here are a few brief ideas for what the practical and responsive outworkings of this study could look like: Our thoughts about national and international unity should be profoundly influenced by the paradigm offered in these texts. True unity is only possible across ethnic, social, lingual bounds by the power of the Spirit and for the purpose of a shared service and worship of God.
This study is a reminder that truly, “All scripture is profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV). The Hebrew Bible is frequently under read by Christian readers, and the Latter Prophets even more so. This section of our Bibles is rich with powerful imagery, concept, and nuance, coloring our theology and worldview. It ought to be increasingly read.
In addition to this, it ought to be increasingly taught and preached. Our pastors and teachers ought to carefully interact with this literature both for its compelling content, as well as the dramatic role that it plays in the over arching scriptural meta-narrative.
(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)
GUEST POST by Gerry Breshears
I’m preaching on this passage at Grace on August 15 so I’ve been reading and re-reading and studying a lot. I’m realizing that the view of tongues I’ve held for a long time isn’t the most likely one. So with any change like this, I’m running it by lots of people. Reading the Bible in the community of faith is so important. The more diverse the community, the more likely getting past the mistakes of one.
So I start with the purpose of the gift of tongues. Acts 2:11 says they were declaring the wonders of God. I’d taken that as evangelistic, but on reflection and comparison with 1 Cor., I’m thinking it is praise.
1 Cor. 14 adds these points:
Tongues are to God by the Spirit (2, 28) where prophecy is to other people. That direction is so obvious. I don’t know how I missed it up to now.
Tongues are a language with informational content, not ecstatic babbling as with pagans. This is very clear in Acts 2 but also in his reference in verse 10-11. There is much debate about whether it is human languages or if it can include language of angels. That seems an open handed issue right now.
Tongues edify the speaker (4, 28) where prophecy edify the congregation. I’d always taken that as dismissive of tongues, but I think I was wrong on that. Lots of things build me and it’s good. Col. 2:5, 8 say put off sin and 3:12 says put on fruit of the Spirit. That edifies me so I can be more Christlike and a better member of the community. The error would be self-indulgence, something the Corinthians and not a few Americans are into (!!). Building myself is very good if it helps me be a better Jesus follower.
Paul is quite positive about tongues, just not in the public gathering of the church. I’m not sure how I missed his statement that he would like everyone to speak in tongues (14:5). Yes, prophecy is much preferred in the gathering but that does not mean tongues have no place. He is quite clear that he speaks in tongues a lot (14:18), but not on the gathering. That’s the place for prophecy to strengthen, encourage, comfort, edify, instruct (3,4, 26, 31).
Tongues are for prayer (14:14) from the heart. Of course there is also prayer with the mind, i.e., in a known language. Both are good in their proper place, it seems. Some prefer spirit prayer while others prefer mind prayer. Neither is a higher spirituality, it seems. I think Romans 8:26 speaks to this when it says “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” So the groanings there are the Spirit at work helping us when our mind and understanding fail us and we don’t know how to pray. That groaning certainly could come out of my mouth, I think.
Tongues are for praise (14:16) just as they are in Acts 2:11 and 10:46. That isn’t helpful for the congregation unless it is interpreted or explained as Peter did in Acts 2.
In the gathering Paul does not speak in tongues though he does speak a lot, evidently in his private devotions. Where the Corinthians were seeing their public use of tongues as a mark of their high spirituality. Paul shows them that it is a sign, but a sign of God’s judgment on their prideful self-indulgence! Hearing Babylonian in the streets of Jerusalem in 586 BC was a sign that God’s judgment had come to sinful Judah (he quotes Isaiah 28:11 a statement of His judgment in 14:21). Similarly, it is not a blessable thing if unbelievers hear all the confusion of public tongues and walk away thinking the people and their God is crazy.
So I’m thinking the central idea of the gift of tongues is private prayer and praise to God in an unknown language.
That’s what I’m thinking in outline. I’d love to get input!