Faculty View | Tearing down the Tower

by Dr. Nola Stephens, assistant professor of linguistics

 

Nola Stephens

When I started graduate school, my mother gave me a book of poetry by Rod Jellema. The first poem ended like this:

 

He freed us, all of us

Adam’s children, free to play

to pocket words like stones

found on the shores, to arrange them

in settings only dreamed,

as many settings

as there are stars in the sky.

 

I’m a linguist. I love thinking about the diverse strategies people use to build words and phrases and sentences. When I first read these lines of poetry, I found them deeply comforting, and I think I finally understand why.

 

Like many children raised in church, I grew up with a traditional understanding of the Tower of Babel story (Gen. 11): God punished the proud tower builders by confusing their language. According to this view, linguistic diversity is a curse, so we should expect it to end when Christ’s kingdom is consummated. But, frankly, I like the idea of a multilingual heaven.

 

I was pleased to discover recently that the curse interpretation of Genesis 11 is not the only one. In fact, some scholars have argued that God’s mixing of language at Babel was actually a blessing. One such interpretation points out that the tower builders were defying God’s command to fill the earth (the cultural mandate in Gen. 1:29 and 9:1). The builders wanted to avoid being “scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4), so they worked to stay together—to preserve their one culture and language. Then God mercifully thwarted this plan and set them back on the right path by mixing their language and scattering them (Gen. 11:9). The kind of unity they sought was not what God desired for them.

 

When I think about what language might look like in heaven, I imagine a community of speakers—not like those who came together to build the Tower of Babel—but like those who came together at Pentecost to hear one message proclaimed in the languages of “every nation under Heaven” (Acts 2:5-11). God-ordained unity does not look like cultural or linguistic sameness. According to Revelation 7:9, it looks like saints “from all tribes and peoples and languages” standing together before the throne, one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). We’re still waiting for the perfection of that unity, but in the meantime, I believe that God’s actions at Babel have freed us, all of us / Adam’s children … / to pocket words like stones / … to arrange them in settings only dreamed, / as many settings / as there are stars in the sky.