Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday, draws obvious comparisons to Babel.
In the first event, mankind lost his unity when his common language was broken up into many tongues as punishment. In the second, mankind rediscovered his unity despite linguistic difference through the ‘tongues’ of the Holy Spirit.
But Pentecost reversed Babel in another way. In order to see this, we first need to identify what Babel was about. It wasn’t just an attempt to unify humanity — it was an effort to reach heaven. “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth’” (Genesis 11:4).
When the people were trying to do was attain heaven by themselves, without the aid or even consent of God. It might not be obvious from the translation, but what they were building was a temple. Many of the ancient temples in the ancient Near East were quite tall. These temples, known as ziggurats, were designed to be the true skyscrapers of their time. One in Babylon is reputed to have been 300 feet high, which would have dwarfed the Statue of Liberty, according to one site.
The thinking at work in these ancient construction projects is clear: the heavens are the home of the gods. In order to be closer to them temples, whose purpose is to manifest the presence of the divine, must be tall (as the above site explains). One of the defining features of these ziggurats was the extensive stairways, which led all the way to the top of the structure. One writer fittingly calls them ‘stairways to heaven.’
The spirit of Babel was at odds with the message of the early books of the Old Testament, which was that the man could never return to God on his own. The initiative rested with God. It was God who would bring heaven to man—not the other way around.
One story that shows this clearly is Jacob’s dream:
Then he had a dream: a stairway rested on the ground, with its top reaching to the heavens; and God’s angels were going up and down on it (Genesis 28:12).
The dream centers around the staircase, which like those of the ancient temples, reached to the top of the heavens. This might not seem like enough to make it a temple, except that when Joseph wakes up that is exactly how he describes the place of his dream:
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, “Truly, the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!” He was afraid and said: “How awesome this place is! This is nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven!” (verses 16-17).
The Hebrew word translated as house here is bayith (pronounced: bah’·yith). It is a common way of talking about the temple of God, especially in the Psalms. (See for example Psalm 66:13, 69:9, 84:4, and 91:13, among others.) Moreover, at the end of the chapter, Jacob sets up a ‘sacred pillar’ to be ‘the house of God.’ So in a sense, he constructs an informal temple. But this comes after the vision of the ladder not before it: God’s initiative calls upon us to respond, not the other way around. (A source that helped me to recognize this is as specifically a temple is my father G.K. Beale’s scholarship on the temple. See God Dwells Among Us, 44).
In a way, the ancient temples were meant to be sort of artificial mountains, for the latter also achieved the effect of bringing one closer to heaven. Hence, mountains themselves also became sacred places in the ancient world. This is also reflected in the early books of the Pentateuch, particularly in the stories of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and the Israelites at Sinai.
In a sense, what happened at Sinai was Moses’ entrance into the heavenly temple. As strange as that might sound, key details of what happened on Sinai are reflected in later accounts of the temple of Solomon.
Key details of the temple’s dedication in 1 Kings 8 connect it with Sinai:
- The tablets: The holy of holies contained the ark of the covenant with the copy of the Ten Commandments, which had been delivered to Moses at Sinai.
- The dark cloud: When the priests left the temple, a ‘cloud’ filled it (1 Kings 8:10). Solomon later describes it as a ‘dark cloud’ (verse 12). Likewise, the cloud that settled at Sinai was ‘dense’ or ‘dark,’ depending on the translation (Exodus 19:9). Since the exodus account recounts lightning and thunder atop Sinai it’s likely this was a storm cloud, so the image of darkness fits.
- The consuming fire: In fact, in the version of this story that is found in 2 Chronicles 7, at the end of Solomon’s prayer, a fire comes down from heaven to consume the sacrifices he offered (I’m indebted to The Temple and the Church’s Mission, also by G.K. Beale, for helping me to make this connection and also confirming the parallel).
- Mediation: Finally, the dedication concludes with a long intercessory prayer from Solomon, recalling how Moses acted as mediator for his people while on Sinai.
Understanding Sinai as a temple event now enables us to better appreciate significance of the parallels between the exodus account and Pentecost:
- The fire: In both instances, fire represents the divine reality. Moreover, the ‘tongues of fire’ indirectly connotes the lightning that flickered at Sinai. In fact, the Hebrew word for lightning here could be translated as torches, further reinforcing the connection.
- A loud sound: At Sinai there was thunder and ‘a very loud blast of the shofar’ (Exodus 19:16). Compare the beginning of Pentecost: ‘And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind’ (Acts 2:2).
- The voice: One way of translating the Hebrew word for the ‘noise’ of the shofar, or trumpet, is voice. This also ties in with the Pentecost account, which places much emphasis of the voice, or ‘tongue,’ of the Holy Spirit speaking through the apostles.
- The strong driving wind: It is hardly reading too much into this phrase to recognize a wind storm, which recalls the storm cloud at Sinai.
- Heavenly source: One of the most important details is so obvious it’s easy to miss. But notice that the source of the wind at Pentecost is the sky. In fact, in the Greek the word is ouranus, which could also be translated heaven.
- The giving of the law: In light of all that has been said above, it can be no coincidence that one of the purposes of the Jewish feast of Pentecost was the celebration of the ‘giving of the law’ to Moses. In fact, Exodos 19-20, which has been cited repeatedly above, was one of the texts for the synagogue liturgy of Pentecost.
(A note on sources: Again, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 204-205, assisted me greatly in identifying these parallels, in particular the lightning as torches, the loud noise, and the giving of the law. The below conclusion about this being a temple event is also owed to this source.)
The bare facts of Pentecost are incredible — the wind-driven, heaven-sent tongues of fire that come to rest above the heads of all the apostles. But it turns out that what happens at Pentecost is even more amazing than most of us realized: what occurs is nothing less than the descent of the heavenly temple. Finally, the error of Babel is rectified in the most fitting way possible: rather than a man-made temple reaching into heaven the God-made temple reaches from heaven down to the earth.