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What Language Does August 2008

The First in a Three Part Series On Language

I have the language ability of a two year old right now. Well that’s not exactly true, a two year old Mongolian has more language ability than me. We get ready to start language study in a week or two and there is a long road ahead to become familiar with Mongolian. Is it worth it? What does language do? From a Biblical perspective is language a positive or a negative thing?

When language is viewed through the perspective of the cross there are three ways which emerge in which language functions. Language expresses the mercy of God, language communicates the Gospel of God and language magnifies the glory of God.

Language expresses the mercy of God Genesis 11:1-9

The beginning of language is found at the tower (or ziggurat) of Babel as found in Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people 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 dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man 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, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD dispersed them 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 dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

When it comes to familiar passages it is easy to miss some essential truths that are part of the text. The central question here is how to view the Tower of Babel – What was God’s intention? I would assert that we can have a negative view of languages if we see them as a judgment of God instead of an opportunity to engage in His mission.

We must step back and evaluate the context before we proceed. The tower of Babel comes just after God has sent His judgment on the earth because of man’s rebellion against Him. He saved a remnant through the ark that Noah built. Although God declared that he would never judge man through a flood (Gen. 9:15) man has grown wise as well as continued in rebellion to God. In 11:3 it says that they used bitumen or tar for mortar- why? In order to make it waterproof and resist any flood that God might send. The tower was just as much a symbol of rebellion to God as a monument to man’s hubris.

The response of God begins in verse 6- this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. And so the Lord confused their language and as a result man scattered across the earth. Why? Was this a positive or negative event? Just as much as it is important to see what God did it is important to see what he did not do. Although God just as easily could have wiped man out by fire or had the tower collapse on them he chose not to. Far from being punitive God’s actions were an act of mercy, sparing man from the judgment he rightfully deserved, foreshadowing the grace of the Cross.

It is not until Paul preaches on Mars Hill that the full implications of the Tower of Babel as an act of mercy are understood in scripture as Acts 17:26-27 says

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us

God’s action of introducing language was actually a redemptive mechanism for man to come and seek God. When this is understood there is also a better understanding of what is being said back in Genesis 11 when God states that nothing is impossible for man. The threat was not to God but to man – with man united there was nothing to stop sin from again flowing from one end of the earth to the other. The concern expressed by God is not for the height of man’s possible achievements but the depths that he might sink to. God’s action of confusing man and introducing languages acted like bulkheads on a ship. Although man is sinful it prevented further sin from automatically being communicated from one end of the earth to another. While in many ways mission would be easier without having to learn new languages its important to remember that God introduced and intended those languages to be an expression of His mercy.