I have been working through Vladimir Solovyov’s Justification of the Good and wanted to get your thoughts on an interesting passage. Solovyov is great at making clever arguments, and this one about the Tower of Babel struck me as particularly clever.
In the story of the Tower of Babel, human beings start building a great big tower all the way up to God. God takes this as a sign of hubris and decides to mix up all their languages, making it impossible for them to continue their work. So the general interpretation of this passage, or at least the one I have always assumed, is that all the humans spoke one language, a kind of primordial Esperanto, that God broke into a bunch of different tongues. So multiple languages owes to human sinfulness and pride. (See Genesis 11:1-9.)
Now, most commentators look at the Pentecost in the Book of Acts as a kind of prophetic redemption of Babel. The Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles, and the apostles head out into the streets and start speaking other languages. Thus the union of humanity is proleptically restored in the church. (See Acts 2:1-13.)
Now, charismatic Christians understand this to refer to the act of “speaking in tongues.” Not to be disrespectful (much), but essentially the idea is that spirit-filled people say, “Wubba-wubba-wubba,” and this “language of angels” is understood by others to whom it is given to understand.
But here is the thing, if Pentecost is the restoration of humanity before Babel, then what we have is not a single language but multiple languages understood singly. I am not exactly sure how to spell this out in any kind of clear way, Solovyov certainly doesn’t, but it is kind of like when bilingual people “code switch.” My Jordanian college roommate did this all the time when he spoke to his parents. He would switch back and forth between Arabic and English as it suited the meaning he was trying to convey. The idea Solovyov is getting at is that the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost was not glossolalia but “polyglottia.” A polyglot is someone who is conversant in several languages, like five or more. (Trevor Noah is one.)
Here is what I like about this. The Kingdom of God is not uniformity. It is the holistic embrace of diversity. We affirm otherness in the love of God. To affirm another—to love another—is to affirm and love her language. This is good, because as anyone who knows other languages knows, there are some thoughts and sentiments that can only be communicated in that particular language. Like onegeishimasu in Japanese, which means something like, “Please,” and, “Hey. Let’s all do our best together at this present task.” Or Schadenfreude in German means to take pleasure in the misfortune of someone else (but not in any kind of gross, sadistic way).
So if everyone spoke the same language, it would be to the detriment of humanity. Something of the wonder of those who are made in God’s image is lost. This makes the preservation of languages that are dying something more important than I had previously thought. It makes it a kind of ministry.
Genesis is not literal history. The point of the myth of Babel is not about how multiple languages came to be. It is about hubris and self-idolatry. Maybe our final state of affairs—to which Pentecost bears witness—is not one in which we all speak a single language. It is one in which we are all polyglots. Languages are not erased but preserved, perhaps even multiplied. I wonder if, in the universal resurrection, we will be able to speak Neanderthal…
2 thoughts on “Vladimir Solovyov on the Tower of Babel”
Why do you believe Genesis is not a literal history? Is there a Orthodox study about this topic? Thank you.
Thanks for the question. I recommend Peter Bouteneff’s book *Beginnings* on this. You might also find *Sweeter Than Honey* helpful as it deals with broader issues.