Most Catholics kids learn the story of the Tower of Babel at some point in their religious education. They learn that way back in Genesis, the entire human race spoke a single language, and when these people started to let their pride get the best of them, they decided to build a huge tower to make a name for themselves apart from God.
In response, God taught them a bit of humility by making them all speak different languages, so they were no longer able to communicate with one another. As a result, they all went their different ways, and that’s how humanity became divided into different nations (Genesis 11:1-9).
It’s a nice little story, but why is it in Scripture? Is it just meant to warn us against becoming too arrogant, or is there more to it than meets the eye? Well, if we read it in the context of the entire Bible, it’s actually pretty important.
Humanity’s Descent into Sin
For starters, it comes at a key point in the book of Genesis. The very next story is the call of Abraham, the beginning of God’s plan of salvation, so the Tower of Babel is the culmination of mankind’s descent into sin.
This downward spiral began when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, it continued with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, and then after a few more generations of sin and rebellion against God, the human race reached its low point at Babel. After that, God began to raise us up little by little, starting with Abraham and his family.
Pentecost and Babel
But the importance of this story doesn’t end there. If we fast forward a few eons to the New Testament, we’ll find that Babel actually plays a key role in the birth of the Church as well. Sure, it’s not a direct role, but one of the first stories the Bible tells about the early Church contains some important echoes of this famous event.
Soon after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit came down on the disciples, and we celebrate this event every year on the day of Pentecost. Empowered by the Spirit of God, the first Christians were able “to speak in other tongues” (Acts 2:4), and the people who heard them “were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:6). Even though their listeners came from many different places and spoke many different languages, they were all able to hear and understand the disciples’ preaching about “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11).
And if we think back to the Tower of Babel, we can see that these two stories are mirror images of each other. For example, mankind wanted to do something great without God at Babel, but on Pentecost, the first Christians preached about God’s mighty works. Similarly, at Babel, humanity originally spoke one language and then became divided when God made them speak different languages, but on Pentecost, God united people who spoke different languages by allowing them all to understand the disciples’ preaching.
The Importance of the Church
Once we see the connection, it becomes pretty hard to miss. Pentecost is essentially the reversal of Babel, and that in turn raises a further question for us: What’s the point? Is Babel simply a negative foil for Pentecost, or is there something more going on here? I would suggest that the connection between these two events helps us understand the role the Church should play in our lives, so it’s actually really important.
See, since Babel was the culmination of mankind’s descent into sin, Pentecost wasn’t just the reversal of that one event. Rather, it was the reversal of the entire history of human sinfulness. And if that’s the case, then it shows us just how important the Church really is. In particular, it helps us to realize that the Church isn’t just an optional organization that does some nice things. No, the Church is the place where God restores his fallen children. It’s the place where he saves us from sin and all its consequences (including death), so if we want to experience this restoration and salvation, we have to belong to the Church.
Granted, God isn’t bound by the Church, so he can still save people who remain outside its visible boundaries if they don’t understand its importance. But for us who know just how essential the Church is, there’s no excuse. We have to remain in it and take advantage of all the great graces God gives us through it, especially in the sacraments. If we don’t, then we’re rejecting his salvation and choosing to remain in our sins, and why in the world would we ever want to do that?