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Reflections on God’s Missiological Purpose at Babel

“At Pentecost an alternative to the imperial unity of Babel is created … Whereas the tower seeks to make people ‘not see’ and ‘not speak’ and sucks the energies out of the margins in order to stabilize and aggrandize the center, the Spirit pours energies into the margins, opens the eyes of small people to see what no one has seen before, puts the creative words of prophecy in their mouths, and empowers them to be the agents of God’s reign.”
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996), 228.


I have some questions, which I am raising, especially to our Old Testament and Bible scholars, on a unique translation and consequent reading of the Babel story (Genesis 11). This is a translation, which I think may give greater clarity towards the “postcolonial reading” of Pentecost as the fulfilling of God’s aim towards human diversity, which He earlier pronounced at Babel. In a famous essay titled, “Des Tours de Babel,” Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida, while recognising the meaning of the term “Babel” (Bavel) in the Babel story (Genesis 11), as “confusion” (it was not Derrida who suggested translating Babel as “confusion,” that was another’s translation that he chose to use), famously interpreted its usage within the tower of Babel story-line, as referring to Yahweh. Derrida relies on the following translation:

“Let us confound their lips, man will no longer understand the lip of his neighbour.”
YHWH disperses them from here over the face of the earth.

They cease to build the city.

Over which he proclaims his name Babel, Confusion,

For there, YHWH confounds the lip of all the earth.

Following is a rough sketch of Derrida’s reflection on the text. Like many similar readings, he understands God’s destruction of the tower of Babel as His judgement against human imperialistic and hence, homogenization endeavours. Hence, Derrida suggests that by implementing the “multiplicity of tongues, God imposes limits to translation.”

The uniqueness of Derrida’s reflection is how he uses the term “Babel” as a proper name for God. God thus “imposes His name” on that initial grand human enterprise—“Babel,” meaning “Confusion.” Derrida does not mean that God is confusion. Rather, what he stressed is that God is beyond human comprehension. He is thus correlating the term “Babel” with the divine name, Yahweh, which is untranslatable. However, Derrida infers that there is a mission thereby placed on humanity: “God weeps over His name,” and “He pleads for a translator.”

I want to add to this discussion, the thinking of an earlier Jewish philosopher who shaped Derrida’s thinking: Emmanuel Lévinas. Lévinas and Derrida are both known for their ethics of hospitality. Yet I find Lévinas expressing a more resolute sense of moral imperative. Lévinas also evokes a more pietistic faith. He appreciates as a central theme of the Torah, the belief that we know God’s presence through a right posture to our neighbour. A key phrase to Lévinas’ ethic is our proximity before the “face of the Other.” God is wholly other than us—but we see His “trace” in our neighbour’s “face.” Therefore, what the Torah summons us to, is concern for our neighbour, whom Lévinas regularly parallels to the fourfold descriptive, “the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.”

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2015

About the Author: Monte Lee Rice is Pentecostal minister based in Singapore who has served on the pastoral staff of both small churches and megachurches in the Assemblies of God and the Anglican tradition. He graduated from Asia Pacific Theological Seminary in 2002 with a M.Div. (summa cum laude, theology) and has ministered widely throughout West and East Africa.

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