At the end of Deuteronomy (ch. 28), Moses describes the blessings Israel will enjoy if she keeps covenant with Yahweh, and the curses that will overtake her if she defects from the covenant. It’s sobering to notice that the list of curses is far longer than the list of blessings.
Among the curses is a confusion of tongues. If she breaks covenant, Israel will be surrounded by people speaking a “language you shall not understand” (v. 49). Abram was summoned from Ur after the confusion of tongues, but the Lord warns that Israel could find herself right back in Babel.
For Israel, strange language is a sign of invasion or exile. Deuteronomy 28:49 reads, in full: “The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand.”
Isaiah alludes to Deuteronomy in an oracle against Ephraim, the northern kingdom, which has become so dull of hearing that Yahweh begins to speak “through stammering lips and a foreign tongue” (Isa 28:11). Israel slaps her hands over her ears, so the Lord gives her over to her deafness. To a people who won’t listen, he speaks gibberish.
Discussing the glossolalia at Corinth, Paul quotes this passage from Isaiah (in 1 Cor 14:21). For Paul, the hubbub of an unknown tongue is still a warning and a curse. But to whom?
Tongues aren’t a curse to the Corinthian church. Pentecost has changed the landscape. When the Spirit falls on the disciples, they speak in other languages. As the church spreads, the Spirit brings about similar effects. We know Gentiles are being welcomed when the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10–11) and disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus (Acts 19) receive the Spirit and speak in tongues.
Pentecost sounds like a repeat of Babel, but, unlike Babel, Pentecostal tongues communicate rather than confuse. Filled with the Spirit, the apostles preach the gospel to everyone in his own language, and the tongues of the Spirit join rather than separate nations. Glossolalia marks the church as an anti-Babel.
Throughout his long and fruitful ministry, N. T. Wright has emphasized that “return from exile” is at the heart of the New Testament. First-century Israel longed for Yahweh to return in glory, overthrow her enemies, forgive Israel’s sins, elevate Israel, and renew creation.
The apostles announce that all Israel has hoped for has now happened in the cross and exaltation of Jesus. The Spirit’s arrival is one of the indicators that Israel’s hopes are fulfilled. In contrast to Deuteronomy, the New Testament treats tongues not as an omen of exile but as a sign that exile has ended. Speaking in tongues, the early church isn’t being invaded. The church is the invader.
This helps answer our question, To whom was Pentecost a threat? On the one hand, it was a signal to Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah. Judaism was being “invaded” by a new people who claimed, in Paul’s words, to be “true Jews,” circumcised in heart rather than flesh (Rom 2).
On the other hand, tongues were a warning to Rome. Though dominated by Latin in the west and Greek in the east, the empire was polyglot. The sounds of the Pentecostal church told Rome that another multinational empire had invaded and was settling down in Roman territory. No wonder Roman emperors regarded the church as a dangerous rival.
Contemporary politics is polarized between multiculturalists and (for lack of a better term) populists, and the problem of language, as practice and symbol, often takes center stage. Many Christians have allied themselves with the populists. It’s an understandable alliance. Lovers of the local, Christians want to protect their nations from Babelic fragmentation.
At bottom, though, the church must regard monolingual populism with deep ambivalence. The Spirit forms the church as a polyglot polity in the midst of existing polities. When we defend the church’s rights as a public institution, we are necessarily defending a form of multiculturalism. Alt-rightists see this, and find the “foreign tongue” of, say, immigrant churches profoundly threatening.
The policy and cultural import of Pentecost isn’t straightforward. Nations, after all, aren’t churches. But Christians labor in hope that Spirit will make his presence felt among the nations. While acting and speaking in and to the cities of men, we must act and speak as citizens of a Pentecostal society.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.