Back—way back—at the beginning, before even the start, language, communication, and abstract ideas formed within linguistic boundaries. Simply put—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).1
As we follow the linguistic clues of language use in creation, salvation, and—ultimately—mission we will be led in a full circle, back to our omnipotent Creator. Along the way we will better understand what it means to be human in His image. So let the journey begin.
When God Speaks
Human time begins with a simple phrase spoken by an omnipotent and omniscient Creator. “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3) reminds us that life was not an accident, and that words, particularly words spoken by the Creator, are powerful and consequential. They move planets, create intelligent life ex nihilo, establish natural laws, order complex life systems—and communicate something that is hard to pin down: a joyous delight in colors, shapes, and diversity; a soft and tender love for new creatures; a careful communication of limits and borders.
.When God speaks, things happen. He does so 11 times in Genesis 1 (verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 29) during the first six days of Creation—then He creates the seventh day, not by word or command, but by example, and—shabbats (“rests”).
God’s speaking not only highlights the power of divine speech—it also functions as a concrete and intentional contrast to other ancient Near Eastern Creation myths such as the Babylonian Enuma elish, where gods mix blood and bones to create serflike creatures, called humans, that are charged to serve the gods.
A lot has been written about the function and meaning of humanity’s creation in God’s “image” and “likeness” (Gen. 1:26), and Bible readers and scholars have wondered about the implications for a biblical anthropology. It must involve corporeality and physicality—but there is more. Speech, capable of expressing abstract thoughts and deep emotions, is a key element in the description of the human role in the garden, and echoes the divine Creator. The role of the loving ruler over fish, birds, and all animals (verse 28) reflects on a terrestrial level the role of a loving and just divine Creator. The naming of animals (Gen. 2:19, 20) echoes the divine naming of light and darkness, firmament, earth, and sea (Gen. 1:5, 8, 10). Since naming suggests authority in the biblical world, humanity’s commission to name the creatures points to dominion, rulership—yet also care. Speech is the vehicle to fulfill the divine command and reflects back on the first pronouncement of words.
Human language is powerful and can move individuals and nations. Demagogues and expert agitators have proved this very axiom over and over. During the wilderness wanderings the bad report of the 10 spies captures the imagination of Israel (Num. 13:32; 14:36, 37) and moves them to reject God’s promise and plan. The word of an absolute King can mean life or death, while a simple “I love you; I believe in you” has been known to give wings.
Other examples of the power of human (and divine) speech involve blessings and curses. Numerous narratives recount the importance of divine (or human) blessings. Abraham is to become a great nation that will bless the entire world (Gen. 12:1-3)—yet these are only words that needed to become a reality. Jacob and Esau are constantly battling about Isaac’s blessing, for they know (as everyone living in the biblical world) that blessings are intricately connected to divine pronouncements that govern the universe and determine and control life on this planet.
Divine speech is also present in the dramatic ending to the sublime tranquillity of the pre-Fall garden. God not only prescribes the limits of the human inhabitants of Eden, but also continues to call out for them, following their fateful choice. Genesis 3:8 describes Adam and Eve hearing the “voice of . . . God” (KJV) as they try to hide away. God’s call to Adam (“Where are you?”) is not an expression of the divine need for information. An omniscient God knew where Adam and Eve were hiding. Rather it is a call to continued conversation; a glimmer of hope in the context of impeding judgment; a shadow of the covenant language that characterizes the world’s and, more specifically, Israel’s relation to God.
Building a Tower
Language and speech reappear as a major topic in the well-known Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. Based on the recognition of the chiastic structure (i.e., a parallel structure around a center, following a scheme such as ABC X C'B'A') scholars have suggested that Genesis 11, verse 5—“The Lord came down to see”—is the center of the passage.2
God comes and then speaks. Divine speech (verse 7) occurs in response to human speech (verses 3, 4). In fact, God speaks repeatedly in the Tower of Babel narrative. Communication is at the heart of a divine being who is heavily invested in creation (and later redemption).
The narrative highlights the power of human communication. The anonymous human builders speak repeatedly about the need to construct a city and a tower—most likely a ziggurat-like temple structure reaching to heaven (verses 3, 4)—and the desire to “make a name for ourselves” (verse 4). Well-known Old Testament scholar John Sailhamer noted that to “make a name” is a phonetic word play with the name of the godly son of Noah, Shem.3 It also anticipates the divine promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2: “I will make your name great” (i.e., you and your descendants will be renowned and highly esteemed). In this sense, “making a great name” is a divine prerogative and not the result of human design and efforts. The tower builders are not only trying to erect a structure reaching heaven: they also intend to do so on their own steam, and openly defy the divine command to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1, NKJV; cf. verse 7; Gen. 1:28).4
The New Jerusalem Bible translates Genesis 11:1 with “the whole world spoke the same language, with the same vocabulary.”5 The two keywords here are sapah, “language,” and devarim, “vocabulary” (literally “words”). Some commentators have suggested that language refers here to some type of lingua franca, i.e., an internationally accepted and understood way of communication, such as English in today’s culture. However, this does not fit the fact that the term is often used in the Old Testament to indicate language per se—not just a common international lingua franca (Ps. 81:5 ; Isa. 19:18; 28:11; Eze. 3:5, 6). It rather seems as if the biblical author is talking here about a universal language—the mother of all languages.
“Thus Says the Lord”
Language was not only a vehicle for creation or rebellion. It was also a means of communicating God’s will to a world that was less and less tuned to hearing that divine Word. Throughout history God called individuals who spoke on His behalf. This prophetic speech was not solely informative or neutral. It represents another element of God’s passionate desire to restore humanity to its ideal, and echoes God’s question to Adam and Eve.
Prophets in the Old Testament were not state-sponsored or court-supervised, as was the case for most extrabiblical prophets. Rather, called by the Lord from all walks of life, they spoke on behalf of God to His people, the wayward covenant partner (and often beyond the tribal or national limits to a larger international audience). While some prophets interacted repeatedly with Israel’s kings (e.g., Nathan or Gad), they often found themselves in opposition to the reigning royal house (Elijah, Elisha, Micah, Jeremiah, etc.) and communicated strongly God’s displeasure with the status quo of life in Israel and Judah. What they saw or heard (as seers or prophets) was communicated to their respective audiences. They often introduced their prophetic utterances with a “Thus says the Lord”—a phrase occurring more than 300 times in the Old Testament. As spokespersons of the Lord, they communicated a message directed to the larger world, looking beyond national or tribal borders, and often dedicated significant space to messages to the nations.6
Language is key to accomplish any mission involving other persons—unless you rely on talking donkeys or stones that cry out! It is crucial to the missio Dei (God’s mission) of saving a wayward people—and the larger world. Priests and prophets, as God’s earthly representatives to His people and to the world, demonstrated in a tangible way God’s desire to communicate (and save) a fallen creation.
“The Word Made Flesh”
The Incarnation is the pivotal point within the stream of human history. The arrival of the Messiah was not a surprise; it was timed and foreshadowed in the prophetic texts of the Old Testament. When the fullness of time had come (Gal. 4:4), the Word became flesh. The unique and telling way in which John describes this momentous event provides another clue to the power of language. “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1)—and it was the divine Word whose creative power had spoken the world into existence (verses 1-3). The clear link to Genesis 1 is hard to miss. When John tells us that the Word, the logos, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), he mixes Creation and sanctuary language (cf. Ex. 25:8). John tells us that through this incarnate Word salvation is accomplished.
As the life and ministry of the incarnate Word become realities, people wonder about His words. Jesus speaks differently from other religious leaders (Mark 1:22). His words, His actions, His demeanor—all things—are congruent, impacting His total mission. He dismisses demons with authority (Matt. 17:18; Luke 4:35) and orders a storm to be still (Mark 4:39). Paul recognizes this difference when he introduces his first Adam/Second Adam typology in Romans 5. While the first Adam’s sin affected the entire world, the Second Adam’s righteousness provides access to God’s (imputed) righteousness.
Jesus not only speaks with authority and performs miracles, but also speaks about “the kingdom of God.” In fact, one of the first pronouncements of Jesus, as noted by Mark, is that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15, NKJV). Jesus’ kingdom speeches represent the proverbial line in the sand in the great controversy. His ministering, touching, healing, and proclaiming marks the border between Satan’s and God’s kingdom—and slowly but surely this border is extended. While the Fall narrative in Genesis 3 tells about how sin came to this planet, the Gospel narratives tell the story of the war (and victory) on earth—and the chief weapon in Jesus’ arsenal is verbal and nonverbal communication. Jesus’ excruciating exclamation on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), prefigures the Resurrection and the final victory over Satan.
Following the resurrection and later ascension of Jesus, the disciples, obedient to the instruction of the Master, waited in Jerusalem. Acts 1:14 emphasizes the unity of the early Christian community and their prayerful attitude. Acts 2:1 locates the narrative in time (i.e., the “day of Pentecost,” which is equivalent to the Israelite Feast of Weeks described in Leviticus 23:15-21) and again underlines the unity of the followers of Jesus.
The fulfillment language of Acts 2:1 reminds the reader that the divine plan did not come to an end with the arrival of the Messiah. It represents a fulfillment of the promise given in Acts 1:4. Acts 2:2 describes a powerful sound “from heaven” that fills the house where the disciples are meeting. The Counselor promised by Jesus (John 14:16-18), the Holy Spirit, fills all present, and they begin to speak in “other tongues” (Acts 2:4).
This movement from heaven down to earth echoes the divine movement from heaven to earth in Genesis 11:5. And in line with Genesis where language became confused, Acts 2 involves speech (glossolalia) that highlights the reversal from confusion (and lack of understanding) to understanding. Acts 2:6, 7 notes the surprise and shock of the multitude that gathered when hearing this strange sound, since all the visitors could hear the disciples speak in their own language. The sidebar illustrates some of the key links between Babel (Gen. 11) and Pentecost (Acts 2).
However, Pentecost does not represent a return to linguistic uniformity. Language and culture still separate people. Rather, the unification is linked to a body of people—the nascent New Testament church—and to a mission. The missiological perspective of Pentecost is important: the gift of “tongues” is given to empower a united community to reach the “world.” Additionally, it is a means to take down barriers that clearly existed in the early Christian community—barriers between rich and poor, between Jews and Gentiles, between the outsider and the insider (cf. Acts 10:44-46). Acts 2:4 is crucial here, reminding us that “all” were filled with the Holy Spirit.
God’s Image and God’s Mission
Human ability for meaningful and abstract speech is part and parcel of having been created in the image and likeness of the God who created by simply speaking. As we have noted, the erroneous use of language led to the dispersion and scattering of humanity and the development of distinct languages, in turn curtailing the human ability to communicate freely. Within the context of the great controversy, the archenemy of God is seeking to distort God’s original design. The prophetic image of the little horn speaking “boastful words” against the Most High (Dan. 7:11) and seeking to assert its authority by changing times and seasons (verse 25) highlights the power of words.
Throughout history prophets spoke on behalf of God to His people and to the larger world. Many of these messages involved imminent judgment, while others looked toward a glorious future and divine redemption.
At the right time the Word finally became flesh. When He spoke, life could not go on as before. The Creator became the Redeemer. Where the first Adam had failed, the Second Adam succeeded.
Finally, at Pentecost we see the reversal of Babel. Human language becomes what it was always meant to be: a vehicle to communicate the good news of salvation to the stranger, the widow, the foreigner, the enemy, the seemingly unworthy and the lost. It is this missiological focus that completes the circle and solidly links humanity to the God who continues to ask “Where are you?”—the God who not only creates but also saves. It is here that the imago Dei and the missio Dei intersect and connect—and challenge us to speak carefully, yet at the same time purposefully.
1 This article draws from an academic presentation given during the Third International Bible Conference in Israel, June 11-21, 2012, whose overall theme focused on understanding biblical anthropology.
2 Compare the discussion in G. A. Klingbeil and M. G. Klingbeil, “La lectura de la Biblia desde una perspectiva hermenéutica multidisciplinaria (II)—Construyendo torres y hablando lenguas en Gn 11:1–9,” in Entender la Palabra: Hermenéutica Adventista para el nuevo siglo, ed.
M. Alomía et al. (Cochabamba: Universidad Adventista de Bolivia, 2000), pp. 175-182.
3 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. 134.
4 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5 The New Jerusalem Bible, copyright © 1985 by Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd., and Doubleday & Company, Inc. Used by permission.
6 Compare the insightful essay by Paul R. Raabe, “Why Prophetic Oracles Against the Nations?” in Fortunate the Eyes That See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Astrid B. Beck et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 236-257.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review who enjoys listening to (and learning) new languages. This article was published August 16, 2012.