Shavuot: Tongues and the Tower of Babel

Illustration by Elhanan ben-Avraham

The phenomenon of the utterance in tongues arose first at Mount Sinai at Shavuot, seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. There the Ten Words (aseret hadavarim) were given by the Creator in a voice heard by the entire nation of Israel who, literally in the Hebrew, “they saw the voices and the torches of fire” (roim et ha kolat v’et  halapidim)- Exodus 10:18, the original Hebrew unveiling the mystery. According to Jewish interpretation, the Ten Commandments were given there in all the languages of humanity, only later to be written in translation.

In Jerusalem in the 1st century AD, more than a millennium later, the disciples of Yeshua waited until Shavuot (Pentecost), at which time the Messiah had told then they would receive “power from on high” (Acts1:4-8). When that biblical festival celebrating the giving of the Torah (hag matan Torah) arrived, the Spirit of YHVH came upon them as “tongues of fire” and they spoke in “tongues”, or unknown languages, reflecting that phenomenon at Mount Sinai. The word language is based on the Latin word for tongue- lang. But those languages were indeed known to many of the pilgrims who came up to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival.  People from non-Hebrew-speaking nations heard them speaking in their own languages: ‘Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, visitors from Rome  (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”’ – (Acts  2).

This event was God’s reversing of the curse of babble given at the Tower of Babel, when men’s languages were confused to where they could no longer understand each the other (Genesis 11:1-8). Babel (Bavel in Hebrew) means “confusion,” the infinitive being l’hitbalbel, and bilbul, i.e., confusion. The disciples did not speak gibberish or jabberwocky or confusion, they did not babble, but the complete opposite. They spoke in tongues (languages) that they themselves did not understand, but “declared the wonders of God” in the many languages understood by their hearers. This seldom occurs among  the modern ‘speakers in tongues,’ though once in 40 years did I indeed hear that phenomenon occur in truth.

Thus when Paul gave instructions for the speaking of tongues in the gatherings of disciples, he instructed them do so only if there were those who could interpret the tongue (1 Corinth. 14:27-29), otherwise to be silent in the congregation. The tongues spoken were those “given utterance by the Spirit,” not easy concoctions or counterfeits by the efforts of men as “bah bah bah,” or “blah blah blah,” or “shanda lakonda,” or “twas brillig and the slithy toes did gire and gimble in the wabe,” as so often heard in charismatic gatherings, but very seldom with any interpretation. One may hear the same utterances among members of any given congregation as they subconsciously mimic each other, rather than are given utterance by the Spirit. They spoke in languages to be understood, to “speak the wonders of God” for the edification of humanity.

Because “Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21), here are various forms of Tongues to be avoided:

  • Tongues engendered by group dynamics, as when one coyote begins, setting the whole pack to howling which, though they much enjoy the event, is not the spiritual phenomenon referred to in the Bible.
  • Evil tongue (lashon hara), which is the use of the tongue to slander or backbite, poisoning the speaker, the listener, and the individual spoken of.
  • Forked tongue: lying, bearing false witness, forbidden in the Ten Words (‘commandments’).

This article was updated April 10, 2018.

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Elhanan ben-Avraham, born in 1945, is a professional artist, poet, writer and father of two, grandfather of four, living in Israel since 1979. He has served in the IDF, taught the Bible internationally, published five illustrated books of poetry, painted two large Biblical murals in public buildings in Jerusalem, and most recently produced THE JERUSALEM ILLUSTRATED BIBLE, among many other works. He and his wife live in a quiet village in the Mountains of Judah.