Reversing Babel


I. Babel

“Now the whole earth had one language and
one speech.” —Genesis 11:1
An ill wind blows through Babel, where all speech
Is one, so that it’s possible to plan—
Then build—our city’s tower, which will reach
To realms where God can be replaced by man.
Our single language keeps us unified
In our desire to rise from earth, and be
As God—in fact, above Him.  Towering pride
Supports us in our unity.
We hear a strange and vile cacophony
Of garbled words poured out from neighbors’ voices—
A noisy knot of nonsense that replaces
Clear language with a dissonance of babble!
Enraged, we find it is impossible
To build, since we’re unable to commingle
As we had done when we had used a single
Tongue.  Our words are senseless babble, and
Our city’s tower of pride will turn to rubble,
Disintegrating into useless sand.

II. Pentecost

“How is it that we hear, each in our own language in
which we were born?” —Acts 2: 8
A lively wind blows through Jerusalem,
Which makes it possible for us to hear
A towering truth not fully known before.
A unifying gust from heaven’s realm—
Love’s language, from above all human reach—
Descends to earth, reversing the division
That started when God multiplied confusion
Among proud men, entangling their speech.
But now, an eloquent diversity
Of tongues is understood: through varied voices,
This Pentecost erases Babel’s curses.
Our discord disappears in harmony.
The breath of God has made it possible
To mingle once again, undoing damage
Wreaked by proud abuse of Babel’s language.
Instead of babble, comprehensible,
Flamed words make known the universal Gospel.
In place of Babel’s rubble, now His people
Construct His Church—God’s city—and will build
It up until His Kingdom is fulfilled.
Cynthia Erlandson is a poet and fitness professional living in Michigan.  Her second collection of poems, Notes on Time, has recently been published by AuthorHouse, as was her first (2005) collection, These Holy Mysteries.  Her poems have also appeared in First Things, Modern Age, The North American Anglican, The Orchards Poetry Review, The Book of Common Praise hymnal, and elsewhere.

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26 Responses

  1. Jeffrey Essmann

    Cynthia: I needn’t comment on your extraordinary craft–except to say I truly envy your enjambment. What I DO need to say is that this is a brilliant juxtaposition of how God works through language (including yours). And they wonder why we call Him the Word… A Happy Thanksgiving to you, and God bless.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much, Jeffrey! Language is so crucially important, not only to us writers, but to the world. The event at Babel has become an obsession of mine, because its theme of language abuse speaks so clearly to the crisis of word abuse today. I love that at Pentecost, it was no longer abused, but used to introduce people to The Word. I’m so happy that you used the word “juxtaposition.” Juxtaposing passages from the Old and New Testaments is another of my obsessions, since (as Luke recorded The Word saying) “all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning Me.” That is the theme of my collection “Foundations of the Cross” (which has yet to find a publisher). Thank you again for your encouragement!

  2. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Cynthia, these poems are another shining example of your beautiful concepts (Language division and then unity through love), your exquisite use of words and your wonderful rhymes. Your poems are a pleasure to read and contemplate. May you have a great Thanksgiving with our and your family praise, along with God’s blessings, for which you have already given thanks with your sincere poems.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I’m very grateful for your comments, Roy. I wish you and your family a blessed Thanksgiving, as well!

  3. Allegra Silberstein

    Thanks for these poems of language deeply relevant in our world today.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much, Allegra. Yes, we all need to be vigilant to promote the proper use of language.

  4. Jeremiah Johnson

    Love these! As Michael Heiser argues in “The Unseen Realm” – the similarity and disparity between these two events is more than just a coincidence. Certain nations and peoples of the day would have seen and known that God was intentionally reversing something he did back at Babel – that he was welcoming back on his terms the nations that he’d previously severed. In both stories the authors go so far as to list all the known peoples of the day, showing how they were all disowned and then welcomed back in.

    Anyways, it’s a beautiful concept (and it happened), and I love how clearly and naturally you bring it across. I’m definitely sharing this one with some friends!

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you, Jeremiah! Yes, I love the way these two stories go together. Thank you for sharing it; I hope your friends enjoy it.

  5. Hari Hyde

    The flowing meter and gentle rhymes ferry this sublime story. I contemplated our contemporary “noisy knot of nonsense” and marveled at God’s plan. In secular terms, the government that governs less, governs best. In God’s grand diaspora, the “towering truth” springs upward from seeds sown on fresh, free, and fertile soil, not suffocated by conformance to the crowd.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much, Hari. I like your seeds-and-soil metaphor. It does seem there are invisible towers of “babble” being built constantly by those who covet power over others by taking away their freedom; they don’t even want us to be able to speak (or otherwise use words) freely.

  6. Brian A. Yapko

    I very much enjoyed these beautifully paired poems, Cynthia. Your use of language, as ever, is marvelous. Even better is your connection of the Old Testament and the New Testament events which describe God’s two contrary interventions concerning Mankind’s linguistic compatibility — first the scattering, then the reunification. The Bible is full of such reciprocal or echoing events. One which comes to mind, for example, is Pharaoh’s slaying of Israel’s first-born (which resulted in Moses being saved in a basket) paralleled by Herod’s slaughter of the innocents at the birth of Christ. But the most important of such events is, of course, Man’s fall and Man’s salvation through Christ.

  7. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you so much, Brian! I have been gradually noticing these kinds of connections for many years now, and they are fascinating and inspiring. They show what an amazingly unified book the Word of God is. The examples you cited above immediately reminded me of one of our most profound Anglican Easter hymns, the text of which is written by Robert Campbell. The second verse reads:
    “Where the Paschal blood is poured,
    Death’s dark angel sheathes his sword.
    Israel’s hosts triumphant go
    Through the wave that drowns the foe.
    Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,
    Paschal victim, Paschal bread;
    With sincerity and love
    Eat we manna from above.” (from The Hymnal 1940)

  8. Yael

    Very nice, I like how your poems tell this Biblical story so well. I enjoyed reading these very much, thank you.

  9. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Cynthia, what a timely treat these two beautifully crafted poems are. I simply adore that “noisy knot of nonsense” and your clever placement of “Abruptly” – halting the smooth flow of your words at just the right point. I especially like the theme in an age where dictators know the power of words and skew and cancel speech because the truth is a huge threat. The two poems together show the wrathful, merciful, and miraculous aspects of God and how God’s Word matters. Wonderful!

  10. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you very much, Susan! I love what you’ve said about dictators hating the truth. As I wrote above to Jeffrey, the use and abuse of language in our time is the reason I’ve become obsessed with the Tower of Babel event. I know so clearly from your writing that you understand the great importance of language and its power for good and for evil. I’m grateful to know your writing and to have you as a reader of mine!

  11. Anna J. Arredondo


    To borrow Jeffrey’s words, these two poems are “a brilliant juxtaposition.” I love the parallel structure, beginning with the different winds blowing and ending with the different outcomes and types of edifice… I like the phrase “noisy knot of nonsense”. 🙂

  12. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you so much, Anna, especially for mentioning the parallel structure of the two parts. This was the first time I’d had the idea to try that. It seemed to make sense, and it was challenging and fun.

  13. Julian D. Woodruff

    Thank you, Cynthia, for your sensitive handling of words and sounds. “Abruptly” comes crashing through like a wrecking ball. Like others, I was immediately taken by this moment, and by “noisy knot of nonsense.” That little brilliance took me back more than 50 years, to William Safire’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” (in a speech written for then VP Spiro Agnew). I bet Safire would have been impressed with this pair.
    Best wishes for Thanksgiving.

  14. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you so much, Julian. And thank you for letting me know where that “nattering nabobs” quote came from. I’d heard it, but didn’t know its origin. Happy Thanksgiving to you, as well!

  15. Margaret Coats

    The “noisy knot of nonsense” well appreciated here is fashioned from the “n’s” of negativity in so many languages. By contrast, Cynthia, you have several lovely descriptions of the Pentecost wind or gust blowing them away. “Towering truth” is very good to oppose “towering pride,” but “eloquent diversity of tongues” is even better from my point of view. The variety of languages, when we can comprehend at least some of them, is a manifold blessing. And the learning begins with a flame of love leading to harmony made possible by the breath of God–new life breathed into those willing to receive it. Amen.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you, Margaret! I’m grateful that you took the time to read and thoughtfully comment on Thanksgiving Day. Language is such a mysterious and powerful thing, used to create either dissonance or harmony.

  16. Geoffrey Smagacz

    These poems are faith affirming. I like the way, “a towering truth” is set against the Tower of Babel. The single line “Apruptly” where it appears has the structure of the poem reflecting the weakening of the tower. Nice.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I’m thankful that you took time out of your Thanksgiving Day to comment, Geoffrey. The two stories contrast with each other so loudly and profoundly!


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