By David Baldwin

What do people scatter and gather these days? Scattering in order to gather again, I mean. Grain? Smiles? Fishing nets? Tweets? Ideas? Greetings? Currency units? Love? Emojis?

Where do the nations first scatter in the Bible? And why? Where does the language barrier come from?

Put like that, most of us would turn to Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel; a story of human rebellion, divine displeasure, judgement, confusion and dispersal;

That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:9)

But that word ‘scattered’ has already cropped up in relation to the nations in previous chapters! So does the word ‘languages’. Three times.

One of my work colleagues recently confessed to having a secret passion, she loves Excel spreadsheets. I don’t share that love. (She also loves snakes, which is more understandable). Well if you want the Bible’s first Excel spreadsheet then I think you’ll find it in Genesis 10, rather boringly titled ‘The Table of Nations’.[1] Who wants to read a table? Maybe my work colleague, I guess.

In Genesis 10 you will find listed about 70 names of people and places that most of us have never heard of. You’ll also read that,

From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language. (v.5)

Later the Canaanite clans scattered (v. 18)

These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations. (v.20)

These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations. (v31)

These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood. (v. 32)

Wait a minute … so between the flood and Babel Noah’s three sons became families, clans, tribes, and nations that spread out and had their own languages?!?

Hmm.

This changes everything we might have assumed about the Babel story. Now the proliferation of languages and the geographical scattering aren’t looking quite so bad. Actually, if we look back instead of forward, we will quickly see that God had always intended people to spread out and ‘fill the earth.’ Genesis 10 is the fulfilment of Genesis 1:26-28. The Babel story describes people who wanted to rebel against it. They didn’t want to spread out:

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

The writer of Genesis never promised to put everything in tidy chronological order for us. Sometimes it’s best to paint on a broad canvas first and then come back later to add a little more detail.

It seems that God found a way to bless and judge humanity at one and the same time; the gift and curse of languages.

As languages and locations diversified, so did cultural achievements. Note that the sons of Javan became maritime people (v. 5) – seafaring culture! Nimrod became a great hunter (v. 9) – bush craft! The cities of Ninevah and Calah were built (vs. 11-12) – urban vibes!

There’s no hint of negativity in Genesis 10, not like the passages all around it, where God is clearly displeased. In fact, the 70 names seem to be written with pride and approval; 7 is perfection, 10 x 7 is wonderful perfection. As another colleague put it, this time an OT scholar, the 70 describes something “good and massive and massively good!”

Human linguistic, cultural and geographical diversity is a massively good thing. New York, New York, it’s so good they named it twice. Human diversity, human diversity, it’s so good they named it four times: clans, languages, territories and nations (v. 5, 20, 31). Now there’s a four-fold formula that’s going to catapult us to the other end of Redemptions’ story; the matching bookend to the complex story of the nations – Revelation.

In Revelation 1-10 the tone is mainly positive and we are promised that in heaven there will be representatives from every ‘tribe, tongue, people, and nation’ gathered around the throne of the lamb (Revelation 5:9, 7:9). But what language will they be speaking? How will they be worshipping? Will they still retain their national characteristics, or will they have to learn a common language and conform to some universal worship style? Interesting questions, left hanging for now.

Genesis 11-20 describe a cosmic conflict between Satan and God, with that old serpent whipping up rebellious storms through his wicked tools: the beast, the antichrist and Babylon the whore. The nations are first enraged (11:18), then intoxicated (14:8), deceived (18:23) and finally destroyed (20:8-9), so perhaps we shouldn’t expect to find the nations in the New Jerusalem at all. Will the nations be destroyed totally?

But John mentions them three times in his beautiful description of The New Heavens and Earth (Rev 21-22). Note that John doesn’t just see individuals scattered from the nations, ripped away like refugees, but the gathered nations themselves. Despite the devil and his henchmen’s best efforts, the nations survive.

Actually, believing in a Trinitarian God helps us understand this enduring diversity. Rather than being an embarrassment that we try to cover with our hopeless Victoria Sponge analogies, the truths of the Trinity explain the unity in diversity theme shot through the Scriptures – including human diversity. The divine image in which humanity was created (Genesis 1:26-27) persists into eternity precisely because the Lord himself is perfectly one in the perfection of three persons.

So we don’t need to homogenise the nations into a New Jerusalem international smoothie in the same way that we wouldn’t dream of trying to melt down the three persons of the Trinity into some sad amalgam. We can’t do either, anyway. Warm relationship, positive interaction and of course self-giving love can only exist where you have both unity and diversity.

Jon Morales thinks we should read Revelation as narrative and that Revelation’s story line:

‘highlights, amid the schemes of the dragon, that God is the just and true king of the nations, Jesus is their shepherd, and the church is their prophet and priest…. The nations belong to God and to his Messiah. [2]

But what are the nations doing in the New Jerusalem, exactly?

Firstly John sees them walking by the light of the Lamb (21:24a). No longer deceived by the dazzling lights of Babylon, their walk is true and their light is good. This is because, secondly, they have been healed (22:1-2). Their former ailments have been cured, they were sick in love with the Babylonian prostitute, but no more. The river of life flowing from God himself waters trees along its banks and, in echoes of Ezekiel 47, ‘… the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’.

Finally John notes that they come bearing gifts – the splendour, glory and honour of the nations arrives on their shoulders (21:24b-26). This glory can’t be anything impure (21:27) nor is there anything lacking in God’s brilliant glory (21:23) but must refer to the ways in which the nations reflect God’s own glory. These are God-given honours that the nations possess. Perhaps they include cultural achievements and the riches of heritage with which God has blessed every nation?

What do you think the French will bring? What about the Mexicans? And the Chinese? I doubt the English will be bringing their cooking. But every nation has been blessed with something glorious to bring along.

So the Bible’s storyline has come full circle. National languages and cultures – far from being merely an invention to confuse and divide – were always part of God’s plan and a reflection of his own love of diversity. And this richness makes it through into the very last chapter.

What is your national and cultural heritage? If you are reading this as a Brit like me then we may be tempted to think of ‘the nations’ as all the other poor blighted foreigners who need our sympathy and help. We’re not among them! But actually, we need to see ourselves not as observers looking in, but participants within this procession of nations. Maybe imagine yourself as part of team UK at the Olympics, bringing the very ‘best of British’ into the New Jerusalem! Don’t be shy! God’s given something to all of us. If you’re not a Brit then you might not find this so difficult.

So rejoice! Divine diversity wins out in the end: the scattered nations are finally gathered. The Lord does this. So even though we seem distant from each other now, struggling with language and cultural barriers, we’ve got a global party to end all parties to look forward to. And the Brazilians are making the play list.

Meanwhile, in the church on earth, we’ve got so many great opportunities to keep proclaiming the gospel that welcomes in people from every clan, tribe, territory and nation. In your town, your home and your church; in the flesh, in parks and in Zoom land, let’s not tire in this work but fix our eyes on the end game. There are diverse treasures at the finish line.

[1] This is not a criticism of the chapter’s content of course, which is the Word of God, but of the title, which was added by later translators.

[2] Jon Morales, Christ, Shepherd of the Nations (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017).