In the Jewish tradition, the feast of Pentecost (called Shavuot in Hebrew) commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-13) alludes to text of Exodus 19, which speaks of the first manifestation of God on the mountain where Moses received the Law. The people of Israel are gathered just as the disciples were, the divine presence was preceded by lightning bolts and thunder, just as in the Upper Room “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” (Acts 2:2) appeared before the descent of the Spirit.
Another text seems to have inspired the story of Acts: the tale of the Tower of Babylon (Genesis 11:1-9). Men come together in order to defy God by building a tower that reaches up to Heaven by their own power: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth”. (Genesis 11:4). They construct a vertical structure, instead of spreading and multiplying throughout the earth as God commanded at the beginning of Creation (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). The tower then, symbolizes uniformity, built as it is by people who share a common place and language, as opposed to the horizontal dimension of the earth, to the diversity and multiplicity of ever expanding life. The Creator then comes down to multiply the languages to confound human communication.
It could be said that the Holy Spirit that descended over the apostles in the Upper Room came to amend this proliferation by reuniting humanity once more under a common language, since the disciples understand each other despite the diversity of their origins. However, an attentive reading indicates otherwise: in actuality, they speak the languages of one another. Diversity and multiplicity persist. The disciples only become capable of listening, understanding and speaking in foreign languages. The coming of the divine Spirit does not abolish the differences among humans, nations and cultures.
The story of the Tower of Babel is framed by two other tales: one about the Noah’s Ark reaching firm ground, after the flood (Genesis 8), and the other about the departure of Abraham, the father of believers, to Canaan (Genesis 12). Humanity’s attempt to distance itself from God and reach the heavens by their own efforts is immediately preceded and followed by a story of salvation and covenant. This pattern seems to pervade all the history of God’s dealings with humanity as told by the Torah. For instance, when Moses descends down the mountain with the Tablets of the Law, he sees the people of Israel dancing around a golden calf (Exodus 32:19) and afterwards he climbs back up the mountain to receive the new Tablets of the Law that would replace the ones he had broken (Exodus 34:1-4). The covenant is established and maintained despite the failure of humanity to remain faithful, so that it can experience mercy and redemption.
At the center of these stories, we find the Ten Words of Sinai delivered to Moses (also known as the Ten Commandments). According to the Mishna, they are the echo of the Ten Words of creation, separating the elements so that they could be identified and organized: “The world was created with ten utterances. What does this come to teach us? Certainly, it could have been created with a single utterance. However, this is in order to make the wicked accountable for destroying a world that was created with ten utterances [by not respecting the Ten Words of Sinai], and to reward the righteous for sustaining a world that was created with ten utterances.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 5, 1). The utterances from the Beginning, just like those from Sinai, convey ideas of separation and limitation: they show that difference engenders life and allows for the emergence of particular vocations and multiple identities.
The "Ten Commandments” separate what is forbidden from what is allowed, and are essentially grounded in respect for others, for strangers, based on the fact that one should not kill by words or by actions. Such respect leads to dialogue with the other, whose particular and unique speech must be understood. It is in this sense that the story in Acts represents a “reparation” of the attempt of the generation of the tower of Babel to create a totalitarian and idol-worshiping world where only one language is spoken. The disciples learn many unknown languages and become capable of conveying the Good News to those who come “from every nation under heaven” (Book of Acts 2:5).
After the blessing of the Holy Spirit, they will be able to spread throughout the world to disseminate, among all nations and cultures, the new life that they have been granted.