I was sitting in the Moscow airport when I heard it.
After four days in Russia, I had managed to increase my Russian vocabulary by 400%. From zero words to four: tea, thank you, no, yes. In that order, apparently the four most critical words for a traveller to Moscow. Or at least the four I encountered frequently enough to learn. Needless to say, as I was waiting for my outbound plane and listening to the chatter around me, I was at a loss regarding what was actually being said. Until I heard it. A familiar sound that caused me to suddenly pay attention. Was someone speaking English? I looked around as I listened intently, but everyone around me was speaking Russian. I’m sure it had not been one of my four Russian words. For a moment there, I had heard a sound I knew.
There it was again! Only this time my brain registered the sound. Laughter.
I sat there musing on this as I listened to the incomprehensible flow of their words. I smiled every time I heard one of them laugh. I did not understand the conversation, but I understood the laughter. Laughter sounds the same in any language.
The Bible tells us that God introduced the world languages at the Tower of Babel. Until then, the whole world had one language and a common speech. Then the men of Babylonia said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). But as Solomon noted, unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain (Psalm 217:1). And the Lord was less than supportive of man’s latest endeavor. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city (Genesis 11:6-8).
At first glance, this may seem a little uncalled for. What’s wrong with a little global collaboration? I think the answer lies in that one phrase embedded in mankind’s plan: “Come, let us build ourselves a city…so that we may make a name for ourselves…” (Genesis 11:4). People were once again falling away from God’s purposes and thinking instead only of themselves. They were not glorifying God, or even acknowledging Him. It was the original sin all over again – snubbing our Creator and grasping glory for ourselves. I can almost hear the resignation in God’s voice. See Him shaking His head with a sigh. “Will they never learn?” People were once more on track to distance themselves from God, and God in His wisdom put a stop to it. Just as He sent Adam and Eve from the Garden, so He sent the people from Babylonia. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:9b).
And yet, God left one piece of language the same. No matter where in the world we are, laughter and tears are the universal language. I think this tells us something of what God expects from our relationships with one another. When someone we cannot speak to is crying, we have no response but to cry with them. When someone we cannot speak to is laughing, we have no response but to laugh with them. God confused the languages of the world, but He left us enough language in common that we could share what is clearly of foremost importance.
Laughter and tears. Compassion and joy. A conversation not to glorify ourselves, but to share with one another.
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