What Language Does God Speak?

24/08/2011 11:47

A Speech Act Reading of Genesis 3:20-23


God speaks. Speaking, according to John Searle, is not merely saying something meaningful, it is rather performing such actions as asserting something as true, directing someone to do some future actions, committing oneself into undertaking some future actions, creating a new state of affairs, and expressing oneself (Searle, Meaning and Expression). The idea that speaking is a form of action goes back Socrates (in Plato, Cratylus, which is the earliest surviving writing that deals with language). John Austin, an Oxford Philosopher of Ordinary Language, developed the idea in his posthumous book, How to Do Things with Words. In speaking, people do things with words.
Our previous studies on Genesis chapters one and two had indicated the creative and charismatic actions of God. One of these mighty speech acts is that God, by speaking a language, has committed himself to a covenant relationship with humanity and other creation (Vanhoozer, FirstTheology,159-206).

God Speaks Universal Language


What language does God speak? It is tempting to answer that God speaks Hebrew and Greek, since the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Although the answer appears plausible and logical, it is simply incorrect because it equates language use with writing system. Speaking is more ancient than writing. Spoken language had already existed in the first divine human covenant community, that was before the forming of human society. Another incorrect answer to our question is that God speak the language of the Holy Spirit. Due to the unique styles and forms of the New Testament writings and lack of ancient manuscripts, some pre-1900 biblical scholar thought that the New Testament used a special “language of the Holy Spirit.” Thanks to Adolf Deismann, a German pastor in 1890, scholars agreed that the New Testament writers used the spoken language of every daily life of the first century. As such, we can no longer privilege Greek and Hebrew language as divine languages. No natural language can be the divine language. Each natural or local language is God’s native tongue because (1) God is the “glocal” God (Paul Heibert in his Transforming Worldview uses term "glocal" for a global and yet a local entity) and (2) each natural language is equally adequate medium of divine and human discourses. Thus, Lai language is as holy and adequate medium of divine-human message as the original languages of the Bible. God speaks to us in a language we can understand.


The glocal God speaks the universal language. All natural languages culturally and semantically depend on the speech community of the language. Although human’s capability to understand and use language is God’s gift, local languages such as these are human inventions. Now, we are not talking about natural languages such as English, Korean, Lai and so on. We are talking about the language everyone understands. We are talking about the language, which transcends all cultural and linguistic boundaries. One example of such a universal language is love.




Different Kinds of Languages (in Genesis 3)


In Genesis chapter three, one finds such different kinds of languages as deception, accusation, lying, blaming, and cursing. These are actions done by the speakers in saying what they have said. The serpent uses the language of deception to entice the woman into eating the forbidden fruit. The conversation between the seductive serpent and the lying woman (she is not named Eve yet) records the first case of deception. It takes at least two interlocutors, more precisely, the speaker with deceptive motif and the hearer with subjective trust, for the deception to work. In other words, deception works only when the hearer is convinced; it will not be effective if the hear responds, “I do not believe.” The woman’s self-involvement makes the deception effective. What was so persuasive about the serpent’s speech was the woman’s individual desire to have the “knowledge of good and evil.”The sensual desires to gratify her felt-need prompted the woman to exercise her autonomous freedom. In addition to the knowledge of good and evil, humankind acquired the knowledge of fear and shame, the true fruits of deception.  One should be warned that the rhetoric of deception is more persuasive than the truth of God's word. The former leads to bondage while the latter to liberty. 


Adam and his wife used a language of blaming. In their attempt to justify actions, each one persistently passed blames to the other. Adam directly blamed his wife who in turn blamed the serpent. In doing so, they indirectly blamed God, their creator. They had everything essential for life and even for pleasure in the garden. But, their mistrust in God and his words betrayed this perfect condition. Even after been found guilty of disobedient, they could have played the language game of confession. Driven by their self-centered autonomy and righteousness, they started playing the game of blaming. We could understand them because, for all of us, to blame others is easier than to take personal responsibility and acknowledge divine authority. Even though passing the blame is our original sin, we all know that blaming game is not the cure for our alienation, anxiety, fear, and shame.


There is the language of cursing. The word “curse” first occurs in Genesis 3:14. We should notice three features of the curse speech. First, the verb “cursed” occurs in a third person singular passive voice, which means the doer of this action, that is, the user of this curse language, is neither mentioned nor identified. Second, a curse is spelled on the serpent and the ground. It should noted that God simply declared the verdict against Adam and his wife without the introductory formula, "Curse is...."  Third, God is the speaker in this curse speech. Does God curse? Maybe he does indirectly. God explicitly cursed in Genesis 5:29, "He [Noah] will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed." Cursed are the serpent, the ground, and some human beings. Deuteronomy 27:14-27 lists a kind of sins that put a man under God’s curse. If God curses, how are we going to understand the divine speech of curse with reference to God’s universal language of love?


Let us focus on the speech acts performed in Genesis 3:20-23.


Adam named his wife Eve. Name giving is a highly conventionalized social action. The name giver must have an appropriate status or position and must follow certain conventional procedures of giving name. Let say, a name-giver executes all the procedures, but the person does not have the appropriate status or position, the act of giving name cannot be official. The name giver’s status or position seems more important the name-giving ceremony. Adam named Eve after the Fall. It signals that Adam, the man, began to exercise his authority over Eve, the woman. Previously, Adam used the language of closeness, the language of intimate interpersonal relationship, when he said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . . for she was taken out of man" (Genesis 2:23). Now, he uses the language of distance, a non-interpersonal langue, in the third personal singular, “She would become the mother of all the living.” Distance and alienation is necessary for respecting individual autonomy, for which Adam and his wife sacrifice the perfect condition they had in the Garden. Freedom is necessary for human to be an individual person. Good as it is, self-autonomy also initiates self-destruction such as the Fall. Adam’s giving of name of his wife also signals that Eve’s role as a wife (husband-wife, marital relation) has started to fade; her role as a mother (mother-offspring, child beater image) has become highlighted. Such is the beginning of misunderstanding that the wife is the breading machine. The Fall introduces controls and distortions to human relations both within a marital relation and human society. In other words, the Fall desecrates the quality of covenantal relation among God, human, and the world.


God banished Humankind from Eden. Banishment is an exercise of authority by the speaker. A person in authority such as a king, prime minister, or pope can exercise the speech acts of banishment, exile, and excommunication. Here, God banished humankind from the Garden of Eden. This harsh banishment is God’s merciful act. Before banishing them, God made them a garment of skin. This is the first time the verb “make” reoccurs since Gen.2:1-4, which tells us that God rested from all his works of creating (making new things). God created a new clothe out of animal skin. The banishment was a necessity and an act of mercy. God does not want human being to live with the feeling of alienation, fear, anxiety, and shame forever. Such an eternal life of torture is not God’s perfect plan for humanity, the bearer of God’s image and likeness. Thus, banishment was necessary to prevent them from eating the tree of eternal life. God graciously did not allow the fallen human beings to live physically forever. In this respect, the banishment was God’s redemptive act. Moreover, it opens the first chapter of salvation history. In the language of banishment, we see that God’s acts of grace. God’s judgment and redemption go together. God does not punish for punishment’s sake; he has a redemptive act for each punishment. God speaks the language of love as well as the language of judgment. God’s mercy and love goes together with his justice and discipline. In this respect, one scholar says, "Paradise Lost, but Grace Regained." 


Let us reiterate our primary question: What language does God speak? God speaks the language that we understand. God does not only speak the natural languages of the world, but also the universal language of asserting something as true, commanding some future actions to be performed, committing himself into fulfilling his promises, declaring something into existence, and expressing his emotions. The universe in general and the Bible in particular is full of God’s speech acts. Thus, the question is not “Does God speak?” but “Do I attentive to God’s speech acts?”