The Story of Language and the Body

The biblical story can be told as if the plot were one that took as a main theme the relationship of language and the body. It is a story with intricate twists and turns which is told and retold in the account in which we now have it. It is plural even in its beginning. In the first version (Genesis 1.1-2.4a) God speaks creation into existence. God’s language creates human bodies and the story begins with the precedence of language before bodies. In the second version (Genesis 2.4b-25) God forms a human (ʿādām) from the ground (ʿǎdāmâ) and the animating action is not words but breath; the precedence is reversed. Language only enters the second story with God’s expectation about what humans are allowed to eat. God speaks to let the humans know what they may take into their bodies. After the fall and decline of human civilization God begins again. God does away with all flesh, save a representative of every creature (Genesis 7). In response to this destruction of flesh God gives a promise―God’s words―that God will never bring this level of destruction upon living creatures again. God also gives a law which allows humans to now eat all living creatures but requires that the life of the creature, which is now located in its blood, be respected. Words take a new prominence in regulating the body with Noah, but the body is still the only concern of these words. These three creation accounts each figure the relationship of language to the body slightly differently.
Questions of language become God’s sole concern upon a plain in the land of Shinar (Genesis 11) as God recognizes that the unity of human language and the challenges and affronts this unity pose to God. This lack of difference and the violence inherent therein require God’s intervention and language becomes plural/confused. The plurality restored to language at Babel is then coupled by the particularization of the covenant with Hagar, Sarai→Sarah and Abram→Abraham. This particularity is marked on the male body by circumcision (Genesis 17.10). In this part of the story, which in its own way is a fourth beginning, the focus is on plurality of language and the particularity of the body.
In the next part of this story, the plot thickens as Moses receives two gifts. God gives both God’s name and the law as gifts which reveal to humanity who God is. In the giving of God’s name ( e͗hyeh a͗šer e͗hyeh) God reveals Godself to be a God who is what God does. The self-referential action orientated nature of God’s name points to the plurality of God’s body. In the giving of the law God expects the same of God’s people. The words of the law become the life of the Israelites. In the law the focus on language moves from plurality to particularity. A second reversal happens and the focus is now on the particularity of language and the plurality of the body.
God’s strategies for relating to humanity to this point are both particular and plural and happen through both language and the body. The prominence of language or the body is observable at one or another point in the story but not resolved. God’s strategies are careful and nuanced, but things aren’t going very well. From fall to flood, from the gifts of green plants to the gift of flesh, from the single command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to the Noahide code to the decalogue, God is more and more specific and lenient and humanity and then its chosen nation Israel only show an inability to follow God.
A radical shift occurs much later in Ezekiel where language and the body are combined. Ezekiel receives words from God but the point is not to follow them but to digest them. Ezekiel is faced with the particularly difficult challenge of how to incorporate God’s words. Language here becomes a body and Ezekiel’s body becomes the host, in a new way, for God’s words. In the incarnation God continues to act along this radical trajectory by decisively bringing together body and language as the Word becomes flesh. The law which was once written on tablets of stone is now written on the hearts of the followers of Christ.

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