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“It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
From the opening words of the Bible (Revised Standard Version) to its closing ‘Amen,’ the power of language is highlighted as a central aspect of the text. Among the many narrators and across both Old and New Testaments remain the words of God. Necessary to receive these words and therefore intrinsically tied in a kind of listening covenant, are God’s followers. The words of God become speech acts bearing awesome powers. Perhaps the greatest of these is the power to create. Moments of creation provide especially important forays into the world of words. The notion that a speech can not only be but make concrete reality is one of the Bible’s strongest selling points. After all, the Bible is a linguistic vehicle for spirituality, a space where words must create realities of their own, albeit less concrete than the world itself. In the narrative path of the Bible, the focus on God’s words moves away from their power to create concrete objects. This is replaced by an intense attention to the words themselves, to the beauty of hearing them spoken, and the importance of finding salvation through them. The power of God’s words is in their potential for eternal meaning as much as their ability to create through speech acts. The ensuing discussion of language will focus on the opening chapters of Genesis to the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation, the literal ‘first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ (Rev. 5:6). These two sections are not only relevant to a discussion of language because they begin and end the book, but because the book begins and ends by hailing the power of words.
From the outset, the creation story in Genesis establishes a unique and amazing power in God’s words. The reader participates in the gradual building of the world, word for word. It seems that God speaks as soon as he possibly can. The sequence of events in these beginning moments sets the foundation for an emphasis on God’s voice. It is an important first step that ‘In the beginning, God’ did not speak, but ‘created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1) The book does not start with a speech act, but a silent act of creation. Every creation that follows this one, including Adam, will be produced by God’s words. But for now, the silence continues, eerily visualized in the image of ‘The earth…without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep’ (Gen. 1:2). The ‘void,’ ‘darkness,’ and ‘deep’ paint a kind of echoing cave of nothingness. This is a space poised for the entrance of a voice that will fill it with both sound and form, simultaneously. This grants the speech act its stage. A list of creations begins with the now familiar ‘And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light’ (Genesis 1:3). The speech act establishes its pure, even obvious power in the simple structure of this sentence. The words of God stand parallel the enactment of those words, separated by the semicolon. This is an almost mathematical equation, a kind of perfect symmetry of words to the life they create.
The outcome of this equation is a stunning revelation. God’s words = life. This conclusion will be firmly entrenched in the mind of the reader after the many repetitions of its equation fill the chapter with more new words, the earth with more new life. Even though God had ‘created the heavens and the earth’ in Genesis I:I, it should be noted that it was only after his speech act has been repeated many times over and thus given life to his creation that the ‘heavens and earth were finished’ (Genesis I:2). The silent birth of the same heavens and the same earth was not enough. It was God’s words, and thus God’s creations, that completed the universe. A privileged relationship is established between God, his words, and their products. God’s words deliver life and his creations provide the ears. Those who listen do not only hear God’s voice, but find redemption when encountering the force that gave them life. These listeners will become churchgoers and Bible-readers for centuries to come. In order to qualify the words when spoken by a mere mortal, or printed on a flimsy page, the establishment of God’s voice must go through a transformation that will adequately glorify his words.
In Revelation, this transformation from voice to words has been completed. The book reminds the reader in its own opening phrases that ‘Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear’ (Revelation, I:3). This idea of an exchange of words and willing ears between God and his blessed creations is therefore a common thread between these two books. In these opening lines from Revelation, the presence of a reader as opposed to God speaking represents a shift from the booming voice of God to the words themselves. The words without the actual voice of God retain the power of blessing through speech. The words themselves, even those that are ‘written’ (Rev, 1:3) have become an equally crucial force for deliverance. The phrase ‘He who has an ear,’ (Rev. 2:17, 3:22, 13:9) is repeated enough to remind that the speaking and hearing of God’s word is a blessed exchange. The voice of God is by no means less powerful. God is still absolutely present and central in Revelation. But the importance of his words has been increased. This must have something to do with the form of the Bible itself. Outside of the few mortals who actually speak with God, such as prophets and saints, a reader of the bible will have only God’s words to carry them and inspire life in them with their power.
This subtle shift from the voice to God’s words was already beginning in Genesis. The process of naming is as much of the work of early Genesis as the speech act. To emphasize naming is to highlight the importance of the way God chooses to call his creatures, in other words, the original words of God. The formula for the speech act comes to include this naming moment, which is repeated methodically with each creation. We see how what ‘God called’ something must be included to make the world complete. After separating the light from the darkness, ‘God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night’ (Gen.1:5). It is only after God has named the light and the darkness that it passes. This first naming is therefore a kind of speech act, as just afterward the first night and morning actually pass with ‘there was evening and there was morning, one day’ (Gen 1:5). As Genesis continues, the presence of naming does not diminish, and contributes to the progress of language as a central theme. Interestingly, when God decides to ‘make a helper’ for Adam and forms ‘every beast of the field and every bird of the air,’ he brings Adam forth to do the naming. This can be seen as an early instance of the burden, or blessing of words being placed into the hands of man. It is the very beginnings of a tradition that allows the Bible to exist by defending the right of humans to create foundational words (under God’s supervision, of course). Adam then ‘[gives] names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field’ (Gen. 2:20).
Note that when it is not God speaking, the details of what these names are become suddenly less important and are not included. This is a subtle reminder that although man can appropriate the act of speaking and naming, he is by no means the equivalent of the voice of God.Revelation shows the conclusion of the language development to be a state wedded to the words of God as much as his voice. The word ‘words’ appears often, usually from the mouth of God himself, in reminders of just how important these words are. God says ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true,’ (Gen.21:5) and the importance of the word takes on the aspect of writing. In this vein, ‘the words of the prophecy of this book,’ (Rev.22:7) is a phrase that becomes central to Revelation. The phrase is never simply ‘the prophecy of this book’ but always specifies ‘the words.’ This process becomes even more specifically focused on words in the end of Revelation. In a kind of security procedure, some of the final moments represent a kind of Biblical copyright. There is a warning to ‘every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book,’ (Rev. 22:18) bringing back this privileged relationship between the words and those who hear them. The narration distinctly protects the exact words of this prophecy, warning ‘if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book’ (Rev. 22:18). Clearly, the bible represents one giant perfect statement, impossible to revise. Here, the addition of ‘described in this book’ reminds readers that the important words of the world are contained here, where they have been recorded from God’s mouth, the source of all life.
Revelation itself is a word that belongs to the bible, which reveals the supposed explanation for the way the world functions. From its very beginnings, the world was incomplete without a linguistic explanation. In Genesis, this explanation was the voice of God as he named his creatures. The Bible accounts for all those who will not hear the voice of God. It extracts his words, and inhabits this role. From Genesis forward, the words of God spark the words of the Bible. There is a long and detailed process in the development of the language theme that comes to a satisfying closure as the book gets near its end. By the closing of Revelation, the Bible has thoroughly entrenched itself as a set of words as divine as the words of God. This is a book that claims to be the linguistic explanation for the world. Revelation does crucial promotional work for the rest of the Bible by firmly entrenching the reign of language. Even in this defense of the written prophecy, there is a powerful reminder of God’s voice and God’s totality. His powerful claim to be ‘the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end,’ puts him into every word we have read, every inch of this book. As it draws to a close, this is a beautiful way of imbuing the written word with that original power of God’s voice, which never lost and will never lose its majesty.
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