Saturday, February 28, 2015

Whence the view that words have innate power?

"According to a number of biblical scholars the spoken word in ancient Israel 'is never an empty sound but an operative reality whose action cannot be hindered once it has been pronounced'" (Thiselton on Hermeneutics, p. 53; the quoted material is from Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, 1958). He provides a list of authors, including Jacob, von Rad, Zimmerli, Eichrodt, Ringgren, Knight, even Bultmann!

I don't know about you, but that list includes most of the people on my Old Testament Theology bibliography from when I took it in 1983. No wonder I adopted the idea that words have innate power! It was in the air I breathed. But that doesn't make it right...

"What are we to say about such an attitude towards language and words? Von Rad implies that this primitive outlook offers a positively richer view of language than that found in modern Western culture. He comments, 'One could ask whether language has not become impoverished because it has lost functions which at an earlier cultural level had once belonged to it.' (von Rod Old Testament Theology 2:81)...But the verdict forced upon us by modern general linguistics since the work of Saussure is that far from being 'richer', such a view of words is simply wrong." (Thiselton, 56–57)
Thiselton proceeds to lay out four criticisms (58–66), but I'm only going to mention two of them: the second and third. You'll have to read the article/chapter for yourself to get the other two : )
The nature of the second problem has not, it seems, been clearly recognized. Arguments are put forward about the nature of words in general on the basis of passages which speak not about words as such but about words which have been uttered usually by a god or sometimes by a king or a prophet. But such arguments break down if words that have been spoken by Yahweh, or by Marduk, or by Atum or Khnum, are in practice regarded as 'power-laden' not because of the supposed nature of words in general, but precisely because these words proceed from the mouth of a god. We suggest that a generalizing argument has misleadingly been put forward on the basis of selected paradigms of a very special nature. (p. 60, emphasis original)
Did you catch that? Most of the examples usually cited for the innate/magical power of words in the ancient world and the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were spoken either by gods or by people in authority who could give substance to the words. Yep, that's right. They had the power to make them stick. The words had a derived authority, not an innate one.

The third criticism has to do with what is called speech act theory (you'll have to look that one up on your own; it's way too involved to explain right now!). Here's what he says about blessings and curses specifically, since that is what triggered this whole excursion in the first place:

First, most writers stress that the effectiveness of blessing and cursing depends in a large measure both on the strength and status of the speaker who pronounces the blessing, and also on the receptivity of the person who is being blessed. In other words, the 'power' of the pronouncement is by no means automatic. Indeed, Murtonen believes that the reason why Isaac did not try to recall his blessing from Jacob was not because of word-magic, but because, on the one hand, he believed that Jacob rather than Esau had 'ability to hold what was promised to him', and on the other hand, already 'God himself was called upon as the final authority.' Thus Murtonen convincingly argues that a supposition about word-magic 'does not seem necessary' (Murtonen, VT 9 [1959], 158–77). (Thiselton, p. 63)
I'm not sure I buy Murtonen's explanation, but that isn't the point, as Thiselton says. What matters is that falling back to the magical power of words isn't necessary. Here's another extended quotation:
Seen from one viewpoint, a blessing is supposedly power-laden if and when it is the blessing of God. But even if we leave theological beliefs in Israel out of account, we are still left with the concept of blessings and cursings as performative utterance which do things on the basis of conventional procedures in which the appropriate persons take part. Pronouncements by prophets or kings may now be seen in this double light. They are effective because they are spoken by someone in authority, and may often take the form of performative utterance. (p. 64)
And a final parting shot, "The words themselves effect an award, a sentence, or a commitment. But they no more depend on primitive notions of word-magic than a modern judge and jury do when their words actually consign a man to prison or to freedom." (p. 64, emphasis original)

I think that last line sums it all up. Words do have power, no doubt about it. But they do not have innate or magical power. Their power is because of who spoke them and context in which they were spoken.

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