Tongues of Fire: Of Babel and Its Excesses

What is it for a tongue, a langue, to fall down in prostration, in worship? Can a tongue be coerced? Can a tongue be destroyed in a blazing furnace?

And the herald called out loudly: “To you it is said, peoples, nations, and tongues! When you hear the sound of … all kinds of music, you shall fall down and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down at once shall be cast into the furnace of blazing fire.” Therefore, when they would hear the sound of … all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations, and tongues would at once worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up (Daniel 3:4-7, Robert Alter).

It is certainly the case that such a phrase as “‘Ammaya ‘ummaya wə-lishanaya…,” (“O peoples, tribes and tongues…”) is a formality, a formula. One is reminded of other formulas of address. Andres, adelphoi…” (“Men, brethren…”) of the Acts of the Apostles. “Koh ‘amar YHWH…” (“Thus says the Lord…”) of the Torah. The Greek and Hebrew formulas differ from the Aramaic in that they invoke the relation between speaker and addressee, for they are a negotiation, in the case of the Greek, and a declaration, in the case of the Hebrew, of power. But the herald’s cry invokes no such negotiation or declaration. Rather, the formula assumes the speaker’s power over its addressee. Leaving this relation unspoken itself makes room for language to speak.

A relationship of violence acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks on the wheel, it destroys, or it closes the door on all possibilities. Its opposite pole can only be passivity, and if it comes up against any resistance, it has no other option but to try to minimize it. On the other hand, a power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship: that “the other” (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts; and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up (Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” 1982).

The scenario of Daniel 3 represents the opening up of such a field in the very act of attempting to close it off. The herald first must speak: “To you it is said, peoples, nations and tongues!” Thus the attempt to coerce language must simultaneously recognize and bring forth these hetero-glossia, these other tongues.

Though it would indeed be difficult to speak (to be heard) above the din of the cultic orchestra, the text presents an attempt to impose a regime not so much over speech and the ability to speak (parole), but upon languages (that is, tongues) as language (langue). Langue itself must fall (nephal) and worship (cegid) the golden image that has been set up in the valley of Duwra, in the province of Babel, an image which stands as an empty signifier in the biblical text, a myth without content. Identified with Nebuchadnezzar, who makes it “erect” (érigée, as André Chouraqui translates it), the image may be seen as a sort of phallic signifier, in Lacan’s verbiage, a grasping after the ungraspable, virtual “big Other” which emerges as what governs the desire of the mother and which points to the anonymous power-knowledge behind the social order. Why does Nebuchadnezzar erect the image? It is of course an attempt at phallic mastery, but what’s more, an attempt by one who is already in the place of master. Within the Daniel text, Nebuchadnezzar as master repeatedly moves in tension with God (‘elahh) as Master, exemplified most pointedly in chapter 4 as Nebuchadnezzar is stripped of his humanity “till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will,” a refrain of the book of Daniel. The signifier of the golden image, this imago-Gestalt which like the mirror image of the infant represents to the child a seeming wholeness of ego, is an object in which Nebuchadnezzar misrecognizes a reflection of a unitary and autonomous ego, the erect “I”. Rather than recognizing this imago as virtual and the ego as a congealed, crystallized collection of foreign elements, Nebuchadnezzar imagines the image as an extension of his autonomous master-self. The “I”-image in the valley of Duwra (“dwelling,” from the idea of circular movement and thus aptly signifying a self-identical completeness) is empty of any signified ostensibly because the autonomous “I” means only itself (“I AM”): as a vacuum it is assumed to attract the prostrated adoration of the Other, even the Other of language, without internalizing it.

Le “non” de Babel

The erection of this “I”-image can be understood as a recapitulation of another attempt to assert a regime over language which occurs in the same place, Babel, long before. Jacques Derrida takes up the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 as a way into a treatment of “the irreducible multiplicity of idioms, the necessary and impossible task of translation, its necessity as impossibility” (“Des Tours de Babel,” 1985). In so doing, Derrida examines the meaning of “Babel” as both proper name, “Babel,” and common noun, “confusion.” Citing Voltaire, who notes that in the Semitic tongues, ba signifies “father” and bel signifies “god,” meaning that Babel “signifies the city of God, the holy city,” Derrida adds that Babel’s signification as “confusion” itself appears in two senses: the confusion of language and the confused state of the tower of Babel’s architects. Thus confusion already inheres in “Babel” as a sign.

Whereas Nebuchadnezzar erects an “I”-image, the people of Shine’ar attempt to erect a “We”-image. Derrida reads from Chouraqui’s translation of the account:

And it is all the earth: a single lip, one speech.
And it is at their departure from the Orient: they find a canyon, in the land of Shine’ar.
They settle there.
They say, each to his like:
“Come, let us brick some bricks.
Let us fire them in the fire.”
The brick becomes for them stone, the tar, mortar.
They say:
“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower.
Its head: in the heavens.
Let us make ourselves a name,
that we not be scattered over the face of all the earth.”

YHWH descends to see the city and the tower
that the sons of man have built.
YHWH says:
“Yes! A single people, a single lip for all:
that is what they begin to do! …
Come! Let us descend! Let us confound their lips,
man will no longer understand the lip of his neighbor.”

Derrida proposes that above all, the reason for God’s punishment of the people of Shine’ar is “for having wanted thus to make a name for themselves, to give themselves the name, to construct for and by themselves their own name, to gather themselves there (“that we no longer be scattered”), as in the unity of a place which is at once a tongue and a tower, the one as well as the other, the one as the other.” Thus the story climaxes in the descent of God and his confusing the people by pronouncing a name for himself, Ba-BelFather-God, upon the city:

YHWH disperses them from here over the face of all the earth.
They cease to build the city.
over which he proclaims his name: Bavel, Confusion,
for there, YHWH confounds the lip of all the earth,
and from there YHWH disperses them over the face of all the earth.

“Babel” appears as both a patronym and a common noun, translated by the Hebrew writer as “confusion.” As Derrida puts it, God the Father is thus located at the origin of language as its source and as its deconstructor/disseminator:

Babel means not only confusion in the double sense of the word, but also the name of the father, more precisely and more commonly, the name of God as name of the father. The city would bear the name of God the father and of the father of the city that is called confusion.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis the Oedipal child who seeks to make itself the principle love-object of the mother, is confronted by the intervention of the symbolic father, the proclamation of social order which tames the desires of the mother: this Law is termed le nom du père, the name of the father. This nom is also the “non!” of the father, the Law which says “no” to being the only love-object of one’s mother, the only Thing she desires. Thus through the castration complex the child is subjected into the social order. Derrida is no doubt aware of this usage when he points out that Babel is “the name of God as name of the father,” he who confronts the people of Shine’ar with le “non” du père dans le nom du père.

Thus, in a resounding “non!”, God disrupts the people and deconstructs the tower and the idea of a universal tongue (lip). Importantly, the pronouncement of Babel deconstructs both the tower and the tongue insofar as it deconstructs itself, simultaneously constraining, forbidding, disseminating and (under)writing language: “And the war that he declares has first raged within his name,” Derrida writes: “divided, bifid, ambivalent, polysemic: God deconstructing.”

Heteroglossia speaks

So Nebuchadnezzar’s statue is quite vividly a kind of repetition, a recapitulation of the old Babelian attempt to colonize all language and all lineage in itself. Just as the tower of Babel story occurs of a piece with the tabular genealogies of the sons of Noah, (“…the sons of Javeth/Ham/Shem for their clans, for their tongues, in their lands, for their peoples…”) and thereby entails, as Derrida points out, the desire for a universal, colonizing tongue and lineage; so Nebuchadnezzar’s command extends ostensibly to all peoples, nations and tongues, insofar as Babylon constitutes a totality; as Daniel himself says to the king in the following chapter, “Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth.” These peoples, nations and tongues (unlike those of Javeth and Shem hailed by the sons of Ham long before) have already been violently coerced into Babylon’s imperial mastery. The satraps, prefects, governors, counselors treasurers, justices, magistrates and provincial officials whom the herald hails have been materially benefited with authority under the regime, yet through the violence of siege and displacement (Daniel 1:1-6). Unlike the Babel of Nebuchadnezzar’s forefathers, the tower, as it were, is already built. The only thing left to grasp and force into obeisance is language itself, that is, the Other of language.

We have already watched this fail, for the irreducible multiplicity of tongues has already been invoked and acknowledged. The tower is always already deconstruct(ed/ing). Thus the resort to violence: “And whoever does not fall down at once shall be cast into the furnace of blazing fire” (3:6). This furnace, this hyperbole of violence, is itself a kind of extension of Nebuchadnezzar’s “I”-image, a desire that language, if disobedient, should be incinerated totally within himself, that is, brought to nothing, or else purified of all but the “I” which grasps it and which signifies only itself indefinitely, without difference, without deferral.

The exercise of power, as Foucault observes, inevitably brings forth the acting Other, since it does not act on bodies but on actions or the potential for action. The mechanism of violence, which acts on bodies or things, must follow the act of resistance or precipitate it. Here marks the turn to violence.

Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews (v. 8, ESV).

The Aramaic denotes that the Chaldeans came, devouring and chewing on the Jews (Chouraqui renders it s’approchent pour manger la chair des Iehoudîm, “…they approached to eat the flesh of the Jews”). These Jews have already counter-acted the decree: “These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Nebuchadnezzar’s response identifies him with the furnace, for he literally “burns in rage”: an affront to the image is an affront to himself.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego are brought forward and threatened with fire. Nebuchadnezzar notably gives the men one last chance to capitulate:

“Now if you are ready … to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

It is easy to kill a body. But it is more than bodies present here. The impossibility of incinerating and nullifying language on the one hand, and of threatening and coercing language on the other, confronts Nebuchadnezzar at this moment. Before him stand these hetero-glossia, these others which have been grafted into Babylon but whose identity, along with the other-tongues they bring to bear, leak through and already precede them. Before they answer, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego are already not-Babylonian, their names not-Aramaic. Beneath Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego lie Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (and even in the biblical text, the name Abed-nego, a deliberate corruption by the Jewish scribes of Abed-Nabu (“servant of Nabu”), destabilizes its non-identity in the other direction, not toward Hebrew but toward meaninglessness (toward babble?); the name Abed-nego functions here inversely to the function of Babel in Genesis 11, in that its meaning as a proper noun forecloses translation, but surgically, in such a way as to avoid naming any god but God: as a word it casts its seed upon the ground, but nevertheless writes meaning in its non-meaning).

As with reading, so with writing: we cannot get beyond language. All systems of thought trying to arrive at truth are bound by their textuality. As texts they are subject to the disruptive effects of language, the suspension and the Otherness and the excess and the oscillation of meaning. Despite every attempt to be direct, clear, and univocal, that is, singular in point and purpose, we cannot eradicate the Other from our discourse. There is always an excess of meaning. Traces of something Other inevitably remain (Danna Nolan Fewell, “Achsah and the (E)razed City of Writing,” Judges and Method, 1995).

“It isn’t necessary for us to answer you one word about it,” say the three, as Chouraqui renders it, a sentence contradicting itself even as it unfolds. For they have already been answering. Language has already been answering.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”

A specter is haunting Babel. Within this moment does the name of the father appear again, pointing beyond, pointing back, back to Babel, back to itself, back beyond itself: the specter of confusion, insisting that language speak.

The Jews emerge unscathed.

And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them.

It is literally “the fire had not ruled over their bodies.” The fourth figure is seen no more. Nebuchadnezzar is spooked. He stands, here by the furnace and the image, beside himself, ecstatic; he raves, blessing the God of the Jews and stumbling now into another threat toward language, this time as a clown, a buffoon:

“Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.”

One can no more tear language limb from limb than burn it in a furnace of blazing flame. Sheer babble, nonsense.

“Tongues as of fire”

The fire is so hot when Nebuchadnezzar’s men cast the Jews into the flames that its tongues leap out and kill Nebuchadnezzar’s mighty men. The hyperbole, the excess of the furnace overflows its bounds, tongues leaping out and escaping the grasp of power. For who can grasp a burning flame?

The God of Babel is a God of language. And language is a fire. Language is a ghost in the fire of Nebuchadnezzar’s image-furnace-self, but it retains its excess as the church begins to be written, as it begins to write itself:

And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” (Acts 2:2-7).

Hetero-glossia here rest on each apostle, as God descended upon the tower in Shine’ar: A single people, a single lip for all: that is what they begin to do! Come! Let us descend! Let us confound their lips, man will now be able to understand the lip of his neighbor. We observe an inverse movement in this renewed Babel act: whereas the former Babel foreclosed understanding by exploding language and imposing the impossibility of translation, the new Babel, in the recognition of lack, enables understanding by in-flaming language anew. The glossia, these tongues, are like fire, and these tongues are fire. The new Babel, this Babel-of-blessing as contrasted with the former Babel-of-cursing, produces its share of confusion, both in the Pentecostal audience and later within the church, prompting Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 to treat at length the subject of interpretation within the assembly (not translation, which remains, at bottom, an impossible imposition). Thus, the legacy of both Babels coexist: the need for interpretation is coextensive with the excess of language.

There is no grasping fire, not for the God who speaks it to craft the universe, whose signature explodes it into ever-differing supplement, whose breath invigorates rather than restrains its excess for the sake of understanding, who commands his prophets to “write therefore the things that you have seen” and whose Word, the coming King, promises: “I will write on him [who overcomes] the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.”


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