God’s presence is seemingly imperceptible to the human mind in Genesis. Both Adam and Cain commit their respective sins in God’s absence, though He is innately aware of their wrongdoing before they even confess it. God arrives at the Garden of Eden after Eve and Adam have consumed the fruit from the Tree of Death, “to find out what his children might be doing;” (Genesis A 852). Upon his arrival, he immediately notes that “those to whom he had earlier given beauty were undone” (Ibid.). No confession or witness is necessary for Him to recognize their actions, even those committed in his apparent absence. As an all-powerful and all-seeing divine being, God’s awareness is all that is required to serve as witness and jury.
God’s omnipotence is constant, even in his moments of selective vision. While God “beheld Abel’s offering with his eyes, Cain’s oblation he would not look at” (Genesis A 967). Nonetheless, God is all too aware of the ensuing act of fratricide. God confronts the guilty sinner and recounts his actions, condemning Cain and once again showcasing His limitless vision: “with your hostile hands you’ve tucked the faithful man, your brother, into a bed of slaughter, and his blood calls and cries out to me’” (XVII 1002).
God similarly confronts Adam, pressing him into confessing a crime he is already aware of.
“How do you know woe, and clothe your shame, see sorrow, and over your body with leaves, speak of life’s anxiety, abject and sad minded, say that you are in need of clothing, unless you have tasted an apple from the tree which I forbade to you in words?” (XV 872)
Though God arrives after the sin was committed, the sight of Adam and Eve’s newly learned shame is proof enough of their actions. God thus enlightens man of the extent of his timeless awareness, which exceeds that of the mortal mind. This renders both Adam and Cain unable to hide their actions and demonstrates how God transcends physical presence or existence—at least, within the limits of what is perceptible by the human mind––as an all-powerful and all-seeing divine being whose word and testimony serves as irrefutable truth.
While Odysseus is no God, he emulates His limitless power through the impossible task of personifying Nobody in his battle against the cyclops Polyphemus in the Odyssey. As a hero renowned for his wit and manipulation, Odysseus’ decision to identify himself as Nobody is representative of his heroic feats in Homeric epics. As a part of his elaborate plan to best the creature, Odysseus informs Polyphemus that “Nobody is my name. My father and mother call me Nobody, as do all the others who are my companions” (Odyssey IX.363-366). The hero describes his actions as one of “beguilement” (Ibid.) and rightly so–by newly assuming the identity of Nobody, Odysseus disconnects himself from his earthly connections, severing the clues that hint toward his true identity as a legendary hero and king.
Nobody gains power in his ambiguity, allowing him to remain as an unidentifiable yet immediate threat to the harried Polyphemus. Polyphemus’ pleas for help are unanswered by his fellow cyclopes, who dismiss Nobody due to a confusion of semantics. “If alone as you are none uses violence on you, why, where is no avoiding the sickness sent by great Zeus” (Genesis IX. 410-411), they reply, mistaking his troubles as those caused by an amorphous cause such as sickness. The resulting confusion denies Polyphemus of the support he rightfully deserves, facilitating Odysseus and his crew’s successful escape.
By adopting the identity of Nobody, Odysseus summarily exaggerates his size and prowess. His suffering in the epic only begins when he voluntarily reveals his true identity to Polyphemus, triggering the Curse of Poseidon that plagues him for the rest of his journey to Ithaca. However, his invention of Nobody allows him to occupy a similar role as Genesis’ God in their immaterial yet powerful influence over mortal judgment. In his habitation of Nobody, Odysseus proceeds to physically blind the unwitting cyclopes. Just as God sees beyond Cain’s capabilities, Odysseus’ assault allows him to see what Polyphemus now cannot. Odysseus the hero is a mortal, yet Nobody the attacker awards him the power of the superhuman ambiguity and heightened awareness by comparison necessary to best a cyclops in battle.
God, in His omnipresence, occupies everything despite his lack of physical form. Odysseus, in emulating Nobody, simulates this omnipotence albeit on a more temporary level. Despite their obvious differences, God and Nobody hold power due to their formless omnipotence. This allows them to intervene in moments of conflict and wrongdoing, and exert the forces of damnation and control over others.
Amorphous omnipotence influences witnessing, or the lack thereof. In Genesis, God serves as the witness, judge, and executioner of man. In the Odyssey, Odysseus deprives Polyphemus of third-party witnesses in the form of his fellow Cyclopes. By acting as or taking away witnesses, the two figures condemn their inferiors into suffering. Yet their characteristic lack of existence within the parameters of human recognition designates their amorphous omnipotence is an example of Lyotard’s Differend, an “unstable state and instant of language in which therein something which must be able to put into phrases cannot yet be” (Lyotard 22). By extension, God’s position as an ultimate, earthly witness is jeopardized.
Testimony as explained by Jacques Derrida is flawed on account of being human. This incompleteness is hinted at throughout his work, Poetics and Politics of Witnessing. Because “as soon as it is guaranteed, certain as a theoretical proof, a testimony can no longer be guaranteed as testimony” (Derrida 68), such a concept as the all-powerful, infallible witness as that provided by God fails to qualify as testimony. Furthermore, the testimony of man has an amorphous, physical component: in reference to Lyotard’s the Differend, Derrida asserts that “the one who testifies is the one who will have been present” (74). The spiritual omnipresence of God prevents this, owing to his lack of immediate, tangible presence as a witness.
God in the medieval, Christian context does not exist in reality as we understand it. He exists beyond the linear procession of time as understood by the human mind. Our failure to understand the reaches of God’s witnessing happens precisely due to the limitations of our mortal understanding of “witness” and “testimony” as asserted by Derridean logic. While God may be a witness on His own level, His statements are too perfect and unflawed to be considered human testimony; His godly witness would be more accurately interpreted as divine testament.
It is here that we open further discussion on our findings so far: is amorphous omnipotence an appropriate means to describe godly witness? Is it acceptable as an example of the Differend, and how does it impact the relationship between God and the Derridean Witness?
Anlezark, Daniel. “Genesis.” Old Testament Narratives, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011, pp. 65–75.
Derrida, Jacques. Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy), Fordham University Press, New York, NY, 2005, pp. 65–96.
Homer. The Odyssey of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore, Harper & Row, 1967.
Jordaens, Jacob. Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus. Moscow, 1635.