The Prohibition on Witnessing God


One of the greatest differences between the depiction of humanity’s fall in the Vulgate Bible and the Old English poem Genesis B is the nature of Eve’s temptation by the snake. While in the Vulgate the snake tells Eve that upon eating the apple her “eyes shall be opened: and [she and Adam] shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil,” in Genesis B she is told that she will be able to “see afterward very widely across the whole world, and the throne of your master himself” (45). While in the Vulgate Eve is told she can become like God, in Genesis B the enticement is the ability to witness God. This creates a basis for a prohibition throughout much of the Bible–and indeed beyond, into texts like the Life of St Margeret in Corpus Christi and Tiberius–in which  anyone who does not fully believe is unable to bear witness to God.

In Genesis, the narrator describes the creation of the tower of Babel in the field of Shinar with the goal of reaching “upwards to the heavens” and creating “a beacon” (119). While this tower most obviously seeks to call attention to itself and assert its power as comparable to that of God, a byproduct of building a tower to heaven is the ability to see God. With this in mind, God’s response to the tower–of creating several mutually incomprehensible languages among the workmen–demonstrates the creation of a differend; the workers are suddenly no longer able to bear witness to what they have seen because they are operating on different levels of discourse (an idea driven home by Derrida’s emphasis on untranslatability). Interestingly, the same image of the tower of Babel is later referenced in the poem Daniel–Nebuchadnezar “saw the city of Babylon towering high, encompassing the broad field of Shinar”, a boast which God punished with madness. The clear link between the stories is the pride of people placing themselves level with God. However, more than hubris, this leveling also implies a mutual witnessing occurring between God and the unfaithful. However in both cases, this is punished by God making testimony impossible, creating an impenetrable differend. This is in comparison to the faithful who are rewarded with witnessing God but whose faith is not built on that experience. 

Even in The Life of St. Margaret there is a prohibition on witnessing God without the proper faith and holiness. Margaret’s executioner says that he cannot kill her because “God spoke to you in front of me”, meaning that he witnessed their interaction and empirically knew God existed. The executioner then is forced to execute Margaret, before killing himself. This, alongside any other questions it might bring up, means that he cannot testify to anyone else about what he has heard or seen of God, unlike a saint. 

This idea of witnessing God creates a few interesting implications. For example, once Adam and Eve have both eaten the apple, they are  no longer able to see God. Instead they are aware of their own nakedness, shame, pain, suffering and the capacity in the world for evil. Taken from the perspective of the Vulgate, if eating the apple allows Adam and Eve to become God’s equals, does the ability to witness and judge make them Godlike, since witnessing is the role of God alone? 

God can be understood in some ways as the witness who witnesses the witnesses (Niemand in Celan’s line “Niemand zeugt den Zeuge”), as discussed by Derrida in the Poetics and Politics of Witnessing. Derrida says that the secret at the heart of any testimony of whether or not the witness is acting in good faith cannot be witnessed and, for this reason, hearing testimony is a matter of faith rather than reason. If God is understood to be omnipotent and a universal witness, he would know this secret at the heart of any testimony. If God does fill this role, then Derrida’s discussion of the subjectivity of witnessing–of witnessing as inherently impossible to prove–falls apart as God, even if no one else,  objectively knows a witness’ inner thoughts. However, belief in God is also a matter of faith–even if he knows the secret at the heart of any testimony, God’s insistence on remaining unwitnessed seems to ensure that religion must be a matter of faith. The secret is de facto still secret and a question of faith, except that this time it is a question of faith in God rather than faith in the other person’s good word. 

With this is mind, God’s seeming insistence on remaining unwitnessed by the unworthy has a possible explanation. God’s power as a universal witness comes from the ability to know things that cannot be known by any human, like the oath at the heart of any witnessing, and if God’s existence could be confirmed, witnessing becomes no longer a matter of faith and God’s power is reduced. It must be simultaneously true that no one witnesses the witness and that God witnesses the witness in order to give God superhuman power. And for this contradiction, it is important for God to remain a matter of faith. There can be no concrete proof that God exists except to those who already believed, so any attempt to prove whether God exists is mediated by the subjectivity of the martyr bearing witness.  This also explains the etymological connection between martyrdom and witnessing–only the martyrs are able to truly witness God.

image source: Wikipedia contributors, “The Tower of Babel (Bruegel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 22, 2022).


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