In two minutes Abraham Lincoln changed the world. Using less than 500 words, he shaped the history of a nation. His Gettysburg address is one of the great examples of the power of words.
The Bible has always embodied this power. In the opening verses of Genesis, how does God create the world? Through words. “God said, ‘Let there be light’—and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).
This pattern of God speaking and creation coming into being continues. The sky, the waters, the earth literally come into being through God’s words.
How Jewish Sages Answered the Bible’s Most Important Question
The Jewish sages used the power of words to answer a core biblical question. In Genesis 1:26, we read those famous words, “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.”
While these words are sublime, they are ambiguous. What does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God?
While God creates the natural world through words, we create our social world through them, using language to name our surroundings and fellow human beings, to establish relationships, and to articulate the basic concepts that give our lives order.
How Words Work
Words give us a notion of past, present, and future. Words give us a way to describe and give meaning to our bodies, our surroundings, our sense of self.
This concept may seem difficult, even preposterous. Like breathing, language seems to come naturally to us. It seems as if it has always been with us. We usually don’t pay attention to its presence, and we forget the time and effort it took to attain it.
Yet, as the parent of young children, I am lucky enough to witness constantly the way words create new worlds of experience.
Learning words for different colors, for example, lets my daughter see the world, literally, in a different light. Discovering words to describe her feelings gives those emotions greater depth and meaning.
Language Is Not Just Words
When discussing the concepts of words and language, I am referring not only to words spoken with our mouths. Language can be communicated in a variety of ways, and each of them has a creative power.
We find a beautiful illustration of this phenomenon in the life of Helen Keller. Keller learned sign language from her tutor Anne Sullivan, and in her book, My Religion, she described the difference between the time before and the time after she learned it.
“For nearly six years,” she writes, “I had no concept of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. . . . Then, suddenly. . . . I awoke to language, to knowledge of love, to the usual concepts of nature, of good and evil! I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life” ([New York: Doubleday, 1927], pp. 20–21).
How Words Can Change Us
How might this insight work in our own lives? Understanding the creative power of words can enrich our experience of prayer. Prayer is the language of the heart. When we pray, we create, define, and repair our inner world. Prayer gives light to our inner being.
More broadly, we can understand the words we speak as a means of self-creation. The language we use—and this includes not just spoken and written words, but also sign language, facial expressions, body motions, pictures and music—helps us understand ourselves and lets us create relationships with others.
Our words give us the power to describe our past, define our present, and dream of our future. To paraphrase Helen Keller and modify slightly the Book of Proverbs, “Life and death lie in the power of language” (Proverbs 18:21).