The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 3

We’ve seen (in Part 1 and Part 2) that the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai.  God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel and use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt.  He and his brother Aaron then stage a contest of scripts in the court of Pharaoh. Pharaoh summons his hieroglyphic scribes to show that the new writing system is not so special. The war of demos takes the form of magical-seeming transformations and “signs” (the Hebrew word for “thing” “plague” and “word” are the same). Water turn to blood.  Frogs crawl out of the slime. But on the third contest, when Moses strikes the “dust of the earth” and summons “lice” all over Egypt, the Egyptian scribes are defeated.  They throw up their hands and exclaim, “This is the finger of God!”

Third Plague Charlton Heston
Charlton Heston about to demo the third plague in front of Yul Brynner in “The Ten Commandments” (1956)

But why do the Egyptians give up now after having no trouble matching the transformation of water into blood or summoning frogs from the mud? A clue is in the nature of the transformation. Hieroglyphic signs for frogs and blood are well-known. What are hieroglyphs for dust and lice?

In Egyptian, the spoken word for lice is “tiny” or “diminutive” (the same word used for little girls). But they didn’t have a glyph for it in the older hieroglyphics in use at the time of Moses, nor are there glyphs for any adjective, because they are abstractions, a quality attached to a thing and enormously hard to represent by itself (you could color a tunic or show a small person, but how what is the picture for “smallness”?) Nor does there seem to be a hieroglyph for “dust.” Lice, like dust, are ubiquitous but nearly invisible little nothings. They are like the finger of a ubiquitous but invisible Deity stirring the pot of the universe and history. Kinim [כנם], the Hebrew word here translated as “lice,” is used in Israel to refer also to those tiny gnats that make a buzzing sound but which can’t be seen. In the American South, we call them “noseeums.”

Furthermore, the Hebrew letters for plague are D-B-R [דבר]. By supplying different vowels from those in traditional interpretations, these letters can also signify words or things or statements or even commandments, as in the Ten Commandments. As a word, DBR דבר is, like EHT את, a one-word demonstration of the power and facility of this new script to add abstraction and multiply layers of meanings. Hebrew without vowels, the Hebrew of the Bible, intrinsically adds complexity and even poetry to even simple texts.

The hieroglyphic scribes declare that the transformation of these two “noseeums” – lice and dust – into each other, these two abstractions, is beyond all their power. It is the work of a much greater technology than they command. The God of the Hebrews must therefore be more potent than all of their many cumbersome, substantive gods, their pictogrammatic idols, combined.

A clearly-conflicted Pharaoh recognizes the threat of this new technology and the new God it has summoned. What would happen if a whole nation of slaves – people who in Pharaoh’s mind’s eye are swarming the marketplace – all suddenly learn to read and write while their masters are illiterate? Imagine if slaves in the old South got Twitter and smartphones while plantation owners had only ink quills, paper, and the Pony Express?What could go wrong?

But Pharaoh is torn. These newly-empowered slaves are also critical to his economy. They are currently employed in a massive public works project dedicated to his own glorification. How humiliating would it be if he let them go publicly and conceded defeat to a God of slaves? Aside from seeing it as only an act of Divine intervention, the exodus of slaves from Egypt is otherwise inexplicable and unprecedented in history before or since. When else has a powerful ruler freed a massive slave population in the middle of a large public works project? What other awesome event could have compelled Pharaoh to do so?

The Hebrews flee after the tenth plague induces Pharaoh to let them go. The Red Sea parts and re-floods to drown Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Moses leads the Israelites back to Sinai, to the same mountain, where as God promised, they worship Him. What is the instrument of that worship?  It is a new covenant between the human and the metaphysical, a new picture of the universe and history of the world, written in the new script, the first ever document in the alphabet. This text, the Bible, is filled with instructions for how to operate this new mode of living that was previously so hard to express in the prior scripts. One self-reflexive command is that everyone will learn to read and understand the Bible that is now accessible in this new communications platform. The Torah is the first document and constitution to demand universal literacy! And commands to be literate repeat throughout: every citizen should write the Torah; they should write it and keep it always at the front of their mind and on their hand and teach it to their children (which becomes the literal commandment to wear tefillin); kings must write two Torahs. And it recounts several narratives of its own writing – not so much an autobiographical account but an autographic one.

As the document of  dispossessed slaves charged with a mission from God, the Torah becomes a revelation that everyone can directly participate in and whose mysteries anyone can try to delve. The alphabet contains the magic of abstraction and the ability to express everything that can be said. Because of its accessibility and infinite flexibility, it invites the expression of things that have never before been expressed, or perhaps even thought, by anybody. It creates a new ethical relationship among people by giving everyone an expansive way to express what they think and therefore, to recognize the interior life of others.

But even if one doubts this interpretation, the Bible remains unquestionably a record of a total cultural and cognitive revolution. The power and purpose for living is no longer to be based on conquest, rule, or domination but on inner qualities of spirituality, moral behavior prescribed by 613 commandments (think of how hard it would be to express these in hieroglyphics!), and an ineffable connection to the metaphysical.

Insofar as the phonetic alphabet made this possible, the medium of the Torah is, along with all its others meanings, also its message. Every word and letter in this new script announces the implication, and sometimes collision, of the metaphysical in our physical world. Every sentence, every word, is a prayer.

The Torah tells us that it is the Word of God. Further, Jewish tradition enshrines Hebrew as a holy tongue, Lashon Kodesh, and reserves for it special power and layers of simultaneous and hidden meanings and correlations – we get a taste of it in D-BR דבר and E-T את — that other scripts can only faintly imitate, if at all. Jewish mystical tradition holds that God wrote the Torah before Creation, an inscrutable recipe for the Universe.

Even if one does not ascribe this metaphysics to the Torah, one can understand why it felt to the Hebrews as if it must be metaphysical and why the Jews subsequently become that most text-obsessed people.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 4

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