The play between orality and literacy in Jethro
When did the Israelites become literate?
If you piece the clues together, the Torah tells us pretty clearly that Moses received the alphabet from God on Sinai. It happens during the same sequence of revelations that begin with the burning bush and the revelation of God’s Name during their first encounter. God tells Moses to return to Egypt and instruct the elders of Israel in “the signs” or “ the letters” that God shows him. Moses quails at his assignment.
But don’t worry, God reassures him, “If they don’t heed the voice of the first sign, they will listen to the voice of the last sign.”
The first and last signs might refer to the silent conjuror’s tricks that God has just shown Moses: a rod turns into a snake and Moses’ hand turns leprous and back again.
But more sensibly, the “voice of the signs” refers to the core breakthrough that made the phonetic alphabet a monumentally disruptive invention: signs, instead of being pictures for words as in hieroglyphics, are instructions for the voice to make sounds, like musical notes. The first and last symbols refer to the aleph and the tav, the beginning, the whole of this new invention. God is telling Moses: show the Israelites back in Egypt this new explosive technology, these letters, and with them you shall set them free. Continue reading “Hearing vs Reading the Bible”