Hearing vs Reading the Bible

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 during the same sequence of revelations that begin with the burning bush, his first encounter with God. Moses returns to Egypt and instructs the elders of Israel in “the signs” or “letters” that God showed him.  “If they don’t heed the voice of the first sign, they will listen to the voice of the last sign,” God assures Moses after he quails at his assignment. The first and last signs might be the sorceror’s tricks the pair enact atop Sinai, or the voice of the signs could more sensibly refer to the first and last symbols for vocalizations in this transcendent new device, the aleph and the tav, which together also neatly spell oht or “letter.”

The Children of Israel subsequently mark their doorposts, flee Egypt, and go into the desert to receive the Torah, which is the first and in some ways still the most monumental document written in the phonetic alphabet. In short, the Torah narrates and celebrates – it exults in – the birth of its own new medium.

But this begs the question: why does the written Torah insist that the first encounter of the Israelites with God’s Law was oral?  And what does that mean for the tradition that God gave both the Written and the Oral Law to Moses on Sinai?  And finally, which has precedence? The answers are hidden in the story of God’s announcement of the Ten Commandments to all of Israel, contained in the weekly portion called “Jethro” (“Yitro” in Hebrew, Exodus 18-20).

Poetry of the Torah

Archeologists still debate its precise origin, but many agree the phonetic alphabet was only invented once in all human history. A majority opinion traces it to the South Sinai around the time of Moses (15th-14th c. BCE) and trace all subsequent versions – Phoenician, Greek, Cyrillic, Latin, even Korean – to this moment.

Like all new communications technologies, the phonetic alphabet was highly disruptive. All previous scripts like hieroglyphics and cuneiform were cumbersome, requiring hundreds of signs to represent language. But at the time of the composition of the Torah, despite its breakthrough enabling anyone to become literate in a day or two, the ingenious 22-sign alphabet was still quite primitive. By modern standards, for instance, ancient Hebrew’s lexicon – the number of words it used – is impoverished.  The Torah has fewer than 9000 different Hebrew words, and many of these are slight variations of the same root. Modern English by contrast has over 170,000. Hebrew’s root structure (characteristic of Near East languages) enlists the same three letters for multiple purposes in different forms (declensions, tenses, etc.), creating more lines of meaning and association. The lack of vowels in the original alphabet of the Torah further add to the interplay of multiple possible meanings even of a single word, raising punning to the level of poetry and inviting generations of readers to tease out layers of  hidden significance.

In short,  reading the Bible in its original language is more akin to deciphering poetry than reading a mere narrative. In some sequences, the complexity of this poetic play changes our entire understanding of its plain sense. Its density of meaning is part of what elevates Hebrew to its status as lashon kodesh, the Holy Tongue.

For instance, images and words for water carve a thematic rivulet through the weekly Torah reading of Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1). They tie together what otherwise seem like loosely connected disasters and mysteries: the impenetrable purification rite of the red heifer; the deaths of Miriam and Aaron; Snakes mysteriously appear to plague them. Moshe politely asks the Kings of Sihon and Arad to use their water, but they attack the Israelites them. Moshe yells at the Israelites, “You rebels,” before striking a rock to make water gush forth. As punishment for his anger, God sentences Moses to death before he enters the Promised Land. Despite all, water repeatedly flows into the text and Chukat climaxes in a dense, ecstatic song praising the miracle of wells that literally and spiritually enable the Children of Israel to survive their trials through the desert.

This counter-current of water, revealed when we read Chukat as literature, purifies, redeems, and sustains the Israelites amid an otherwise desolate story. It thematically slakes our thirst after the desperate aridity of Korach, and washes away the bitterness of the rest of this chapter. Chukat, despite its troubles, sings of the hopeful survival, even flourishing, of the Children of Israel in the desert though they are beset by disaster. Its coherence and deeper meaning remain elusive without taking the sheer poetic connections among the verses into account. But the central figure of water gushing from a rock after Moses strikes it in anger stands for the whole and hints at its real message.

The poetics of hearing in Yitro

Yitro also reveals hidden depths if we read its recurring imagery and poetic coherence. The first word announces it, saying literally “And heard he [Jethro].”[1] Jethro has heard of the miraculous success of the Israelites against the Egyptians, their liberation from the mighty Egyptians and the parting of the Red Sea that swallowed the pursuing Egyptian army. He comes to throw in his lot with the people of his son-in-law Moses. Even though he is a chieftain (kohen) of his own people, the idolatrous Midianites, he knows a superior God when he sees One. He brings back Moses’ wife Zipporah and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. He pledges his fealty to the Jews. To modern sensibilities, this seems Machiavellian, but Yitro is a master of realpolitik and the Torah clearly portrays it as Yitro’s deepest virtue. Yitro observes the world, examines it, deduces the truth, and moves to improve it, even, or especially, on matters of theology. He truly imbibes and internalizes the message. He hears.

Later in the chapter, when Jethro sees Moses wearing himself out by judging all the cases brought by the Children of Israel, he advises Moses to establish a system of increasingly significant lower courts of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands, to streamline the process.

Jethro’s special gift is not only hearing at the deepest level but then acting on his insight. The fact that the entire portion of the Torah is named after him makes sense in this light: he becomes the very model for the kind of hearing that God and Moses ask the entire nation of Israel to attain in the climax soon to come. In this chapter, named after a convert from idolatry, God pronounces the Ten Commandments in the hearing of all Israel.[2]

Sound draws out

Acts of listening and hearing dominate the succeeding story.[3] Jethro advises Moses to save himself by instituting a system of courts, and Moses listens to him. He “heeded the voice of his father-in-law and did everything that he had said” (Ex. 19:24). Then God calls to Moses from the mountain and tells him that if the Israelites “hearken well to Him they will become the most beloved treasure of all peoples” (Ex. 19:5).  A three-part negotiation follows in which God, Moses and the Israelites determine the rules for hearing God’s awesome pronouncement to come in three days from Mount Sinai. Moses goes up and comes down the mountain, relaying God’s wishes to the people to sanctify and prepare themselves and then relaying their assent back to God. The parties hear each other well, including the faithful messenger, Moses. After all, shuttle diplomats have to be faithful messengers to be effective. In all, there are almost twenty explicit references to hearing, and almost every other verse in this portion of the Torah refers to speech acts or sounds that are heard by others.

For instance, the signal for the Israelites to gather around the base of Sinai to hear God is “an extended blast of the shofar” (Ex 19:13) The Hebrew is more compressed – b’mshoch ha’yoval [במשיח היובל”] – literally, “in extending the shofar.” The root of b’mshoch is meshach, “extension” or drawing out” (the root applies to bowmen drawing an arrow, or dragging out a situation, or dragging sheep or people out of hiding). The mystical blast of the shofar prepares the people for an even greater experience of transcendent hearing that will penetrate their depths and draw them out of this world.

Amid thunder, lightning and smoke, the shofar sound grows louder and louder. Meanwhile, amid the din, “Moses would speak and God would respond with a voice” [Ex 19:20]. The redundant emphasis on God’s voice calls attention to the fact that this is a dialogue between a human and a transcendent Being. God’s voice must have been awesome (the Jewish interpretive tradition richly imagines it). What is it like?  What kind of special hearing is required to even perceive it, let alone comprehend what it says? How did an infinite God manage to constrict all the meanings He embraces into a single, humanly audible channel, or did it miraculously assume the sound that each individual could grasp, as Midrash suggests? As we shall see, for all humans but one, such a dialogue was impossible.

The Voice summons Moses up the mountain again, only to instruct him to descend once more, fetch Aaron but leave the other priests (kohanim) behind, warn the people not to break the boundary of the mountain, and ascend yet another time.

Finally, the stage is set, the thunder and lightning and smoke and shofar blasts have ceased, and God speaks directly to all the Israelites, uttering the Ten Commandments.

“Has a people ever heard the voice of God speaking?” The Children of Israel try

According to Midrash, God utters the entirety of the Ten Commandments in one single, terrifying, overwhelming blast, like the shofar that prepared them. This moment is the central revelation of Judaism, and not just because of the Ten Commandments. In the emphasis on hearing, the Jews are famously distinguished as the only people whose faith centers on a revelation from the ultimate Author heard by all the people directly, not one reported by an intermediary prophet. “Have a people ever heard the voice of God speaking?” trumpets the Talmud. The Jews have heard their God directly, and He has chosen them as His people, a holy nation, a nation of priests. But the question remains, did even they in that moment truly hear the voice of God speaking?

The moment is ambiguous, confounding. The Israelites are so overwhelmed by the sound of God’s voice, they beg Moses to explain what they heard. “You speak to us and we shall hear; let God not speak to us lest we die” (Ex. 20:16). Moses gentles and generalizes the Divine utterance: “In order to elevate you, God has come so that awe of Him shall be upon your faces, so you shall not sin.” (Ex 20:17). From then on, and as before, Moses is God’s mouthpiece, relaying directly or with his own coloration God’s words. In the ensuing weeks, Moses even goes up and down the mountain yet two more times to bring down written versions of God’s speech. The first is written by etzbah HaShem, the Finger of God Himself. When Moses returns to find the Israelites sunken to idolatry, worshiping the Golden Calf, he smashes this original, ascends again, and transcribes the Utterance himself. What endures on the two tablets is therefore a transcription of the Divine record of an original speech act.

Which deserves our attention most, Oral or Written Law?

This moment should be famous for another reason beyond the singularity of an entire people witnessing God’s revelation. It is the moment that contrasts the authority of oral revelation with the written one.

The people cannot absorb God’s voice. They beg for an intermediary. Although they heard, they could not hear God with anything like the fidelity with which Jethro hears human reports of the superiority of the Jews’ God or Moses hears Jethro’s advice on how to manage his judgeship. So God’s message splits into two or three channels of transmission: an oral version and two written ones, of which only a transcript of a transcript survives.

The two channels may each be perfectly faithful to God’s intention, and Moses’s transcription may be perfect, but they are nonetheless composed in two different media. In the most literal sense, the medium is the message, as “poetic” readings of Chukat and Yitro show. The kinds of ambiguities and obscurity and depth introduced by reading a primitive Hebrew is different from the kind of incomprehension and fear of drowning that mortals experience upon trying to decipher the flood of meaning in God’s Voice.

The majority of Jews, if they think of it at all, may consider the Oral Law as a secret supplement to the written law of the Torah, guarded by rabbis and sages in the business of seeking true interpretations of God’s will. In effect, the latter are playing a game of divine telepathy, trying to read the ineffable mind of the Author. The tradition of decipherment begins almost immediately upon the formation of the nation of Israel, with the writings about Kings and the poetry of the prophets. Re-reading and writing about the original revelation surely dominates Jewish life and survival through the two thousand years of diaspora, binding together the rabbis in a hypertextual dialogue spanning centuries and continents. But what we learn in the Torah’s written account of the original event in Yitro suggests we should give the Oral account our innermost allegiance and attention.

Forget about shoulds and oughts. The question isn’t which channel deserves our attention, its which commands our attention. “The Voice” precedes the text. It commands superior authority. By spoken words God brought the world into existence, and by speaking He revealed himself for all time to His people. Sounds like the long blast of the shofar penetrate the soul through an intimate channel that visual signs don’t. Although reading may also open our minds in a way that hearing doesn’t, the latter does a better job of drawing us out.

From the time Moses first returns to Egypt after his first encounter with God on Sinai, the Children of Israel were literate. God shows Moses the paradigm-shattering “signs” – the disruptive communications technology embodied in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and Moses in turn instructs the elders of his people in them. They could just as easily have jumped to the end state of revelation and read God’s Torah, as they eventually do for the ensuing millenia. After all, even if one day God chooses to speak to us again, the original Speech Act can never be replicated. Speech acts are transient. Sounds disappear in the wind. Written texts inevitably gain authority over reports of spoken words because they are tangible, enduring traces of God’s aboriginal testimony. The best we can do is try to bring the trace of the textual testimony into alignment with our memory of that singularity.

Of course, Judaism endures because of its intense culture of literacy and interpretation, its ongoing, depthless, organic exegesis of texts that enable Jews to carry their national integrity in an ever-expanding library, sustaining us through a turbulent history. But God first chose to speak to the Jews, to have them hear, not read, His words. The example of Jethro, and the awe surrounding the event of God’s speech, teaches us that truly hearing means internalizing in so transformative a fashion that it moves us to action, to do as we were told. The Torah needs to be internalized in a way that reading texts or even hearing the testimony of intermediaries just cannot achieve alone.



[1] Midrash Rabbah, the compilation of Talmudic commentary organized according to portions of the Torah, has nine extended interpretations of the first two words, “And heard he.” The ninth has five separate ones. Talmudic commentary continues to elaborate on the various forms of enunciation, hearing, articulation, comprehension, vocalizations,

[2]  R. Dov Aharon Brisman, the Rav of Kolna, Lithuania, had the same insight. According to the Schottenstein Midrash Rabbah on Yitro (Insights A, 27 p. 3), Rav Brisman wrote that “while not explicit in the Midrash, one can detect in this recurring theme of ‘hearing’ that the Midrash wants to drive home … that the heights of spiritual attainments are open to every person, no matter how low they have fallen. Jethro had been an advisor to Pharaoh and a priest of idol worship.” As such, R. Brisman suggests, Jethro is the spiritual exemplar for Israel, and indeed, all peoples.


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