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.  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 Aleph Tav
The first and last signs in Hebrew.

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.

Moses goes back to Egypt. He instructs the elders in these signs. The Israelites subsequently mark their doorposts – was it any old smear in blood or was it a letter? – so the Angel of Death, who also must be literate, will spare them. They flee Egypt and go into the desert to receive God’s commandments. God’s promise to Moses is fulfilled, not least in the liberatory power of the new medium He has entrusted to him and the Children of Israel.

The most overlooked quality of the Bible is that it’s the first and still the most influential document written in the phonetic alphabet. If we read it this way, the Torah seems to narrate and celebrate –  it positively exults in – the birth of this new medium for expression and the new culture of literacy it initiates in the world. Everyone must read the Torah. Even kings have to write one for themselves. The Shema prayer commands everyone to write it and keep it between his eyes and next to his heart.

But the awareness of the Torah of its own textuality, its “writtenness,” and its self-reflection as an artifact of the aleph-tav technology 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” (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 its earliest prototypes to the South Sinai around the time of Moses (15th-14th c. BCE) and trace all subsequent versions – Phoenician, Greek, Cyrillic, Latin, Korean and all other imitators – to this moment.

Like many new communications technologies, the phonetic alphabet changed culture. All previous scripts like hieroglyphics and cuneiform were cumbersome, requiring hundreds of signs to represent language. By representing spoken language instead of words, the ingenious 22-sign alphabet enabled anyone to become literate in a day or two. Anyone could broadcast anything to anybody. Hieroglyphs by comparison needed mastery of hundreds of pictograms, reducing the literate class to specialized scribe-priests bound to the Pharaoh’s religion and preserving his power by controlling the channel of communication. When, according to the narrative in the Bible, the slaves acquired this agile, simple, alternate channel, they acquired enormous power that threatened the Pharaoh’s totalitarian hegemony.  No wonder he let them ago, albeit reluctantly. Imagine slaves with a new secret doomsday weapon the government didn’t own or understand.

By modern standards, however, ancient Hebrew’s alphabet was impoverished. It had no vowels, no punctuation, and no spaces between words. It had altogether less than nine thousand different words, and many of these were slight variations of the same root. Modern English, by contrast, has about a million. This impoverishment heightened its ambiguity by recruiting the same or similar words for multiple meanings. Furthermore, 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. And finally, when words don’t have spaces between them and sentences lack punctuation, it’s up to the reader to figure out where to cut words and utterances. 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. This density of meaning is part of what elevates Hebrew to its status as the Jews’ lashon kodesh, their Holy Tongue.

The chapters are cuts made later, either during the Babylonian exile (586-536 BCE) or perhaps by Ezra the Scribe circa 440 BCE, to divide the Torah into weekly portions for reading aloud. But the cuts are not all equal in length; many have a kind of integrity that shows that Ezra, or whoever was responsible, had more in mind than how long it would take to read them. For in many, if not most, parshiyot an exquisite eye for literary coherence is at work. For instance, the weekly portion entitled “Decrees” [Chukat – Numbers 19:1-22:1] on first reading seems like a loosely connected series of disasters and mysteries. Both of Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, die. The impenetrable ritual for sacrificing and using the ashes of the red heifer is detailed. Snakes mysteriously appearing to plague the Israelites. Moses politely asks the Kings of Sihon and Arad to use their water as they wander across the borders of their kingdoms, but instead of granting them passage, they attack the Israelites. Moses loses his temper with the Israelites he was supposed to lead, and God sentences Moses to death before he enters the Promised Land as punishment.

However, words and images for water carve a thematic rivulet through these verses. Water is alluded to or mentioned at least twenty times When Moshe yells at the Israelites, “You rebels,” he then strikes a rock to make water gush forth. The image of water gushing from a rock hints at the portion’s real message. Despite all the gloom, water repeatedly flows into the tale. 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 the preceding chapter about Korach (in which, by the way, water is never mentioned but fire occurs several times!) and washes away the bitterness of the rest of this chapter. Chukat, despite its troubles, concludes in a song of lush praise and hope for the 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.

The poetics of hearing in Yitro

Jethro 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’s come 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 his daughter, Moses’ wife Zipporah, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. He pledges his fealty to the Jews. To modern sensibilities, this seems Machiavellian, but Jethro’s mastery of realpolitik is a deep virtue, the Bible tells us. Jethro observes the world, examines it, penetrates its truth, and moves to improve it, even, or especially, on matters of theology. He 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 hierarchy 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, for 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 then dominate the succeeding story.[3] In all, there are almost twenty explicit references to hearing, and almost every other verse in this portion of the Torah refers to speech or sounds that are heard by others. Jethro advises Moses to save himself by instituting a system of courts, Moses “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 ensues that makes the run up to the Versailles Peace Treaty, where the parties debated the shape of the meeting table, look like a quibble over the rules of Old Maid. God, Moses, and the Israelites negotiate the game rules for hearing God’s awesome pronouncement that He will make on Mount Sinai in three days. Moses goes up and comes down the mountain, relaying God’s wishes to the people to sanctify and prepare themselves. He goes up again to relay their assent back to God. The parties hear each other well, including the faithful messenger, Moses. After all, shuttle diplomats have to be heard to be effective.

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 their mundane reality.

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 the Talmud 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 a fifth time.

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

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

According to Midrash, God utters the entirety of the Ten Commandments in one single, terrifying, overwhelming blast, like the shofar that prepared them (Gur Aryeh, Mechilta). This moment is the central revelation of Judaism and transforms humanity. The event at Sinai is immediate. It happens in the presence of the entire nation, and distinguishes the Jews as the only people whose faith centers on a revelation from God heard by all the people directly, and not one reported by an intermediary prophet. “Have a[nother] people ever heard the voice of God speaking?” trumpets the Talmud. But there’s a problem. Did the Jews truly comprehend what they heard?

The Israelites are so overwhelmed by the sound of God’s voice, they beg Moses to act as interlocutor: “You speak to us and we shall hear; let God not speak to us lest we die” (Ex. 20:16). Moses comforts them by summarizing the message: “In order to elevate you, God has come so that awe of Him shall be upon your faces, so you shall not sin.” (Exodus 20:17).  But from then on, as before, Moses is God’s mouthpiece, relaying God’s words. In the ensuing weeks, Moses even goes up and down the mountain yet two more times to bring down more of God’s speech.

And then there is a verse in the Torah that is often overlooked: Moses writes down his own, presumably perfect transcription, of what God told him on Mount Sinai. “Moses wrote all the words of HaShem… He took the Book of the Covenant (Sefer Ha’brit) and read it in earshot of the people.” (Exodus 24:4 and 24:7). Nonetheless, in an apparently separate sequence of events, Moses goes up the mountain yet again, stays forty days and nights, (Exodus 24:18). The Torah narrative takes a wonderful detour in time: God gives seven chapters of instructions about how to build the Sanctuary for God and the Tabernacle for the stone Tablets that He is about to give them (Exodus 25:16).

Finally, it returns to the narrative of Moses, who descends Sinai carrying two Tablets of stone written by Etzbah HaShem, the Finger of God Himself: “The Tablets were God’s handiwork, and the script was the script of God, engraved on the Tablets.” (Exodus 32:16).  When Moses returns to find the Israelites sunken to idolatry, worshiping the Golden Calf, he smashes this original. After some time when God and Moses sort out how the Israelites should be punished, Moses ascends Mt Sinai again. God promises Moses, “I shall inscribe on the Tablets the words that were on the first Tablets, which you shattered.” (Ex 34:2). But instead, Moses carves out the new tablets himself. God decrees another set of elaborations on the law, and then He tells Moses, “Write these words for yourself.” Moses stays on the mountain another forty days and nights, fasts, and transcribes the Ten Commandments on the second set of Tablets himself. (Exodus 34:28). What endures on the second two Tablets is therefore Moses’ transcription of God’s voice.

Which deserves our attention most, Oral or Written Law?

This entire fifteen-chapter sequence of events in Exodus (19-34) essentially tells us the Torah was transmitted to the Israelites a total of six different times, or at least through six different channels. God first blasts it out on Mount Sinai. The Israelites can’t comprehend it, so Moses recounts it to them in his own human words. Next, apparently while still encamped at the base of the mountain, Moses writes down a completely faithful version of all the words God told him on Sinai in a Book of the Covenant. He reads this Book to the Children of Israel. Then he brings down the first Tablets of Testimony written by God’s Own Finger but smashes them. Finally, Moses goes up and down the mountain again to bring down a second set of Tablets that he writes himself. The strangely disrupted narrative raises several questions, but the intriguing one for our purposes here is: Which is the real Torah? By real, I mean, which of these versions captures God’s complete intention? Was it God’s original one long incomprehensible blast, Moses recounting of it, Moses transcription of it in a Book, Moses’ reading of the Book, or one of the two sets of two Tablets?

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  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 the second 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 Babylonian exile (586-536 BCE) until Ezra the Scribe redacts the Torah in 444 BCE.  It dominates the two thousand years of  Jewish diaspora, binding together 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 – we can mull different interpretations, mentally or even actually scrawling in the margins of the page – hearing does a better job of drawing us out. Reading is performed in private – even if it’s a newspaper on the subway, you’re performing that act of receiving information through your eyes into your solitary mind. Hearing is immediate and transactional. It’s about you and the other, since it requires at least one other person, the speaker, and any number of other auditors –  literally an audience.

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 people again, that original divine Speech Act can never be replicated. Speech is 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 singular ephemeral event.

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 them through a turbulent history. The People of the Book. 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 the message in so transformative a fashion that it moves us to action. 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.

4 thoughts on “Hearing vs Reading the Bible

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