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 “letters” that God shows him. Moses quails at his assignment..
“If they don’t heed the voice of the first sign, they will listen to the voice of the last sign,” God assures him.
The first and last signs might refer to the silent conjuror’s tricks of turning a rod into a snake or turning Moses’ hand leprous that God has just shown Moses. But more sensibly, the “voice of the signs” refers to the first and last symbols for vocalizations, 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. God is telling Moses: show the Israelites back in Egypt this new invention, these letters, and free them.
The Israelites subsequently mark their doorposts so the Angel of Death will read the sign and spare them. They flee Egypt and go into the desert to receive the God’s commandments. The most overlooked quality of the Bible is that it’s the first and still the most influential document written in the phonetic alphabet. And if we read it this way, the Torah narrates and celebrates – exults in – the birth of its own new liberatory medium for expression.
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” (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. 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.
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 9000 different words, and many of these were slight variations of the same root. Modern English, by contrast, has about a million. 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 the Jews’ lashon kodesh, their 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 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 they attack the Israelites. 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. The image of water gushing from a rock stands for the whole and hints at its real message. Despite all the gloom, water repeatedly flows into the tale 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 the preceding chapter about 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.
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].” 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 Moses’ wife Zipporah and his 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 his deepest 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 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.
Sound draws out
Acts of listening and hearing then dominate the succeeding story. Jethro advises Moses to save himself by instituting a system of courts, and 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 follows in which God, Moses, and the Israelites determine the rules for hearing God’s awesome pronouncement to come from 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. 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.
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 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
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[nother] people ever heard the voice of God speaking?” trumpets the Talmud. The Jews hear their God directly, and He has chosen them as His people, a holy nation, a nation of priests. But there’s a problem. Did the Jews truly hear the voice of God speaking?
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 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.” (Ex 20:17). But from then on, 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 is Moses’ transcription of Divine speech.
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 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 Exra the Scribe redacts the Torahin 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, 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 them 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. The Torah needs to be internalized in a way that reading texts or even hearing the testimony of intermediaries just cannot achieve alone.
 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,
 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.