Contemporary Judaism, like love, is a many-splendored thing. For our own convenience, we often refer to three types of Judaism: Reformed, Conservative, and Orthodox, but there are many variations even within these three. Nonetheless, practicing Jews of any brand have a common liturgical practice in both the morning and evening services, where they cite together (often in biblical Hebrew) the “Shema Israel,” from Deut. 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” It is a remarkably significant text that affirms monotheism in a polytheistic context, and that contains what Jesus regarded as the “great and first” commandment in the Hebrew Bible (Mat. 22:38). The affirmation of monotheism in the second millennium BC in a culture surrounded by polytheism, and the claim that the highest ethical pursuit was whole-personed love of the One true God were remarkable in their day (and in ours). It is entirely understandable, therefore, that a third reality—admittedly of lesser significance than the other two—is also contained in this significant text, and that its beginning is: “Hear, O Israel.” Indeed, our Jewish friends call it “The Shema,” calling attention to its opening demand that Israel hear and heed the call and command of the one true and living God.
One might be excused for dismissing this observation, and for suggesting that in the second millennium BC there was no other way than oral language to mediate religion. Such a dismissal should be dismissed. In fact, every other known religion in the second millennium BC had an alternative medium for conveying religion: graven/carved images, images that were not only forbidden in the decalogue recorded in the previous chapter of Deuteronomy, they were prohibited thrice in Deuteronomy 4, even before the decalogue was given (Deut. 4:16, 23, 25). Indeed, in the central one, in Deut. 4:23, the entirety of the covenant God was about to institute was at stake on this one point: “Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image…”
There was/is an important relationship between the prohibition of images and the command to “Hear, O Israel.” The one and only true and living God was, well, true and living. He was not the product of human imagination; he was the creator of the human, and of human imagination. This one-and-only God made the human to be his image; and prohibited the human from rejecting this great privilege/responsibility by assigning it to something the human had made. No material image/likeness could be made that would reflect anything genuinely true about a non-material Creator; and no lifeless image could possibly reflect the truth of a living God. To the contrary, an inanimate image would always be non-living, and therefore non-threatening, the very opposite of the actual reality that “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). Such a God could only be known via the medium of language; since, ontologically, he was entirely different from the so-called deities of the Ancient Near East, any medium that could convey those deities would not be able to convey the distinctiveness of the one, only, living and true God.
From the very beginning of Israel’s covenant with God, then, Israel was prohibited from attempting to know the one true incomparable God by any medium by which other so-called deities were known, and this continued throughout the entirety of their covenant with God. The Israelites heard the decalogue read; they heard the detailed prescriptions for the tabernacle and its priests and sacrifices; they heard the “dodecalogue” of Deut. 27, in which Moses read twelve things to the twelve tribes for which someone would be accursed, and to which, following each, the tribes solemnly answered “Amen.” They heard the words of Joshua preparing them for their entrance into the land of Canaan; they heard the words of Samuel and the other prophets when God spoke words of judgment (and sometimes promises of redemption). They heard the devotional poems of the Hebrew Psalter, and they heard the wisdom of Solomon. They heard the law read to them again, after returning from Babylonian captivity, when Nehemiah and Ezra re-constituted them as God’s holy people in God’s holy land. In post-biblical, Second Temple Judaism in the era before Christ and his apostles, many of them heard the Law and the Prophets read in the synagogues. Some of them heard it read aloud by Jesus in the synagogue, in his first act of public ministry after his temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4:16-24). For three thousand years, from Moses until Gutenberg, the Hebrew Bible was only known via spoken language.
We note here that the Hebrew Bible is also 2/3 of our Christian Bible, and for three quarters of our Christian history (the fifteen centuries prior to Gutenberg) our Christian Bible, containing both Old and New testaments, was also known only by hearing it read publicly. Only a very small number of scribes would have had access to the valuable manuscripts contained in ancient and medieval scriptoria.1 There was no private reading or familial reading of the Bible prior to the development of the printing press; there was only ecclesiastical reading (and preaching). Such ecclesiastical reading was not accidental; it was enjoined by apostolic authority when Paul said to Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Rightly ordered churches today continue this ancient practice of reading Holy Scripture aloud. Indeed, the 21st chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, enumerating the proper elements of public worship, includes “The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence…” (WCF 21:5). Observe that this “reading of the Scriptures” appears before “sound preaching,” suggesting it to be a ministerial act,2 to which the appropriate congregational reply is “conscionable hearing” both of the Word read and the Word proclaimed. Westminster encouraged private and familiar reading, but prohibited non-officers from the public reading of Scripture: “Although all are not to be permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families” (WLC 156).3
Subsequent to the development of the printing press, matters changed profoundly. Scholars estimate that literacy rates before the printing press were rarely more than 3%-5%; within little over a century afterward, literacy in the western world was 85%. Private encounter with the inscripturated Word of God is now possible, and many of us find it edifying.4 It should never, however, replace the auditory encounter of the Word in public reading and proclamation. I might own “my Bible,” for instance, but actually “my Bible” is, truly, “our Bible,” and I happen to have an individual copy of our Bible.
By the early twentieth century, electronic and visual media began their competition with the printing press for the public’s attention, and they have largely won the competition. What Marshall McLuhan called “The Gutenberg Galaxy” is now another galaxy, far, far away. When it left, what McLuhan’s protegé (Neil Postman) called “The Age of Exposition” left with it.5 But reading, hearing, and expositing Scripture is part and parcel of biblical religion, which is why our Islamic friends call us “the people of the book.” God did not say, through Moses, “See, O Israel,” or “View, O Israel;” he said, “Hear, O Israel.” Further, God expressly and comprehensively6 prohibited the religious use of images. Generations later, the apostle Paul also affirmed the importance of oral language for our faith, when he asked, rhetorically, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14).
For many individuals, the movement from a language-based culture to an image-based culture is either neutral or even positive (images can be amusing); for those of us whose religion (and its parent religion) is based upon reading Scripture, expositing Scripture, and preaching Scripture, the movement is not at all neutral. If God had made himself known via FM radio, it would concern us if FM broadcasters and FM radios were disappearing; the true and living God makes himself known via language, so our spiritual health, and that of our children and grandchildren, rests in no small measure on our ability to employ and understand language.
©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.
1. The one apparent exception of the Ethiopian eunuch reading a scroll of Isaiah in his chariot (Acts 8:26-40) is only an apparent exception; he would never have gotten his hands on such a valuable thing had he not been “a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure” (Acts 8:27).
2. The Westminster Directory for Public Worship says, “Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God…is to be performed by the pastors and teachers…All the canonical books of the Old and New Testament (but none of those which are commonly called Apocrypha) shall be publickly read in the vulgar tongue, out of the best allowed translation, distinctly, that all may hear and understand.”
3. I doubt that Westminster employed the word “bound” here strictly. I have known illiterate adults, incapable of reading Scripture to their families; and there are many smaller cultures in existence today whose language is only oral, and exists in no written form. Individuals in such cultures could not possibly read the Scriptures privately, or in their families.
4. Indeed, in the Shema itself, there is no tension or competition between oral language and written language. Consider it in its entire context, and note how it moves from the oral to the written, italicized here: Deut. 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words (which Moses spoke to the Israelites) that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
5. By the mid-20th century literacy was declining for the first time in the West. One of the earliest observers was Rudolph Flesch, who in 1955 wrote Why Johnny Can’t Read (and what you can do about it). In 1994, Sven Birkerts wrote The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, lamenting the decline in leisure reading. The National Endowment for the Arts released, in 2004, a study paper entitled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which traced the same decline. Maryanne Wolf (then at Tufts University, now at UCLA) released Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain in 2007, and then published Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World in 2018. Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein published The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone under Thirty in 2008, and then The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults in 2021.
6. “…or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
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