Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, January 23, 2009

in the reign of King Josiah

For people interested in the relations between orality and literacy, there’s a fascinating passage in the Biblical book that Christians call 2 Kings. You may read the whole passage here. When Josiah was the young king of Judah — the Northern Kingdom of Israel having been overrun by the Assyrians some decades earlier — he decided to commission some serious repair work on the Temple. He commanded his men to look throughout the Temple to find any money that people had contributed, but while they were looking they came upon something else.

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.’ . . . Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, ‘Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.’ And Shaphan read it before the king.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. . . . ‘Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’

And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant.

Several things worth noting here. First, the knowledge of Torah is so long lost among the people that to the King’s secretary it is just “a book.” But second, and more important for the purposes of this blog, the significant reading experiences here are oral. It’s not at all surprising that the people of Judah would have the book read aloud to them, since few of them could have been literate; but I wouldn't necessarily have expected that the king would have the book read to him. This does not necessarily mean that Josiah was illiterate; whether literate or not, it’s likely that he would have thought that the proper way to experience Torah was by listening to it read aloud. The Israelites at this time were, and for a long time to come would be, what Walter Ong called a “hearing-dominant” culture. Think of the rabbis in the synagogues that would develop in the aftermath of the overthrow of both kingdoms, reading the text aloud and then commenting on it. And of course to this day Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worship all feature the oral reading or recitation of sacred texts to an audience — even if members of those audiences, instead of actually listening to the reading, are following their own copy of the text with their eyes.