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Hearing Is Believing

Written by Gary North on April 30, 2016

Seeing is over-rated.

“Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons; Specially the clay that thou stoodest before the Lord thy God in Horeb, when the Lord said unto me, Gather me the people together, and l will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children” (Deut. 4:9-10).

The theocentric basis of this law is the fear of God. As covenantal agents of God, fathers were required to teach their sons and grandsons the law of God. The family’s hierarchy was to extend Israel’s national covenant into the future. This was not a seed law in the sense of a tribal law. It was an affirmation of the covenant in the life of Israel. It is a universal law that is to govern covenant-keeping fathers throughout history. Only when God is no longer to be feared does this law cease in history, “that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth.”

Moses spoke these words to people who could remember the giving of the law. Through their parents’ oath of allegiance to God, they had participated in the sealing of the covenant at Sinai-Horeb (Ex. 19), immediately prior to God’s giving of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20). Moses warned them not to forget, and to tell what they had seen to their children and grandchildren.

The threat to Israel was a break in this verbal inheritance. There was a risk that their memories of this covenantal event might depart from Israel. But how? Through a failure to tell this story. The focus of this warning was not primarily individual; it was corporate. Old people remember the events of their youth even when they forget their own names. The memory spoken of here was corporate memory, i.e., the transmission of the story. If this story should ever depart out of the nation’s corporate heart, it would no longer define Israel. It would no longer motivate them to fear God and obey Him.

The transmission of Israel’s inheritance rested on the telling of this story. Here, Passover was not the focus; the giving of the law was. Passover was to remind them of the great deliverance from Egypt, which Moses called the iron furnace (Deut. 4:20). But the story of the giving of the law was equally important. It was not just that God had delivered them out of bondage; it was that He had also delivered to them His law. The events surrounding the covenantal meeting between God and Israel at Mt. Horeb had to be repeated to the next generation. They had heard God (v. 12). They were not eyewitnesses to God; they were earwitnesses to God. They were required to pass on this story just as they had received it: verbally.

Hearing Is Believing

Modern man has a phrase. “Seeing is believing.” The technology of photography launched a new era. Men could at last record faithful images of what they had seen. This elevated the eye to a position of authority that it had enjoyed only in trials, where witnesses had to confirm the event. Now the photograph replaced one of the witnesses. But this legal authority as a witness is about to depart unless modern computer technology is reversed. The technology of digital imaging is going to make possible the altering of photographic images to such an extent that seeing will no longer be believing. For example, the immensely popular 1994 movie, Forrest Gump, brought to the screen mixed images of old newsreels and a modern actor. Several of these mixed images looked real. Similar image mixing had already been used by television advertisers.

The rise of modern science is generally explained in terms of the rise of experimentation. Only whatever can be measured is said to be scientifically valid. The repeatability of an experiment is the source of its validity: other scientists can see the same results. But the description of these experiments is always conveyed verbally. Words must accompany the images and mathematical formulas in order for others to understand the procedures and repeat them. Never has seeing been believing except for the individual who saw. To transmit a description of what he saw to others requires more than images. It requires words. The images confirm the words. Images do not speak for themselves. Facts do not stand alone. Facts are never brute facts; they are always interpreted facts.

This does not mean that seeing is irrelevant. I think of the scene in a Marx brothers movie where Groucho is discovered in the arms of some young woman. “What are you going to believe,” he asks the intruder, “me or your own eyes?” Eyes are a valid source of information, but there is always an interaction between sight and interpretation. The persuasive power of belief and habit is usually greater than the power of sight. The Israelites saw the Red Sea open before them; then they crossed over dry land; then they saw the water close over the Pharaoh’s army. Still, they soon ceased to believe that this unified event was in any way relevant for their new trials. Seeing was believing, but what Israel believed was highly restricted through their lack of faith. Seeing lasts only for a moment; then memory takes over — memory filtered by faith.

Hearing is repetitive. For those who did not see, as well as for those who saw but never learned the lesson, hearing is the dominant mode of communication. Reading involves sight, but prior to the advent of photography, reading was mainly hearing through the eyes.

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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