The Bible regularly privileges hearing over seeing.
From time to time the priority of audition over vision is hammered home from complementary angles. On the one hand, Israel is commanded to listen. On the other, she is forbidden to craft a visual representation of her speaking Lord.
“Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the LORD your God. Therefore obey the LORD your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today. The same day Moses charged the people as follows: When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. Then the Levites shall declare in a loud voice to all the Israelites:
“Cursed be anyone who makes an idol or casts an image, anything abhorrent to the LORD, the work of an artisan, and sets it up in secret.” All the people shall respond, saying, “Amen!””
Context makes clear that the forbidden idol here is not merely a hidden—that is to say, extra-official—image, but any image shaped to present YHWH to human eyes.
The logic of this persistent privileging of the ear over the eye as the organ of choice for a new nation is not too difficult to discern. Israel’s ongoing proximity to her redeeming Lord demands a mental, an intellectual grappling with his person and his presence. Clearly, both ear and eye are organs of sense, so the affirmation of the value of hearing YHWH and the prohibition of seeing him does not reduce to a mere preference for the abstract over the sensual. The distinction is not so much one of kind as of degree.
A hermeneutic of suspicion that sees all such commands as an attempt by the priestly classes to make themselves indispensable risks a separate reductionism that is about as misleading as the first. There is more here than a Levitical power play over against a hapless populace that might have done just as well without its coterie of priests if it had only possessed the self-confidence to know this.
The more helpful reading, it would seem, recognizes the high demand for attention and engagement that listening to an invisible conversation partner requires. YHWH’s self-presentation to his Israelites would be mediated, to be sure. Prophets, priests, kings, seers, and the like abound in these pages.
Yet that self-presentation would also be remarkably direct and existentially demanding. Hearing is resolutely bound up in this literature with doing. One is intended to listen intently, comprehend, and then act, all of this without the distracting appeal of those graven symmetries that promise a too quick, too easy, and too inaccurate portrayal of the divine presence.
The attentive hearer comes to YHWH and his speech in a posture that the devotee of an image need not assume. He strains to hear it, tilts heart and mind towards the understanding of it, returns to his cotidian paths not as a departure from the shrine where YHWH is to be seen but as an active errand of obedient implementation.
Then, in time, he repeats. Listen, do. Listen, act. Listen, become.
The idol-reverencing neighbor, meanwhile, imagines that he has God in his garden.