A Sound Survey of the Bible

I have been reflecting on sound and the bible for the last few years, fascinated by its rhythms, by the tones its readers use and by its owns cries and sighs. So I’ve started doing an idiosyncratic survey of the bible through sound. Sometimes its the rhythm of the words. Sometimes it’s about the characters crying out. Or God listening. Or it could be a reflection through the amorphous nature of sound itself. This process has re-sounded the texts back to me in a fresh way. It might do this for you or it might not. But I hope it gives you a possibility that you can approach these astonishing texts with creativity and grace, allowing the words to enter your flesh and settle there just as the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling amongst us.

Genesis 1

I do believe in the Big Bang. I trust the scientists who speak about it. But I also know that it was possibly not that big. Nor was it really a bang. But it’s important we say it and mull over what we say. This is how we make sense of the world.

Which is why I love Genesis 1. I like saying it. I love the rhythms that it gives.

And God said..
And God said…
And God said…
And God said..
And God said…
And God said…

each one rounded off with a

And there was evening and there was morning
And there was evening and there was morning
And there was evening and there was morning
And there was evening and there was morning
And there was evening and there was morning
And there was evening and there was morning

God’s speech does things. He’s sounding things out. The Spirit hovering over the chaos is how his sound moves and does things.

And what further sounds are made…

The waters
The birds
The creatures

And God who through his sound makes things, speaks to that which came from his sound.

sound upon sound

‘Be…’ he says.

They already are but he speaks blessing over them in all that they could be. And it is.

Genesis 2:4ff

A different voice sounds out. From the grand symphony of the previous story now things seem quiet.

No shrubs… no plants… no one to work the ground. (verse 5)

Just a stream bubbling away watering the planet. The KJV says mist. (verse 6) Even quieter.

The dust of the ground is put together and breathed upon.

Water, dust, breath…

Adam – Ground, Earth, Clay, Red, – Human.

Now God speaks, not things into being but possibilities.

And the man speaks to name the creatures. These sounds won’t be recorded for they shall be passed on.

But he speaks a poem when he sees his own.

bone of my bones
flesh of my flesh

They are to be one but distinct. A harmony.

Genesis 3

Where are you?

When something is not quite right this sound occurs. A parent knows something is up in the house when things are too quiet.

Adam and Eve hide because they

heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…

Gen 3:8 NRSV


heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day


A voice that walks with the breeze.

A sound that places itself with movement of air.

They hide because they hear.

The shame that causes them to hide is because they see.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened

Gen 3:7 (NIV)

The fruit

was a delight to the eyes

Gen 3:6 (NRSV)

And it was the first conversation that led to this. The serpent and the woman discuss what was said. What was heard. The sounds of God had faded and now his creatures chatted about it.

WHERE ARE YOU? has been the scream of humanity to a silent God.
The atheist knows she screams at nothing.
The believer hopes she’s screaming at someone.

God is the noisy One here
stomping around and calling

Genesis 4

… noise is violence…
It is a simulacrum of murder.
…music is a channelization of noise…
… a simulacrum of … sacrifice.

Jacques Attali in Noise (26)

Genesis 4 is violent. And noisy.

Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!

Gen 4:10 (NRSV)

Now Cain fears violence against him. God proclaims a deterrent by promising a seven fold vengeance.
But Lamech, Cain’s descendant poetically multiplies vengeance to seventy fold.
The first poem in Gen 2 exuded oneness while this one is about tearing down.
And Lamech the violent, noisy one is the father of Jubal;

he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe.

Gen 4:21

Is Jubal the musician now the priest? The one who provides a simulacrum of sacrfice?

Genesis 5

I was fortunate enough to be in the room when my daughters were born. A distinct memory of the second one being born was the sound of her coming out.


is the closest I can describe it.

When I read Gen 5 in the KJV I experience a bit of that.


Adam… begat… Seth
Seth… begat… Enos
Enos… begat… Cainan
Cainan begat… Mahaleel
Mahaleel… begat… Jared
Jared… begat… Enoch
Enoch… begat… Methuselah
Methuselah… begat… Lamech
Lamech… begat… Noah
Noah… begat… Shem, Ham and Japheth

The truth is that none of the patriarchs actually gave birth. The women did all the work. So ‘begat’ through its sound allows me to think of the women who birthed all these men.


The KJV has a different sound environment than its descendant versions. Possibly because it originated at the dawn of printing where meaning and sound had a more intimate relationship. Ong’s Orality and Literacy gives us a few ways of understanding this.

Lamech, Noah’s father lives

Seven hundred and seventy seven years.

Is there an echo with his ancestor Lamech who promised vengeance

… seventy-seven times?

Is vengeance somehow being overturned by life? After all the chapter starts

God created

…male and female he created them…

…they were created.


Gen 6 – 10

Sound overflows. It is difficult to contain. Like The Flood. The Flood is something that literally overflows. Literarily overflows. It has flowed into different traditions; Mesopotamian, Hebrew and Hindu. As sea levels increase on our planet the Flood Story is around us as a human race.

all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened

The sound of water channelled through brooks, rivers and lakes is comforting.
The noise of uncontrolled water and storm takes us back to the original chaos.

The breath which carried God’s sound hovered over the chaos at the beginning.
The dove at first comes back but then flies away and doesn’t come back.
A closed space gives an echo. An open one lets the sound out.

And God says

never again
never again
never again
never again
never again

And the people?

Derision Curses and Division.

Genesis 11


I dropped mustard seeds onto the black tiled kitchen floor the other day. They rushed in all directions, tick-ticking along the floor.

Sound is a scattering. From its source it spreads as its strength allows.

The people in the story didn’t want to be scattered. They had one language. One sound. They assumed greatness could be found in their oneness and their tower.

But God scatters them. He scatters their sound. The relationships between sounds and their meanings are scattered. And the people are scattered.

And they beget. In begetting they amplify themselves.

Babel, from being a contained sound unit is made into scattered multi(plying)-media.

Genesis 12 – 13

In modern versions chapter 12 is titled ‘The call of Abram.’ The call is a sound coming from elsewhere drawing the listener in. Strangely enough the word used is


This an echo of Genesis 1:27 and 9:1.

The call is the other way.


called on the name of the Lord

like in chapter 4.

Yet unlike the violence of chapter 4, this is a new start. It is full of promise.

The sound of ‘I will’ resonates through the passage.

I will show

I will make

I will bless

I will bless

I will curse

I will give

I will give

I will make

I will give

Gen 14

Sound happens all the time. We learn to ignore ‘regular’ sounds like traffic or the fridge. Then a sudden new sound puts us on alert. What’s going on here?

Melchizedek is a bit like that. People are fighting and looting. Kings have manoeuvred themselves again each other… usual stuff.

From no where Melchizedek appears. In the midst of fighting and possession grabbing he offers bread and wine. The sudden soothing sound of hospitality and blessing.

Genesis 15

…the word of the Lord came to…

The sound of God takes on a deeper, more resonant tone. The phrase denotes a certain weight to the speech. It is strange to say

a sound arrived…

Our attention is first brought to the fact that God is sounding.

Like the sound of calling to attention.

The sound that draws us to listen.

Genesis 16

There are several sounds that refer to me.

‘Dad’… ‘Sunil’… ‘monay’ are sounds that are intricately linked to who I am.

Till now I haven’t mentioned the sounds that refer to God in the Old testament.

‘Elohim’ and ‘Yahweh’ are two of them. The different sounds refer to the diverse levels of relationship that sounders of the name have with God.

Naming is a kind of power. God names Adam, Adam names Eve, Eve names Seth.

But Hagar, a woman, a foreigner, a slave…  names GOD.

The lowest of the low performs an act of power over God.

She sounds God.


The One who sees me.

Earlier in the story God promises a son for Hagar and he is to be named Ishmael.

Ishmael – God listens.

The listening God is now sounded as the seeing God.



Genesis 17

God now sounds himself as


He re-sounds Abram and Sarai as Abraham and Sarah. Zizek asks whether the renaming is a form of symbolic castration (The Fragile Absolute, xvii).

I think the rest of the chapter which is about circumcision, gives us the resonance of the name change.

Healthy human sounding requires the ability to sound and the ability to listen. We know that some of us sound incessantly without listening. Is the act of stopping to listen resonant with circumcision? Is listening in some sense a cutting off, of sound?

Sarai has the very end of her name cut off. The ‘ai’ ending now is opened to an ‘ah’ ending. The circumcision of her name, the opening of her sound, resonates with the opening of her womb.

Abraham has to go through the physical circumcision so his name isn’t cut off, as much as it is opened. The more abrupt ‘Abram’ now has an open ‘ha’ in it. Is this Abraham’s laugh in his chapter? On a more serious note does the opening of his name signify the opening of God’s blessing on the world?

Genesis 18

More laughter… this time from Sarah-ah-ah-ah-ah.

In conversation we often exchange sounds that aren’t actually part of the information exchange. I hear it happening twice in this chapter.

No I didn’t…

Yes you did…

This sound exchange exposes the mixed emotions that its sounders have. More so, it reveals the possibilities of this relationship. Sarah the venerable, is being told off but I hear humour and love at the back.

Similarly Abraham’s bargaining with God, is as a child. He is testing his boundaries. The listeners to the story know that Sodom and Gomorrah won’t survive. Hearing this to and fro reveals the relationship that Abraham and God are growing into. A child and its parent have all kinds of sound exchanges like this.

God is here because…

the outcry… is so great

that I will… see

if what they have done is as bad as

the outcry that has reached me.

This echoes with the listening, seeing God we heard of, in Hagar’s story. Though light is quicker, it is the sound that alerts first.

This brings us to how the bible treats light and sound in the environment of God. Just a few thoughts:

  1. Light is created stuff  in Genesis but what of sound?
  2. Light seems ‘outside’. Sound seems to come from within and reaches within.
  3. Is sound somehow more ‘natural’ to the person of God while light somehow more ‘creaturely’? Why can God hear from heaven while he comes down to his creation to see?

Genesis 19

In the previous chapter we hear the banter of God with Abraham and Sarah where sounds are exchanged in the environment of relationships that are being built. Here, conversations are broken down. The exchange of sounds is not building up relationships. Most of the sounds are insistent, disengaged, violent; wishing to overpower.

  • Lot insists the two men stay with him
  • The men of the city call out to have sex with the two.
  • Lot offers his daughters as a bargain.
  • His sons-in-law refuse to leave with the rest.
  • Lot refuses to hide in the mountains.
  • Lot’s wife looks back when she was told not to.
  • Lot’s daughters have sex with him to retrieve some semblance of normality.

…as is the custom over all the earth.

From a sound point of view it is chaos. It seems that the sounds don’t reach anywhere with any meaning. Through the narrative we hear the sheer lack of listening. The absence of engagement. Narratives like this carry a warning. Listen, engage or it will end badly.


Genesis 20

She is my sister

She wasn’t. And Abraham’s habits of lying continue. A lie is a misdirected sound. It points to an opposite meaning. Abraham continues his misdirected soundings. The behaviour of God is even more puzzling. Why does he condone this misdirection?

Genesis 21

Many sounds in this chapter!

God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.

Isaac the long awaited one finally arrives. Abraham and Sarah laughed previously but now the sound of their laughter takes on flesh as Isaac not only their laugh but God’s.

However the sound of laughter very quickly seems to die out quickly. Sarah sees Isaac being mocked. And Abraham seemingly unable to make a decision sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert.

she lifted up her voice and wept

The water is over and Hagar can’t bear to see her child like this.

And God heard the voice of the boy

The boy? But wasn’t it Hagar who was weeping? We can ask whether God was not listening to Hagar. However there is another way to hear this. Hagar and the boy become one voice in their distress. The cry has mingled together. The cry is the connection to God.

And God, whom Hagar has named ‘the one who sees’ now opens Hagar’s eyes. Hagar the abandoned, foreign, slave, woman is a sound in the wilderness heard and seen by God. The tree fell in the forest and it was heard.

Back to the vacillating Abraham and he now swears an oath with Abimelech, the one he lied to. The sound is part of their contract. Can the one who lied be trusted? Maybe this is why the sheep have to be given. The flesh is more trusted than the word.


Genesis 22


Here I am


Here I am my son

Abraham Abraham

Here I am

After the lying and vacilating of the previous chapters Abraham becomes true to himself. His sound is realigned with his self.

“Here I am” he says to God, to his son and then again to God. Hidden underneath is the sound to himself. This is not a statement of geographical location. This is about presence, about being.

Abraham sounds himself ‘here I am.’ And in that bare naked sound he is fully himself. He is not a liar now.

The story is about giving everything up. All his wanderings, his waiting, his anguish seems pointless. This sound will fade unheard back into the desert.

But he sounds himself. ‘Here I am.’ And he is heard. To this day.

Genesis 23

…listen to us

…listen to me

…listen to me

…listen to me

…listen to me

The haggling over Sarah’s burial is strange. A modern western hearing of the story could hear it as Abraham trying to do the right thing and the others being kind. However it is worth hearing this story through the honour and shame filter. Abraham is trying to be honorable and so are the Hittites. This makes the story more complex. Are the Hittites hedging their bets? Is Abraham worried about being obliged to them?

Abraham ceases the argument. These words aren’t doing their work. His action sounds over the words and he gets his way.

Words have a way of becoming noisy and meaningless. Abraham breaks what seems to be the ‘listen to me’ feedback loop and buries his fellow wanderer, the one he lied about and the one he laughed with.

Genesis 24 – 26

When sounds repeat they slowly fade to the background. Living in cities, the sound of traffic is something we stop listening to. But the traffic is indicative of important realities that we should pay more attention to.

In these chapters of genesis certain patterns are established.

Abraham has two sons who aren’t together, Isaac has two sons who don’t get along.
Abraham lies to Abimelek, Isaac lies to Abimelek.

The repetitions are alerting us to the pattern but it is a pattern we can get too used to and ignore. So that brings me to the repeated story of the servant of Abraham in chapter 24.

First he prays that a specific event regarding Isaac’s future wife happens.
The event happens.
He recounts the event to the girl’s family.

There are cultural codes here which I’m no aware of. But then there are sounds that need to be made in order that trust is established. In England the first way to truly establish trust is to talk about the weather. This is a repetitive cultural code. If it is ignored then it is quite possible to be considered rude and untrustworthy.

In these three chapters we are introduced to patterns that will repeat themselves and to the people who will engage in these patterns. This is how sound lives on. It echoes the past in ways that can be oppressive. These chapters also give twists and turns within these patterns. These are the new sounds. These might upset the pattern alerting us to the hold that the patterns have on us.

Genesis 27

Isaac has gone blind. We would assume that sound becomes ever more important to him. But oddly enough it his other senses that he trusts. The story tells of Isaac tasting, smelling and touching. And it is through this that Isaac and consequently Esau is deceived.

Isaac seems unable to recognise either of his sons’ voices. It is his wife Rebekah who hears everything, either through direct eavesdropping or through the ears of another.

Esau wants some blessing but Isaac doesn’t have any. He has sounded them all to Jacob. Jacob the Grasper has stolen the sounds meant for Esau. Through his mother who eavesdrops, itself a form of stealing sound, Jacob completes the ultimate Grasping. But this sound is now too dangerous for him and he needs to flee. And he flees with a misdirected sound from his mother’s lips.

This chapter is filled the sound of misdirection and misappropriation.


Genesis 28

How Awesome is this place

This is how the NRSV and the NIV translate that sentence (verse 17). Outside the context of this chapter the sound of the word ‘awesome’ can mean almost anything. The KJV translates it as ‘dreadful’. The message paraphrases it with ‘he whispered in awe.’ It just shows how slippery sound is. It’s meanings meander away from the original just as a sound itself floats away from the sounder.

Jacob has the astonishing experience of the ladder. There are angels ascending and descending. A visual reading of this possibly sees winged creatures filled with light going up and down. However angels are messengers. So can we conceptualise the angels as sounds going up and down? This makes the ladder a different proposition. It becomes a connection in a different way. Then through all the this sound God speaks to him.

Jacobs wakes from his sleep and speaks to himself. Within the text so far we mostly have descriptions of what people do or feel. Now we have a point where a character voices his own thoughts.

Sounding the self and listening to the self. I have read that it was the novel was the place where we truly got to the inner soundings of the protaganist. However there are strong pre-echoes to that in the ancient texts and here we see the inner workings of Jacob still grasping. But the process of letting go has started. Even though it’s just a tenth!

Genesis 29

There is something about Leah’s eyes (v.17). NIV says ‘weak‘ with a note ‘or delicate’. NRSV says ‘lovely‘ with a note ‘meaning uncertain’. KJV says she was ‘tender-eyed‘.

Does this echo Isaac’s blindness that Jacob took advantage of?

Her first son (v.32)  is called Reuben which means, ‘See, a son’. And she has a child because God sees that she is unloved.

Her second son is Simeon because God has heard that she was ‘hated’ (v.33).

Her third son is Levi because she hopes to truly attached to Jacob (v.34).

Her fourth son is Judah and she praises God (v.35).

The first two sons, Reuben and Simeon are given as a direct response by God to Leah’s plight.

Levi the third is now Leah’s hope of attachment. His children will become the priests of the nation.

Judah is Leah’s praise. Her sound has now turned away from her husband to God.

The text then says she stopped having children. Possibly now that her sound is oriented around God she no longer needs to have children.

So the strange eyed Leah is

  1. Seen
  2. Heard
  3. Hoping for attachment
  4. sounding praise


Genesis 30-31

These chapters are filled with conflict and negotiation. Leah and Rachel fight over the children and their husband. God is drawn into this row as well. Somehow his presence seems aloof. His sound is through the others or through the birth of the children. Jacob and Laban invoke God as the cause of their actions. God neither confirms nor denies…

Jacob gets the better of the wily Laban and Laban’s actions unite Leah and Rachel as they speak in one voice against their father. Rachel follows Jacob in his grasping by stealing Laban’s gods. Jacob and his cohort flee.

Why did you flee secretly and deceive me and not tell me? I would have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre.

Laban complains. But would he? With these two grasping, deceiving men, no sound is what it seems. The sounds of mirth, songs, tambourine and lyre are so far away from the story and almost serves as a dissonance. It’s a sound that could have been. Deep down this is the sound that we all want.

But lies and deception are the sounds that surround us.

Genesis 32

So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 
Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,
for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 
Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

Jacob is re-sounded. The grasper now is the striver. The re-sounding is costly. His hip is put out of joint.

God refuses to be sounded. His sound is the untold blessing upon this grasperstriver.

JacobIsrael sounds the space of the encounter. He calls this space the face of God, Peniel.

He likes naming places. He can’t grasp God’s name but he names the places that he meets him. The sounding of place allows the encounter to linger.


Genesis 33

And they wept

(Gen 33:4)

What is the sound of men weeping? In several cultures the weeping man is unacceptable. So the weeping man is an unknown sound and when the sound comes up it seems inhuman and alien.

But why do Jacob and Esau weep? It is unclear and the sounds of the text leave us guessing. Esau without pronouncing the sound of forgiveness seems to have forgiven Jacob. This without Jacob pronouncing the sound of apology.

Genesis 34

The sound of rape enters the scriptures. Previously men just took women. But here there is something wrong in that taking. A distinction is made. Is it merely that the brothers think that they have been dishonoured?

What about Dinah? Her name is sounded through the text. Yet she herself is silent in the text.

The chapter is filled with the sound of grasping. The sound of Jacob the grasper fills this text. Jacob’s response is at first silence (vs5) and then wispy complaint (vs30).

The sound of God his wholly absent from this chapter.

Genesis 35

A name is sounded. We don’t know why. But the sound is just there in the text.

Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried under the oak outside Bethel. So it was named Allon Bakuth. (Oak of weeping)


She is probably the unnamed nurse that came with Rebekah. We don’t know of her before, we don’t know of her later. And we don’t truly even know where she is in the story. Is she with Jacob? With Esau? With Isaac? But she is important. She is sounded and her place of burial is sounded.

Later Isaac is buried (Vs. What of Rebekah, his wife? We don’t hear of her anymore. Is her part in Jacob’s deceit the reason why she is silenced? Possibly this is why Deborah is sounded.

Jacob goes to Bethel,

where God talked with him
where God talked with him

(Vs13 and Vs14)

 The ‘with’ allows us to imagine conversation. An exchange of sounds. A sound isn’t used dominatingly upon the weaker one.

Yet Jacob is still dominating with his sound. When Rachel is dying her last recorded sound is the naming of the child who causes her death. Ben-oni the son of sorrow is renamed Benjamin. Jacob the grasper, who himself is renamed Israel (the striver) is still grasping to his old ways.

Genesis 36

Names. Sounds.

Memory. Connection. Identity.

Where I grew up, your family was key to your identity. Being a son of so and so was how you are introduced.

Things are a bit different now. In urban London sounds have been muffled as now our work seems to be the key to identity. In some ways this is good. We would rather be judged by our deeds than our parentage. Being from a middle class family I received many advantages purely because of my family connections.

However the muffling also means that the structures that define us are no longer sounded. So since we don’t speak about family but work there is an assumption that everyone is in their position because of their work. However familial background does increasingly define who walks in the corridors of power.

This passage is mostly about family; fathers, sons and wives are sounded. A small different sound almost unheard places itself in the middle.

he is the Anah who found the springs in the wilderness, as he pastured the donkeys of his father Zibeon

The sound of Anah is odd because he is not solely defined by his family, unlike the others in this passage. He is also defined by what he does.

The genealogies in the bible often do this. A familiar rhythm is disrupted. This disruption might be important, since sound alerts us to change and this might be for a reason.

Genesis 37

Listen to this dream I had

Listen… I had another dream


The telling of a dream is using sound to invoke image. The dreams themselves have no sound. No speech, no other sound. But it is through sound we know of Joseph’s dreams. The telling of dreams and their interpretation becomes core to the Joseph story. Here sound is used to bring out what is deep within the person.

Genesis 38

Again an odd sound is inserted into the flow of a pattern of sound. The story of  Jacob and his sons is interrupted by this story.  An astonishing story of Tamar’s ingenuity. Tamar becomes an important sound in many genealogies that follow. She becomes the ancestor of the kings. There are questions as to why these sounds are here. It feels like the musician who continues to improvise while the band plays on.

It is a story that breaks out. This is reflected in the naming of her first son. ‘Perez’ which means ‘breaking out.’


Genesis 39

The sound of Genesis 39 echoes Genesis 38. It might explain the presence of the break of Genesis 38.

Potiphar’s wife is a counterpoint sound to Tamar. Both are resourceful women able to negotiate their way through the world made in the male image. Both act cunningly for self-preservation. Yet they are at different ends of the spectrum.

Lie with me
Lie with me


In the previous story Judah wants to lie with Tamar. Here the gender roles are reversed but the power dynamic is the same.

but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.’


The listeners to the story know the reason for the scream. It is false. This is in full contrast to Dinah (Gen 34) who is silent. The sounds here are confusing and unknown. Potiphar’s wife’s sounds control the story. The sounds of the powerful normally do.

Joseph at lower end of the power dynamic loses out.


Genesis 40

Tell me your dreams


More dreams are sounded. These are not Joseph’s dreams. His prisonmates dreams are sounded so that Joseph can sound back their meanings. And he does. Not only does Joseph sound dreams, he sounds back others’ dreams.

Joseph wants to be remembered. (Vs14) But he is forgotten. (Vs23)

The KJV says

he forgat him

The word ‘forgat’ is archaic. But to my contemporary ear it sounds stronger than ‘forgot’. It feels as though a memory has been dumped. It isn’t just the slow fading of memory but rather the near intentional discarding of memory.

‘Forgat’ itself is now a word that we have forgot. Sounds so easily get lost.

Genesis 41

I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.

When this story is heard, in certain parts of the world the image of an Elvis style pharaoh, with the rock n’ roll groove pops up. The musical is one way in which the story reaches people. But it’s also probably the way in which it gets interpreted.

How do we interpret what we hear? Joseph is asked to interpret what someone else said he saw. We are always being asked to interpret, what we hear, what we see and the more subtle senses of touch and smell.

When reading scripture questions arise:

  • How do we interpret what we hear?
  • Whose interpretation are we hearing?
  • What are we actually hearing?

This is what hermeneutics deals with. However for the most part hermeneutics seems to remove the words from their sound properties. This is one of the rationales for these posts. Does sound provide a helpful hermeneutic that helps us to listen to the scriptures? Sounds obvious, but does it?

Genesis 42-45

This story of Joseph and his brothers through these chapters is very memorable. The story flits back and forth, from Caanan to Egypt to Caanan to Egypt and back to Caanan again.

Joseph, the brother is hidden from his brothers’ sight as he is now probably in Egyptian clothes. His voice is now unrecognizable, as he speaks in another language.

The sounds the characters exchange is thoroughly human, thoroughly ordinary.

Why did you bring this trouble on me by telling the man you had another brother?


Jacob’s complaint is reasonable. Why say more than you need to? There is a consistent sound of bargaining as the brothers negotiate for food and through Joseph’s seemingly strange directives. In the end when Joseph reveals himself and sends them back to fetch his father he says

Don’t quarrel on the way!


Back to their father, Jacob the grasper has had to let go of all that is precious to him. He now has to follow the sound to Egypt.

Genesis 46

Jacob, Jacob


The sound of God’s speech has been absent for a while. After Jacob’s wrestling we haven’t heard from him. God’s sounds seem to be strongest when Jacob is on the move. Possibly, it is moving from one place to another that makes us far more alert than being in a cosy settled state.

The contrast between the nomad and the settler is a deep background sound in scripture. Cain and Abel are the first archetypes within the texts. Through history the nomads and settlers have had deep tensions. Is the response to immigration today a reflection of this?

Genesis 47

Joseph’s sound here is ambiguous. On one leve it is distinctly unpleasant. He buys up all the land, the money and the people taking advantage of the famine. On level it is a canny way of being truly valued in Pharaoh’s eyes. And possibly it was a way in which he could keep his family safe.

Yet the sound of this narrative is uncomfortable. Should Joseph have done it this way? Should it be that ordinary people bear the brunt of famine? After all he was given insight so as to prepare for the famine. Should he have taken advantage of it in this way?

Joseph, the hero of the musicals and Sunday school lessons is an ambiguous sound. He is not altogether pleasant nor is he grating. Yet he is a sound that is remembered. For he sounded dreams and made meanings of them.

Genesis 48

Jacob’s sound is fading. As sound fades it becomes confused. The sound of the narrative is confused. Jacob declares Joseph’s sons as his own. But when he sees them he asks “Who are these”.

He pronounces blessings on Joseph and his sons. And the younger son is given the more important blessing. (Vs19.)

Joseph is given an extra bit of land in the promise.

As Jacob’s sound fades he transgresses convention.

The younger son (Ephraim) is given the blessing. (Vs17).
He gives Joseph extra land.

But then Jacob the grasper stole Esau’s blessing sound away from him.
He also tricked his way into gaining much wealth.

So it’s the continuing of a pattern. And yet as it fades we wonder: what else will be heard?

Genesis 49

Jacob utters his last sounds. They are difficult sounds. Some sons receive a good sound while others are given dissonant ones.

Rueben won’t excel, Simeon and Levi will be scattered.

Judah receives an extravagant and generous sound.

he washes his garments in wine
    and his robe in the blood of grapes;
his eyes are darker than wine,
    and his teeth whiter than milk.

Through these sounds Judah becomes a special one, holding a promise of kingship.

Depending on how you understand Jacob he riffs and improvises on all their names, sometimes with a blessing and sometimes with a harsh warning.

Jacob's sons

NameMeaning (all initially named by Leah and Rachel)Jacob's last words
ReubenSee, a sonYou shall not excel
Simeonhearing... shall be scattered
Levijoined... shall be scattered
JudahGod's PraiseYour brothers will praise you
DanJudgeDan will provide justice for his people.
NaphtaliWrestlingA doe who provides beautiful words
GadA troopA band of raiders will attack you
AsherHappyAsher's food will be rich and he will provide royal delicacies
IssacharRewardA strong donkey who will be a slave of forced labour
ZebulunHonoured dwellingWill become a haven for ships
JosephMay he addblesses
Benjamininitially son of my trouble changed to son of my right handhe is a ravenous wolf

There are several puns and allusions that are silent to me here since I don’t inhabit the sounds of the language. Yet it’s clear to see Jacob’s manipulations of the sounds his wives recorded for his sons. The malleability of the sound is resonant with the malleability of personhood and identity. Jacob could be merely observing his son’s current state. But he is also sounding their possible future state of being.

Genesis 50

The sound of Genesis comes to an end. Yet it will echo through the sacred texts of Jews and Christians. Jacob fades away and Joseph makes peace with his brothers. Joseph too fades.

The fading away of a person in the British society that I live in is mostly silent. Death is so hidden and often lonely. Jacob’s death and burial however is loud.

they lamented loudly and bitterly;


Lament at the time of death is a cry, a breath against the fading of breath. To be lamented is to be remembered, to live on in the breath of those who lament.

Joseph is embalmed and placed in a coffin but the our memories of those who pass on remain alive in ourselves.

Genesis, the prehistory of Israel now closes. The overture is done. Ready for raucous sounds of Exodus.

Exodus 1

The sounds of Joseph has faded. So much so that the Pharaoh

didn’t know him.

The recording of sound in ancient times was mostly through memory and voice. This nature of sound to quickly fade means that its preservation is through consistent sounding. Hence the repeated stories, the songs and epics of ancient times.

This pharaoh and the next aren’t named. Their sound is their oppression. Were the Israelites so disdainful that they couldn’t sound the name of their oppressors? Or was it fear?

The two who are named are the midwives. Shiprah and Puah. Meaning ‘beautiful’ and ‘splendid.’ But their names also sound like the words for ‘horn’ and ‘crying out’. The sound of their names carry connotations that are lost in translation.

However, their naming does denote their importance, especially in the absence of the naming of the pharaoh. Their names were sounded out over the years before this story was written down.

The command of the pharaoh is resisted and they lie to sound their way out of the situation. Here the lie, the misplaced sound is heard as a necessary thing, even a good thing. The fear of God overpowers the command of the pharaoh. The sound of the pharoah is met with resistance and misplaced sounds.


Exodus 2

There are several resonances through this text. The baby is put into a basket. The word for basket is similar to the word for ark in Noah’s days. With that resonance, the sounds of the water and the animals echo through this event.

Within the chapter there are cross resonances.

the baby cried. She had compassion on him

(Vs 6)

The Israelites groaned … cried out, and their cry for help… went up to God. God heard their groaning … and was concerned about them.


God (Elohim) seems distant here compared to the Pharoah’s daughter.

In the initial part of the story only Moses is named. All the other characters are not sounded. They are defined in their relationships and status rather than their names.

Only Moses is named.

Because I drew him out of the water.


he even drew water for us and watered the flock.

Back to the sound of water. The sound of Genesis flows into Exodus and Exodus itself will resonate with water.

Exodus 3

I have heard their cry


The cry of the Israelites has now come to me


In a short space God says twice that he has heard the cry.

Previously God called out to Adam and Eve who were hiding among trees. Now God calls from a bush. And God sounds his name to Moses.  He is not only the one who does. He is the one who is.

There is a sense that God in his is-ness that he is always hearing and always sounding. This makes for a difficult relationship. Living with children who sound insistently and constantly can be quite difficult. However, Jean-Luc Nancy, the French philosopher says that to be an ‘is’ is always being a ‘being with’.

This makes God not merely a fading sound but a presence that is intangible. Sound and fire are intangibles that can be heavily present.

I will be with you


It is this presence that Moses must sound out to a cynical, oppressed people.

They will listen to your voice


But in what sense will they listen?