The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962) makes an interesting observation: “In the Bible, the key word for man’s response to God is ‘hearing,’ rather than ‘seeing’” (Vol. 2, p. 1). The reason for this may be because, according to biblical teaching, humans “cannot see My face” (Ex. 33: 20), even though a few have done it without providing a clear description of the divine (e.g., Ex. 24: 11; Isa. 6:1). The watchword of the Jewish faith is: “Hear, O Israel, the Eternal (YHWH) is our God, the Eternal is unique” (Deut. 6: 4).
The term ozen is used in the Bible to identify the human “ear” as part of the human body. It is the organ for hearing (Deut. 29:3). Just as humans have oznayim (dual of ozen), “ears,” (e.g. Gen. 20:8; 35:4), so do animals (e.g. Am. 3:12; Prov. 26:17). Figuratively speaking, God, too, has “ears” (Num. 11:18:“ozne YHWH” lit. “the ears of the Eternal”), for, as the psalmist points out, “Shall He who implants the ear not hear?” (Ps. 94: 9). On the other hand, idols, which do have ears, cannot hear and pay attention (Ps. 115: 5).
One can have “heavy ears” (Isa. 6: 10), refusing to hear God’s message or be deaf: “deaf, though it has ears” (oznayim lamo”) (Isa. 43: 8).
To “incline the ear” means to pay attention (Ps. 45:11; Jer. 7: 24). “Stopping the ear” refers to willful ignorance (Pr. 21: 13). An “uncircumcised ear” implies disobedience (Jer. 5:21). To “uncover the ear” has to do with showing respect for the other (I Sam. 20: 2) or to “disclose” the truth (Ruth 4: 4). To “pierce” someone’s ear is symbolic of servitude (Ex. 21:6; Deut. 15: 17). For God to give ear (ha-azina) means to listen to prayers (Ps. 55:1; 80:2). Even nature is called upon to give ear (ha-azinu) as witnesses to one’s pronouncements (Deut. 32:1; cf. Isa. 1: 2).
One can speculate that one of the main reasons why the Bible speaks so much about “hearing” is because most biblical Israelites had an “oral” culture and did not know how to read and write; they got their information by listening to oracles, prophetic speeches or priestly instructions (“Torah”). One scholar claims that “Ancient Israel before the seventh century BCE was largely non-literate” (Schniedewind). Literacy was most likely limited to those in the higher echelons of society, such as priests, scribes and wisdom teachers. The earliest known piece of writing in ancient Israel (in Hebrew/Canaanite) are the Gezer Calendar and the four ostraca found at Tel Arad (both from the 10th cent. BCE). Some of the oldest examples of biblical literature include “The Book of Yashar” (Jos. 10: 12-13), “The Song of Moses” (Ex. 15) and “The Song of Deborah” (Judg. 5). The Bible makes reference to written documents too: For example, “a bill of divorce” (sefer keritut) (Deut. 24: 1) and a scroll written by Barukh, Jeremiah’s secretary (Jer. 36: 4); it also requires that kings read the Torah (Deut. 17: 19), and mentions king Hezekiah reading documents (“sefarim,” II K. 19: 14)—all activities reflecting the actions of the intellectuals in society--, but it never refers to a “school” or to ordinary people reading or writing. The level of literacy increased as times went by. Already, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that during the First Revolt against the Romans, the rebels in Jerusalem “carried the fire to the place where the archives were deposited, and made haste to burn the contracts belonging to their creditors in order to dissolve their obligations to pay their debts” (Jewish War 2. 247).