RELIGION OF THE EAR
“Both the physical and spiritual ears are important in the exercise of our faith. The other senses may be important in their own ways, but if we have to choose just one of the senses, the Bible’s choice is always the sense of hearing, for it represents the religion of the ear.”
THE OLD MAN’S EYESIGHT had steadily worsened, and now he was as blind as a bat. The curtains had fallen on his eyesight. Realising that the end may not be far away and bent by age, the man suddenly felt the urgency to bless his beloved son – as was his duty as a father; it was also his desire for he loved Esau and favoured him more than Esau’s younger twin brother Jacob (Gen. 27). Esau was simpler and down to earth, preferring the rugged life of a hunter, an earthy sort of man – just the kind that Isaac (the old man) wanted his heir to be.
Isaac asked Esau to prepare a delicious meal, just the way he liked; his plan was to shower Esau with his patriarchal blessings after he had enjoyed his meal. Meanwhile, the shrewd Jacob who wanted to grab his father’s blessings meant for his brother, plotted with his mother (whose favourite son he was) to deceive his blind father. Jacob prepared the meal with the help of his mother and brought the food to Isaac.
At this point, we realise that this story is also about Isaac’s five senses. His eyesight was gone, but his other four senses were still intact and functioning. erefore, even though Isaac could not see, he could rely on his other senses. Let’s review each of them.
The first sense that Isaac used was his sense of hearing. When Jacob, with delicious food in his hands, spoke to him, Isaac engaged in a conversation with him. Something told him that the voice he heard was the voice of Jacob rather than that of Esau. His seasoned ears, having regularly heard the voices of his sons, created a good measure of doubt in him.
Therefore, he used his other senses to verify his suspicions. He invited Jacob to come closer so that he could touch the man’s hands. He knew that Esau had hairy hands, but did not realise that his crafty wife and younger son had conspired to deceive him by covering Jacob’s hands and neck with goatskin. Isaac felt the hairy hands for himself. His sense of touch assured him that it was Esau, but his ears were still not convinced. Again he asked if it was indeed hairy Esau, and Jacob lied to him.
Then blind Isaac asked for the food; as he tasted the food he was now more convinced that it was Esau who was standing near him. To be doubly sure, he asked his son to come closer. When he kissed his son, he smelled Esau’s clothes that Jacob was wearing, and became very convinced that it was indeed Esau.
In a vote of the five senses, the sense of sight had been disqualified, but three others (touch, smell, and taste) joined together to vote in the aﬃrmative that the son who was standing before his father for special blessings was in fact Esau. The lone dissenting voice was the sense of hearing. But in the face of the majority vote, the sense of hearing was discarded, and Isaac made a serious error in his judgement.
One of the lessons tucked away in this story is the critical importance of the sense of hearing. Both the physical and spiritual ears are important in the exercise of our faith. The other senses may be important in their own ways, but if we have to choose just one of the senses, the Bible’s choice is always the sense of hearing, for it represents the religion of the ear.
The Old Testament pits the religion of the ear against the popular religions of the eye. When Moses came down Mount Sinai with God’s laws etched on stone, he was carrying in his arms the basis of the religion of the ear. God’s Word was to be read and listened to, so that it could be obeyed. On the other hand, Aaron at the foot of the mountain had given way to popular pressure and created a religion of the eye, following the many religions of the eye in the ancient world. The basis of the religion of the golden calf was sight rather than hearing. Idols are seen, not heard, while the Word is read and heard.
THE PROPHETS SPOKE against the religion of the eye and some of the kings of Judah listened to them positively and sought to bring back the religion of the ear, with varying degrees of success. But the religion of the eye was lodged deeply in the idolatrous hearts of the people and diﬃcult to eradicate.
The New Testament also highlights the religion of the ear in favour of others. In the concluding remarks of His greatest sermon, the Lord Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish builders (Mt 7:24-27). Note that the wise and foolish builders both have to hear the words of Christ; what separates them is putting what they hear into practice – in short, obedience. Jesus took the religion of the ear deeper and emphasised obedience. And obedience comes from hearing.
Paul emphasised this point when he insisted that faith comes from hearing (Rom. 10:17) as opposed to any of the other senses. The religion of the ear is the biblical religion that God expects us to practise throughout history. The consistent message of the glorious Lord to His churches in Revelation is “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Note the emphasis on the ear and on hearing.
In his book The Humiliation of the Word, Jacques Ellul laments the church’s increasing spiritual deafness. In its embrace of its other senses, the church faces the danger of deceiving itself with what appears to be entertaining, and declining into a pragmatism that misleads it to make its assessment by what is seen and measured rather than by what is heard by its inner ears (leading to belief and obedience).
The story of Isaac, whose ears were outvoted by his other senses, is an apt parable and a present warning for the church today. The spiritual discipline of hearing is the most important discipline we need today. It will keep us on the straight and narrow.