Today, God wrought a miracle?
When Samuel Morse sent the message “What hath God wrought?” to inaugurate the first commercial telegraph line on this day in 1844, he was quoting a text that was both well-known and little understood. The phrase comes from The Book of Numbers, one of the books of the Pentateuch, or Old Testament. It is originally spoken by Balaam, a gentile prophet Moses and his flock meet as they’re loitering in the plains of Midian on the eastern shores of the Jordan River, their 40 years of wandering in the desert nearly complete, and the lands of their future home in Israel within eyesight. The quote would have been very familiar to people of Morse’s time, as the Bible was the primary text by which reading was taught, not to mention religious belief.
Balaam’s king, Balak, encourages him to help entice the Israelites to fall off the wagon of their monotheism. But Balaam can’t resist God, who meets with him at the altars Balaam builds, and on which he’d sacrificed oxen and sheep to get God’s attention. He goes into three oracular trances, and in the first declares that no curses, magical or human-made, will waylay the Chosen People. Seeing “What hath God wrought” is a proud declaration of the miracle of getting the Hebrews out of Egypt, and is an oblique reference to the military slaughter that will ensure them new digs in Israel (he ends the same vision by saying they won’t lie down until they’ve “drunk the blood of the slain”).
It’s intriguing that Morse chose this quote to inaugurate the birth of a new communications medium, and that he posed it as a question.