Exodus 4: God Gives Moses Signs

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Having just been reassured by God that the elders will back him and that Pharaoh will only resist until God’s wonders appear, Moses should be ready to go back to Egypt. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Moses says to God, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” Scholars believe the “they” in his objection refers to the people and not just the elders. In this way, Moses is not directly contradicting God’s assurances, but acknowledging that the future doesn’t always turn out the way one expects. Moses is imagining a future in which he claims to speak in the name of God, but the people want proof. Anyone can show up and say such words. He will have no credibility.

As part of the ongoing dialogue between God and Moses, God takes Moses’ objection seriously. In no way does He dismiss or belittle Moses’ concern. Indeed, God listens and takes Moses’ perspective into account. He hears the hesitation and offers additional resources for Moses to present to them.

First, God asks Moses, “What is that in your hand?” Moses replies, “A staff.” God tells him, “Throw it on the ground.” When Moses does that, the rod becomes a snake, and Moses draws back from it. Then the Lord tells Moses, “Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail.” Moses follows God’s command and, immediately, it returns to being a staff.

Few scholars believe this is a random set of events. Rather, all aspects are laden with meaning. Being a shepherd, Moses would have been carrying a staff – an ordinary item that God uses in an extraordinary way. (A possible precursor for the upcoming plagues.) And it becomes a snake – a symbol of authority encapsulated by the cobra on Pharaoh’s headdress. Moses’ reaction is normal and expected. But then God instructs him to grab it by the tail, an ominous move allowing the snake to turn and bite. Nonetheless, Moses does as he is told, and the snake becomes his staff. The staff, or scepter, is another symbol of authority and power. And many of these scepters are emblazoned with a serpent’s head. Such symbols represent the imperial sovereignty of the monarch. The purpose of the sign is “so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” It also demonstrates God’s dominion over all aspects of creation.

Without waiting for any comment from Moses, God says, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” Moses complies, and when he takes it out, “his hand is leprous, as white as snow.” Then God says, “Put your hand back into your cloak.” Moses does, and when he pulls it back out, it is restored like the rest of his body.

Scholars are unclear as to the nature of this disease. Traditionally, people have presumed it to be a case of leprosy. The Hebrew word, however, is a generic word referring to a whole group of diseases and is not the usual word for leprosy. The word is also used when describing a scaly crustiness on walls or clothing. The nature of the disease can be cured, but that does not seem to be the point here. In this instance, it is another example of God’s dominion over disease or sickness of any kind.

Moses does not ask for signs, but God’s rationale for giving him two signs is simple. “If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign.” This is conditional language leading some scholars to suggest that God doesn’t really know how the Israelites will respond, which appears to contradict His earlier reassurances to Moses that the people will listen to him. On the other hand, it is another indication that God is truly hearing Moses’ objections and responding to them. Perhaps, initially, the people will respond differently. After seeing the signs, they will then align themselves behind Moses. This is the first, but will not be the last, time God modifies an unconditional statement in light of human responses. (See Isa. 38:1-6.)

God continues, “If they will not believe even these two signs or heed you, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; the water that you shall take will become blood on the dry ground.” Technically, God does not call this a “sign.” It is also different in that nothing happens in front of Moses. This belongs to the future and will be the first of many plagues to befall the Egyptians. Again, the symbolism of the event cannot be denied. The Nile is the lifeblood of the Egyptians. God, once again, will illustrate His dominion over them through his control of the elements. Though unrequested, these signs will both embolden Moses and also provide him with resources for convincing the Israelites.

Nonetheless, for the third time, Moses resists God’s plan by saying, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” The Hebrew literally reads, “Not a man of words am I…for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I.” Some scholars have suggested that this refers to some sort of speech impediment even though no such thing is ever alluded to in the text. It is more likely that Moses feels his speaking skills have deteriorated after forty years tending sheep in Midian. Perhaps he has lost the intricacies of the Egyptian language or acknowledges he is too inexperienced to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelites.

God, again, is undeterred, yet He takes Moses’ objection seriously, saying, “Who gives human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” Moses has forgotten a basic tenet of prophecy. Prophets do not speak for themselves but are given all the words that need to be said. God will be with him all the way. Indeed, God has made his mouth as well as all his other senses. Notice, that God does not transform whatever the supposed difficulty is; He takes Moses as he is. But, and even more importantly, whatever the difficulty is, it doesn’t change God’s plan.

Running out of options, Moses finally blurts out, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” God has listened to every objection and shown Moses none of them are of any account. But the bottom line is that Moses really doesn’t want to go at all. “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses.” There is no indication how or whether the anger of God is manifested, but God is unwavering. He has chosen Moses for this task, and Moses it will be. But He continues to accommodate him. God moves to plan B. God arranges for Moses’ brother, Aaron, to come out to meet Moses.

God asks, “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; …when he sees you, his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him.”

Besides being the first mention of Moses’ brother, it seems as though God expects something like this by having Aaron already on his way to see Moses. The introduction of Aaron as a Levite foreshadows his role as chief priest of Israel. Yet, here, he will be in service to Moses, who in turn, is in service to God. Aaron’s role is symbolic in that it enhances Moses’ stature as spokesperson for God. Moses, as a stand in for God, doesn’t speak directly to anyone. He speaks to Aaron, and Aaron, in the role of prophet, shares God’s words with the people. In reality, however, Moses will do most of the talking. So perhaps this is only an interim plan.

With that, the dialogue comes to an abrupt end. God reminds him, “Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.” As Moses leaves his shepherding world, the staff will be the symbol of God’s authority. This meager staff will humble the Egyptians and provide the means of escape.

A few words need to be restated about this incredible dialogue where God insists and man resists. There is no other place the Bible where this happens. Many of the prophets wrote about their “call” in experiences. Several said, “God told me to speak and I spoke.” Moses, on the other hand, objects at every opportunity. He is simply not interested. Notice, however, that that doesn’t make any difference as far as God is concerned. And yet, God takes Moses as he is. He doesn’t try to transform him. There is no magical moment coming out of the heavens to alter him into a new personality or person. He is still Moses. Yet, God takes each and every one of his complaints and deals with them. Not only that, but then He sends him off with his rod. Moses is authorized, and he now shares the responsibility and the glory with his brother.