Commentary on Exodus 3:1-7:7

Last updated: June 6, 2010

English Translation (ESV)

3:1 Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. 16 Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, 17 and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”’ 18 And they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’ 19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. 21 And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, 22 but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.”

4:1 Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” 2 The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” 3 And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. 4 But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand— 5 “that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” 6 Again, the Lord said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. 7 Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. 8 “If they will not believe you,” God said, “or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. 9 If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.”

10 But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” 11 Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” 13 But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” 14 Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. 15 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 both what to do. 16 He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. 17 And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.”

18 Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 19 And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand.

21 And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

27 The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28 And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. 30 Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. 31 And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped.

5:1 Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” 3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.” 5 And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!” 6 The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, 7 “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose on them, you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.”

10 So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will not give you straw. 11 Go and get your straw yourselves wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced in the least.’” 12 So the people were scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw. 13 The taskmasters were urgent, saying, “Complete your work, your daily task each day, as when there was straw.” 14 And the foremen of the people of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten and were asked, “Why have you not done all your task of making bricks today and yesterday, as in the past?”

15 Then the foremen of the people of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, “Why do you treat your servants like this? 16 No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ And behold, your servants are beaten; but the fault is in your own people.” 17 But he said, “You are idle, you are idle; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ 18 Go now and work. No straw will be given you, but you must still deliver the same number of bricks.” 19 The foremen of the people of Israel saw that they were in trouble when they said, “You shall by no means reduce your number of bricks, your daily task each day.” 20 They met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them, as they came out from Pharaoh; 21 and they said to them, “The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

22 Then Moses turned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? 23 For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.”

6:1 But the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.”

2 God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. 5 Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” 9 Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.

10 So the Lord said to Moses, 11 “Go in, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the people of Israel go out of his land.” 12 But Moses said to the Lord, “Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me. How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?” 13 But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and gave them a charge about the people of Israel and about Pharaoh king of Egypt: to bring the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt.

14 These are the heads of their fathers’ houses: the sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi; these are the clans of Reuben. 15 The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman; these are the clans of Simeon. 16 These are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, the years of the life of Levi being 137 years. 17 The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei, by their clans. 18 The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel, the years of the life of Kohath being 133 years. 19 The sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi. These are the clans of the Levites according to their generations. 20 Amram took as his wife Jochebed his father’s sister, and she bore him Aaron and Moses, the years of the life of Amram being 137 years. 21 The sons of Izhar: Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri. 22 The sons of Uzziel: Mishael, Elzaphan, and Sithri. 23 Aaron took as his wife Elisheba, the daughter of Amminadab and the sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 24 The sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph; these are the clans of the Korahites. 25 Eleazar, Aaron’s son, took as his wife one of the daughters of Putiel, and she bore him Phinehas. These are the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites by their clans.

26 These are the Aaron and Moses to whom the Lord said: “Bring out the people of Israel from the land of Egypt by their hosts.” 27 It was they who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt about bringing out the people of Israel from Egypt, this Moses and this Aaron.

28 On the day when the Lord spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, 29 the Lord said to Moses, “I am the Lord; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say to you.” 30 But Moses said to the Lord, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips. How will Pharaoh listen to me?”

7:1 And the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. 2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, 4 Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” 6 Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them. 7 Now Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh.

Notes

3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”

The term used for this bush, seneh, denotes a relatively small (at most a few feet in diameter) thorny bush/shrub. Moses, knowing how to keep warm on cold nights in the wilderness, would have been well aware of how quickly bushes burn and would thus have been struck by two factors: first, a single bush on a hillside without anyone else around it was on fire; and second, instead of burning up it burned on and on. Moses was naturally attracted to this unusual phenomenon and chose to try to understand it by getting closer. God thus used this burning bush, as he so often uses various sorts of circumstances, to begin to bring someone closer to himself.1

4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”

In the ancient Near East, addressing someone by saying his name twice was a way to express endearment, affection, and friendship. Thus Moses knew that he was being addressed by someone who was concerned about him.2

5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Taking off one’s sandals was a sign of respect and humility.3

8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

Milk and honey symbolize the land’s fertility. The milk in question is probably goat’s milk. The honey is a reference to the thick, sweet syrup produced from dates. When the Bible refers to bees’ honey it refers to the wild variety. Apiculture appears to have been unknown in ancient Israel.4

12 He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

This difficult verse has occasioned much exegesis. The first clause is clear enough. God’s “being with” someone is an assurance of protection. This is usually given at critical moments of human fear and indecision. In the present instance, Hebrew ‘ehyeh, “I shall be,” also artfully connects with the next section of the dialogue (v. 14).

The next clause is unclear. Hebrew ‘ot, “a sign,” is largely something that functions to corroborate either a promise or an appointment to office. But to what does the Hebrew demonstrative zeh, “this, that,” refer? Is it the spectacle at the bush? This would mean that the phenomenon is the sign that affirms the divinely appointed nature of Moses’ mission. Or is it his unique ability to negotiate freely and safely with the all-powerful pharaoh that will authenticate his calling? Either interpretation makes an independent statement of the last sentence of the verse, which begins with “when.” More difficult and less likely is the possibility that zeh refers to the following clause, yielding the understanding that the worship of God in freedom at Sinai will retroactively legitimate Moses’ role.5

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

Moses conjectures that the people will respond with a query. They will react to the announcement of his commission with the question, ‘What is his name?’ The question contains both a request for information and an explanation of its significance. These are two aspects of the one question. Clearly the people want to know more about God’s intention. By requesting his name, they seek to learn his new relationship to them. Formerly he related to them as the God of the Fathers. What will he be to Israel now?6

14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

The divine name, Yahweh, is derived from the stem meaning “to be.” Either it expresses the quality of absolute being or it means he causes to be.7

God’s response to Moses’ query cannot be the disclosure of a hitherto unknown name, for that would be unintelligible to the people and would not resolve Moses’ dilemma. However, taken together with the statement in 6:3, the implication is that the name YHVH only came into prominence as the characteristic personal name of the God of Israel in the time of Moses. This tradition accords with the facts that the various divine names found in Genesis are no longer used, except occasionally in poetic texts; that of all the personal names listed hitherto, none is constructed of the prefixed yeho-/yo- or the suffixed -yahu/-yah contractions of YHVH; that the first name of this type is yokheved (Jochebed), that of Moses’ mother. Ibn Ezra points out that Moses, in his direct speech, invariably uses the name YHVH, not elohim, “God.” Without doubt, the revelation of the divine name YHVH to Moses registers a new stage in the history of Israelite monotheism.8

15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

The divine name Yahweh is known in tradition as the Tetragrammaton, referring to the four consonants, Y-H-W-H. In Jewish tradition, before the Common Era (the era of Judaism and Christianity), uttering the divine name became a religious taboo. This religious development has influenced the writing of the Hebrew Bible. The four consonants of the divine name, yhwh, lack their original vowels. Scholars are left to reconstruct an original pronunciation of the name based on a study of comparative Semitic languages. A common vocalization of the name is “Yahweh,” with the vowels a and e, the form I use throughout this commentary. To ensure that the Tetragrammaton would not be pronounced the Masoretes inserted the vowels from the word adonay, “my Lord,” into the consonants yhwh. Their intention was that whenever the reader saw the Tetragrammaton, he or she would say adonay. The insertion of the vowels from the word adonay yields the name YeHoWaH for the Tetragrammaton (the first “a” becomes an “e” in Hebrew because of rules of phonology). This vocalization appears as “Jehovah” in the KJV (through Latin the Hebrew y is transliterated as j, and w as v). The NIV, NRSV, NJPS, and most other English versions translate the name Yahweh as “LORD.” The English “God” translates Hebrew elohim (Elohim) or variations of this word (e.g., el, El).9

18 And they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’

Nahum M. Sarna takes the request Moses is to make literally:10

In terms of the corvee system, the state-organized forced labor gangs, this limited request was not exceptional, as is proved by entries in extant logs of their Egyptian supervisors. There is also archaeological evidence for the custom among pastoral nomads of making periodic pilgrimages to sacred shrines in the wilderness. On both scores, therefore, the denial of these reasonable and basic demands of the Israelites exposes the true character of the pharaoh and the brutal nature of his tyrannical rule.

Douglas K. Stuart takes the request idiomatically:11

This latter request is easily misunderstood because of its wording here and in several subsequent locations in the story. “Let us make a three-day journey into the wilderness [NIV desert]” seems like a modest enough request. It actually implied, however, full and permanent departure from Egypt, yet without seeming to do so, and thus requires some explanation.

First, we must appreciate the way people in many Eastern societies, including those of the ancient Near East, have preferred to use suggestive, gentle, restrained, and limited ways of making requests as opposed to simply coming right out and asking for what they wanted. There are few analogies in North American/Western culture, but the following might be illustrative: “Would you please hand me the remote?” is actually a way of saying, “I’m going to control what we watch, if you don’t mind.” Likewise, “Dad, can I have the keys to the car?” usually means, “Dad, may I use the car for the next several hours, with no one else being able to use it?” Also, “How much money do you have on you?” is actually a way of indicating, “I’m planning to borrow some money from you.” In particular, English-speaking cultures do this sort of thing with requests for time; “Have you got a second?” is not literal at all but really is a way of saying, “I’d like to take an indefinite amount of your time,” and “He’ll be with you in a moment” is not literally true but can mean “Keep waiting; he’ll be free whenever he’s free.” In these expressions the amount of time literally stated is minuscule compared to the amount of time actually experienced.

This is how “Let us take a three-day journey” functions in the speech Moses and the elders of Israel were to make to Pharaoh. The time requested is minuscule compared to the time actually expected. “Three-day journey” was an idiom in the ancient world for “a major trip with formal consequences.” Pharaoh would have heard it that way and would also have heard it as meaning “We want to leave Egypt for however long we choose.” Moreover, the demand for the people to “offer sacrifices to the LORD our God” was yet another way of implying – without quite saying so in so many words – that the people would leave Egypt since, as develops later in actual event (10:25-26) the Israelites expected to worship Yahweh far from Egypt on Mount Sinai, completely out of and free from any Egyptian oversight, having taken all their possessions with them. Pharaoh’s continuing resistance to the demands of Yahweh must be read in this light. He knew from the start that the Israelites were not merely asking for three days off from work; they were asking to migrate from Egypt. Thus his resistance: what they were asking for was the very sort of thing that could create the situation his predecessor feared, namely, an Israelite movement of separate national identity, dissociating itself from Egypt and heading out into Asiatic reaches where the Israelites might join with anti-Egyptian forces and become effective enemies of Pharaoh and his people (see comments on 1:10).

6 Again, the Lord said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow.

Hebrew tsara’at, usually mistranslated “leprosy,” has none of the major symptoms of that malady, and the descriptions of tsara’at given in Leviticus 13-14 are incompatible with Hansen’s disease. The comparison to snow is not in respect of its whiteness but of its flakiness. Apart from the startling phenomenon of the sudden appearance and disappearance of the encrustation, this particular sign has an ominous aspect to it in that it is seen in the Bible as a divine punishment for human misbehavior.12

10 But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”

Moses’ statement in this verse has generated much misunderstanding on the part of those who have not recognized it as a ritual protest, and it has thus often been taken literally, as if Moses actually either had a speech defect or was incompetent as a public speaker or had forgotten his Egyptian. In fact, Moses did a huge amount of speaking in the remainder of the Pentateuchal narrative and law, yet nowhere did he reveal the slightest speech hesitancy or inability to make himself understood. Why, then, did he make the claim to be “slow of speech and tongue”? The answer lies not in physiology but in culture – in the style of ancient Near Eastern “exaggerated humility,” often employed in situations where one is appealing for help or mercy from someone else or showing one’s mannerly self-deprecation at being given a great assignment. . . .

Of particular interest for their close parallels with Exod 4:10 are Saul’s claim to be obscure in origin when he was in fact from a prominent family (1 Sam 9:21); David’s claim to be a nobody when in fact he was already a popular war hero (1 Sam 18:23); Hazael’s claim to be no better than a dog when he was in fact already a major leader in Syria (2 Kgs 8:13); Solomon’s assertion that he was only a child when in fact he was probably at least thirty years old at the time he became king (1 Kgs 3:7); and Paul’s claim to be the lowest of the low among God’s people (Eph 3:8; 1 Tim 1:15) when in fact he was an influential apostle. The closest parallel of all is that of Jeremiah’s protest (Jer 1:6), in which he claimed to be unable to talk, something he then did quite eloquently for the next forty-one years.

All of these parallels point to the simple fact that Moses was not speaking literally here but figuratively, responding to a great assignment with the proper sort of exaggerated humility and self-effacement expected and valued in his culture. There is no evidence anywhere in the Bible that he had any lack of skill in speech, public or private – and overwhelming evidence to the contrary.13

11-12 Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”

This hieros logos might seem to be tailored to the ritual protest Moses had just made, in that God referred to his control over human ability to speak. However, the fact that God also cited his control over human ability to hear and see (v. 11) – issues not in dispute since Moses did not claim to have any hearing or vision problem – shows that it is more a general encouragement for Moses, his protest having been figurative rather than literal. The promise of help in knowing what to say and how to say it (v. 12) is relevant to any prophetic call since what prophets do above all things is say what God teaches them to say. [“I will be with your mouth”] is exactly what God promised to both Moses and Aaron in v. 15. In light of the absence of any concern about Aaron’s ability to speak publicly, this is simply further evidence that Moses likewise had no speech defect. As the giver of all gifts, God knows people’s gifts and calls them to his service – and supports them in it – accordingly.14

20 So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand.

According to 18:2-5, Jethro brought Zipporah and the two sons from Midian to Sinai after the Exodus. This shows that they were not in Egypt all the while. Possibly, a fuller version of the story behind the incident of verses 24-26 explained why the family returned to Midian. A midrash has Aaron convincing Moses not to subject his family to the rigors of life in Egypt.15

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death.

The account in verses 24-26 has perplexed readers for centuries. It appears to be a truncated account of a larger, popular story that was known in Israel. It is not clear whether God was seeking to execute Moses or his son Gershom.

25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”

For reasons no longer clear to us, Zipporah knew that her son’s circumcision was required to save the life of her husband or son. The Hebrew text is not explicit over whose feet were touched by the foreskin. The phrase “bridegroom of blood” is also enigmatic.

26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

What are the implications that can be drawn from this sentence? First, the sentence functions as a redactional comment and is not itself part of the story. It seeks to explain the meaning of the phrase which had been used within the story. When Zipporah used the term hatan damim, it was in reference to the circumcision. In what way does this observation help? It seems evident that even when the story was being edited, the phrase ‘blood-bridegroom’ already presented problems. The comment does not attempt to paraphrase the terms in order to illuminate its meaning. Nor does it offer any explanation as to whom the phrase was addressed. Rather, it serves only to relate the enigmatic expression to the rite of circumcision. It is not at all clear that the redactor understood any longer what the phrase meant. His comment simply set it in relationship to the institution of circumcision. Whatever it meant, it belonged to the rite.

The effect of this redaction is twofold. It focused the whole emphasis of the passage on circumcision. Whatever Zipporah had done – she had cut off the foreskin, touched his ‘feet’, pronounced the words – comprised the act of circumcision, and this is what saved Moses. Again, the redactional comment served to eliminate other possible interpretations of what had transpired. Indeed all the elements which modern scholars have detected in the story, such as the apotropaic use of the blood, a puberty rite on the bridegroom, a sacrificial offering, are drained of their independent life and lumped together as part of circumcision. From the redactor’s point of view, the story does not explain the origin of circumcision, but rather circumcision explains the meaning of Zipporah’s action. This interpretation is, of course, the exact opposite of etiological. . . .

Finally, one can raise the question as to how the redactor understood the whole passage. As we have seen, the passage itself nowhere explains explicitly why Yahweh attacked Moses. It was only clear that what Zipporah did rescued him from death. The redactor’s contribution was to subsume all of Zipporah’s action under the rubric of circumcision. It was not the blood in itself which had power, nor the sign upon the legs, nor even the words which she had spoken. Rather all these elements were part of the rite of circumcision which was known to Israel. Nevertheless, the effect of this redaction is at least to imply that it was the failure of Moses to have the child circumcised which evoked the attack. Otherwise why would the circumcision of the child have spared his life? In sum, the traditional interpretation of the ‘pre-critical’ period reflects, to a large extent, the redactor’s perspective. What is surprising is to recognize that circumcision had already attained such an importance within Israel at this early date.16

30 Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people.

There is an underlying assumption in this part of the story of a special aspect of Aaron’s role: his ability to provide immediate credibility with his fellow Israelite elders in Egypt. Moses was an outsider, someone most of them probably had never met, even if they had heard of him, and someone they may have been afraid of, based on the tenor of the incident described in 2:11-14. Aaron, on the other hand, was almost surely an Israelite elder himself (how else would he have had the means and the freedom to leave Egypt and take a trip to meet Moses while most of the people were working seven days a week?), in a position to introduce Moses to the leadership of the people much as Barnabas did for Saul (Acts 9:26-28). Thus Aaron did the talking, told the whole story of Moses’ call, and performed at least two of the three signs (4:1-9) before the people (v. 30). He may have needed to perform only two signs, the staff-to-a-snake and the leprous hand, since v. 31 says that the people believed (the Hb. making it clear that the people, not merely the elders, believed) whereas 4:9 would seem to imply that the changing of water to blood was a backup sign in case of refusal to believe.17

3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.”

We might have expected Moses and Aaron to warn Pharaoh that God would strike him or the Egyptians. Do they actually believe that God might strike the Israelites or are they appealing to Pharaoh’s interests as a slave owner?18

6-9 The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose on them, you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.”

Pharaoh commands the taskmasters and the Israelite elders (the “officers” [foremen]) to intensify the Israelite oppression by making the people gather their own straw for construction without decreasing their work quota. Pharaoh states that the increased labor is intended to demonstrate that the message of Moses and Aaron was a lie. The Hebrew word for “lie” (seqer) indicates false prophecy in Jeremiah (e.g., Jer 5:31; 14:14; 20:6), recalling the prophetic role of Moses and Aaron as messengers of Yahweh. The dual role of the elders, as leaders of the Israelite people who must believe in the imminent salvation of Yahweh and the authority of Moses, and as part of Pharaoh’s planning group, raises the question of their loyalty. . . .19

10 So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will not give you straw.

The question of loyalty is further complicated with the public proclamation in Exod 5:10-14. The elders [foremen], along with the Egyptian taskmasters, are presented as delivering the message of Pharaoh in the form of a prophetic messenger announcement, “Thus said Pharaoh.” Pharaoh requires an equal amount of building without providing straw, setting the stage for a conflict between Yahweh and Pharaoh. The use of the prophetic messenger speech by representatives of Yahweh and Pharaoh frames the confrontation initially as one of equals. The elders are caught in the middle of the conflict. The scene ends with their being beaten by the Egyptian taskmasters for failing to meet their building quota (5:14).20

12 So the people were scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw.

What Pharaoh required was not simply that the Israelites themselves start gathering and chopping straw, a job previously done by others. Rather, “I will give you no straw” means that they could not have any or grow any of their own – no straw (teben) at all was to be provided to them – not by others, not by their own hand (v. 10). What they then had to do, according to v. 12, was go everywhere looking for stubble (qas) to serve as a substitute for straw (teben). Straw is preserved plant stalks from the more rigid long-stalk grains and vegetables. Straw comes from those plants that are harvested but whose stalks are inedible to humans and/or animals. Stubble is the very short remaining stalks of plants after harvesting: the bit between the root and where the reaping scythe or sickle can cut the plant. It was only a relatively poor substitute for straw, making the process of producing suitable bricks much harder, but it also was much harder to gather from harvested fields even when the season is right (requiring careful, tedious hand pulling and cutting) as compared to the purposely preserved (and usually bundled) straw and was almost hopelessly difficult to gather in the off season. As Job said, referring to a fruitless endeavor, “Will you frighten a windblown leaf and pursue dry chaff?” (Job 13:25 NRSV). The fact that the Israelites under the new rules could not meet their brick quotas is not surprising: Pharaoh had made the task virtually impossible. When the foremen, even under the penalty of being beaten, could not get the people to produce any more bricks (vv. 13-14), the situation was obviously intolerable. It is not surprising that an anguished appeal to Pharaoh for relief followed (vv. 15-16), even though such an appeal was essentially an act of desperation, presumably having little chance of success.21

20-21 They met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them, as they came out from Pharaoh; and they said to them, “The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

The people lose faith in Moses and Aaron but not in God.

3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them.

Were this statement to mean that a previously unknown divine Name – YHVH – is now to be revealed for the first time, the effect of the “I am” formula would be vitiated. The credibility of a promise is undermined, not enhanced, if it is issued by one whose name is unfamiliar. Furthermore, the phrase “I am YHVH” appears scores of times in the Bible and is widespread in corresponding form in Northwest Semitic royal inscriptions, such as “I am Mesha,” “I am Shalmaneser,” “I am Esarhaddon.” It cannot, therefore, reflect the introduction of a new name. On the contrary, precisely because the bearer of the name is well known, and its mention evokes such emotions as awe, reverence, honor, and fear, its use as the source and sanction of a law or edict reinforces its authority and encourages compliance. In the present context the invocation of a hitherto unknown divine name would hardly serve to counteract the widespread demoralization – which is, after all, the very function of God’s declaration.

In light of these considerations, the meaning of this verse needs to be reexamined. In the ancient Near Eastern world names in general, and the name of a god in particular, possessed a dynamic quality and were expressive of character, or attributes, and potency. The names of gods were immediately identified with their nature, status, and function, so that to say, “I did not make myself known to them by My name YHVH,” is to state that the patriarchs did not experience the essential power associated with the name YHVH. The promises made to them belonged to the distant future. The present reiteration of those promises exclusively in the name of YHVH means that their fulfillment is imminent. This, indeed, is how Rashi, Rashbam, Bekhor Shor, and others construed verses 2-3.

Support for the understanding that “knowing the name of YHVH” means witnessing or being made to experience the display of divine might is found in several biblical passages. The two most illuminating are Isaiah 52:6 and Jeremiah 16:21. The first reads: “Assuredly, My people shall learn [Heb. Yeda’] My name, / Assuredly [they shall learn] on that day / That I, the One who promised, / Am now at hand.” The second passage states: “Assuredly, I will teach them [Heb. Modiam], / Once and for all I will teach them [Heb. ‘odiem] / My power and My might. / And they shall learn [Heb. Ve-yade’u] that My name is the LORD [YHVH].”22

15 The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman; these are the clans of Simeon.

“The mention of ‘a Canaanite woman’ as the father of Shaul has two purposes: it contrasts to the line of Levi, which is purer Israelite as appropriate for the tribe of priests, and it reminds the reader that some prominent matriarchs in Israel were not Israelite by birth, a theme consistent with 12:38.”23

Bibliography

Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. Westminster Press, 1974.

Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. 1st ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.

Propp, William H.C. Exodus 1-18. Yale University Press, 1999.

Sarna, Nahum M. Exodus. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991.

Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus. Holman Reference, 2006.

1Stuart, Exodus, 109-110.

2Ibid., 113-114.

3Sarna, Exodus, 15.

4Ibid., 16.

5Ibid., 17.

6Childs, The Book of Exodus, 75.

7Sarna, Exodus, 17.

8Ibid., 18.

9Dozeman, Exodus, 136.

10Sarna, Exodus, 19.

11Stuart, Exodus, 124-125.

12Sarna, Exodus, 21.

13Stuart, Exodus, 133-135.

14Ibid., 135.

15Sarna, Exodus, 23.

16Childs, The Book of Exodus, 100-101.

17Stuart, Exodus, 157-158.

18Propp, Exodus 1-18, 253.

19Dozeman, Exodus, 158.

20Ibid.

21Stuart, Exodus, 164-165.

22Sarna, Exodus, 31.

23Stuart, Exodus, 177.

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