Chapter 4

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Although having been assured that the elders of Israel would heed his words, Moses was hesitant. Perhaps he recalled what had happened when he came to the defense of a fellow Hebrew and afterward tried to restore peace between two Hebrews who were quarreling. Moses felt that the people would not believe him, questioning that YHWH had indeed appeared to him. (4:1)

Through his angel, YHWH empowered Moses to perform three signs or miracles to back up his words. The angel told him to cast his rod on the ground,and it became a serpent from which Moses fled. Moses was then to grasp the serpent by the tail, and it became a “rod in his hand.” Next Moses was to place his hand into his bosom or the upper fold of his garment. Upon taking the hand out, he saw that it had turned white like snow as if stricken with leprosy. Upon returning his hand into his bosom and taking it out again, Moses saw that the skin of the hand looked like the rest of his skin (literally, “flesh”). The angel continued to speak, saying that, if the Israelites did not believe Moses and disregarded the first sign (the one involving the rod), they may believe the second sign (the change of the skin of the hand to a leprous condition and then back to a healthy state). If the people did not believe upon witnessing the two “signs,” Moses could take water from the Nile River and pour it on the ground. That water would become “blood on the dry ground.” It would not be transformed into human or animal blood but would come to have the appearance of blood. This is also the way in which Josephus (Antiquities, II, xii, 3) understood the miracle to take place when he referred to it as being done initially at Mount Sinai. “[Moses] also, upon God’s command, took some of the water that was near him and poured it upon the ground, and [he] saw the color was that of blood.” (4:2-9)

Despite being empowered to perform miracles, Moses considered himself unqualified for the commission that had been given to him. Forty years previously he had thought that fellow Hebrews would understand that he was God’s chosen instrument to deliver them from Egyptian enslavement. (7:7; Acts 7:23-25) At the age of 80, however, he presented reasons for being unsuitable to function in this capacity. Directing his words to YHWH, Moses said, “My Lord, I am not a man of words” [or eloquent], either yesterday or three days ago or since you have spoken to your servant, for I am slow of speech (weak-voiced [LXX]) and slow of tongue.” The expression “yesterday or three days ago” is a Hebrew idiom that may be understood to mean “recently or in the past.” Moses’ words indicate that he did not consider himself a good speaker at any time in the past nor then but regarded himself as a man who had difficulty in expressing himself. (4:10)

YHWH’s response, conveyed through his angel, reproved Moses. “Who made man’s mouth [gave man a mouth (LXX)], or who makes the speechless or the deaf, or the seeing or the blind? Is it not I, YHWH?” The various conditions in which humans may find themselves have come to be because YHWH has permitted them to exist. He does not directly cause individuals to be speechless, deaf, or blind. As the One who fully understands the organs involved in speaking, he can use whoever he may choose as his messengers. YHWH did not release Moses from the assignment he had given him, but instructed him to go and assured him that he would be with him and tell him what to say. Still, Moses continued to object to his being commissioned to appear before Pharaoh and to ask that his fellow Hebrews be liberated from enslavement. He requested that a more qualified person be sent and thereby incurred YHWH’s anger or displeasure. YHWH called Moses’ attention to his brother Aaron who could indeed speak and fill the role of his spokesman. At the time, Aaron was on his way to meet him and, “in his heart” or his inmost self, would be happy to see him. (4:11-14)

Moses was to be the one to relay the words that his brother Aaron would then speak. YHWH told Moses that he would be with his mouth and with that of Aaron, assuring Moses that whatever either one of them would say had his backing. Moreover, YHWH promised to teach both men what they were to do. Aaron would function as the spokesman for Moses to the people, acting as the “mouth” for him. Moses’s role would be that of God to Aaron, for Moses would be speaking the words that God had given him and would be functioning as his representative. The Septuagint indicates that, with reference to Aaron, Moses would be occupied with “matters pertaining to God.” To perform the signs or miracles that he had been empowered to do, Moses was instructed to take with him the rod he held in his hand (literally, the “rod of God” [“the rod (which was) from God” (LXX)]). (4:15-17)

Thereafter Moses asked his father-in-law Jethro (Reuel) whose flock he shepherded (3:1) for permission to return to his “brothers” or kinsmen in Egypt to see whether they were still alive (or how they were faring). Jethro wished him well, saying, “Go in peace.” (4:18)

The account does not reveal how Moses received the message from YHWH that instructed him to return to Egypt and informed him that all the men who had been seeking his soul, or wanting to take his life, were dead. With his wife Zipporah and his two sons Gershom and Eliezer (2:21, 22; 18:2-4), Moses departed. He seated his wife and children on a donkey (draft animals [LXX]), and he appears to have walked with the rod that he would later use to perform signs or miracles (literally, the “rod of God” [“the rod [which was] from God” (LXX)]). (4:19, 20)

YHWH directed Moses to perform all the “wonders” or miracles that he had been empowered to do before Pharaoh. The Egyptian ruler, however, would not be responsive to the request that the Israelites be permitted to leave the country. YHWH is quoted as saying that he would “harden [Pharaoh’s] heart,” allowing him to persist in his refusal to let the people depart. As he was the source of the signs Moses performed and the plagues that followed, YHWH hardened Pharaoh’s heart or caused him to be stubbornly defiant by means of them. The message to Pharaoh was to be: “Israel is my son, my firstborn [God’s people with whom he had a special relationship like that of a father to his firstborn son]. And I have said to you, Let my son go that he may serve me. And should you refuse to let him go, look, I will slay your son, your firstborn.” (4:21-23)

While Moses and his family were on their way and had stopped to rest for the night, something unexpected happened. According to a literal reading of the Hebrew text, “YHWH met him and sought to kill him. And Zipporah took a flint stone, cut off the foreskin of her son, and touched his feet and said, A bridegroom of blood you [are] to me. And he withdrew from him. Then she said, A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (4:24-26)

From the context, one cannot definitively determine whose life was in danger, whose feet the foreskin touched, whether the word for “feet” is used euphemistically to denote the organ of procreation, and what the expression “bridegroom of blood” meant. The obscurity of the Hebrew text has led to a variety of interpretive renderings. “On the journey, while they were encamped for the night, the LORD met Moses and would have killed him, but Zipporah picked up a sharp flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ genitals with it, saying, ‘You are my blood-bridegroom.’ So the LORD let Moses alone. It was on that occasion she said, ‘Blood-bridegroom by circumcision.’” (REB) “At a camping place on the way to Egypt, the LORD met Moses and tried to kill him. Then Zipporah, his wife, took a sharp stone, cut off the foreskin of her son, and touched Moses’ feet with it. Because of the rite of circumcision she said to Moses, ‘You are a husband of blood to me.’ And so the Lord spared Moses’ life.” (TEV) “One night while Moses was in camp, the LORD was about to kill him. But Zipporah circumcised her son with a flint knife. She touched his legs [either those of Moses or those of the boy (footnote)] with the skin she had cut off and said, ‘My dear son, this blood will protect you [or you are a man of blood (footnote)].’ So the LORD did not harm Moses. Then Zipporah said, ‘Yes, my dear, you are safe because of this circumcision.’” (CEV) In view of the fact that Moses was chosen to liberate his people from enslavement in Egypt, it appears puzzling that YHWH, by his representative angel, purposed to kill Moses. Contextually, however, Moses appears to be the one whose life was in danger, for the third person singular does not fit the reference to “sons.” One conjecture is that Moses also was not circumcised and that, vicariously by the circumcision of the firstborn son, he was circumcised and thus, in a new sense, became the bridegroom or husband of Zipporah through the blood of circumcision. It, however, is unlikely that Moses was uncircumcised, for baby boys were circumcised on the eighth day in obedience to the covenant God concluded with Abraham. (Genesis 17:9-14)

Like numerous modern translations, Targum Jonathan is specific in indicating that the life of Moses was in danger. It says that, because of the objection of Jethro, the father of Zipporah, Gershom was not circumcised but that Moses and Jethro made an agreement for the second son, Eliezer, to be circumcised. Targum Jonathan continues: “And Zipporah took a stone, and circumcised the foreskin of Gershom her son, and brought the severed part to the feet of the angel, the Destroyer, and said, The husband sought to circumcise, but the father-in-law obstructed him; and now let this blood of the circumcision atone for my husband. And the destroying angel desisted from him, so that Zipporah gave thanks, and said, How lovely is the blood of this circumcision that has delivered my husband from the angel of destruction!”

The Septuagint differs from the way the account about the circumcision is narrated in the Hebrew text. It indicates that, after Zipporah circumcised her son, she fell at the feet of the angel and said to him that the “blood of the circumcision is stopped” or had ceased to flow. The Septuagint concludes with the words, “And he [the angel] went away from him, for she said, The blood of the circumcision of my child is stopped.” Perhaps at this point, Zipporah and her two sons returned to the household of her father, for it was not until the Israelites left Egypt as a free people that she and her two sons were reunited with Moses. (4:24-26; 18:2-6)

Possibly through an angel, YHWH revealed himself to Aaron, directing him to go into the wilderness to meet his brother Moses. They met at the “mountain of God” (Horeb or Sinai). Aaron kissed his brother. Moses told Aaron all that YHWH had made known to him and about the signs or miracles that he had been empowered to perform. After arriving in Egypt, Moses and Aaron arranged for the elders of the people of Israel to assemble. Aaron, as Moses’ spokesman, related all the “words that YHWH had spoken to Moses and performed the signs before [their] eyes.” The assembled elders believed (“and rejoiced” [LXX]) that YHWH had “visited,” or turned his attention to, his people and had “seen” or become fully aware of their affliction. This moved them to bow their heads and to prostrate themselves in worship. (4:27-31)