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.” – Exodus 4:1-17 ESV
Moses has seen a burning bush, heard a disembodied voice, and been given a name to go with the source of that voice. By now, he is convinced that it is indeed Jehovah, “the existing one,” with whom he has been speaking, and he fully understands the parameters of the mission he has been given. All of that becomes clear from the very next words that come out of his mouth.
“…behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord [Jehovah] did not appear to you.’” – Exodus 4:1 ESV
Moses understands that he is to return to his people in Egypt and give them a message from Jehovah, but he is unconvinced that this mission will succeed. Despite all of God’s assurances, Moses is reluctant to accept the assignment he has been given. There can be little doubt that fear is a primary factor behind Moses’ reticence. He knows that a return to Egypt, even after his lengthy absence, will be risky and potentially deadly. He has a bounty on his head for the murder of an Egyptian, so returning to the scene of the crime doesn’t seem like a particularly smart thing to do.
And it is apparent that Moses has strong doubts about his ability to win over his fellow Hebrews. After all, he had spent the majority of his life living in luxury within the walls of Pharaoh’s palace. To the Israelites, Moses was a turncoat and a traitor. From their perspective, he had “slept” with the enemy and could not be trusted.
So, Moses steps up to the bar and pleads his case with the Almighty. This time, he argues that the Israelites will never believe that he has spoken with Jehovah. After all, no one has heard a word from the Lord for more than 400 years. During that extended period of silence, most of the Israelites had chosen to align themselves with one or more of the gods of Egypt. It was a common belief in those days that deities were regionally based. Their authority and sphere of influence were localized to a particular geographic area. The ancient pagan nations perceived each god or goddess as having a particular domain or sphere of power on the earth. They even assigned oversight of the different parts of that domain to different gods. So, there were gods of the forests, the crops, the mountains, the seas, and the rivers.
Moses feared that when he returned to Egypt declaring to have received a message from Jehovah, the Israelites would never believe him. Some would believe that Jehovah was somewhere back in Canaan and had forgotten all about them. Others would believe His power was limited and prove to be impotent in distant Egypt. Still, others would simply deem Moses a liar who never heard from Jehovah in the first place.
God listens patiently, then proceeds to assuage Moses’ fears with a convincing demonstration of power that was also meant to foreshadow His judgment. God ordered Moses to throw down his shepherd’s staff and, when he did, it was miraculously transformed into a snake. While it’s likely that this powerful visual demonstration got Moses’ attention, he may not have immediately recognized its meaning. God was making an important point that was meant to convey His supreme authority as the one true God.
In Egyptian culture, the snake played an important role. The Uraeus (“rearing cobra”) was the stylized form of an Egyptian cobra that graced the crown of the Pharaoh. Displayed with a flared neck and in an upright position as if preparing to strike, this symbolic image was meant to represent Pharaoh’s sovereignty, royalty, and divine authority.
Whether he realized it or not, Moses was standing before a living symbol of Pharaoh’s power and authority. And when God commanded Moses to pick up the snake by the tail, he must have had second thoughts. He didn’t have to be a snake charmer to know that this tactic would probably not turn out well. But he obeyed. And when he did, the snake turned back into a shepherd’s staff.
God immediately explained the meaning behind this powerful, yet petrifying demonstration. It was so “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” (Exodus 4:5 ESV). Jehovah, the existing one, would declare His presence in Egypt by having His appointed messenger easily manipulate the serpent of Egypt (Pharaoh). Every time Moses performed this miracle, it would deliver a powerful message to the people of Israel.
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings…” – Daniel 2:20-21 NLT
Jehovah was sovereign over all, including the Pharaoh who wore the symbol of a cobra on his crown. But Egypt’s sovereign would prove to be no match for the sovereign God of the universe. The Israelites would know that the God of their forefathers was amongst them and their days of suffering at the hands of the Egyptians were coming to an end.
But God had one more thing to show Moses. This time, He ordered Moses to put his hand inside his cloak, and when Moses pulled it back out, he was shocked to find it covered in leprosy. While Moses, the author, doesn’t divulge what went through his mind when this happened, it is safe to assume that he was not happy with the outcome. The very hand that had picked up the snake was now diseased and, therefore, unclean. I believe this particular sign was meant to deliver a personal message to Moses. He could refuse to answer God’s call and continue hiding in Midian, but he would pay dearly for it. When this encounter with God was over, Moses would return to Midian (“Put your hand back inside your cloak”), but he would eventually obey and make his way to Egypt.
God was not issuing Moses an invitation to participate in His divine deliverance of the people of Israel. It was a command and it was non-negotiable. In a sense, Moses had entered Midian as an unclean state. He had committed murder, and was damaged goods. But his impurity would be removed and he would become “the hand” of God, declaring the will of God to Pharaoh and the Israelites.
God informs Moses that these two signs were to be used to win over the people of Israel. But if they proved insufficient, Moses could use one more visual demonstration of God’s power. He could take some water from the life-giving Nile and transform it into blood. This great river that sustained all life in the region would become a source and symbol of death. Once again, God was revealing to Moses His power and sovereignty over all things.
But even after these incredible displays of God’s power, Moses continued to balk at obeying God’s command. This time, he argued that he was unqualified for the role.
“O my Lord, I am not an eloquent man, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant, for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10 NLT
In essence, Moses was telling God that He had chosen the wrong guy for the job. Moses begged God to reconsider and find someone else to take his place.
“O my Lord, please send anyone else whom you wish to send!” – Exodus 4:13 NLT
But God doesn’t make mistakes. He knew what He was doing and He would not take no for an answer. But He did make a concession. He agreed to give Moses an assistant, someone who could act as Moses’ mouthpiece before Pharaoh. But this was not a knee-jerk reaction or some kind of compromise on God’s part. It had all been planned ahead of time.
“What about your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak very well. Moreover, he is coming to meet you, and when he sees you he will be glad in his heart.” – Exodus 4:14 NLT
God had already arranged for Aaron to begin the long journey from Egypt to Midian, long before this conversation had begun. God had known in advance how this encounter with Moses was going to go, and God had always planned to have Aaron play a role in the deliverance of His people. And God told Moses exactly how this symbiotic relationship with his brother was going to work.
“So you are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth. And as for me, I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you both what you must do. He will speak for you to the people, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were his God. You will also take in your hand this staff, with which you will do the signs.” – Exodus 4:15-17 NLT
At this point, the discussion was over. Moses had nothing else to say. He had his assignment and had been given an assistant. Now all that was left to do was to make the long journey back to Egypt.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.