Exodus 4: Divine Magic, Anger and The Return to Egypt

Burning Bush by Quirill at deviantart.com

Burning Bush by Quirill at deviantart.com

Exodus 4: 1-9- So That They May Believe

Then Moses answered, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but 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 the staff on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses drew back from it. 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail”– so he reached out his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand– 5 “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.”

 6 Again, the LORD said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” He put his hand into his cloak; and when he took it out, his hand was leprous, as white as snow. 7 Then God said, “Put your hand back into your cloak”– so he put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored like the rest of his body– 8 “If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign. 9 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; and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.”

Moses’ second objection or clarification leads us to the first demonstrations of divine power in the form of magic. In our modern disenchanted world, we may have trouble trusting a narrative where God acts in concrete physical and magical ways within the world but to remove the magic from Exodus, or the Bible in general, is to remove from the story the active engagement of God in the liberation of the people of Israel. Personally, I have little interest in the enlightenment era portrayal of God as ‘the divine clockmaker’ or ‘the prime mover’ who stands unengaged and uninvolved in the world. The bible does speak to a world where ‘good magic,’ the magic which kept the forces of death and darkness at bay was the purview of the temples and churches. While many of the more fundamentalist churches have been troubled by the popularity of books like the Harry Potter series, The Magicians, and many other fantasy series involving magicians, witches, and a world that is somehow still enchanted I personally enjoy these books and believe in a world that is still more magical than our scientific disenchantment would encourage. To limit faith to that which is seen, observed and controlled is to transform faith into some sort of disenchanted dogmatism. There was wisdom when the council of Nicaea included in the Nicene Creed’s first article “We believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible.” (Emphasis mine)

These three magical signs are in response to Moses’ fear that they will not believe him or listen. Here with each of these signs the emphasis on believing is placed. The staff becomes a snake and then again, a staff so that they may believe. The hand becomes diseased and then healed and whole again in case they do not believe the first sign, they may believe the second.  This skin disease, probably not Hansen’s disease or what we know today as leprosy, was still a fearful thing in the ancient world and particularly for the purity concerns of the ancient Jewish people. Leviticus chapters thirteen and fourteen are entirely dedicated for how the people are to deal with those who have a skin disease like this, this type of disease would prevent a descendant of Aaron from participating in or receiving the benefits of the offerings and the temple (Leviticus 22:4) the book of Numbers will remind the people again that people with a skin disease are to be put outside of the camp (Numbers 5:2) and later Miriam, Moses’ sister, when she and Aaron challenge Moses’ leadership will also be afflicted with this or a similar skin disease. (Numbers 12) This type of skin disease must have occupied a central place of fear or disgust for the Hebrew people and here the LORD uses this disease as a demonstration of the God of Israel’s power over this feared ailment. Finally, a third sign is given but not demonstrated but it foreshadows one of the coming signs in the conflict between the God of Israel and the leaders (and by extension gods) of Egypt.

The gospel of John will later share a similar view of the signs that Jesus did so that his followers may believe. While that gospel can state that many other signs other than those recorded were done: “But these were written so that you may come to believe” (John 20:31). Yet, these demonstrations of power tend not to create a robust and long lasting faith. One of the continual struggles throughout the book of Exodus will be the people’s continual inability to trust in either Moses or the LORD despite the incredible actions that God will do to bring the people out of Egypt, to bring them across the Red Sea and to sustain them in the wilderness. Yet, these signs and the conflict with Moses and the magicians of Egypt will be an essential part of the way the LORD will triumph and bring about the liberation of the people.

Exodus 4: 10-17- Prophetic Resistance and Divine Anger

 10 But Moses said to the LORD, “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.” 11 Then the LORD said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12 Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” 13 But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” 14 Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “What of your brother Aaron, the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. 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 what you shall do. 16 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. 17 Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”

Isaiah could proclaim he was a person of unclean lips, Jeremiah was only a boy too young to take up the calling God placed upon him, Gideon, Zechariah and countless others would wonder about their sufficiency for the task that God had entrusted to them. Moses has already asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (see 3:10) Now Moses claims he is slow of speech and slow of tongue (literally heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue). There is a parallel with the Apostle Paul who, particularly in his correspondence with the Corinthian churches, where his eloquence in person may not compare to the words of his letters. Yet he, like Moses,

“did not come proclaiming to you the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” 1 Corinthians 2: 1, 4

Moses’ proclamation of the message to the people of Israel and to Pharaoh will not depend upon his words but as demonstrated with the magical signs immediately before will predominantly be a display of God’s power working through Moses.  Yet, God also wants Moses to know that these words will come from God and that God can empower his mouth and tongue. Yet Moses persists in asking God to send someone else.

The anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses. This is a pregnant statement which may be connected to the strange interlude in verses 24-26, but the LORD’s anger about Moses’ unease at accepting this mantle does not prevent God from attempting to find an accommodation. Here Aaron enters the story as Moses’ previously unknown brother. Moses will not find a way out of the calling that the LORD has placed upon him but now there is the sharing of the mantle between the two brothers. Aaron will become the mouthpiece for Moses and Moses the mouthpiece for God. The words of God will now be doubly mediated but still effective. Aaron’s partnership with Moses will perhaps make the beginning of the process easier on Moses but there will come a time where Aaron and his sister Miriam will also become a challenge to Moses’ leadership of the community. (Numbers 12)

Exodus 4: 18-26- A Strange Interlude

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

 21 And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders 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 I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.'”

 24 On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.”

Moses returns to Jethro and requests his leave for the task the LORD has set before him and begins his journey back to Egypt with his wife and sons. The LORD is now speaking to Moses separate from the theophany at Mount Horeb giving him insight to both the situation back in Egypt and charging him to perform the acts of power he has been given. The dynamic of hardening Pharaoh’s heart will be a theme for much of the coming conflict between Moses and the LORD with Pharaoh. The charge to identify before Pharaoh that ‘Israel is my firstborn son’ serves multiple purposes. First, it demonstrated the close and intimate bond that the LORD has with the people of Israel and the vulnerability that the LORD experiences not only their suffering and oppression but also later the feeling of betrayal. Second, the phrase is connected in parallel to the foreshadowing of the final plague, the death of the firstborn sons in Egypt. Finally, it may be one of the textual insights into the strange interlude that comes immediately afterwards.

Detail of Ziporah from Boticelli's the Trials of Moses (1481-82)

Detail of Ziporah from Boticelli’s the Trials of Moses (1481-82)

Exodus 4: 24-26 is one of the strangest and most cryptic passages in all the bible. Generations of scholars have come at this passage and come away puzzled. Many scholars of a previous generation would have pointed to multiple sources that preceded the final composition of the book of Exodus and this portion being an inclusion from an ancient telling of this story but regardless of how we arrived at the canonical form of Exodus this story has survived any attempts at editing away the uncomfortable image of the LORD coming to kill the messenger. The Hebrew is ambiguous about whether the LORD is coming for one of Moses’ sons or for Moses himself and either argument can be made textually. If the LORD is coming for Moses it is due to the divine anger being kindled in 4: 14. If the LORD is coming for the first-born son of Moses it may be linked textually to the parallel Israel is my firstborn son/killing the firstborn son of Egypt, which may sound like a more stretched link but considering some of the discussion below about foreshadowing the Passover it at least needs to be considered. Regardless of the ambiguity the aggressor is clearly the LORD and the savior is clearly a woman.

One of the themes of the first portion of Exodus is the ways that women’s actions, often foreign women, led to the preservation of the children of the Israelites and particularly Moses. The midwives, Moses’ mother and sister, the daughter of Pharaoh and now Zipporah (the first one to receive a name) all have a part in the preservation of life and making possible the future liberation of the people. Perhaps due to her position as a daughter of Jethro, priest of Midian, she is aware of what is required in this type of encounter with the presence of the LORD. Even though the Israelites did not have women priestesses many Near Eastern cultures did use women in priestly roles. The quick circumcision of her son and then the touching of Moses’ feet (or genitals- feet is often a euphemism in the bible) combined with the unique proclamation of Moses being ‘a bridegroom of blood’ is enough to thwart the LORD’s attempt on Moses’ (or his son’s) life.

Some interesting things, at least to me, to reflect on: the LORD only tried to kill Moses. We have already seen that the LORD can make healthy skin instantly become diseased or turn water to blood and a staff into a snake and we are approaching a phenomenal display of divine power to bring the people out of Egypt, yet here the LORD is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to follow through on the threat to Moses’ life. Perhaps this is a place where Moses is learning that he will be called upon at times to stand up to the LORD, as he will both later in the book of Exodus and throughout the journey of the people of Israel to the promised land. Perhaps it has something to do with perception of uncleanness for Moses’ uncircumcised son (and perhaps self). Literarily the passage has a unique connection with the Passover as Carol Meyers can demonstrate when she says,

It foreshadows the way blood will save the firstborn Israelites from the final plague that God will visit upon the Egyptians (12: 7, 13, 22-23), and it anticipates the role of circumcision in defining the legitimate participants in the Passover (12: 43-49). (Myers, 2005, p. 66f.)

There are some similarities between this story and Jacob’s wrestling with God in Genesis 32: 22-32 and yet this story is unique in the LORD attempting to kill in this way. Perhaps the closest I can come to a resolution on this strange interlude begins in the description of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia by Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he is good. He’s the king, I tell you.” The LORD is many things, but safe is not among them. Walter Brueggemann can speak of the passages witness to, “the deep, untamed holiness of God.” (Actemeir, 1997, p. 2:718) Moses’ entry into the role of mediating God’s presence is one that can be threatening to his very life, and not only by Pharaoh. It is an uncomfortable passage but one that resonates with many of the prophets who found their lives surrendered to God’s message. The God who can turn healthy skin into diseased or a staff into a snake or who will unleash the plagues that will bring the empire of the day to its knees is many things, but safe is not one of them. We can only believe that God in God’s deep untamed holiness is indeed good, the king, and that God’s entry into the ordinary space of our world will ultimately be a force for setting the captives free.

Exodus 4: 27-31 Moses, Aaron and the Israelites

 27 The LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went; and he met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28 Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD with which he had sent him, and all the signs with which he had charged him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 30 Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. 31 The people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.

At this point in the narrative Aaron is the primary mouthpiece and actor before the people of Israel. Moses’ taking the central role will come soon enough, but for now Aaron acts as the LORD allowed to Moses in 4:14. The words and the signs produce within the people a hopeful faith and they are able to worship knowing their misery and oppression has been seen and heard. Moses has survived his experience with God on the mountaintop and in the wilderness and together he and Aaron and Zipporah have returned to Egypt and the struggle for the people of Israel’s freedom is about to begin. The struggle between the God of the Israelites and Pharaoh of Egypt will unleash a power previously unknown by the people and will allow a captive people to emerge from the superpower of the age.

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2 Responses to Exodus 4: Divine Magic, Anger and The Return to Egypt

  1. Pingback: Exodus 6: God’s Response and Moses’ Heritage | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Exodus 18: Jethro Models Faith, Worship and Leadership to Moses | Sign of the Rose

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