And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.
Moses had earlier objected that it wasn’t clear Who was sending him, to which God answered first with a brief “I AM” and then with details of both what Moses should do and what would happen. But despite God’s explicit promise that the elders would listen (shama’), Moses does not believe (‘aman). So God takes matters out of Moses’ hands (yad), so to speak:
And the LORD said unto him, What [is] that in thine hand? And he said, A rod. And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.
Freaky. God asks Moses if he recognizes what he holds in his hands. Moses thinks he does — it is a tool of his old trade, familiar from long use — but when unleashed (shalak) it becomes both potent and terrifying. Yet God teaches him how to tame it again:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand:
That they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee.
And the LORD said furthermore unto him, Put now thine hand into thy bosom. And he put his hand into his bosom: and when he took it out, behold, his hand [was] leprous as snow.
Pretty spooky, especially given how much we’ll hear about “leprosy” (tsara`) later. Though I suspect the bigger miracle is that it becomes cured:
And he said, Put thine hand into thy bosom again. And he put his hand into his bosom again; and plucked it out of his bosom, and, behold, it was turned again as his [other] flesh.
This is apparently a backup plan:
And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe thee, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign.
And there’s even more redundancy:
And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe also these two signs, neither hearken unto thy voice, that thou shalt take of the water of the river, and pour [it] upon the dry [land]: and the water which thou takest out of the river shall become blood upon the dry [land].
Alas, even that is not enough for Moses. His argument shifts from the skepticism of his audience to his own inadequacy:
And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I [am] not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I [am] slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.
And the LORD said unto him, Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD?
A very Job-ish response. It could mean either that God can fix Moses’ speech, or that God is better equipped to judge Moses’ capability than he is. God lays it on the line:
Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say.
Its hard to imagine God being any blunter. Moses, backed into a rhetorical corner, gives up any pretense of argument and resorts to whining:
And he said, O my Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand [of him whom] thou wilt send.
I find it interesting that he here (again) uses the title “Master” (‘Adonay), rather than name Yahweh or description God. I can almost see him cringing. This isn’t just laziness, or even uncertainty. It feels like real terror — and not of God, either. If so, of what?
My best guess is that Moses had long nurtured a deep sense of inadequacy, springing from his earlier failure to rescue his people. Perversely, the very depths of his desire to see them rescued may have contributed to the magnitude of his self-flagellation. He despised himself for his rash actions, and his long self-imposed exile only reinforced his sense of being discarded and useless — i.e., unworthy.
If that’s true, then God is actually confronting Moses with something more terrifying than death:
When one has made peace with a second-class lifestyle of unfulfilled expectations and stunted dreams, there is nothing more threatening than the reawakening of long-dormant hopes. It is almost like being healed of a self-inflicted leprosy: we are forced to feel again, after having anesthetized (euthanized?) the part of us that felt so much pain.
At least, that’s the only reason I can imagine for Moses responding so pathetically. No wonder God is ticked (‘aph):
And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses,
Though He condescends to letting Moses use Aaron as a crutch:
and he said, [Is] not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee: and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart. And thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do. And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, [even] he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.
Interesting how God’s primary desire is for Moses to rely on Him, but (at least in this case) He apparently accepts trusting in a human being as a viable alternative. With a miracle or two thrown in for good measure:
And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand, wherewith thou shalt do signs.
This must’ve made quite a story to tell Jethro:
And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which [are] in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace.
Hmm, I guess Moses wasn’t quite ready to share God’s plan, either out of uncertainly or the risk of embarrassment. I get the impression that some time passes before God gives Moses final marching orders:
And the LORD said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.
Perhaps Moses had been stalling, though that may be reading in too much. Anyway, he finally goes:
And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.
As instructed, he remembers to take his staff. God appears to give further instructions about the end-game in Egypt:
And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel [is] my son, [even] my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, [even] thy firstborn.
But then something appears to go wrong:
And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
Say what? Why now, when Moses was apparently acting in obedience?
Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast [it] at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband [art] thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband [thou art], because of the circumcision.
Hmm. Apparently Moses had gone native so much that he’d neglected the rite of circumcision, which became important as he was reunited with his people. But if its such a big deal, why didn’t God just tell Moses when giving other instructions? Was it somehow connected with the discussion of firstborn sons earlier? Is it possible God had told Moses, but he failed to act, and Zipporah had to do the dirty work? Might it even be that Moses had somehow gotten off track?
And the LORD said to Aaron, Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him.
That’s gotta be some reunion. Aaron had presumably heard nothing since Moses fled forty years ago; heck, he probably had seen little of Moses before then. To wander out vaguely into the wasteland (midbar), chasing ancient rumors, takes considerable faith. Which must’ve been greatly strengthened when he hears Moses’ story:
And Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which he had commanded him.
As promised, Aaron speaks, Moses signs, and the people believe:
And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel: And Aaron spake all the words which the LORD had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed: and when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped.
They worship (shachah) because they realize God saw (ra’ah) their suffering (`oniy), and perhaps also because God had deigned to visit (paqad) Moses. I wonder if they realize just how aggravating a visit that had been (at least for God, though arguably also for Moses :-).
God, forgive me for my lack of belief, and the way my past failures have warped my view of myself and You. Help to reinterpret the story of my life, so that I can understand that You are still capable of doing great things for and through me. Open my eyes to what You’ve placed in my hands, and people you’ve placed around me, that I can be strengthened through their faith and sacrifice. Restore hope, and cut away the alien despair I’ve allowed to enshroud me, that I may worship you as a true Israelite. By Jesus blood, Amen.
About the Title:
The “staff” in today’s title refers both to the rod that turns to a snake, as well as the people God brings around Moses.