Signs for Moses, 1-17

Discussion starters – Exodus 3,4

  1. What do you think is the significance of the ‘flames of fire’ in chapter 3:2?  What biblical images and ideas does this conjure up?  How do you feel when you read that ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29)?
  2. Look at chapter 3:13-15.  In Old Testament times, a person’s ‘name’ represented his or her character.  What aspects of God’s character are revealed in this passage?  And in what ways does this revelation of God’s ‘name’ look forward to Christ?
  3. In chapter 3:11 Moses asks, “Who am I to…?”.  Then, in chapter 4:10-17 he complains that he feels unsuited to the task the Lord has given him to do.  What reasons or excuses might we come up with for not doing what we know God wants us to do?  And what might the Lord’s reply be to us?
  4. Chapters 3 and 4 describe a ‘theophany’ – an appearance of God.  The account is given in a form that is well-attested in Scripture and in other literature of the ancient Near East.


1 Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?”

2 Then the LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?”
“A staff,” he replied.
3 The LORD said, “Throw it on the ground.”
Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. 4 Then the LORD said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. 5 “This,” said the LORD, “is 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.”
6 Then the LORD said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was leprous, like snow.
7 “Now put it back into your cloak,” he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.
8 Then the LORD said, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first miraculous sign, they may believe the second. 9 But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.”

Here we have a continuation of the account of God’s call of Moses, and Moses’ resistance to that call.  Enns remarks that The OT contains a number of ‘call narratives’, the most important being: Joshua (Josh 1), Gideon (Judg 6), Samuel (1 Sam 3), Isaiah (Isa 6 and 40), Jeremiah (Jer 1), and Ezekiel (Ezek 1).  Although each of these has distinctive features, there are some common themes as well: (a) God takes the initiative; (b) the mundane occupation or circumstances of the recipient at the time of the call; (c) the recipient’s surprised reaction to the call (Enns: ‘a feeling of inadequacy and even reluctance is a perfectly normal reaction’).  Another common feature is the Lord’s assurance: “I will be with you” (either implied or explicitly stated).

Moses’ sense of inadequacy should be understood in the light of his previous failure (Ex 2:11-15) – to say nothing of his future one (Ex 5)!  As Motyer remarks, ‘the get-up-and-go which had made Moses a would-be liberator had evaporated under the sickening blow of rejection and the realisation of the royal power ranged against him.’  It will not be easy to persuade him that he is God’s man for the job.

“What if they do not believe me or listen to me?” – Bruckner points out that Moses’ first objection was based on the question, ‘Who am I?’  His second posed the question, ‘Who are you?’  Now, his third asks, ‘What if…?’  In fact, the question has been answered even before it has been asked (Ex 3:18), but either Moses didn’t hear or he didn’t believe the answer.

As Enns notes, we start to wonder if these are legitimate concerns, or whether Moses is trying to back out of his responsibility.  His concern is not about Pharaoh’s reaction, but the Israelites’.  After all, he is unlikely to have forgotten the unhappy experience of Ex 2:14.  Earlier failure feeds current self-doubt.

‘John the Baptist was never given the power to perform ‘signs’ of this sort (John 10:41); Christ refused to do them (Matt. 12:39), but many Old Testament characters were granted such validating evidence (e.g. Isa. 7:11).’ (Cole)

As Fretheim observes, ‘the trustworthiness of the leader is a central issue for any community, especially when such a one claims to speak for God.’

As it turns out, there was some substance in Moses’ fear that the people would not listen to him (compare Ex 4:31 with Ex 6:9,12).  See also the conditional language (“If they do not believe…”) in v8f.  Fretheim observes that ‘God often makes unconditional statements about the future, especially through the prophets, which may need to be recast in view of human behaviors (cf Isa. 38:1–6).

Then the Lord said to him – Fretheim observes the God does not adopt a ‘take it or leave it’ approach to Moses.  He is open to argument.  He answers the various objections with lasting (but not everlasting!) patience.

“A staff” – Probably his shepherd’s crook.

God uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary

As Enns, remarks, God could have achieved his results using extraordinary means (such as supernatural creatures).  But here (as so often elsewhere) he works with materials drawn from his own creation.  He works with an item that is already in Moses’ hand.

“A snake” – A snake was a symbol of Egyptian authority (think of a pharaoh’s cobra-like headdress).

It turned back into a staff – The snake – symbolising Egyptian authority – turns back into a symbol of the authority that God will exercise through Moses.

This sign would be performed before Pharaoh, but with no great effect (Ex 7:10-13).

“The Lord…has appeared to you” – This is a prominent theme throughout Exodus and (as Bruckner says) for Christians an anticipation of the incarnation.

“Put your hand inside your cloak” – lit. ‘on (the skin of) your chest.’  The phrase ‘on your chest’ occurs five times in v5f: this suggesting, according to Bruckner, an oral storytelling style.

Leprous, like snow – ‘Leprosy’ covered a range of skin conditions.  This looks like the symptoms of psoriasis.

The significance of this sign is, perhaps, the demonstration of authority over disease.  In this way it prefigures some of the plagues (e.g. the boils).

Blood – The third sign (water into blood) is not actually performed before Moses.  He is, as it were, to ‘keep it up his sleeve’, depending upon the Egyptians’ response to the first two signs.  It is a preview of the first plague (Ex 7:14-24).  Blood represents life and death: life for the Israelites, and death of the Egyptians.  It is ironic that it is water from the Nile that turns into blood, for the Nile was considered the life-source of the Egyptians.

Bruckner suggests that each of the three signs is a challenge to Egyptian authority: the serpent appearing on the front of Pharaoh’s headdress, as a symbol of his cobra-like power over his subjects; skin disease being widely regarded as a divine punishment (see (Num 12; 2 Kgs 5:22–27; 2 Chr 26:16–21); and the Nile being the source and symbol of Egypt’s prosperity.

On the exceptionality of miracles

As Bruckner remarks, not only did Pharaoh’s heart become increasingly hardened in the face of repeated miracles, but also ‘Israel would respond with “stiff necks” after they had become too accustomed to miraculous signs.’

Those today who wish to maintain a high level of expectancy regarding miracles (I mean real miracles!) should reflect on this.  While we would not wish for a moment to doubt God’s ability to grant miraculous signs as and when he chooses, there seem to be good scriptural reasons why we should regard these as not ordinary but extraordinary.

Could it be magic?

The three signs may look more like magic than miracle (compare, for example, the miracles of Jesus).  We may assume that just as God is using ordinary means (such as Moses' shepherds' crook), so also he is building on the ordinary assumptions, beliefs and experiences of the people involved.  Fretheim says: 'It is clear that Egyptian magicians had “secret arts” (Ex 7:11, 22; 8:7, 18) whereby they could do at least some of what God does here. Egyptian literature abounds with tales of magicians and their wonder-working powers, and the practitioners were important religious functionaries. Hence at least this genre of activity would have been familiar to Israel; they had some basis in their own experience in the light of which to interpret these feats...[They reveal] a God who acts in and through realities that relate to the context of which people are a part...In other contexts, God would use other means.'

Signs may dazzle, but they do not compel

‘To paraphrase Luke 16:31, “If they do not hear Moses …, neither will they be convinced” if water turns into blood (see Mark 8:12). Belief cannot be compelled by evidence or external signs, no matter how unusual. This may lie behind the remarkably brief notice of the doing of the signs (4:30). The people do believe, but we are not told how many signs Moses performed (at least two) or the degree to which the signs affected this outcome or even whether they were necessary for such a result. Later the people do not listen to Moses (6:9, 12). It should also be noted that Pharaoh was unconvinced by the same signs (7:13–14).’ (Fretheim)

An ‘open’ God?

Fretheim stresses the conditional nature of God’s words in these verse (“If they do not believe…”).  He argues from this that although God knew how Israel might respond, he did not know for sure how they would respond.  Fretheim concedes the possibility ‘that God really did know but that it was necessary, for reasons unstated, for God to put the matter this way’, but thinks that this interpretation leaves a question about why he was not being straight with Moses.

The question about whether or not the future is ‘open’ as far as God is concerned needs to be resolved with reference to a wider range of biblical data.  The reader is invited to peruse the relevant articles listed in the sidebar.

10 Moses said to the LORD, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” 11 The LORD said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12 Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

"I am slow of speech and tongue" - This is Moses' fourth objection.  The word translated 'slow' means 'heavy'; we refer today to those who speak with a 'heavy accent'.  It appears that Moses either had a speech impediment or was no longer fluent in Egyptian.

"Who gave man his mouth?" - Just as God is in control of human government and the natural elements (as just demonstrated), so he is also in control of human faculties.

God uses imperfect people

God could have done all this on his own, but he choose not to.  He call imperfect people to ministry.  He takes the gifts they have (of which, after all, he is the Giver), and works with them to achieve his purposes.  Moses has leadership ability (though he had failed in its exercise so far).  He has the ability to speak (though he has some kind of speech impediment).  God can work with that mixture of strength and weakness, of ability and disability.

As Fretheim says: ‘God knows perfectly well what Moses’ gifts are and has still chosen him. This is continuous with God’s earlier use of women (see at 1:15–22; 2:1–10) and illustrates God’s ways of choosing what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:26–29). In this sense, Moses’ ineloquence is turned into an asset.’

13 But Moses said, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.”
14 Then the LORD’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you. 15 You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. 16 He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. 17 But take this staff in your hand so you can perform miraculous signs with it.”

"O Lord, please send someone else to do it" - However, legitimate his objections have been, it is clear from this fifth objection that at heart Moses simply doesn't want the job.  Consequently, for the first time the Lord's anger burned against him.

The Lord's anger burned against Moses - 'Even after God’s patient assurances of his presence with Moses for the task ahead, Moses simply puts his foot down and says “no.” This is why the Lord became angry with him. It is not because he dared confront the Lord or because the Lord has patience with four questions but five is one too many. Moses’ error is in refusing to trust God’s answers.' (Enns)

"Aaron the Levite" - Of course, Moses did not need to be told which tribe his own brother came from.  The reader is being prepared for Aaron's future role as priest.

"It will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him" - It will be a partnership, but an unequal one.  God would not send Aaron instead of Moses, but with him.

In the event, Moses will have extended dialogue with Pharaoh, and Aaron's role as him mouthpiece will not be as prominent as we might have expected.  Fretheim describes the provision of Aaron's help as an 'interim measure'; as Moses develops in his role, he is able to act more independently.  Fretheim adds: 'At the same time, the choice of Aaron witnesses to the fact that God is not finally stymied by human intransigence. God is able to take what is now available in the human situation and work with that. Aaron’s special gifts now come into play. Aaron can speak well. Moreover, he is eager to see Moses again; his relationship with Moses is such that they should be able to work well together..

"Take this staff" - Moses would be leaving behind his life as a shepherd.  But his crook would have a significant role in what follows - in the plagues and in the parting of the sea.  A shepherd's crook would humble a world power.

Few volunteers

Goldingay asks: ‘Why does Exodus give so much space to an account of Moses’ commission? God’s leaders often need to be drafted. In politics, you have to run for election by the people. Moses runs from election by God. Being governed by people who want to exercise power is worrying. The person who leads had to be dragged into a position of leadership: it is a suggestive idea. There are few volunteers among the leaders of Israel or the leaders of the early church.’

Moses Returns to Egypt, 18-31

18 Then Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.”
Jethro said, “Go, and I wish you well.”
19 Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.
21 The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”
24 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)

As Chester remarks, there is much about this strange episode that we don't know:-

  1. We don’t know whom God attacked. Moses, or Gershom.  (Probably the former).
  2. We don’t know how God was about to kill him. Was he struck by a sudden illness, or attacked by an angel?
  3. We don’t know why God was about to kill him. It seems related in some way to circumcision, or, more precisely, to Moses' or Gershom's uncircumcision.
  4. We don’t know why Gershom was uncircumcised. It is likely that the Midianites only circumcised males as they reached adulthood, whereas the Israelites circumcised soon after birth.  Maybe Moses and Zipporah had conformed to Midianite culture.
  5. We don’t know how Zipporah knew what to do.  But it may be that she realised the need to circumcise her son as soon as possible (in the light of the previous question).
  6. We don’t know whether Zipporah’s words were said in love or anger. In love: "I've received you back from death as a bridegroom, this time through blood."  Or in anger: "I've been forced to circumcise my son against my will, so our marriage is stained with blood."  With Ex 18:2 in mind it is possible that this episode caused a rift in the marriage.
From slavery to slavery

‘The exodus is often presented as a movement from slavery to freedom. In fact, through the whole book, the only references to freedom come in the laws describing the circumstances in which an Israelite is to set free an Israelite slave (Exodus 21:2-11). The exodus does not lead to freedom. Quite the opposite.

‘In Ex 4:22-23, when God tells Pharaoh via Moses, “Let my son go, so that he may worship me”, the word for “worship” is (as we’ve seen) the same word as the word used to describe the slavery of Israel under the Egyptians. Ex 2:23, for example, speaks of how “the Israelites groaned in their slavery”. The word is used the describe Israel’s slavery under Egypt in Ex 1:14; 2:23; 5:9, 11; 6:6, 9. It is used to describe Israel’s service of God, especially through the worship in the tabernacle, in Ex 12:25-26; 13:5; 27:19; 30:16; 35:24; 36:1, 3, 5; 39:32, 42.

‘So in Ex 4:23 God literally says, “Let my son go, so that he may serve me”. We are presented with competing claims to the service of Israel. To whom does Israel belong? Both God and Pharaoh lay claim to Israel, though the nature of their respective rules is very different. Under Pharaoh’s rule the Israelites experienced work without rest, the state-sponsored murder of children, interference in family life and the confiscation of property. In contrast, to serve God is to find true freedom…

‘We are not simply freed from slavery to sin. We are certainly not set free for a life of self-indulgence (Galatians 5:13). Instead we have become slaves to righteousness. But this service leads to life. This slavery is freedom for we are liberated to be the people we are meant to be. We become fit for purpose.’


27 The LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the desert to meet Moses.” So he met Moses at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28 Then Moses told Aaron everything the LORD had sent him to say, and also about all the miraculous signs he had commanded him to perform.
29 Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, 30 and Aaron told them everything the LORD had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, 31 and they believed. And when they heard that the LORD was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.

As Moses moves towards his meeting with Pharaoh, a series of five brief encounters ensues.

The first of these encounters is with Jethro (18-20).

The second encounter is the Lord himself (21-23).

"I will kill your firstborn son" - This is the first mention of the killing of the firstborn.  See also Ex 6:14; 11:5; 12:12, 29; 13:2, 12–15; 22:29; 34:19–20.

The third encounter also involves the Lord, 24-26.  The text is not only abrupt, but also quite obscure.  It would seem that the Lord was about to kill Moses because his son was uncircumcised.  Zipporah, though a Midianite woman, understood the situation, and circumcised the boy herself.  That God was allowing time for her intervention is made clear by the words 'he was about to kill him'.  'Her action resolved the ambiguity of Moses’ identity as a Hebrew who was raised in Pharaoh’s house and married to a Midianite woman.' (Bruckner)

We find the text quite shocking.  Why, with all the preparation that God had done with Moses, was he then on the point of killing him?  As with Acts 5:1-11, we would prefer to delete this account.  But both account seem to record a one-off act of God (or in this case, an intended act of God), occasioned by the people and circumstances involved.

The fourth encounter is a meeting between Moses and Aaron, 27-31.