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Exodus: Chapter 4

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1Then Moses answered, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.’ ” 2The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” 3And 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. 4Then 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.”

6Again, 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, b Sam: Heb The people of the land are now many as white as snow. 7Then 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. 9If 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.”

10But 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.” 11Then 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? 12Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” 13But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” 14Then 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. 15You 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. 16He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. 17Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”

18Moses 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.” 19The LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead.” 20So 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.

21And 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. 22Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. 23I 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.’ ”

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

27The 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. 28Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD with which he had sent him, and all the signs with which he had charged him. 29Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 30Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. 31The 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.


a Sam: Heb The people of the land are now many

b Gk Compare Syr Vg: Heb beaten, and the sin of your people

Text Commentary view alone
Commentary spanning earlier chapters

2.23–4.17 : God calls Moses.

In Midian the God of Israel's ancestors appears to Moses and summons him to take the lead in delivering Israel.

2.23–25 :

The transition to the next king does not improve conditions for the Israelites, but it will make possible Moses' return to Egypt ( 4.19 ). Though it is not stated that the Israelites cry out to God, nonetheless God hears them and is moved to the first overt divine action on behalf of all the slaves (cf. 1.20–21 ). Israel's cry will be echoed by Egypt's “loud cry” at the end ( 11.6; 12.30 ).

24 :

Remembered, or “focused attention on.” Covenant, Gen 12.1–3; 17; 26.2–5 .

3.1–6 :

God appears for the first time at Horeb (or Sinai). This theophany, or divine appearance, to Moses alone, prefigures the second, beginning in ch 19 , to all Israel.

1 :

The mountain of God, called both Horeb (as here) and Sinai ( 19.11 ), is probably a Midianite sacred place. Its location is unknown, but three poems support the notion here that it is southeast of Israel rather than in what we now call the Sinai Peninsula (Deut 33.2; Judg 5.4; Hab 3.3,7 ; see Midian on color Map 3 at end of book).

2 :

The angel (lit. “messenger”) will turn out to be the presence of the divine (vv. 4–6 ). Fire is often a form of the divine appearance (Gen 15.17; Ex 13.21; 19.18; 24.17; 40.38; Ps 104.3–4; Ezek 1.27 ).

5 :

Moses unexpectedly finds himself in a holy place (3.1n.; Gen 28.16–17); cf. Josh 5.15 .

6 :

The God of your father, Gen 26.24 . An alternate textual tradition reads: “the God of your ancestors” (cf. 3.15 ). The vision of God veiled in fire arouses dread ( 33.20 ), for divine holiness is experienced as a mysterious power that threatens human existence ( 19.10–13 ).

7–10 :

God commissions Moses.

8 :

A land flowing with milk and honey, a description with mythological overtones. The honey was probably a thick syrup made from grapes or dates. The Canaanites …, Similar lists of the peoples living in Canaan appear in Gen 10.15–20; 15.18–21; Ex 3.17; 13.5; Num 13.29; Deut 7.1 .

11–12 :

The first of Moses' four objections (v. 13; 4.1,10 ). God's promise will be confirmed retrospectively by a sign: The Israelites will follow Moses to worship at Mount Horeb/Sinai (v. 1; ch 19 ).

13–15 :

Moses' second question: He must know which of all the gods in his world is commissioning him. See Gen 32.27–29 .

14–15 :

God provides three forms of the divine name: “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” (one meaning of which is I AM WHO I AM ); “ehyeh,” (I AM ); and “yhwh”(probably pronounced Yahweh, it may mean “he who causes to be”; see translators' notes and To the Reader, p. xvii ). All three names are ambiguous, as is appropriate to the mysteriousness of Israel's God, though they may emphasize God's immanence. The structure of the longer name, I AM WHO I AM , is similar to that of another of God's self‐disclosures in connection with the name “YHWH”: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” ( 33.19; cf. Ezek 12.25a ). The name “YHWH” is here introduced as if for the first time ( 6.2–3 ; contrast Gen 4.26; 13.4 ).

16–22 :

God restates Moses' commission (cf. vv. 7–10 ).

18 :

God of the Hebrews, God does not hesitate to identify the divine self with displaced people ( 1.15n. ).

19–20 :


21–22 :

Not … empty‐handed, suggesting freed slaves ( 23.15; Deut 15.13 ). Plunder, suggesting victors after battle. The jewelry and clothing are received when Moses carries out his commission ( 11.2–3; 12.35–36 ). These play a fateful role at Sinai: Desired by God to build the shrine by which the divine presence can accompany Israel on its travels ( 25.1–9; 35.4–29 ), they will first be used in the people's own plan to force God's presence ( 32.1–4; 33.4–6 ).

4.1–9 :

In response to Moses' third objection he receives three more signs: staff to snake (vv. 2–5 ); diseased hand (vv. 6–8 ); and water to blood (v. 9 ). They differ from the first sign ( 3.12 ) since they are meant for persuasion in advance. The first of these signs anticipates the preface to the ten plagues ( 7.8–13 ), and the third will produce the first plague ( 7.14–24 ).

10–17 :

God counters Moses' fourth objection by designating Aaron as Moses' aide.

10 :

Slow of speech, may indicate a speech impediment, or metaphorically reflect Moses' reluctance to accept the divine commission. See also 6.12,30 .

11 :

In biblical thought human conditions are ascribed directly to God (Gen 16.2; Deut 32.39 ).

14 :

Aaron is here mentioned for the first time.

15–16 :

The relation between God and God's prophetic spokesperson is analogous to the relation between Moses and Aaron ( 7.1; cf. 4.28–30; 16.9–10 ).

4.18–31 : Moses returns to Egypt to prepare the people for liberation.

18–20 :

Moses begins the trip back to Egypt.

19 :

2.23 .

20 :

Only one of Moses' sons has been mentioned so far (2.22); see 18.3–4 .

21–23 :

Two major themes are introduced: the hard heart and the firstborn son.

21 :

Pharaoh's hard heart, or stubbornness, will play a major role in the liberation story. At first Pharaoh will harden his own heart ( 8.15,32; 9.34; cf. 7.13–14,22; 8.19; 9.7,35 ), but toward the end God will respond by hardening it for him ( 9.12; 10.1,20,27; 11.10; 14.4,8; cf. 14.17 ). In this introductory statement (cf. 7.3 ) God takes credit for the entire process. Pharaoh's stubbornness will give God ample opportunity to display the wonders that will force him to acknowledge the superior power of Israel's God ( 5.2n. ).

22–23 :

Firstborn son, a major theme of the entire book (vv. 24–26; 11.4–5; 12.12,29–34; 13.2,11–16; 22.29–30; 34.19–20 ). Since Pharaoh will not let God's firstborn go, his own firstborn and all the firstborn of Egypt will die. Henceforth all the firstborn of Israel will belong to God. (For Israel as God's firstborn son, see Jer 31.9; cf. Hos 11.1 ).

24–26 :

God attacks Moses to prevent his attempting to carry out the divine commission while his household is uncircumcised despite God's requirement for Israelites (Gen 17.9–14 ). Feet, a euphemism for the genitals (Isa 7.20 ). Zipporah's quick action and the application of the blood of circumcision save Moses' life at the beginning of the story, as the blood of the passover will save all Israel at the end ( 12.7,13,22–27; cf. 12.43–49 ).

26 :

Bridegroom of blood, the expression may reflect an ancient association of marriage and circumcision (cf. Gen 34.14–24 ).

27–31 :

Aaron joins Moses and begins acting as his spokesman.

27 :

The mountain of God, 3.1 .

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