Exodus 4
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
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.
1. they (twice)] not the Egyptians (Exodus 3:22), but the Israelites, as v. 30 shews. The verse is the sequel in J to Exodus 3:18.

1–9. Moses’ third difficulty: in spite of the assurance of Exodus 3:18 a, the Israelites will perhaps not listen to him, or believe in his divine commission. To enable him to meet this contingency, he is endowed with the power of performing three signs, which may serve as credentials of his commission.

And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod.
2. A rod] ‘The rod was one of the ancient elements in the tradition. Here, in J, it is represented as the shepherd’s staff which was naturally in Moses’ hands, and it becomes the medium of the display of the divine power to him. In E it is apparently given him by God (v. 17), and consequently bears the name ‘rod of God’ (v. 20b): as such, it is the instrument with which Moses achieves the wonders, Exodus 7:20 b, Exodus 9:23, Exodus 10:13’ (C.-H.; cf. below, p. 56). In P the rod appears in Aaron’s hands (cf. p. 55), and the occasion on which it is changed into a serpent is a different one (Exodus 7:8-13).

2–5. The first sign.

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.
3. a serpent] The marg. ‘Heb. nâḥâsh’ is added for the purpose of shewing that the Heb. word used here is different from the one used in Exodus 7:10-12 (P); see the marg. there.

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.
6–8. The second sign.

leprous, as white as snow] cf. Numbers 12:10, 2 Kings 5:27.

was turned] an archaism for ‘turned’ (as Jeremiah 31:18-19; Jeremiah 34:15, and elsewhere: see the writer’s Parallel Psalter, p. 483). The Heb. verb, as in the passages quoted, is an intransitive one, and is rendered in 2 Kings 5:14 (in the same expression) ‘came again.’

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.
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 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.
9. The third sign, to be resorted to only if necessary. Water taker from the Nile, and poured upon the earth, to be turned into blood.

the river (twice)] the Nile (Heb. ye’ôr): see on Exodus 1:22.

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.
10. Oh] In the Heb. a particle of entreaty, craving permission to speak: always followed by either Lord (‘Adonai,’ not ‘Jehovah’), v. 13, Joshua 7:8 al., or my lord, Genesis 43:20, Numbers 12:11 al.

] lit. a man of words, i.e. able to command words, fluent. Cf. Jeremiah’s objection (Exodus 1:6).

nor since, &c.] In giving him his commission, God has conferred upon him other powers (vv. 2–9), but not the gift of fluency.

heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue] i.e. slow to move them.

10–17. Moses’ fourth difficulty: he objects that he is not fluent, has no power to state his case, to convince or persuade the Israelites. He is promised, in reply, firstly, that God will be with him to give him words, and afterwards, as he still demurs, that Aaron shall be his spokesman.

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?
11. God gives man all his faculties; and therefore, it is implied, can give Moses fluency. The words are spoken in a tone of reproof.

Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say.
12. God further promises that He will be with his mouth (cf. Exodus 3:12), and teach him always what to say. Cf., of prophets, Deuteronomy 18:18, Jeremiah 1:9.

And he said, O my Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send.
13. Send, I pray thee, him whom thou wilt send, whoever it may be (for the idiom, see on Exodus 33:19). Moses assents, but unwillingly and ambiguously (cf. W. R. Smith [p. 40 n.], p. 163).

And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, 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.
14. the Levite] As Moses, equally with Aaron, belonged to the tribe of Levi (Exodus 2:1), the term, as applied distinctively to the latter, must denote, not ancestry, but profession. There must have been a period in the history of the ‘Levites,’ when the term was (McNeile) the official title of one who had received the training of a priest, regardless of the tribe of which he was a member by birth’ (cf. Jdg 17:7, where a member of the tribe of Judah is a ‘Levite’). See Moore, Judges, 383; McNeile, lxvi–lxviii. It was the duty of the priest to give tôrâh, or oral ‘direction,’ to the people (p. 79); hence some power of language might be presupposed in him. If the term has here, not a tribal sense, but the official sense just explained, there seed be no anachronism in its use.

that he] unlike Moses. The pron. is emphatic.

when he seeth thee, &c.] he will be glad, not only to meet thee, but also, it is implied, to cooperate with thee.

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.
15. put the words, &c.] cf. Numbers 22:38; Numbers 23:5; Numbers 23:12; Numbers 23:16.

I will be, &c.] The promise of v. 12 is extended here to both the brothers.

15, 16. Aaron is to be, as it were, Moses’ prophet, and to speak the words which Moses places in his mouth,—in particular, the words contained in Exodus 3:16-17,—putting them in such a way, and supporting them with such arguments, as may satisfy the people of the reality of Moses’ commission. Cf. in P Exodus 7:1.

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.
16. And he (emph.) shall be thy spokesman] Heb. shall speak for thee.

as God] or as a god,—inspiring him, as God (or a god) inspired (or was supposed to inspire) a prophet.

And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand, wherewith thou shalt do signs.
17–21. Here vv. 17–18, 20b–21 are assigned to E on account of their imperfect connexion with the context: Exodus 4:17 speaks of ‘the signs’ to be done with the rod, whereas only one sign to be performed with it has been enjoined in vv. 1–9; Exodus 4:21 mentions ‘portents’ to be done before the Pharaoh, whereas vv. 1–9 speak only of wonders to be wrought for the satisfaction of the people. Further, v. 19, from its contents, is not fitted to be the sequel of v. 18; it in fact states an alternative ground for Moses’ return into Egypt; and the name Jether (Jethro) makes it probable that v. 18 belongs to the same current of narrative as Exodus 3:1 and ch. 18 (i.e. E); hence v. 19 will be referred to J. V. 20b goes naturally with v. 17 (the rod).

17 (E). this rod, &c.] Not the rod of vv. 2–4 (with which only one sign was to be wrought), but the rod often mentioned in E as borne by Moses (v. 20b, Exodus 7:15; Exodus 7:17; Exodus 7:20, Exodus 9:23, Exodus 10:13, Exodus 14:16, Exodus 17:5; Exodus 17:9). In a previous part of E, which has not been preserved, it must have been told how Moses was equipped with a wonder-working rod, and what ‘the signs’ were which he was to perform with it before Pharaoh (so Di.).

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.
18. He first asks permission to leave his father-in-law (in whose service he was, Exodus 3:1), concealing his real purpose, and requesting only a temporary leave of absence.

my brethren] his own relations (the term ‘brethren’ including nephews, Genesis 13:8; Genesis 14:14; Genesis 24:27).

18–20. Moses prepares to return to Egypt.

And the LORD said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.
19. That Moses should now be commanded by God to do what he has already both determined to do, and obtained Jethro’s permission to do, is remarkable; and, as Dillm. remarks, can only be explained by the fact that the verse is by a different narrator from v. 18 (viz. J)1[107].

[107] ‘Said’ cannot, consistently with Hebrew grammar, be interpreted to mean ‘had said.’

which sought thy life] the Pharaoh and his servants (Exodus 2:15; Exodus cf.23).

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.
20a (J). his wife, &c.] according to E Moses went alone into Egypt, and was only joined by his wife and sons afterwards (Exodus 18:5).

his sons] The birth of only one son has been hitherto mentioned (Exodus 2:22); and Exodus 4:25 suggests strongly that only one son was with Moses at the time: Di. and others are therefore probably right in thinking that we should read his son, the plural being an alteration due to an editor or scribe who thought that account should be taken of Exodus 18:2-4.

20b (E). the rod of God] So Exodus 17:9, cf. on Exodus 4:17.

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.
21a. He is to do the portents which God has put in his hand, i.e. not the signs of vv. 2–9 (which were to be done before the people), but those enjoined in v. 17 (E), which (v. 21) were to be done by Moses before Pharaoh, by means of the ‘rod’: see p. 56.

wonders] portents. The Heb. môphçth is more than a ‘wonder’; it means an unusual phenomenon,—natural or supernatural, as the case might be,—arresting attention, and calling for explanation: see 1 Kings 13:3; 1 Kings 13:5 (EVV. sign); Deuteronomy 13:1-2; Deuteronomy 28:46, Isaiah 8:18; Isaiah 20:5 (EVV. wonder); Ezekiel 12:6; Ezekiel 12:11 (EVV. sign). Elsewhere in Ex. it occurs only in P (Exodus 7:3; Exodus 7:9, Exodus 11:9-10): in Dt., coupled with ‘signs,’ it is often used of the ‘portents’ wrought in Egypt (Deuteronomy 4:34, Deuteronomy 6:22, Deuteronomy 7:19 al.). It is quite different from the word rightly rendered wonders in Exodus 3:20, and elsewhere.

21b. but I] the pron. is emphatic. The effect of the portents would be only to ‘harden’ Pharaoh’s heart against letting the people go.

harden] Lit., as marg., make strong. See on Exodus 7:13.

21–23. A summary statement of what Moses is to do when he comes to negotiate with Pharaoh, of the failure of his first ‘portents’ to produce any effect upon him (v. 21), and of the threat which he is ultimately to hold out to him (v. 22 f.).

And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn:
22. Thus saith Jehovah] so Exodus 7:17; Exodus 8:1; Exodus 8:20; Exodus 11:4 (all J); with the God of the Hebrews added, Exodus 9:1; Exodus 9:13, Exodus 10:3 (also all J); and with the God of Israel added, Exodus 5:1, Exodus 32:27 (both E). None of these expressions occurs elsewhere in the Pent. The first is a formula used constantly by the prophets (e.g. 2 Kings 1:4; 2 Kings 1:6, Amos 1:3; Amos 1:6); and the third is used by them sometimes (as Jdg 6:8, Jeremiah 11:3).

my son, my firstborn] Israel, treated as an individual, is brought into the closest and dearest relation to Jehovah, as his ‘son’ (cf. Hosea 11:1), his ‘firstborn.’ In Jeremiah 31:9 Ephraim is called Jehovah’s firstborn,’ as in v. 20 His ‘dear son,’ and ‘delightsome child.’ The figure is more common in the plural of the individual Israelites; and it is then often used when the prophets desire to dwell upon the privileges bestowed on Israel by its Father, or the duties owed by it to its Father, or its unfilial behaviour towards Him: e.g. Hosea 1:10; Hosea 11:2-4; Isaiah 1:2; Isaiah 1:4; Deuteronomy 14:1; Deuteronomy 32:5-6; Deuteronomy 32:18-20; Jeremiah 3:14; Jeremiah 3:22; Jeremiah 4:22; Isaiah 63:8-10 (see further the writer’s note on Deuteronomy 32:5, p. 352). The idea of a nation or an individual being descended from a divine ancestor was common in antiquity (cf. Numbers 21:29, where the Moabites are called the ‘sons and daughters of Chĕmôsh’): but in such cases the relation was conceived as a physical one; in Israel the idea was spiritualized, and, in virtue of Jehovah’s ethical and spiritual character, made the expression of moral and spiritual relations.

22–23. The substance of the demand which Moses is to make of the Pharaoh, formulated with special reference to the final and severest plague, the 10th: Israel is Jehovah’s firstborn; if Pharaoh does not let Israel go, his own firstborn will be slain. The situation implied by these verses (‘have said,’ ‘hast refused’) is between the first nine plagues and the 10th; and so it has been conjectured, especially as this message to Pharaoh is never in the sequel actually given to him, that they originally stood before Exodus 10:28 (or Exodus 11:4), as J’s introduction to the 10th plague, and were removed here by the compiler, as an indication of the gist and purpose of the whole series of plagues.

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.
23. that he may serve me] i.e. hold a religious service (‘serve,’ as in Exodus 3:12 and frequently), viz. in the wilderness: cf. (also in J) Exodus 7:16, Exodus 8:1; Exodus 8:20, Exodus 9:1; Exodus 9:13, Exodus 10:3.

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
24. sought to kill him] ‘A primitive anthropomorphic way of saying that Moses fell dangerously ill’ (McNeile). The reason is commonly supposed to have been his neglect to circumcise his child (Genesis 17) But, as Di. remarks, ‘there is nothing in the narrative to suggest this; and an acquaintance with the command of Genesis 17 is as little pre-supposed by it as by Joshua 5:9’ (see further below, p. 33).

24–26. Continuation of v. 20a. On the journey to Egypt, Moses falls dangerously ill; but his wife, Zipporah, divining the cause, saves his life by circumcising his son, and casting his foreskin at Moses’ feet (thereby treating it symbolically as Moses’ foreskin). A remarkable, and evidently antique narrative, noticeable also on account of the strongly anthropomorphic representation of Yahweh (‘met him,’ and ‘sought to kill him’: cf. Genesis 2:4 to Genesis 3:24, Genesis 7:16, Genesis 11:5; Genesis 11:7 : see the writer’s Book of Genesis, pp. xx f., 35 f.).

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.
25. a flint] in accordance with the oldest custom (cf. Joshua 5:2-3; Joshua 24:30 LXX.); because the practice of circumcision originate among peoples, or in an age, in which metal knives were either not yet in use, or used but rarely (Di.).

and made it touch his feet] to connect him with what she had done, and make her son’s circumcision count as her husband’s. For the Heb., cf. Isaiah 6:7, Jeremiah 1:9.

a blood-bridegroom] Originally the expression may have denote the bridegroom, as one who (see below) was himself circumcised. Here however it is used in the sense of a bridegroom secured to his wife by the circumcision of his son.

So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.
26. let him alone] Heb. relaxed from him: cf. Jdg 11:37, Deuteronomy 9:14.

Then she said (viz. when she spoke the words given in v. 25b), ‘A blood-bridegroom,’ with regard to circumcisions] The last word is plural in the Heb. ‘Blood-bridegroom’ was apparently a current expression: and the passage seems to attribute to Zipporah the new sense of it explained in the last note but one.

It seems that in this narrative an archaic stage in the history of circumcision is referred to, which is not elsewhere mentioned in the OT. Circumcision is a rite which has been, and still is, largely practised in the world: among the Hebrews (besides its religious associations) its distinctive feature was that it was performed in infancy. Among the Arabs it is performed upon boys of ages varying, in different places, from 3 to 15; but in many parts of the world it is performed upon youths at the approach of puberty. A practice so widely diffused must rest upon some common principle: and the idea which appears generally to underlie circumcision is that it is a rite of initiation into manhood; a youth, till he has been circumcised, is not reckoned a full member of the tribe, or (as in Australia, for instance) allowed to marry. Now the fact that the Heb. word for ‘father-in-law’ (ḥôthçn) is derived from a root which in Arabic signifies to circumcise, seems to shew that it meant originally circumciser, and to indicate that in primitive times circumcision was among the Hebrews, as among the other nations just referred to, a general preliminary to marriage, which it was the duty of the future father-in-law to see enforced. These facts throw light upon the present narrative. The reason why Moses had incurred Jehovah’s wrath was because he was not a ‘blood-bridegroom,’ i.e. because he had not, according to established custom, submitted to circumcision before marriage: Zipporah, seizing a flint, circumcises her son instead of her husband, and so makes the latter symbolically a ‘blood-bridegroom,’ and delivers him from the wrath of Jehovah. At the same time, the circumcision of male infants is explained as a more humane substitute for the original circumcision of young men before marriage (Wellh. Hist. p. 340; EB. ii. 830, 832; DB. v. 622a). On circumcision, see now very fully Hastings’ Encycl. of Rel. and Ethics, s.v.

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.
27. Aaron (cf. v. 14) coming from Egypt by Divine command to it Moses, finds him in the ‘mountain of God,’ Horeb (Exodus 3:1). The verse is the continuation of vv. 17, 18, 20b. The ‘wilderness’ meant may be either the one beyond Horeb (Exodus 3:1), or the wilderness between Horeb and Egypt.

27–31. Moses and Aaron together communicate their commission to the people in Egypt, and are readily believed by them.

And Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which he had commanded him.
28. words … signs] the commission and promises of Exodus 3:10-15; and the ‘signs’ of Exodus 4:17. There does not seem to be any reference to the part which Aaron is to play as Moses’ spokesman (Exodus 4:15-16 J).

And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel:
Exodus 29-31. Execution of the commands given in Exodus 3:16, Exodus 4:2-9.

And Aaron spake all the words which the LORD had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people.
30a. Here Aaron appears as Moses’ spokesman, in accordance with vv. 15, 16 (J).

30b. and did] i.e. Aaron. But the Heb. is and he did, allowing reference to Moses, which is undoubtedly right (Di.). The ‘signs’ and those given to Moses in vv. 1–9.

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.
31. The people believe in Moses’ commission, as Jehovah had assured him that they would do (Exodus 3:18 a, Exodus 4:8-9); and bow the heads in reverence and gratitude when they hear that Jehovah has visited (Exodus 3:16) His people.

and when, &c.] Heb. and they heard …, and they bowed. LXX. for and they heard (וישמעו) have and they rejoiced (וישמחו); no doubt rightly.

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