From a fresco in the Palazzo Constabili in Ferrara, Italy. Wikimedia.
This week’s reading of Va’era (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) relates how Moses goes about putting the squeeze on Pharaoh and extracting the children of Israel like a bad debt. But let’s look first at the background: at the character of Moses as revealed in the previous week’s reading (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1) and specifically at his persistent refusal to undertake his mission. His opposition to God’s demand takes the art of argument with the Almighty—the special gift that, as I’ve noted earlier, distinguishes both Abraham and Moses as the two great founders of the Jewish people—beyond the insistence on justice to a whole new level of recalcitrance.
What is Moses’ problem, exactly?
But Moses was herding the flock of Jethro his father-in-law
Who was priest of Midian, and he led the flock
Along the desert and he came to God’s mountain,
To Ḥorev, and an angel of the Lord appeared to him
In the heart of a flame out of a thistle.
And he looked over and here the thistle’s on fire
But the thistle is not eaten up.
And Moses said, Let me turn then and see
This great vision—why does the thistle not burn?
But the Lord saw that he was turning to see
And God called to him from inside the thistle saying, Moses, Moses,
And he said, I’m right here.
But He said, Don’t come here,
Shed your shoes from your feet
Because the site you’re standing on
Is sacred ground. And He said, I Myself am the God of your ancestor,
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.
But Moses hid his face
Because he didn’t dare gaze at God.
So far, like Jacob and Joseph before him, Moses has been situated as the manager of a flock belonging to a non-Jewish father-in-law. He displays a degree of spiritual curiosity and sensitivity by first becoming aware of the vision God shows him and then withdrawing from direct contact with the Almighty. But then God launches into what he wants Moses to do, and the trouble begins:
But now go and I will send you to Pharaoh
And you will take my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.
But Moses said to God, Who am I
That could go to Pharaoh and could take the children of Israel from Egypt?
. . . But the Lord said to him, What’s that in your hand?
And he said, A stick.
And He said, Throw it to the ground
And he threw it to the ground
And it became a snake, and Moses ran away from it.
But the Lord said to Moses, Reach out your hand
And grab its tail. And he reached out his hand and held it
And it became a stick in his hand.
And the Lord spoke to him more, Put your hand in your armpit.
And he put his hand in his armpit
And he took it out and here his hand was flaky as snow.
But He said, Return your hand to your armpit
And he returned his hand to his armpit
And he took it out of his armpit
And here it was like his own flesh again.
. . . .
And if they should not believe even these two signs and don’t obey you
Then take some Nile water and spill it on the land
And the water you take from the Nile
Will become blood on dry land.
What’s new in this scenario is that the Lord makes a promise or prediction and His interlocutor, the humble Moses, openly voices doubt. Abraham never dared question the great promises God made him; he just ventured to request that his rejected son Ishmael be given a little something of his own in the here and now, for which he was rewarded with another aria of promises from the Almighty. But here Moses openly questions the plausibility of the Lord’s demand, and in return the Lord obliges him with a burglar’s kit of tools of the trade: you’re going to be seeing Egyptian wizards, kid, so you’ll need a magical stick that turns into a snake—no, don’t run away—and you’re also going to be dealing with kvetchy Jews, so here’s a leprosy demonstration just for them. And if those don’t work, here’s the kicker: you’ll turn the Nile to blood.
In miniature the Lord has given Moses a snapshot of the future, including the Levitical function—the diagnosing of leprosy as a moral disease—that he will pass on to his priestly family and a little foretaste of what’s in store for Egypt in the turning of the Nile water into blood. So magic and death will be Moses’ to mete out—only, he isn’t buying:
But Moses said to the Lord, By my life milord
I am not a talker
Nor have I ever been,
Not even since you spoke to your servant.
Rather I have a ponderous mouth
And ponderous language personally.
But the Lord said to him, Who gave a man a mouth
Or who made him mute or deaf or sighted or blind
If not Myself, the Lord?
And now go and I Myself will be your mouth
And direct you in what you shall say.
But he said, By my life, milord
Kindly send in the hand of whomever you want to send.
And the Lord was irked at Moses and He said,
Isn’t there your brother Aaron the Levite?
I know he can talk the talk, that one,
And even now he’s coming out toward you
And he’ll see you and his heart will be well pleased.
And you can talk to him and put the word in his mouth
And I Myself will be in your mouth and in his mouth
And I’ll direct you in what you’ll do.
What Moses is doubting, then, is not so much the Lord’s predictive powers as His expectation that Moses can play the principal part in this grand production. Centuries earlier, Abraham had similarly exhibited skepticism at the divine promise that he’d be a father of nations, own half the Middle East, and so forth, but none of these required him to do anything. Moses is saying very clearly that he isn’t cut out for the job he’s been ordered to do, and the reason has something to do with his speech.
The source of Moses’ objection has been rendered in various translations as a speech impediment of some kind. The Midrash comes up with a host of legends to explain why the Lord should have chosen a man with such an incapacity. But is that what it is? Two times Moses refers to his speech. Here, in his first encounter with the Lord, he says that his speech is heavy. I’ve translated the phrase as “I have a ponderous mouth,” and I take it to mean that he speaks slowly and with much deliberateness: in effect, that he’s no salesman.
Fed up with the way things are going, the Lord then responds by saying he’ll send Aaron along. Instead of replying, Moses just goes off, rather unenthusiastically, to gather up his wife Tsipporah and their two sons and say goodbye to Jethro. And then something even weirder happens:
And Moses took his wife and his sons
And he sat them on the donkey
And he returned to the land of Egypt.
But Moses took God’s stick with him
And the Lord said to Moses
As you go along returning toward Egypt
Reflect on all the wonders I’ve put in your hand
To do them before Pharaoh. But I’ll reinforce his heart
And he won’t send the people. And you’ll say to Pharaoh,
So says the Lord, my firstborn is Israel
And I say to you, Send my children to worship Me
And if you refuse to send them
I Myself am going to kill your firstborn.
But it was on the way, at the lodging
And the Lord met him and sought to kill him
But Tsipporah took an adze
And struck the foreskin of her son
And touched it to his feet
And she said, For you are a bloody bridegroom to me.
And He let go of him, so she said,
A bloody bridegroom for the women who circumcise.
Some interpreters have insisted that the homicidal figure here isn’t the Lord but an angel of the Lord, as if that would make it any better. But there’s no angel in the text. It’s the Lord, who has gone from giving Moses a continual pep talk to trying to kill him in the desert. And who saves him? His non-Jewish wife Tsipporah. Here the commentators point out that since she’s descended from Abraham’s last wife Keturah, she’s obliged to perform the mitzvah of circumcision. But the question then arises: why has the Lord chosen as His main instrument a Jew so alienated from his people that he hasn’t even fulfilled the commandment to circumcise his son?
On this point, the Talmud is at exculpatory pains to argue that Moses just postponed the ceremony because he was in such a mad rush to get going; but there’s also no mention of his having circumcised the boy’s older brother. No, it takes his Midianite wife to fulfill the commandment and save Moses’ own life by prefiguring what all the Jews of Egypt will do when commanded to slaughter a lamb, the sacred animal of the Egyptians, and daub its blood on their doors. In cutting off her son’s foreskin with a crude stone blade and daubing Moses’ feet with the blood, she is saying that not only is her son irrevocably Jewish and at one with those same Jews of Egypt, but so is her husband: the rather alienated heir who is on his way to release them from their bondage. (In translating the word lamulot in her last line as “the women who circumcise,” I’m taking it, too, as an internal reference, in this case to the midwives whom Pharaoh earlier commanded to kill every male Israelite infant and whose bravery has secured the survival of the race.)
And Moses spoke to the children of Israel
But they didn’t obey Moses
Because they were panting and because of the hard work.
But the Lord spoke to Moses, saying
Come speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt
And he’ll send the children of Israel from his land.
But Moses spoke before the Lord to say,
Since the children of Israel didn’t obey me
How then shall Pharaoh obey me
When I have sealed lips?
. . . But the Lord said to Moses, Look
I will place you as God to Pharaoh
And Aaron your brother shall be your prophet.
You shall say all I command you and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh
And he’ll send the children of Israel from his land.
After the encounter in the desert where Tsipporah saves his hide, Moses has gone and tried to speak to both the Israelite slaves and to Pharaoh. The result for the Israelites has been even harder labor. This doesn’t bother God, but it does bother Moses, who here once again tries to be relieved from his mission. What I’ve translated as “sealed lips” is often rendered as “uncircumcised lips,” which some have interpreted as suggesting that God chose Moses because he spoke like an Egyptian. Rashi parses the phrase as meaning not uncircumcised like a man but uncircumcised like a fruit—referring to the biblical prohibition (Leviticus 19:23) against eating the fruit of a tree during its first three fruit-bearing years.
Why did the Lord choose a man whose lips are uncircumcised or like immature fruit? The nub of it goes back to that encounter in the desert with the Lord who wants to kill him, and the foreskin that Tsipporah cuts because she’s more connected to the Jewish tradition than is her husband. And that is the real difference between Moses and Aaron. Aaron is connected to the Jewish people, Aaron listens to the Jewish people, Aaron can talk to them as well as to Pharaoh.
But not so fast: at issue here isn’t linguistic facility but character. Moses has it, Aaron doesn’t. Much later on, at Mount Sinai, when Moses turns his back for forty days and nights and goes up the mountain to listen to the Lord dictate the Torah and every word of the Talmud, what does Aaron do? He heeds the idol-worshiping Jews whom his brother has dragged out of Egypt by the scruff of their necks, and makes a golden calf for them to dance around.
By contrast, so unconnected is Moses to these idolaters that he is perfectly willing to slaughter thousands of them when he comes down from the mountain and sees that abomination. But no less on display in this same episode is Moses’ characteristic recalcitrance. Refusing to accept God’s proposal—that He wipe out the Israelites altogether and instead “make a great nation” out of Moses’ descendants alone—he insists that the Lord bethink Himself and show divine mercy.
This is why the Lord chose Moses. He speaks ponderously. He isn’t a rabble rouser, he’s a thinker. He has a sealed mind, and sealed lips. On Sinai he listens intently to what the Lord says and brings it all down, sealed in his mind. A man whose province is blood, Moses is chosen specifically to tear the children of Israel out of idol worship—by any means necessary.
He is the revolution. Everybody else is expendable. Even Miriam his sister, who for the sin of gossiping about Moses’ foreign wife is punished with leprosy: the sin whose secret God confided to Moses when He gave him a trick meant just for Jewish consumption. Even, finally, Moses himself, married to a foreign priest’s daughter and tried by God in the desert to the point where he nearly dies.
For, just as Moses foresaw, neither the Israelites nor Pharaoh will do his bidding. Once the Lord steps in and destroys Egypt, and the Jews are set on their wanderings, no remnant of that generation, aside from the two spies Joshua and Caleb, will be allowed to enter the land of Israel. All of the faint-hearted idolaters will die in the desert, and only their children will see the promised land. As for Moses, in the final analysis he may have been right to shun his assignment. He will end the story as he began it, alone in the desert, dying at the hands of God who says one thing knowing perfectly well that in the fullness of time, given the human material, He will do another.