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Moses and the burning bush - Jean Baptiste van Loo (1684-1745)

God assigned Moses a critical task – he must lead the Israelites out of captivity. But Moses is afraid. He said,

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

God said to Moses, “What is that in your hand?”

“A staff,” Moses replied.

The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.”

Moses threw the staff on the ground and it became a snake and he ran from it.

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Then the Lord said to him,

“Reach out and take the snake by the tail.”

Burning Bush - 17th Century (Sebastien Bourdon)So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand.

“This,” the Lord said, “is so they may believe that the Lord has appeared to you.”

Then the Lord said, ‘Put your hands inside your cloak.”

So Moses put his hand into his cloak and when he took it out, the skin was leprous – it had become as white as a snow.

“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 appearing like the rest of his flesh.

Then God said,

“If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. 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.”

Moses said to God, “Pardon your servant, Lord, but I have never been eloquent, not now, not ever. I am slow of speech and tongue.”

The Lord said to him,

“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go. I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”

God’s anger burned 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 he will be glad to see you. 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. He will speak to the people for you and it will be as if he were your mouth. But take this staff in your hand so you can perform signs with it.”

What the story means to us today

In this story, God addresses, and solves, three problems. He calms Moses’ fear, offers signs to help others believe, and assigns Aaron as a substitute for Moses’ faltering voice. He assigns the mission to Moses despite his strong protests.

God insists Moses take on the task of delivering the Israelites from Egypt. It doesn’t matter that Moses is afraid or that he cannot speak well. He is God’s servant and must do as God says. Later we will see that God was of course, right all along. Moses will complete the task in spectacular fashion.

God has plans for each of us. We may not know the plan or recognize its importance, but each of us plays a part in the world we share together. It’s our choice whether to play that part with no direction or accept God’s willingness to lead us.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Who put a mouth onto a man?

Moses and the burning bush - Henry Ossawa TannerMoses argues that he is “heavy of tongue”, that he cannot adequately render God’s message to the people, Moses is afraid and fears he is inadequate. God, however, pushes Moses to accept the task and tries to build his confidence. God presents a rhetorical question: “Who put a mouth into a man? Who gave human beings their mouths?” God’s message to Moses is clear: “You are just as I made you and the power to overcome any obstacle belongs to me.”

Moses’ final attempt to evade God’s assignment

Moses’ final plea is comically simple: “Excuse me Lord, but please send someone else.”

Moses ran out of excuses and simply asks to relinquish the task God assigns him. His request is equivalent to a child challenging a parent over a task they wish to avoid.

This of course, angers God. God is patient but he expects us to obey him. Still, despite his anger, God sees Moses is afraid and out of compassion, allows Moses’ brother Aaron to speak for him. He doesn’t release Moses from his obligation to lead Israel from bondage, but rather, offers a solution to quell Moses’ fear.

God’s promising sign

God tells Moses,

“I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship me on this mountain.”

In other words, when the Israelites find themselves freed from the land of Egypt and on this very mountain, they will know it was God who delivered them. In the meantime, Moses and the Israelites will be required to trust God has a plan and the power to deliver.

Could Moses’ signs be deceptive magic tricks?

A staff turns into a snake? A hand placed inside a cloak becomes leprous? Water from the River Nile turns into blood? Could these miracles be tricks, acts of deception?

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Moses and the burning bush - Yoram RaananThe Bible provides many examples of miracles and signs used to accredit God’s prophets and validate their message. When Elijah raised the Zarephathite woman’s son from the dead (1 Kings 17:24), she responded,

“Now I know you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord spoken from your mouth is truth.”

Divinity implies something beyond humanity and proof must be provided to solicit people’s belief. Moses must prove to the Israelites and Egyptians that his message comes from a higher power.

Inevitably, modern-day readers struggle to believe without seeing the miracles firsthand. The acts are so difficult to fathom, our minds seek ways to fit the act into a preconceived framework so that it makes sense to us. For most, this means proposing the miracle or sign was a trick of some sort.

We presume ancient peoples must have been naïve, easy to trick, that they were inexperienced or not as intelligent as modern-day humans. After all, they were much less sophisticated than us. However, scientists believe this is not the case. In fact, Stanford University researchers propose human intelligence peaked sometime around or shortly before Moses’ time. The people of Moses’ day were not ignorant. Quite contrary – they were extremely intelligent, at least as intelligent as we are today. They pioneered advanced mathematical concepts that are still used today. They introduced remarkable engineering principles and created unmatched works of art. They had the resources and intelligence to build modern-day infrastructure, tools, metal, and even the Great Pyramids. To presume Moses tricked the leaders of Egypt is an ignorant, incongruous means to explain away the miraculous signs Moses provided.

The science and history behind the story

The staff and the serpent and its underlying meaning to ancient Egypt

God tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground. When he does, it turns into a snake. This was not an illusion. Moses fled the snake indicating he truly thought it was a viper. But the snake may have an underlying meaning that would have been clear to the ancient Israelites and Egyptians. The Pharaoh wore a headdress with a uraeus, or cobra, emblazoned on it. The snake may have symbolized Egypt and its leadership.

Additionally, in Exodus 7:9-10, a different Hebrew word, “tannin”, is used for the snake when Aaron casts his staff on the ground before Pharaoh. Tannin was probably a derogatory nickname for Egypt and its king. It is believed to mean “great monster”. Pharaoh would have recognized the term as an insult.

Aaron the Levite

When God suggests a helper for Moses, he says, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite?” Moses surely knew his brother was a Levite, from the tribe of Levi. Why did God refer to Aaron as “the Levite?”

Levite in this instance, referred to a profession, not a tribe or location. A Levite was a priest. In other words, Aaron had official training as a priest or teacher of the Torah and would go on to receive the honor of leading the priesthood (and honor that may have been offered to Moses had he not been so hesitant to take on God’s assignment).

Notes on Biblical translation

Moses’ heavy tongue

The Burning Bush - Ahuva KleinThe verses tell us Moses pleaded with God claiming he had never been eloquent and was “slow of speech and tongue”. The original Hebrew translates Moses’ wavering speech as “not an eloquent man” and “heavy of mouth”.

Moses speaks of his “faltering tongue” in other verses but the exact nature of Moses’ speech difficulty is not specified.

“Put your hand inside your cloak”

Moses is told to put his hand inside his cloak. Some translations render this as “put your hand to your bosom”. The original Hebrew word has no modern-day equivalent. It refers to an inner pocket inside ancient robes the Israelites wore.

God’s second sign – leprosy

God tells Moses to put his hand inside his cloak and pull it out. When he does, “his skin was leprous – it had become as white as snow.” In ancient Israel, the word “leprosy” covered many diseases, including psoriasis, ringworm, Hansen’s disease (leprosy), even mildew. What form of skin disease is referenced here is not known but since it was a sign, it would have been a disease that would strike fear in Pharaoh. Thus, most translations refer to the disease as “leprosy”.

Bible Text

NIV

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, the skin was leprous—it had become as white as 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 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.”

10 Moses said to the LORD, “Pardon your servant, 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 human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12 Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

13 But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”

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 he will be glad to see 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 the signs with it.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

Moses answered again, “And if they do not believe me or pay attention to me, but say, ‘The LORD has not appeared to you’?” 4:2 The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” 4:3 The LORD said, “Throw it to the ground.” So he threw it to the ground, and it became a snake, and Moses ran from it. 4:4 But the LORD said to Moses, “Put out your hand and grab it by the tail”—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand—4:5 “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.”

4:6 The LORD also said to him, “Put your hand into your robe.” So he put his hand into his robe, and when he brought it out—there was his hand, leprous like snow! 4:7 He said, “Put your hand back into your robe.” So he put his hand back into his robe, and when he brought it out from his robe—there it was, restored like the rest of his skin! 4:8 “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the former sign, then they may believe the latter sign. 4:9 And if they do not believe even these two signs or listen to you, then take some water from the Nile and pour it out on the dry ground. The water you take out of the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.”

4:10 Then Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I am not an eloquent man, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant, for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

4:11 The LORD said to him, “Who gave a mouth to man, or who makes a person mute or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 4:12 So now go, and I will be with your mouth and will teach you what you must say.”

4:13 But Moses said, “O my Lord, please send anyone else whom you wish to send!”

4:14 Then the LORD became angry with Moses, and he said, “What about your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak very well. Moreover, he is coming to meet you, and when he sees you he will be glad in his heart.

4:15 “So you are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth. And as for me, I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you both what you must do. 4:16 He will speak for you to the people, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were his God. 4:17 You will also take in your hand this staff, with which you will do the signs.”

Moses and the Burning Bush - Pascal DelocheBiblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

4 Then Moses answered and said, “But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The LORD has not appeared to you.’ ”

2 So the LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?”

He said, “A rod.”

3 And He said, “Cast it on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail” (and he reached out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand), 5 “that they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”

6 Furthermore the LORD said to him, “Now put your hand in your bosom.” And he put his hand in his bosom, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, like snow. 7 And He said, “Put your hand in your bosom again.” So he put his hand in his bosom again, and drew it out of his bosom, and behold, it was restored like his other flesh. 8 “Then it will be, if they do not believe you, nor heed the message of the first sign, that they may believe the message of the latter sign. 9 And it shall be, if they do not believe even these two signs, or listen to your voice, that you shall take water from the river and pour it on the dry land. The water which you take from the river will become blood on the dry land.”

10 Then Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

11 So the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD? 12 Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.”

13 But he said, “O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.”

14 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and He said: “Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And look, he is also coming out to meet you. When he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. 15 Now you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth. And I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you what you shall do. 16 So he shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God. 17 And you shall take this rod in your hand, with which you shall do the signs.”

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

Moses objected, “They won’t trust me. They won’t listen to a word I say. They’re going to say, ‘GOD? Appear to him? Hardly!’ ”

2 So GOD said, “What’s that in your hand?”

“A staff.”

3 “Throw it on the ground.” He threw it. It became a snake; Moses jumped back—fast!

4–5 GOD said to Moses, “Reach out and grab it by the tail.” He reached out and grabbed it—and he was holding his staff again. “That’s so they will trust that GOD appeared to you, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

6 GOD then said, “Put your hand inside your shirt.” He slipped his hand under his shirt, then took it out. His hand had turned leprous, like snow.

7 He said, “Put your hand back under your shirt.” He did it, then took it back out—as healthy as before.

8–9 “So if they don’t trust you and aren’t convinced by the first sign, the second sign should do it. But if it doesn’t, if even after these two signs they don’t trust you and listen to your message, take some water out of the Nile and pour it out on the dry land; the Nile water that you pour out will turn to blood when it hits the ground.”

10 Moses raised another objection to GOD: “Master, please, I don’t talk well. I’ve never been good with words, neither before nor after you spoke to me. I stutter and stammer.”

11–12 GOD said, “And who do you think made the human mouth? And who makes some mute, some deaf, some sighted, some blind? Isn’t it I, GOD? So, get going. I’ll be right there with you—with your mouth! I’ll be right there to teach you what to say.”

13 He said, “Oh, Master, please! Send somebody else!”

14–17 GOD got angry with Moses: “Don’t you have a brother, Aaron the Levite? He’s good with words, I know he is. He speaks very well. In fact, at this very moment he’s on his way to meet you. When he sees you he’s going to be glad. You’ll speak to him and tell him what to say. I’ll be right there with you as you speak and with him as he speaks, teaching you step by step. He will speak to the people for you. He’ll act as your mouth, but you’ll decide what comes out of it. Now take this staff in your hand; you’ll use it to do the signs.”

Landscape with Moses and the Burning Bush - 1610-1616 (Domenico Zampieri)Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

4 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. 2 And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod. 3 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. 4 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: 5 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. 6 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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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. 11 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? 12 Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say. 13 And he said, O my Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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. 17 And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand, wherewith thou shalt do signs.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database, Painting by Ahuva Klein
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