SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS)-Week 38 Exodus 4

Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Exodus 4. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:

  1. These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.

  2. While it is up to the individual to choose to believe or disbelieve any portion, that is not to be the discussion of the thread. If you must, please choose to witness/anti-witness in Great Debates.

  3. The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).

  4. Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.

  5. Hopefully we can get through these threads with little to no moderation. A gentle reminder that if a poster comes in and ignores these rules, please use the “report post” function instead of responding.

Links to previous threads:
Genesis 49 & 50 (this includes links to all previous Genesis threads)
Exodus 1
Exodus 2
Exodus 3

Exodus 4
New International Version (NIV)
Signs for Moses

4 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.”

Moses Returns to Egypt

18 Then Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Let me return 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 those 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.)

27 The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness 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 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.
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Moses continues to try to avoid his appointed task. Now he says, “they won’t believe me.” He is shown simplistic miracles to demonstrate God’s power. Miracles will be the major tool for the Exodus. (After the revelation on Sinai, miracles slip into the background and the emphasis is on the Word and Law.)

I like verses 2 – 3. God asks, “What is that in your hand?” and Moses answers, “It’s just an ordinary staff, nothing special.” Reminds me of a stage magician saying, “Verify that this is an ordinary deck of cards.” When it turns into a snake, Moses recoils from it, astonished. Nice dramatic touch, IMHO.

The staff-to-snake has symbolic implications. First, the creation of life (living snake from dead wood.) Second, Pharaoh’s staff in ancient Egypt was a symbol of his authority and the snake is the cobra-goddess of Lower Egypt, worn on pharaoh’s headdress (to imply pharaoh’s divinity or divine protection, and to menace his enemies.) So it’s also a direct challenge (if you will) to Egyptian power.

Moses is told to grab it by the tail – normally, that would be dumb since it could bite him, so his compliance requires faith in God.

When he puts his hand in his cloak, the NIV says “the skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.” This is a poor translation, better is (JPS) “his hand was encrusted with snowy scales.” The comparison to snow is not because of being white (the word white doesn’t appear in the Hebrew) but being flakey. The term “leprous” or “leprosy” was used by KJV and many after, the same Hebrew word appears in Leviticus 13 – 14, but the symptoms are different from what we know as leprosy. The imagery here again is life-to-death, the underlying message is that this is the God of life and death.

Moses then complains that he is inarticulate, and God asks rhetorically, “Who gave human beings the power to speak?” There are similar later complaints from later prophets, with similar answer, like Jeremiah 1.6ff. I’m reminded of a child rationalizing to get out of some unwanted task, and the parents keep refuting the excuses. After a while, the parents run out of patience. This time, God says “OK, enough complaints, you’re not getting out of this. Your brother Aaron will be spokesperson.”

V 21: God says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart, remove Pharaoh’s free-will. This raises all sorts of ethical issues (if Pharaoh is not making decisions on his own, why is he being punished?) and I’d like to suggest we wait to discuss until it happens.

In verse 27 – 31, Moses meets Aaron (for the first time?). The patter will be: Moses hears from God, tells Aaron or the elders. Aaron does the talking and showing, to convince the elders.


This story is no longer really understood, the meaning was lost before Talmudic times (before 100 BCE). We assume this is a fragment of a longer story that was part of an oral tradition. There have been centuries of commentary and attempts to explain these verses.

The original text uses pronouns that are of uncertain reference; the NIV inserts names to cover the confusion. So, a more literal translation:

So, who is God ready to kill? Moses or his firstborn son Gershom? Whose legs are touched, Moses’ or Gershom’s? If God is ready to kill Moses (the most common reading), this is a frightening demonic gust of rage. More reasonable is that God was poised to kill the uncircumcised first-born, but that is disturbing too.

The ritual act is unclear. Note that she’s using a flint knife, an “old fashioned” tool, not a metal knife (the story is set during the Bronze Age.) It’s not clear whether “his legs” means his genitals.

Presumably the crisis arose because Moses had not circumcised his son, and was averted when Zipporah does. The blood splattered on the legs saves from death; later (Exo 12:22), we’ll get blood splattered on the doorpost ditto (The Hebrew word for touch/put/splatter is the same.) Blood in the bible is always the symbol of life/death.

The term khatan damim is usually translated “bridgegroom of blood” but we’re not sure what the Hebrew means. Khatan usually means “groom” but that seems weird, since Moses is no longer a groom, they’ve been married for a long while (see Ex 2:22-23.) Some speculate that it’s a cutsy term for the baby, but there’s no evidence of this. The stem kh-t-n can mean to circumcise or to protect (in Arabic and Akkadian), so this could mean “You are circumcised/protected for me because of the blood.”

Martin Buber (1988) says hero-myths often have the deity appearing as a demon to threaten the hero’s life. Perhaps this indicates the danger of too much intimacy with the divine.

Another interpretation: Moses’ early encounters all foreshadow later more important encounters. F’rinstance, baby Moses pulled from the water corresponds to the Israelites walking through the sea; the burning bush uses many of th images that later appear at Sinai; Moses does the stick to snake etc at the burning bush and then before Pharaoh. Etc. From this perspective the “bridegroom of blood” could be viewed as pre-shadowing the slaying of the firstborn (including smearing he blood on the doorposts to avert the plague.)

Note that it is again a woman (Zipporah) who saves Moses’ life, as his mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter had saved his life as a baby.

Whatever the meaning, it does serve as a kind of book-end. Moses ran from Egypt because his life was in danger (Ex 2:15) and so his life is again in danger when he is returning to Egypt.

Final point: the circumcision of his son means that, regardless of where/how he was raised, Moses is now a true Israelite (since that was the major term of God’s covenant with Abraham back in Gen 17.)

I would also add that there is foreshadowing of the curses by God instructing Moses to do a third verification by pouring water from the Nile and turning it into blood and then Zipporah having to save their firstborn son as well. In fact, both of those bookend the plagues.

On a side note, I found this article after noticing that it was Moses’ wife who performed the circumcision as all of the mohelim I’ve heard of/met are men. Are female mohels halachically okay?

Traditional Jewish law is that the father is supposed to circumcise his own son (as Abraham did for Isaac) but this is (thankfully) extremely rare nowadays. The traditional circumcision ceremony includes the father authorizing the mohel to perform this ritual for him. My understanding is that for Reform and Conservative, there are indeed female mohelim; for the Orthodox, males are preferred but females are acceptable.

I’ve got a cousin who’s a pediatrician and a (Reform) mohel. He puts some anesthetizer around the area, so the baby doesn’t cry or feel any pain at all. It’s a lot easier to watch that way.

The oddity of the circumcision story is discussed in this 2007 thread.

I could have sworn we had a less confusing, more explicit version of the circumcision story. Here we have to even infer that Moses had not circumcised his son. The single paragraph can be excised entirely and the story still works.

New thread for Exodus 5 & 6