Opinion

Is this a way to respond to God?

"Perhaps we are forgetting the complexities involved in a Divine-human encounter, which is based on the improbable idea that the finite and the infinite can communicate."

A Divine-human encounter.
Photo by: Painting courtesy of Yoram Raanan
The opening chapters of the Book of Exodus introduce the reader to that complex personality who will dominate the rest of the biblical narrative, the man called Moses, as named by an Egyptian princess. Often he will appear to be the most human, vulnerable and sensitive of men, and at other times as one who consorts with divinity and about whom God Himself has said: “He is trusted in all My house”(Num. 12:7).

Chapter 3 picks up the story in Midian with Moses now about 80 years of age, a family man caring for the sheep of his father-in-law “at the farthest end of the wilderness”(Ex. 3:1), where he has his vision of a bush burning but not being consumed. As Moses “turns aside to see this great sight,” he suddenly finds himself in the midst of one of the most fateful encounters between man and God of all time. After introducing Himself as the “God of the fathers,” the voice describes the suffering of “My people” enslaved in Egypt and announces that the time for their liberation has arrived, with the intention of bringing the people to the “goodly” land of Canaan.

And then there comes the shattering, personal command, “Come now I will send you... to bring forth My people” (3:7-10).

However, what is most unusual about the text that follows is first its length, all in all some 35 verses (3:6-4:17), and secondly its dialogical character. Instead of responding with an immediate positive Abrahamic “Hineni” (Here I am), Moses consecutively offers four different reasons for not accepting the mission.

Yet after God patiently and helpfully responds to each of his objections, Moses abruptly concludes by saying in effect, “So send someone else” (4:13). God’s reaction is quite understandable, “and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses” (7:14). We are not told what practical effect this “anger” had.

In any event, God continues to accommodate Moses’s concerns and adds that He will order Aaron, Moses’s older brother then in Egypt, to assist him in the mission. With this, Moses returns to his father-in-law.

Is this the sort of response one would expect from a man who earlier has shown such interest and concern for his enslaved “brothers”? Does this not show a lack of faith and dedication on the part of Moses? Why does the Torah, usually so chary in reporting detail, record the dialogue in its entirety? But perhaps we are forgetting the complexities involved in a Divine-human encounter, which is based on the improbable idea that the finite and the infinite can communicate.

There are always difficulties from both the Divine and the human side.

From the latter, it is clearly impossible for those who have not had the experience to imagine what it feels like to be addressed by God. Nevertheless we must ask how the individual, who finds himself personally addressed in ways such as “Abraham, Abraham” or “Moses, Moses” by a voice that claims to be “the God of your fathers,” can be sure that it is indeed God who spoke to him and not some illusion? The only prophet who, when called upon by God does not immediately recognize the Divine nature of the call, is Samuel – which is explained by the fact that young Samuel “did not yet know the Lord, nor was the word of the Lord yet revealed to him”(I Samuel 3:4-11).

However, from the later instances in the Bible where men are called upon by God to speak His word, the experience seems self-evident; that is, there is both an unmistakable quality of authority and a tone of love (Rashi on Leviticus 1:1), transformative and totally convincing.

The individual, so called, feels that his unique identity is being recognized and addressed by an awesome yet vaguely familiar personality.

But for this to happen requires special accommodation by God, who must neither overwhelm finite man nor dissolve his sense of self, nor cancel his freedom of choice. In order not to frighten him off, Moses, according to the rabbis, hears the words “I am the God of your father,” in the voice of his father, Amram.

One may find evidence of the self-validation of Hebrew prophecy in the fact that Abraham, in spite of the seemingly cruel command to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, never once doubts the authenticity of the source.

We may therefore conclude that whatever questions Moses may have had regarding his suitability for the mission, he had no doubts whatsoever that his interlocutor was truly the God of his forefathers. Thus, what might have been harmless caviling on the part of Moses now almost borders on chutzpah.

Let us examine Moses’s responses. His first reaction, (1) “Who am I that I shall go to Pharaoh and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt” (3:11), is quite natural and reflects the tremendous disproportion between the puny abilities of a single individual versus the imponderable difficulties of liberating an entire people from centuries-long slavery.

Three times does Moses use the personal pronoun “I,” single and alone being asked to confront Pharaoh and Egypt. Who more than Moses, brought up in the court of Pharaoh, knows their strength and cunning! God replies, “I will be with you” (3:12). Unlike the dead nature gods of the nations, the God of Abraham is active in the affairs of men.

“I will be you,” says God, every step of the way.

(2) Moses asks, “If the Israelites ask me what is the name of this god, what shall I say?”(3:13) After all, the people have not had the benefit of Your immediate appearance as I have. I must have more information about You, O God, and Your program.

God’s reply fills nine long verses, containing not only one of the most profound self-disclosures by the Divine, but also what Moses should say to the Israelites, what and how he is to ask of Pharaoh, and to expect his obdurate response. God promises that ultimately, the people will be free and leave with much material goods.

(3) Yet Moses, knowing this people, is not satisfied: “But they will not believe me nor hearken to my voice” (4:1). God responds by teaching Moses to perform three miraculous signs in order to convince the people.

(4) Moses then points to a personal disability, “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” a faculty so very essential to his task. In his reply, God states that His promise “to be” with Moses includes “being with his mouth,” teaching him how and what to speak.

5) Moses’s last words, “shlah na beyad tishlah,” are most obscure and lend themselves to different translations. In any case, however, it is not an affirmative reply. At this point, we are told that God grows angry with Moses.

So, as a whole, was this a proper way for Moses to respond to a call from God to go on a mission that would alleviate the longtime suffering of his people? We must first realize that for Moses, at this juncture, not having had the benefits of three millennia of historical experience or the wisdom of scripture, God is an unknown entity.

While intuiting His commanding presence, Moses does not know whether He is just another nature god, how He relates to mortals and whether He is bound by moral values. So while some may have jumped at the opportunity to help one’s people and others been flattered by being chosen by God might have immediately accepted the commission, Moses decides to cautiously explore the matter.

It should also be noted that although God guided the Patriarchs, they were not prophets in the sense of being appointed to speak His word to others or to bring about immediate changes in the world. As the first “apostolic” prophet, there was no precedent for Moses’s experience.

As we have seen, the issues raised by Moses are quite pertinent and realistic and foreshadow the problems he will actually encounter.

By preserving the entire dialogue, the Torah would have us know that it is entirely proper for the shaliah to objectively consider his fitness for the task and ask that he be given the appropriate tools.

But what was it about Moses’s final statement that drew the “anger’ of the Lord? One of the translations of Exodus 4:14 given by Rashi is “send, I pray You [instead of me] he whom You are destined to send.” That is, having learned that the complete project includes bringing the Children of Israel into the land of Canaan and foreseeing that this will not be he himself, Moses thinks, “Since I will not be given to complete the project, I prefer not to get involved at all.”

However, to be swayed by temperamental considerations in a matter of such import is not right. Hence God’s “anger,” as the Rabbis would later formulate it: “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it altogether” (Avot 2:21).

Those of us today who hear the “call” to make aliya, to start a new yeshiva or to join a social or religious protest would do well to seek maximum information about the sponsors, the goals of the program and the resources available before responding. But that having been done, then like Moses, one should “go with this strength and save Israel” (Judges 6:14).

The writer is the emeritus Irving Stone Professor of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University.


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