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
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.
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
The individual, so called, feels that his unique identity is
being recognized and addressed by an awesome yet vaguely familiar
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
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
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
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
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
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
As we have seen, the issues raised by Moses are quite
pertinent and realistic and foreshadow the problems he will actually
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.
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
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.