4 Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?”
YHWH’s second commissioning of Moses appears to meet with even less success than the first. This time Moses asks another question – ‘what if they don’t believe me.’ A quick look back at God’s speech to Moses at the end of chapter 3 shows that God had been keen to reassure Moses of this exact point. Moses is disbelieving exactly where God has been most reassuring.
God, however is not going to give up:
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.”
There is something quite comic in this sign – imagine Moses running from the snake that was once his staff. This is the first sign that Moses can do for the elders. Then there is a second, and a third:
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[a]—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.”
These signs are not strictly necessary. Moses has already seen the bush on fire, but not consumed. Moses has heard the divine voice. He should simply believe and trust. But it isn’t that easy – he doesn’t. He is still full of doubts. Yet God does not just give up on Moses. God does not decide to find a more co-operative shepherd.
Instead God graciously gives Moses signs. Signs that help Moses immediately – even if they do give him a bit of a fright at first – which may also be the point. The God Moses is dealing with is the God who has power to turn a staff into a snake, and the power to make leprous and to heal.
The third sign actually prefigures the first plague also, so again builds confidence in what God can do in and through Moses.
But Moses has another objection:
10 But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”
He moves now away from the problem of how the people might react (which was his problem in 4:1, and in 3:13) and, as in 3:11 focuses on himself. This time it is the claim that he is not a good speaker. He is slow of speech. We don’t know whether this is a genuine claim of speech impediment – if so, it seems to fade out of view as Exodus continues, or more a matter of nervousness and lack of experience in speaking – which can feel just as real.
11 Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12 Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”
God’s response once more is to remind Moses that it is not Moses’ inadequacy, whether that is perceived or real which ultimately matters. Ultimately it is God’s power and presence that matter. It is God who gives speech and sight. The one who is speaking to Moses as Moses continues to find reasons to get out of doing what God has asked him to is the one who has the power over speech and silence, sight and blindness.
And God’s response to Moses’ objection is to call him to go once more – now the third time that Moses has been asked to go in this account. Moses is to go in the assurance that not only is God with him in the general sense, but he will be with his mouth and teach him what to say.
God’s presence is particular. Moses has a particular need, and God will be with him at that point of need, teaching him how he is to speak. When God calls he will also equip, and if we are supposed to be doing something for him he will make sure we can do it. He knows our weakness and he will be with us at that point of weakness.
I’m reminded of the account in 2 Corinthians of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’:
2 Corinthians 12:7-9 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
We can guess that God chose Moses partly because of this speech difficulty. Moses’ speech will be so important in Israel’s story, and so Moses, and Israel, need to know that Moses’ ability to speak comes from God. It is not a natural facility. Our natural gifts are used in God’s service, and but often mixed in with those gifts is some area of great weakness.
Such weaknesses do not disqualify us from God’s call. Indeed they may make us more fitted (in a sense) to God’s service, for then we, and others will know that it is not our abilities that have produced success, but God’s great grace in working through our areas of deep weakness – because God is the God whose power shows up best in weak people.