Exodus 4:1-17: No Excuses Accepted
Our text for today is Exodus 4:1-17. Moses is still in front of the burning bush arguing with God about going back to Egypt. So far the conversation has gone like this: God tells Moses to take off his shoes. Then God tells Moses, "I have seen the suffering of my people and heard their cries, and I am going to save them." So far so good. No argument here.
But then God tells Moses, "I am sending you to Pharaoh to lead my people out of Egypt. Go!" Moses protests, "Who am I to do this job?" God answers, "It is not who you are, but who I am. I will be with you!" Moses protests again, "But who are you? What is your name compared to Pharaoh's name, especially in Egypt?" God answers, "I am who I am, and I will strike Pharaoh and he will let you go! I am and Pharaoh is soon to be not!"
This brings us to 4:1 where Moses offers yet another protest, "What if the Israelites don't believe that you have appeared to me?" As persistent as Moses is in his reluctance, God is even more persistent in the call of Moses. God responds to Moses by giving him three signs to demonstrate that the LORD has indeed appeared to him.
First, God asks Moses what is in his hand. It is his staff, a wooden stick which Moses used in his care of the sheep as well as to give himself greater stability as he walked the desert terrain. Moses literally leaned upon his staff for support and survival. It was his tool, his technology, which enabled him to do his job of sheep herding. Yahweh proceeds to tell Moses to throw it down, to release it. Yahweh wants Moses' staff. The LORD wants what is in Moses' hand, no matter how important it is to Moses. This is typical of the LORD. God wants what is in our hands, no matter how important it is to us.
Moses throws down his staff and when it hits the ground it turns into a snake. One thing you can be sure of: being a shepherd in the desert, Moses knew snakes. Moses starts to run from it – he no longer has his staff to protect him from it. But the LORD tells Moses to pick up the snake – by the tail. Moses the desert shepherd would know that the last way to pick up a snake is by the tail; it could curl up and bite you. The way to pick up a snake, should you have occasion to do so, would be to use your staff to pin it to the ground by the back of the neck and pick it up there, so that it cannot twist and curl and bite.
I'm sure Moses thought God did not know what He was talking about, that He did not know how to survive in the desert. But Moses fearfully obeyed and took hold of the snake by the tail. When he got his fingers wrapped around the snake it changed back into a staff right in the palm of his hand. Moses received his tool back, but now it clearly was an instrument of God. Moses' tool was now under Yahweh's control and power.
God then gives Moses a second sign. He tells Moses to put his hand inside his clothing next to his chest. Moses does so, and then pulls out his hand only to discover that he now has a leprous skin disease. Leprous skin diseases were considered social diseases. Not only were they thought to be contagious, but also defiling. A person with leprosy was isolated from the group, even family. To have leprosy was to be a social outcast. Moreover, leprosy was considered a sign of divine judgment. Not only was the leper rejected by society, but also was deemed to be cursed by God. Thus, Yahweh demanded not only what was in Moses' hand, but Moses' hand as well, and thereby his social life. God’s skin claim amounted to a social claim.
Yahweh then told Moses to put his hand back next to his chest. If I were Moses I would be holding that hand as far away from myself as possible. But Yahweh told him to put it on his chest, next to his heart. Again, Moses fearfully obeyed. When he pulled it back out of his garment he discovered that his flesh had been restored. Now Yahweh not only had Moses' staff, hand, and social life, but also Moses' whole body and being. Again, this is typical of Yahweh. When the LORD calls, the demand is for our tools, hands, and heart, our total existence.
The third sign is not yet acted out. Moses will have to wait till he gets to Egypt to perform this one. He is to take some of the water from the Nile and pour it on the ground. It will turn to blood. This sign enables us to see another dimension present in the first two signs. The purpose of these three signs is to create faith in the Israelites that Yahweh has appeared to Moses and that the message of deliverance is true.
For Egyptians, snakes were associated with deity and fertility. The snake was a symbol of divine power. The sign of the staff turned snake turned staff again would demonstrate Yahweh's superiority to "Egyptian snake power." Leprosy, symbolizing judgment, would be a sign that God had the power to judge and restore. Israel was soon to be restored.
Further, Egypt was soon to be judged under the hand of Moses. The Nile River was the life-source of Egypt. Egyptians recognized this and thereby deified the Nile. Turning the water to blood demonstrated that Yahweh was superior to the Nile and the "Nile gods" of the Egyptians. Thus, the signs served two functions: (1) they extended Yahweh's call upon Moses to new depths, and (2) they demonstrated that Yahweh is and Pharaoh is not, even down in Egypt.
The ever reluctant Moses, having not only seen the signs but actually performed them, now offers his last protest: "I am not a good speaker, I have a heavy mouth and a heavy tongue." Yahweh responds, "Who makes the mouth? Is it not I? I will be with your mouth. Now go. I will give you what to say."
Moses, showing his foolishness, or perhaps that he knew what he was in for, or both, now begs Yahweh to send someone else, anyone but him. Yahweh has had enough of Moses' reluctance. Now it is not just the bush that is burning but also the LORD's anger against Moses. Yahweh tells Moses that his brother Aaron is coming and that Aaron will speak for him. Aaron will be as a mouth to Moses and Moses will be as God to Aaron's mouth. Yahweh refuses to let Moses off the hook. He is the person Yahweh wants for this job. Yahweh insists on using Moses and Moses can no longer resist. Moses finally goes back home and prepares to leave for Egypt.
I think Moses would testify to us that God does not accept excuses. God does not answer the prayer, "Anyone but me, Lord." (At least not very favorably.) God wants what is in your hand, no matter how much you lean upon it. More, God wants your hand, indeed, all of you, including your social life and all of your life experiences.
What does God want to do with your tools, your hand, your very person? What did God want to do with Moses? Nothing less than to show the world that God is God! And in the process, to set suffering people free from the rule of bogus gods. What an awesome (though costly) calling! And God won't take no for an answer.
What’s your sign?