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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-18

6. Moses’ call 3:1-4:18

Verses 1-9

God gave Moses three miracles to convince the Israelites that the God of their fathers had appeared to him. They also served to bolster Moses’ faith. Moses had left Egypt and the Israelites with a clouded reputation under the sentence of death, and he had been away for a long time. He needed to prove to his brethren that they could trust and believe him. Not only were these miracles strong proofs of God’s power, but they appear to have had special significance for the Israelites as well (cf. Exodus 4:8). [Note: See Johnson, p. 55; et al.]

God probably intended the first miracle, of the staff and serpent (Exodus 4:2-5), to assure Moses and the Israelites that He was placing the satanic power of Egypt under his authoritative control. This was the power before which Moses had previously fled. Moses’ shepherd staff became a symbol of authority in his hand, a virtual scepter. The serpent represented the deadly power of Egypt that sought to kill the Israelites, and Moses in particular. The Pharaohs wore a metal cobra around their heads. It was a common symbol of the nation of Egypt. However the serpent also stood for the great enemy of man behind that power, Satan, who had been the foe of the seed of the woman since the Fall (Genesis 3:15). Moses’ ability to turn the serpent into his rod by seizing its tail would have encouraged the Israelites. They should have believed that God had enabled him to overcome the cunning and might of Egypt and to exercise authority over its fearful power. This was a sign that God would bless Moses’ leadership.

The second miracle, of the leprous hand (Exodus 4:6-7), evidently assured Moses that God would bring him and the Israelites out of their defiling environment and heal them. But first He would punish the Egyptians with crippling afflictions. Presently the Israelites were unclean because of their confinement in wicked Egypt. Moses’ hand was the instrument of his strength. As such it was a good symbol of Moses, himself the instrument of God’s strength in delivering the Israelites, and Israel, God’s instrument for blessing the world. [Note: For an explanation of the Septuagint’s omission of "leprous" from Exodus 4:6, see C. Houtman, "A Note on the LXX Version of Exodus 4, 6," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 97:2 (1983):253-54.] Moses’ hand would also have suggested to Pharaoh that Yahweh could afflict or deliver through His representative at will. The wholeness of Moses’ hand may have attested to God’s delegation of divine power to him.

The third miracle, of the water turned into blood (Exodus 4:9), provided assurance that God would humiliate the Egyptians by spoiling what they regarded as a divine source of life. The Egyptians identified the Nile with the Egyptian god Osiris and credited it with all good and prosperity in their national life. Blood was and is a symbol of life poured out in death (cf. Leviticus 17:11). Moses possessed the power to change the life-giving water of the Nile into blood. The Israelites would have concluded that he also had power to destroy the gods of Egypt and punish the land with death (cf. Exodus 7:14-24).

"Like Abel’s blood that cried out from the ground, so would the infants’ whose lives had been demanded by Pharaoh (Exodus 1:22)." [Note: Kaiser, p. 326.]

Each of these signs attested Yahweh’s creative power. Normally at least two witnesses were necessary to establish credibility under the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 19:15; et al.). A third witness further strengthened the veracity of the testimony. Here God gave Moses three witnesses to confirm His prophet’s divine calling and enablement. God entrusted Moses with His powerful word and endowed him with His mighty power. He was the first prophet with the power to perform miracles.

Verses 10-17

Rather than inspiring confidence in Moses, God’s commission frightened him (Exodus 4:10-12). Moses’ claim to be slow of speech (not handicapped, but lacking in eloquence) was a thinly veiled excuse by which Moses hoped to escape his calling. Stephen said Moses was eloquent (Acts 7:22). Apparently Moses felt he did not have sufficient oratorical ability to persuade the Israelite elders or Pharaoh. God assured Moses that He would enable Him to communicate effectively. Again God reminded Moses that He was the creator.

"This claim of inadequacy is a recurring one in OT passages having to do with God’s call and commission (cf., e.g., Judges 6:14-15; 1 Samuel 10:20-24; 1 Kings 3:5-9; Isaiah 6:5-8; Jeremiah 1:4-10; see also Habel . . . [Note: N. Habel, "The Form and Significance of the Call Narratives," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 77 (1965):316-23.] Whatever its connection to prophetic and royal traditions of the word and the messenger, its more important rootage is in the OT pattern of the weak become strong, the least become great, the mean become mighty, the last become first (cf., e.g, Judges 6:11-24; 1 Samuel 16:1-13; 1 Samuel 17:19-54; Amos 7:14-15; Isaiah 6:1-13; Jeremiah 1:4-19; and even Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12). This pattern is a metaphor of theological assertion in the Bible, and everywhere it occurs, its fundamental message is the same: God’s word, God’s rule, God’s teaching, God’s deliverance come not from man, no matter who that man may be, but from God. Even the election of Israel makes this point. Indeed that election is probably the most convincing of all the occurrences of the pattern." [Note: Durham, p. 49.]

"Cherish the lowliest thought you choose of yourself, but unite it with the loftiest conception of God’s All-Sufficiency. Self-depreciation may lead to the marring of a useful life. We must think soberly of ourselves, not too lowly, as not too extravagantly. The one talent must not be buried in the earth." [Note: Meyer, p. 71.]

Unable to excuse himself, Moses finally admitted that he did not want to obey God (Exodus 4:13-16). God became angry with Moses because he refused to obey. However, the sovereign Lord would not let His reluctant servant go (cf. Jonah). Instead He provided a mouthpiece for Moses in his older brother by three years, Aaron (cf. Exodus 7:7). This act was both an aid to Moses and a discipline for his disobedience. On the one hand Aaron was an encouragement to Moses, but on the other he proved to be a source of frustration as a mediator (e.g., ch. 32).

"The mouth of Moses may well be heavy and clumsy, slow and halting in speech. It would not matter if it were dumb altogether, and Aaron’s mouth, as well. Yahweh will be there, and Yahweh will take responsibility for both the message and the messengers. The staff in the hands of Moses and Aaron is a symbol of this powerful Presence." [Note: Durham, p. 51.]

As time passed, Moses grew more confident and communicative and increasingly took his proper place as Israel’s leader.

Verse 18

Moses’ pessimism concerning the welfare of the Israelites comes out in his request that Jethro (Reuel of Exodus 2:18; cf. Exodus 3:1) let him return to Egypt. Moses apparently concluded, even after his experience at the burning bush, that there was no hope for the Israelites.

This section makes it possible for us to gain great insight into Moses’ feelings about God’s promises to his forefathers and about his own life. Moses had become thoroughly disillusioned. He regarded himself as a failure, the objects of his ministry as hopeless, and God as unfaithful, uncaring, and unable to deliver His people. He had learned his own inability to deliver Israel, but he did not yet believe in God’s ability to do so. Even the miraculous revelation of God at the burning bush and the miracles that God enabled Moses to perform did not convince him of God’s purpose and power.

One supernatural revelation, even one involving miracles, does not usually change convictions that a person has built up over years of experience. We not only need to believe in our own inability to produce supernatural change, as Moses did, but we also need to believe in God’s ability to produce it. Moses had not yet learned the second lesson, which God proceeded to teach him.

Verses 19-23

Moses did not return immediately to Egypt when he arrived back in Midian following his encounter with God at Horeb (Exodus 4:19). God spoke to him again in Midian and sent him back to Egypt assuring His servant that everyone who had sought his life earlier had died. Compare Abram’s stalling in Haran until God again urged him to press on to the unknown Promised Land.

Exodus 4:20 describes what Moses did after God’s full revelation to him in Midian that continues in Exodus 4:21-23. In chronological order Exodus 4:20 follows Exodus 4:23.

God gave Moses a preview of all that would take place in his dealings with Pharaoh (Exodus 4:21-23). When God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21), He was not saying that Pharaoh would be unable to choose whether he would release the Israelites. God made Pharaoh’s heart progressively harder as the king chose to disobey God’s will (cf. Leviticus 26:23-24).

"The hardening of Pharaoh is ascribed to God, not only in the passages just quoted [Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:17; Exodus 7:3; and Exodus 10:1], but also in Exodus 9:12; Exodus 10:20; Exodus 10:27; Exodus 11:10; Exodus 14:8; that is to say, ten times in all; and that not merely as foreknown by Jehovah, but as caused and effected by Him. In the last five passages it is invariably stated that ’Jehovah hardened . . . Pharaoh’s heart.’ But it is also stated just as often, viz. ten times, that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, or made it heavy or firm; e.g., in Exodus 7:13; Exodus 7:22; Exodus 8:15; Exodus 9:35; . . . Exodus 7:14; . . . Exodus 9:7; . . . Exodus 8:11; Exodus 8:28; Exodus 9:34; . . . Exodus 13:15. . . .

"According to this, the hardening of Pharaoh was quite as much his own act as the decree of God. But if, in order to determine the precise relation of the divine to the human causality, we look more carefully at the two classes of expressions, we shall find that not only in connection with the first sign, by which Moses and Aaron were to show their credentials as the messengers of Jehovah, sent with the demand that he would let the people of Israel go (Exodus 7:13-14), but after the first five penal miracles, the hardening is invariably represented as his own. . . . It is not till after the sixth plague that it is stated that Jehovah made the heart of Pharaoh firm (Exodus 9:12). . . . Looked at from this side, the hardening was a fruit of sin, a consequence of self-will, high-mindedness, and pride which flowed from sin, and a continuous and ever increasing abuse of that freedom of the will which is innate in man, and which involves the possibility of obstinate resistance to the word and chastisement of God even until death. . . .

". . . God not only permits a man to harden himself; He also produced obduracy, and suspends this sentence over the impenitent. Not as though God took pleasure in the death of the wicked! No; God desires that the wicked should repent of his evil way and live (Ezekiel 33:11); and He desires this most earnestly, for ’He will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4; cf. 2 Peter 3:9). As God causes His earthly sun to rise upon the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45), so He causes His sun of grace to shine upon all sinners, to lead them to life and salvation.

"’The sun, by the force of its heat, moistens the wax and dries the clay, softening the one and hardening the other; and as this produces opposite effects by the same power, so, through the long-suffering of God, which reaches to all, some receive good and others evil, some are softened and others hardened’ (Theodoret).

"It is the curse of sin, that it renders the hard heart harder, and less susceptible to the gracious manifestations of divine love, long-suffering, and patience. In this twofold manner God produces hardness, not only permissive but effective; i.e., not only by giving time and space for the manifestation of human opposition, even to the utmost limits of creaturely freedom, but still more by those continued manifestations of His will which drive the hard heart to such utter obduracy that it is no longer capable of returning, and so giving over the hardened sinner to the judgment of damnation. This is what we find in the case of Pharaoh." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:453-456. Johnson, p. 56; Walter C. Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 255; Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, p. 23; Robert B. Chisholm, "Divine Hardening in the Old Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:612 (October-December 1996):411, 429; and Dorian G. Coover Cox, "The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Its Literary and Cultural Contexts," Bibliotheca Sacra 163:651 (July-September 2006):292-311, took essentially the same position.]

See Romans 1:24-32 for the New Testament expression of this truth. Even though God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was only the complement of Pharaoh’s hardening his own heart, God revealed only the former action in Exodus 4:21. God’s purpose in this revelation was to prepare Moses for the opposition he would face. He also intended to strengthen his faith by obviating any questions that might arise in Moses’ mind concerning God’s omniscience as his conflict with Pharaoh intensified. [Note: F. E. Deist, "Who is to blame: the Pharaoh, Yahweh or circumstance? On human responsibility, and divine ordinance in Exodus 1-14," OTWSA 29(1986):91-110, argued that documents J, D, and P each give a different answer to the question of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.]

"Egyptians believed that when a person died his heart was weighed in the hall of judgment. If one’s heart was ’heavy’ with sin, that person was judged. A stone beetle scarab was placed on the heart of the deceased person to suppress his natural tendency to confess sin which would subject himself to judgment. This ’hardening of the heart’ by the scarab would result in salvation for the deceased.

"However, God reversed this process in Pharaoh’s case. Instead of his heart being suppressed so that he was silent about his sin and thus delivered, his heart became hardened, he confessed his sin (Exodus 9:27; Exodus 9:34; Exodus 10:16-17), and his sinfully heavy heart resulted in judgment. For the Egyptians ’hardening of the heart’ resulted in silence (absence of confession of sin) and therefore salvation. But God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart resulted in acknowledgment of sin and in judgment." [Note: Hannah, pp. 114-15.]

The real question that God’s dealings with Pharaoh raises is, Does man have a free will? Man has limited freedom, not absolute freedom. We have many examples of this fact in analogous relationships. A child has limited freedom under his or her parent. An adult has limited freedom under his or her human government. Likewise individuals have limited freedom under divine government. God is sovereign, but we are responsible for the decisions God allows us to make (cf. John 1:12; John 3:16; John 3:36; John 5:24; John 6:47; John 20:31; Romans 9:14-21; Jeremiah 18:1-6). [Note: See C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 52-53.]

"Childs suggests that the matter of causality in the heart-hardening is a side-track; that those critics, for example, who have seen here a theological dimension of predestination and freewill, have been wrong. I would say, No, they have been right (at least in principle) to sense such a dimension, but wrong to see the question of divine determination in human affairs arising only in connection with Pharaoh’s heart-hardening. For the whole story may be seen in these terms-Moses and the people, as well as Pharaoh, exist and act within a framework of divine ’causality.’ With them, too, the question arises, Are they independent agents? Are they manipulated by God? (Have they freewill? Are they ’pre-destined?’) The story is about freedom; but freedom turns out to involve varieties of servitude.

"Thus Isbell’s observation bears repeating: the story is above all one about masters, especially God. No one in the story entirely escapes God’s control or its repercussions, whether directly or indirectly. Moses who sits removed in Midian finds himself forced by Yahweh into a direct servitude but is nevertheless allowed to develop a measure of freedom. Pharaoh (Egypt) exalts his own mastery and is cast into a total and mortal servitude. The people of Egypt and Israel are buffeted this way and that in varying indirect roles of servitude. . . .

"God himself is depicted as risking insecurity, because that is the price of allowing his servants a dimension of freedom. An exodus story that saw no murmuring, no rebellion (or potential for rebellion) by Moses and by Israel, would indeed be a fairy tale, a piece of soft romance. But to talk of God and ’insecurity’ in the same breath is also to see that the gift of human ’freedom’ (to some if not to others) itself creates external pressures on God which in turn circumscribe his own action. Egypt/Pharaoh must be made an example of, spectacularly, so that Israel, the whole world, may freely come to recognize that Yahweh is indeed master, one who remembers his obligations as well as one who demands ’service’ (labour!). In short, in his relations with humankind, God’s freedom is circumscribed by humankind just as the freedom of humankind is circumscribed by God." [Note: David Gunn, "The ’Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart’: Plot, Character and Theology in Exodus 1-14," Art and Meaning: Rhetoric in Biblical Literature, pp. 88-89. For a more strongly Calvinistic explanation of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, see G. K. Beale, "An Exegetical and Theological Consideration of the Hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4-14 and Romans 9," Trinity Journal 5NS:2 (Autumn 1984):129-54. For a helpful discussion of several ways of explaining God’s freedom and our freedom, see Axel D. Steuer, "The Freedom of God and Human Freedom," Scottish Journal of Theology 36:2:163-180.]

Exodus 4:22-23 summarize Moses’ future messages to Pharaoh on several different occasions.

Israel was God’s first-born son in the sense that it was the nation among all others on which God had chosen to place His special blessing. It was first in rank and preeminence by virtue of God’s sovereign choice to bless Abraham’s seed.

The essence of the conflict between Pharaoh and Yahweh was the issue of sovereignty. Sovereignty refers to supreme power and authority. Regarding God, it refers to the fact that He has supreme power and authority, more than any other entity. Sovereignty does not specify how one exercises supreme power and authority. Specifically, it does not mean that God exercises His sovereignty by controlling everything that happens directly. Scripture reveals that this is not how He exercises His sovereignty. Rather He allows people some freedom yet maintains supreme power and authority.

Were Egypt’s gods or Israel’s God sovereign? This issue stands out clearly in the following verses.

"The Egyptian state was not a man-made alternative to other forms of political organization [from the Egyptian point of view]. It was god-given, established when the world was created; and it continued to form part of the universal order. In the person of Pharaoh a superhuman being had taken charge of the affairs of man. . . . The monarch then was as old as the world, for the creator himself had assumed kingly office on the day of creation. Pharaoh was his descendant and his successor." [Note: Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, p. 30.]

Pharaoh would not release Yahweh’s metaphorical son, Israel. Therefore Yahweh would take Pharaoh’s metaphorical son, namely, the Egyptians as a people, and his physical son, thus proving His sovereignty.

Verses 19-31

7. Moses’ return to Egypt 4:19-31

Verses 24-26

This brief account raises several questions.

Evidently God afflicted Moses because Moses had not been obedient to God. He failed to circumcise at least one of his two sons (Exodus 18:3-4). The Egyptians practiced partial circumcision on adults. [Note: J. M. Sasson, "Circumcision in the Ancient Near East," Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966):473-74.] God’s sentence for this sin of omission was death ("cut off from his people," cf. Genesis 17:14). God was ready to carry out this sentence on Moses for his failure (cf. 1 John 5:16). In doing this God was making Moses face his own incomplete obedience that reflected his lack of faith in God. God afflicted Moses, but whether He did so naturally or supernaturally is unclear and unimportant. In this incident God was bringing Moses to the place he brought Jacob when He wrestled with him at the Jabbok (Genesis 32). He was getting him to acknowledge His sovereignty. [Note: See M. J. Oosthuizen, "Some thoughts on the interpretation of Exodus 4:24-26," OTWSA 29(1986):22-28.]

Zipporah ("little bird") performed the operation at her husband’s insistence. It is obvious that she did not approve of it. Most scholars believe that Zipporah cut off the foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet. One writer believed that she touched Moses’ genitals with her son’s foreskin. [Note: Durham, p. 58.] Another argued that she threw it at the feet of the preincarnate Christ. [Note: Ronald B. Allen, "The ’Bloody Bridegroom’ in Exodus 4:24-26," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:611 (July-September 1996):259-69.] Perhaps because of her resistance to do the will of God Moses sent her and his sons back to her father at this time. Moses may have sent her back during or before the plagues, when his life might have been in danger from the Egyptians. We have no record of when Moses’ household returned to Midian, but we read of them rejoining Moses later at Sinai (Exodus 18:2).

The "bridegroom of blood" figure (Exodus 4:26) evidently means as follows. Apparently Zipporah regarded her act of circumcising her son as what removed God’s hand of judgment from Moses and restored him to life and to her again. It was as though God had given Moses a second chance and he had begun life as her husband over as a bridegroom (cf. Jonah). [Note: Cassuto, pp. 59-61.] She had accepted Yahweh’s authority and demands and was now viewing Moses in the light of God’s commission. She abandoned her claim to Moses and made him available to Yahweh’s service. [Note: Oosthuizen, p. 26.] "You are a bridegroom of blood to me," may have been an ancient marital relationship formula recalling circumcision as a premarital rite. [Note: T. C. Mitchell, "The Meaning of the Noun HTN in the Old Testament," Vetus Testamentum 19 (1969):94-105, 111-12.]

"Moses has been chosen and commissioned by God, but he has shown himself far from enthusiastic about confronting the Pharaoh and threatening him with the death of his son. YHWH sets about showing Moses that although he is safe from other men (Ex. iv 19) he faces a much greater danger to his life in the wrath of the God whom he is so reluctant to serve (iv 14). Like Jacob before him, Moses must undergo a night struggle with his mysterious God before he can become a worthy instrument of YHWH and can enjoy a completely satisfactory relationship with his brother. In all this, Moses, like Jacob, is not only an historical person, but also a paradigm. The Israelite people, the people whom YHWH has encountered and whom he will slay with pestilence and sword if they go not out into the wilderness to serve him (Exodus 4:3), must ponder this story with fear and trembling.

"If Israel is to survive the wrath of YHWH, it must, our text implies, be by virtue of the spilling of atoning blood . . . Gershom’s blood saves Moses, just as the blood of the Passover lamb will save the Israelites. Since for the sin of the Pharaoh his son’s blood will be shed, it is appropriate that the blood which saves Moses should not be his own, but that of his son. It is also fitting that this blood should be blood shed during the rite of circumcision. Since before the Passover lamb is eaten the participants must all be circumcised, it is right that the neglect of Gershom’s circumcision (though this omission is not the cause of the attack) should be repaired. The boy cannot be circumcised by his father, who is otherwise engaged, so Zipporah takes it upon herself, acting on behalf of her absent father, Jethro (hence the words to Moses ’You are my son-in-law by virtue of blood, the blood of circumcision’), to perform the rite, thus showing herself to be a worthy member of the elite class typified by Rahab the Canaanite harlot and Ruth the Moabitess-the foreign woman who puts Israelites to shame and earns the right to be held up as a model for imitation. Why does she touch Moses’ raglayim ["feet"] with the severed foreskin? Although, as I have argued, Moses is to be thought of as already circumcised, this action of his wife is, I have suggested, to be construed as a symbolic act of re-circumcision: Moses as representative of the people as a whole is thus symbolically prepared for the imminent Passover celebration. The vocation of the Israelite is a matter of high moment. One’s reluctance to serve YHWH wholeheartedly has to be broken down in a fearsome lone struggle in the darkness, and even then before one can meet YHWH there must be a twofold shedding of blood, the blood of circumcision and that of the Passover lamb. Furthermore, the pride of the male Israelite in his high vocation must needs be qualified, by reflecting that in his mysterious strategies for the world YHWH often employs in major roles those who are neither male nor even Israelite." [Note: Bernard P. Robinson, "Zipporah to the Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus IV 24-6," Vetus Testamentum 36:4 (October 1986):459-61.]

These few verses underscore a very important principle. Normally before God will use a person publicly he or she must first be obedient to God at home (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4-5).

"This story of Moses shows that God would rather have us die than take up His work with unconsecrated hearts and unsurrendered wills." [Note: Meyer, p. 81.]

Verses 27-31

Aaron was evidently in Egypt when God told him to meet Moses and directed him to Horeb (Exodus 4:27). Moses was apparently on his way from Midian back to Egypt when Aaron met him. Compare the reunion of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 33).

The Israelites believed what Moses and Aaron told them and what their miracles confirmed. They believed that the God of their fathers had appeared to Moses and had sent him to lead them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land (Exodus 4:31; cf. Exodus 3:6 to Exodus 4:9).

The relationship of faith and worship is clear in Exodus 4:31. Worship is an expression of faith.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/exodus-4.html. 2012.
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