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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 4

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) Behold.—Some render the word here used by “perhaps” (LXX., Aben-Ezra, Saadia, &c); but it does not appear to have anywhere this meaning. Moses meant to express a positive conviction that he would not be listened to. His faith was weak.

They will say, The Lord hath not appeared.—It is very probable that the people would have said this if Moses had not had any credentials to produce. It is even possible that they did say it. There had been no appearance of Jehovah to any one for above four hundred years, and they might well think that the age of miracles was past. Miracles cluster around certain crises in God’s dealings with man, ceasing alto gether between one crisis and another. They were suspended for above 500 years between the time of Daniel and the appearance of the angel to Zacharias.

Verse 2

(2) A rod.—Most commentators regard the “rod” of Moses as his shepherd’s crook, and this is certainly possible; but the etymology of the word employed seems rather to point to an ordinary staff, or walking-stick. Egyptians of rank usually carried long batons; and one suggestion is, that the rod of Moses was “that which he had been accustomed to carry as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.” But even if this was still in his possession after forty years of exile, he is not likely to have taken it with him when he went a-shepherding. Probably the “rod” was a common staff, such as a shepherd of eighty years old might need for a support.

Verse 3

(3) A serpent.—The word here used (nakhash) is a generic one for a snake of any kind, and tells us nothing as to the species. A different word (tannin) is used in Exodus 7:10, while nakhash recurs in Exodus 7:15. Tannin is, like nakhash, a generic term.

And Moses fled from before it—It was natural for Moses to remember his alarm, and record it. Any-later writer would have passed over so small a circumstance. (See the Introduction, p. 3.)

Verse 4

(4) Take it by the tail.—Those who venture to handle poisonous snakes, like the modern Egyptians and the inhabitants of the coast of Barbary, generally take hold of them by the neck, in which case they are unable to bite. To test the faith and courage of Moses, the command is given him to lay hold of this serpent “by the tail.”

He put forth his hand.—Faith triumphed over instinct. Moses had “fled from” the snake when first he saw it (Exodus 4:3). Now he is daring enough to stoop down, put his hand on the creature’s tail, and so lift it up.

It became a rod.—Its real nature returned to it. Once more it was, not a stiffened serpent, but an actual staff, or walking-stick.

Verse 5

(5) That they may believe . . . —These are God’s words to Moses, in continuation of those which form the first portion of the preceding verse. The clause describing the action of Moses in Exodus 4:4 is parenthetic. The words give Diviue sanction to the view, so strangely combatted of late, that the power of working miracles is given to men, primarily and mainly, for its evidential value to accredit them as God’s messengers. Without the gift of miracles neither would Moses have persuaded the Israelites, nor would the Apostles have converted the world.

Verse 6

(6) His hand was leprous as snow.—The worst form of leprosy was called by the Greeks λεύκη, “the white disease.” When it is fully developed, the whole skin appears glossy white, and every hair is “white like wool” (Celsus, De Re Medica, v. 28, § 12). This form is said to be absolutely incurable. It was probably from the fact of Moses exhibiting a leprous hand that the Egyptians called the Israelites “the lepers,” as related by Manetho (ap. Joseph. contra Ap. i. 26), Chæremon (ibid., i. 32), and others.

Verse 8

(8) The voice of the first sign.—Not “the voice of Moses witnessed to by the first sign” (Rosenmüller), but the voice, which the sign itself might be regarded as uttering. (Comp. Psalms 105:27, where Moses and Aaron are said to have proclaimed “the words of God’s signs.”) A miracle speaks to men.

They will believe, i.e., most of them. Accustomed to the tricks of the serpent charmers (see Exodus 7:11 and comment ad loc.), the Israelites might be unmoved by the sight of the first miracle. They were then to be shown the second, which would be much more astonishing to them, having no parallel in their experience. This would persuade the greater number. As some, however, might still doubt, a third sign was provided. God is patient with all reasonable doubt.

Verse 9

(9) Shall become blood.—The verb is repeated in the Hebrew, which intensifies the assertion. The English equivalent of the phrase used would be, “shall assuredly become.” The signs were, no doubt, selected primarily for facility of exhibition; but they may also have been intended to be significant. The change of a rod into a serpent showed that a feeble implement might become a power to chastise and to destroy. That of a healthy into a leprous hand, and the reverse, indicated that Moses’s mission was both to punish and to save; while the change of water into blood suggested—albeit vaguely—the conversion of that peace and prosperity, which Egypt was enjoying, into calamity, suffering, and bloodshed.

Verse 10

(10) I am not eloquent.—Heb., No man of words am I. Moses, still reluctant, raises a new objection. He is not gifted with facility of speech. Words do not. come readily to him; perhaps, when they come, he has a difficulty in uttering them. According to a Jewish tradition, he was unable to pronounce the labials, b, f, m, p, v. According to his own expressions at the end of the verse, he was “heavy” or “slow of speech,” and “heavy” or “slow of tongue.”

Neither heretofore.—Heb., neither yesterday, nor the day before. It is a Hebrew idiom to make these words cover past time generally. (See below, Exodus 5:7-8; Exodus 5:14; and comp. Genesis 31:2; Genesis 31:5, and 2 Samuel 3:17.)

Nor since thou hast spoken.—Converse with God had not cured his defect of utterance, whatever it was. He remained “slow of speech and slow of tongue”—unready, i.e., and hesitating.

Verse 11

(11) Who maketh.—Rather, hath made.

Verse 12

(12) I will be with thy mouth.—To suggest words (see Matthew 10:19-20), and assist utterance. Comp. the reluctance of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:6), and God’s dealings with him (Jeremiah 1:7-9).

Verse 13

(13) Send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send.—Rather, pray send by whom thou wilt. A curt, impatient, and scarcely reverent speech. Moses means that he will undertake the task if God insists; but that God would do far better to send another. Hence the “anger of the Lord” against him (Exodus 4:14), which led to Aaron’s association with him as joint leader of the people.

Verse 14

(14) The Levite.—Aben-Ezra and Rosenmüller think that this was the usual designation of the brother of Moses among the Israelites, who thus distinguished him from other Aarons. But as a distinguishing mark, the term would be superfluous here, since “thy brother” prevented the possibility of any other Aaron being thought of. Probably, the term is a title of honour, the priestly character already attaching to the tribe in God’s counsels.

I know that he can speak well.—Heb., I know that speaking he can speak. Facility of utterance, rather than excellence of speech, is intended.

And also, i.e., not only does his ready speech make him a suitable person to appoint, but he is coming to join thee, so that he and thou may arrange your respective parts at once.

Verse 15

(15) Thou shalt . . . put words in his mouth, i.e., Tell him what he is to say—furnish the matter of his speeches, which he will then clothe with appropriate language.

With thy mouth.—Suggesting the matter to thee.

With his mouth.—Suggesting the language to him.

Verse 16

(16) He shall be thy spokesman.—Heb.,He shall speak for thee.

He shall be, even he shall be.—Rather, it shall come to pass that he shall be, &c.

Instead of God.—God did not speak to Aaron directly, but only through Moses. Aaron was to recognise in Moses God’s mouthpiece, and to consider what Moses told him as coming from God. Moses had still, therefore, the higher position.

Verse 17

(17) This rod, i.e., “the rod that had been changed into a serpent,” as the LXX. paraphrase.

(18) Signs.—Rather, “the signs” (τὰ σημεῖα, LXX.); i.e., the signs which thou wilt have to perform, as already implied in Exodus 3:20.

Verse 18

Moses . . . returned to Jethro.—Heb., to Jether. When Moses married Zipporah, he was probably adopted into the tribe, of which Reuel, and after him Jethro, was the head. The tribal tie was close, and would make the asking of permission for even a temporary absence the proper, if not even the necessary, course Apart from this, Moses would have had to “return,” in order to restore the flock, which he was tending, to its owner. (See Exodus 3:1.)

My brethren.—Not “my nation,” for Moses could not doubt that some survived; nor “my actual brothers,” for he had but one brother; but, “my relations,” or “my family,” my kith and kin. Let me go and see whether my relatives survive, or whether they have succumbed to the tyranny of the Pharaoh. It is certain that this was not Moses’ sole motive, not even his main motive for wishing to return to Egypt; but, as it was among his motives, he was within his right in putting it forward, and omitting to mention others.

Jethro said, Go in peace.—Jethro’s character is altogether one of which kindness and peacefulness are the main elements. If he be identified with Reuel, the pleasing picture drawn in Exodus 2:18-21 will furnish traits towards his portraiture. Even without this, the present passage and the notice in Exodus 18:0 sufficiently delineate him. He is a sort of second Melchizedek, both priest and king, a worshipper of the true God, and one in whose presence both Moses and Aaron are content to play a secondary part (Exodus 18:9; Exodus 18:12). But he never asserts himself; he is always kind, gentle, acquiescent, helpful. He might easily have made a difficulty at the present point of the narrative, have demurred to the weakening of the tribe by the withdrawal of an important member from it, have positively refused to allow of the departure of ‘Zipporah and her children. But his words are simply “Go in peace.” He consents, and does not mar the grace of his act by any show of reluctance. He lets Moses take his wife and children. He afterwards receives them back, and protects them (Exodus 18:2); and, finally, when his protection is no more needed, he restores them to their natural guardian, by a spontaneous act, as it would seem.

Verse 19

(19) In Midian.—Moses appears to have delayed his departure after he obtained permission to go from Jethro. Hence the address “Go, return,” which is peremptory.

All the men which sought thy life.—Not only the Pharaoh (Exodus 2:23), but the kindred of the murdered man, and the officials empowered by the Pharaoh to arrest Moses. As forty years had elapsed since the homicide, this is readily conceivable.

Verse 20

(20) His sons.—Only one had been mentioned previously, viz., Gershom (Exodus 2:22), unless we accept the Vulgate addition to that place. But another had been recently born to him.

Set them upon an ass.—Heb., upon the ass, i.e., cither “upon his ass,” or, according to some, “upon asses.” The singular of a substantive with the article is sometimes used for the genus (Genesis 15:11).

He returned.—Rather, set out to return (ἐπέστρεψεν, LXX.).

The rod of God.—An emphatic phrase. God’s endowment of the rod with miraculous power had made it “the rod of God.” It was the instrument by means of which most of the plagues and the other miracles were wrought (Exodus 7:20; Exodus 8:6; Exodus 8:17; Exodus 9:23; Exodus 10:13; Exodus 14:16; Exodus 17:5; Numbers 20:9; &c).

Verse 21

(21) All those wonders.—Not the “three signs” of Exodus 3:3-9, but the “portents” or “wonders “which were to be done before Pharaoh, and which had been alluded to in Exodus 3:20. These were, in the counsel of God, already “put into Moses’ hand,” though their exact nature was as yet unknown to Moses himself.

I will harden his heart.—The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart has been the subject of much controversy. It is ascribed to God in this place, and again in Exodus 7:3; Exodus 9:12; Exodus 10:1; Exodus 10:20; Exodus 10:27; Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:8; to Pharaoh in Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32; and Exodus 9:34; to the action of the heart itself in Exodus 7:13; Exodus 7:22; Exodus 9:7; Exodus 9:35. It is conceivable that these may be simply three forms of speech, and that the actual operation was one and the same in every case. Or, three different modes of operation may be meant. It is in favour of the latter view, that each term has a period during which it is predominant. In the narrative of what happened, the action of the heart is itself predominant in the first period; that of Pharaoh on his heart in the second; that of God in the third. We may suppose that, at first, Pharaoh’s nature was simply not impressed, and that then his heart is said to have “hardened itself,” or “remained hard;” that after a while, he began to be impressed; but by an effort of his will controlled himself, and determined that he would not yield: thus “hardening his own heart;” finally, that after he had done this twice (Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32), God stepped in and “smote him with a spirit of blindness and infatuation,” as a judgment upon him (Exodus 9:12), thus, finally, “hardening” him (comp. Romans 9:18). This divine action was repeated, on three subsequent occasions (Exodus 10:20; Exodus 10:27; Exodus 14:8), Pharaoh’s time of probation being past, and God using him as a mere means of showing forth His glory. There is nothing in this contrary to the general teaching of the Scriptures, or to the Divine Perfection.

Verse 22

(22) Israel is my son.—Compare Hosea 11:1. This tender relation, now first revealed, is not a mere metaphor, meaning “as dear to me as a son,” but a reality. The Israel of God enjoys the sonship of adoption by being taken into the True Son, and made one with Him (Romans 8:14-17).

My first – born.—Admitted to sonship in the Messiah before the other nations of the earth.

Verse 23

(23) I will slay thy son, even thy first-born.—The threat was not made until immediately before the tenth plague (Exodus 11:5). It is not recorded in the words which Moses is here directed to use; but the speech of Moses in Exodus 11:0 is no doubt much abbreviated.

Verse 24

(24) In the inn.—There would not be any “inn,” as we understand the word, in the Sinaitic peninsula. Probably there would not even be a caravanserai. Nothing more is meant by mâlon than a recognised resting-place.

The Lord met him.—The LXX. have ἄγγελος κυρίου, “an angel of the Lord; “and so the Targum of Onkelos and the Arabic versions. But the existing Hebrew text is probably correct. God met Moses, i.e., visited him with a sharp attack of illness, which threatened to be fatal. Both he and his wife seem at once to have concluded that the visitation was a punishment, on account of their having neglected to circumcise their new-born son. Perhaps Moses had an intimation from God to that effect.

Verse 25

(25) A sharp stone.—On the use of stone knives by the Egyptian paraschistœ see Herod. ii. 86. They were regarded as more pure than metal knives. From Joshua 5:2 it would seem that stone knives were in the early ages commonly employed for circumcision by the Israelites.

At his feet.—Moses’ feet, undoubtedly. The action was petulant and reproachful. Zipporah regarded the bloody rites of her husband’s religion as cruel and barbarous, and cast the foreskin of her son at his feet, as though he were a Moloch requiring a bloody offering.

A bloody husband.—Heb., a husband of bloods A husband, i.e., who causes the blood of his children to be shed unnecessarily for some unintelligible reason.

Verse 26

(26) So he let him go.—God let Moses go, i.e., allowed him to recover—accepted Zipporah’s act as sufficient, albeit tardy, reparation, and spared the life of her husband.

Then she said.—When Moses was sufficiently recovered, Zipporah explained to him why she had called him “a bloody husband;” it was “on account of the circumcisions,” i.e., the two circumcisions—of Gershom in Midian, many years previously, and now of Eliezer. We learn from Exodus 18:2-3, that Zipporah and her boys were sent back to Jethro by Moses, probably at this time. Moses was in haste, and the child could not have travelled conveniently for some days.

Verse 27

(27) Go into the wilderness.-Either the directions given to Aaron were more definite than this, or they were supplemented by Divine guidance. He went and met Moses on “the mount of God,” i.e., in the Sinaitic region. Without Divine guidance, he would naturally have sought him in Midian.

Kissed him.—Comp. Genesis 33:4; Genesis 45:14-15. In the East, men closely related still kiss on meeting, as they did in Moses’ time, and in the days of Herodotus (i. 134).

Verse 28

(28) Who had sent him.—Rather, “which he had laid upon him,” τοὺς λόγους κυρίου, οὓς�, LXX.

All the signs, i.e., the three miracles of Exodus 4:3-9.

Verse 29


(29) Moses and Aaron went.—The two brothers returned together from the Sinaitic region to Egypt. No particulars of the journey are narrated, nor can we even tell what was the route which they followed. On their arrival, they at once set themselves to carry out the charge committed to them (Exodus 3:16). The Israelites in Egypt, though suffering under severe oppression, had an organisation of their own, jurisdiction attaching probably to the heads of tribes, or of chief families. (Comp. Numbers 1:4-16.) These persons are here called “elders,” which the LXX. render τὴν γερουσίαν, “the senate.” Moses and Aaron could have no power to convoke them; but they invited them to a conference, and the elders came.

Verse 30

(30) Aaron spake.—According to the Divine command (Exodus 4:16).

And did the signs.—So, generally, afterwards (Exodus 7:10; Exodus 7:19; Exodus 8:6; Exodus 8:17, &c.), not, however, universally (see Exodus 9:10; Exodus 9:23; Exodus 10:13; Exodus 14:21; &c).

The people believed.—The narrative is very much compressed. The elders heard the words, and saw the signs first. Then they must have summoned an assembly of the people, after working hours, and the people must have been addressed and shown the signs. The effect was to convince them also, and to induce them to accept Moses and Aaron for the national leaders.

Worshipped.—Some think that Moses was the object of the worship; but it is better to regard it as offered to “the Lord,” who had “visited” them.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Exodus 4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/exodus-4.html. 1905.
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