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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 4

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



(1.) In order to carry forward the supernatural work to which he was called, Moses now appears before us armed with supernatural powers. This is the first instance of the kind that appears in history. The patriarchs had individual intercourse with God, and he communicated with them personally, in visions, waking or sleeping, but they wrought no miracles, for they held no mediatorial relation to mankind, and needed no supernatural credentials. But now a mediatorial nation was to be founded which should stand supernaturally accredited before mankind; and the founder of this nation is, therefore, clothed with supernatural powers. In this respect the sober reserve of Scripture presents a striking contrast to the myths of heathenism, and to the legends of ecclesiastical tradition, which ever surround the figures of their heroes with a halo of miracle, brilliant in proportion to its distance. It is also especially noteworthy that the Scriptures furnish no account of a miracle wrought by man till we reach the period of written history recorded by original witnesses.

(2.) The miracle is no violation or suspension of the laws of nature, but such a use of those laws as is possible only to superhuman wisdom, and which, therefore, proves the presence of superhuman influences. To attempt to explain a miracle is absurd, for “explanation” is simply reference to an understood law; but in this case the law is above the grasp of the human faculties. God works ever according to law, although often the law is too high for man to comprehend.

Verse 1


1. They will not believe me Moses pleads that Israel will not accept him as a divinely-commissioned leader, and Jehovah gives him three signs to demonstrate to himself, to Israel, and to the Egyptians, that he is sent of God . Egypt was a land of symbols, and these are symbolic miracles, divine hieroglyphs . Three is the complete or perfect number, and the three signs give to each of the three parties involved complete proof of his mission .

Verses 2-5

2-5. A rod The shepherd’s staff which Moses casts down is the emblem of the shepherd life which now, at God’s call, he abandons. But at once he finds himself confronted by a hissing serpent, the emblem of Egyptian royalty, from which he flees, for his flesh shrinks from this conflict with Pharaoh. In Egypt the asp was the hieroglyph of royalty. But when, at God’s bidding, he boldly grasps his formidable foe, the very wrath of Pharaoh calls forth the power of Jehovah and Jehovah’s messenger. The serpent becomes the “wonder-working rod.” This sign sets forth the character of Moses, God’s messenger.

Verses 6-7

6, 7. His hand was leprous The second sign symbolizes Israel: first, fresh and young; then, foul and weak; then, clean and strong . Leprosy is a type of ceremonial defilement . As God bid Moses put his hand in his bosom, so had he bidden Israel go down into Egypt, where they had been sheltered from the Canaanitish influences which would have arrested their national life, but where they had also become contaminated with nature-worship, and where their heathen surroundings made them ceremonially unclean. Moses Mosheh, the drawer or deliverer was to draw them forth, and thrust them into another land, where they should be a nation clean unto Jehovah.

Verse 8

8. First sign… latter sign These signs are God’s voiceless but visible words to the people . But, like all other words, they may be heard or not, at the hearer’s option . No conceivable miracle can compel conviction . When Christ arose “some doubted . ”

Verse 9

9. The third sign symbolizes Jehovah’s power over Egypt and her gods . But for the Nile there would be no Egypt; and when Moses smote the water of the river he turned the very breast milk of Egypt to blood. And, besides, the Nile was a national god, for its fertilizing power was deemed to proceed from Osiris himself . Thus Jehovah smites Egypt’s life-giving god, who is stretched through the land a loathsome corpse .

Verses 10-12


10-12. I am not eloquent Literally, not a man of words .

Slow of speech Rather, heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue . Moses declares that he is no orator, has not the gift of persuasion, and therefore he has not confidence that he can convince Israel of his mission . So Paul tells us that his bodily presence was weak, and his speech contemptible; but where are weighty and immortal words to be found if they fell not from Paul and Moses? Moses, like Paul, felt weak when he measured himself with his work. He did not yet realize how God’s strength is made perfect in such weakness. It would also seem that Moses was not fluent, like Aaron his brother; and, perhaps, from his long separation from his brethren, he had to some degree lost command of his native language. This would naturally make him diffident in undertaking a popular appeal. He may have been conscious, too, that in his forty years’ exile from Egyptian civilization his tongue and manners had caught a desert rudeness, which poorly fitted him to appear in the courts of the Pharaohs. Here, for the first time, prophetic inspiration is promised to man. Henceforth in the whole subsequent history of the Church we see this endowment of the Holy Ghost. So the lips of the shrinking Isaiah were touched with a “live coal” from the heavenly altar. Isaiah 6:0. So Jehovah laid his hand on the mouth of the wavering Jeremiah. Jeremiah 1:0. So it was given to the uncultured Apostle to speak boldly before rulers and peoples: and so God’s Spirit has ever been a fire in the words of his genuine messengers. Moses was learned enough to know the vanity of learning, and had now become wise enough to see the folly of wisdom, so that he was just the instrument for God’s hand.

Verse 13

13. Send, I pray thee, by the hand (of whomsoever else) thou wilt send All his objections had been removed, yet still he hesitated and shrank. The unreasonableness of unbelief is here most naturally depicted, but with what unworldly fidelity! What an infallible touch of genuineness, when we consider the laws of man’s spiritual development, and note the progress of the faith of Moses! Yet what later scribe of the followers of the great lawgiver would ever, by the invention of such an incident, have blurred the glory of that venerated name? Only Moses himself and only the inspired Moses could ever have detailed this humiliating weakness. This is not the style of unrenewed and uninspired man.

Verse 14

14. Aaron the Levite now first appears, and behind him Moses for the time retires . This is just and natural, for during forty years Aaron had been among his brethren, and living in the atmosphere of the highest civilization of the time, while Moses had been tending sheep for a Bedouin priest in the wilderness; but again we ask, what follower of the Sinai legislator would ever have dreamed of this? Aaron is God’s spokesman to the people; it is Aaron’s rod that buds; Aaron is Jehovah’s high priest; it is his sons that come to honour and wear the splendid vestments of the tabernacle, the chosen servants of Jehovah’s altar, while the children of Moses vanish into obscurity. Yet the slow, stammering, vailed prophet is the soul of Israel.

Behold, he cometh forth to meet thee Events had been ripening in Egypt also, and the people as well as the leader had been preparing for the critical hour. He will be glad in his heart to see thee, and ready to unite with thee in the work of national deliverance. So we afterwards read that “he met and kissed him in the mount of God.” The Egyptian traditions of the exodus, though broken and confused, are deemed by some historians to show traces of dynastic rivalries and convulsions which favoured the exit of Israel; but this is extremely uncertain. It is certain, however, that Moses, Pharaoh, and Israel, though all freely acting, were all providentially used in this crisis. See on Exodus 4:21.

Verses 15-16

15, 16. Moses was still to be the mediator, while Aaron was to be the interpreter of God’s word as he received it from Moses . Yet it is instructive to notice that as Moses advances in his work and grows in faith, (and shall we not say, wears away the desert rusticity?) Aaron gradually retires from the prominent position which at first he held, and Moses comes more forward . Aaron is the spokesman, but while we read of the lineage of “that Aaron and Moses,” yet it is always “Moses and Aaron” who come before Pharaoh . It is Aaron who casts down the rod which swallows up the magicians’ rods, and who smites Egypt with the first and mildest blows; but it is Moses who prostrates Pharaoh’s sorcerers with such a stroke that they lift their heads no more, (Exodus 9:11,) and it is his rod that strikes the final terrible blows thereafter, till the Red Sea rolls back over Pharaoh.

Verse 17

17. This rod This simple shepherd’s crook shall break the sceptre of Egypt, shall break the crook and flail of Osiris . So, long after, a shepherd’s sling delivered Israel; a Galilean fisher’s net enclosed the Gospel multitudes; and a Cilician tentmaker spread the gospel tabernacle over the Gentile nations . Thus the Dispensations ever harmonize . With this decisive command Jehovah closes the interview, and Moses humbly submits and obeys .


Moses, as far as we can see, says nothing at this time to Jethro about his divine commission, for as yet, probably, he could not have understood it.

Verse 19

19. All the men are dead See Exodus 2:23, where the death of the king is related immediately before Moses’ call . This event seems in several ways to have been critical for the fortunes of Israel .

Verse 20

20. And Moses took his wife Zipporah . And his (two) sons Gershom and Eliezer .

Set thereupon an ass Rather, made them ride upon the ass . Probably only Zipporah and the child Eliezer rode, while Moses and Gershom walked by the side of the ass . This was an humble, an unostentatious, entry of the commander of the hosts of Israel!

Verse 21

21. I will harden his heart Lest Moses should be despondent in his long conflict with Pharaoh’s obstinate disobedience, he is now assured that this also has been fully foreseen and provided for by Jehovah, for it is to be taken up into His plan as one of the evils which “work together for good” to God’s elect . Romans 8:28. It would give Moses hope and courage to know that no step of the struggle had been unforeseen and unprovided for . Every action, good and bad, may be viewed in two aspects, either as proceeding from the voluntary and responsible agent, or as used by God in his providence; and it is the latter, or divine side, that is here specially emphasized, because the history is specially a history of providence of the divine overruling . Yet both sides of the action are in this narrative equally presented, for it is notable that, while we read here ten times that God “hardened the heart” of Pharaoh, we read precisely the same number of times that “Pharaoh hardened his heart,” or that his heart “was hardened,” “stiff,” or “heavy . ”

But this is not the whole meaning, nor is the interpretation adequate, that God permitted rather than caused. Hardness of heart is a judgment proceeding directly from God. It is a consequential punishment of sin. But before God inflicts this penalty man has deserved it by trifling with God’s goodness and mercy. Increasing stubbornness and moral insensibility are the judicial consequences of conscious resistance to God’s will; and this judgment proceeds directly from God, while the sin which invokes the judgment and brings man within the range of these consequences proceeds from man. Thus Pharaoh hardened his heart, and yet it was hardened by Jehovah. While ignorant of Jehovah, disobedience to his law could not harden him; but, from the moment that he knew him, resistance hardened. For this conscious disobedience and this judicial consequence Pharaoh was responsible. This sin of his was, moreover, foreseen. The prediction here made to Moses, and the providential preparations for the punishment of Pharaoh’s sin, were the effects of that sin, divinely foreseen as, in a lower sphere, the erection of court-houses and jails are the effects of sin humanly foreseen. But knowledge, whether fore or after, in man or God, can never be the cause, but is ever the effect, of the thing known. See notes on Romans 8:29; Romans 9:18.

Verse 22

22. My firstborn By spiritual generation . In God’s covenant Israel was adopted as the firstborn of the nations, for ultimate good of the whole family of man . By a series of providences, from the call of Abraham to the exode, Israel was given a national being, and adopted as the child of Jehovah . See the plan of Exodus .

Pharaoh, who styled himself Son of RA, the sun-god, was commanded to release Israel, the Son of JEHOVAH. Thus at every turn we see that the blow was struck at Egypt’s gods; this conflict is religious rather than political; the war is waged from heaven.

Verses 24-26

24-26. It came to pass… in the inn An incident which transpired at some well-known halting-place on the road ( the lodging-place) is so briefly related as to have occasioned much doubt and perplexity to all interpreters . It is most probably to be understood thus: Zipporah, the Midianitess, although she loved her husband, yet did not wholly sympathise with his great work, nor enter as she should into Jehovah’s covenant . At least through her influence Moses had not given their youngest son the covenant sign, and Eliezer was yet uncircumcised . But it was now needful that Moses should be most impressively taught the necessity of himself keeping the ordinances which he was about to teach to others, and this is one of the striking incidents in his spiritual education .

Sought to kill him Death was the penalty for neglecting the seal of the covenant. Genesis 17:14. As Moses advanced towards Egypt, Jehovah barred his way, as at a similar crisis in the history of Jacob he had crossed his path at Peniel, and would not allow him to go forward till, after his famous wrestling, he consecrated himself to the God of Israel. In some way, we are not told how, death stood in his path, and Zipporah recognised his mortal danger as a consequence of his neglect and her opposition.

Cut off the foreskin She herself circumcised the child, and threw the bloody token petulantly at Moses’s feet, calling him a husband of bloods, (text, a bloody husband,) in angry allusion to the bloody rite.

Then Jehovah released Moses from his danger, ( so he let him go,) and Zipporah, regarding him as wedded to her afresh, that is, redeemed from death, and made thus her husband anew, calls him with fresh emphasis a husband of bloods because of the circumcision.

Zipporah uses a stone knife, such as seems generally to have been then employed for this rite as may be seen in Joshua 5:2, margin although metallic tools had been in use for ages among these Shemitic peoples . But in this rite, as in the Egyptian process of embalming, ( Herodotus, 2: 86,) ancient custom seems to have kept in use the more primitive tool . Zipporah seems now, or soon after, to have returned to her father’s house in Midian, for there we find her with the children when Moses returns to Horeb at the head of Israel .

Verses 29-31

29-31. Gathered… the elders This points to an organization of the people under chiefs of their own, and their reverent acceptance of Moses and Aaron shows that they had not forgotten the God and the covenant of their fathers, although their faith was by no means ready for the impending conflict .

Elders See note on Exodus 6:13-19.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/exodus-4.html. 1874-1909.
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