Home  |  Old Testament Studies  |  Exodus Table of Contents  |  Previous Section   |  Next Section  |



Moses Given Power Miraculous Signs for Pharaoh The Call of Moses (2:23-4:17) God Gives Moses Miraculous Power Moses Granted Miraculous Powers
4:1-5 4:1-9 4:1-5 4:1 4:1-5
4:6-9 4:6-9 4:6-9 4:6-9
Aaron, the Mouthpiece of Moses
4:10-13 4:10-17 4:10-17 4:10 4:10-12
Aaron To Be Moses' Mouthpiece 4:13 4:13-17
4:14-17 4:14-17
Moses Goes to Egypt Moses Returns to Egypt to Arouse the Faith of His People Moses Returns to Egypt Moses Leaves Midian and Returns to Egypt
4:18-20 4:18-23 4:18-20 4:18 4:18
4:19-20 4:19-23
4:21-23 4:21-23 4:21-23 The Son of Moses Circumcised
4:24-26 4:24-26 4:24-26 4:24-26 4:24-26
Moses Meets Aaron
4:27-31 4:27-31 4:27-31 4:27-31 4:27-31

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Third paragraph
  4. Etc.


  1. It is obvious that Exodus 3 and 4 form a literary context. They contain a series of excuses by Moses of why he thinks he cannot be God's spokesman and deliverer. See note at Exod. 3:11.
  2. Exodus 4:18-31 describes Moses' journey back to Egypt and the initial contact with the Hebrew people.
  3. Exodus 4:24-26 has been an extremely difficult passage for commentators to interpret. The truth of the matter is that the interpretation has been lost in the precise meaning of certain terms and idioms which are used in this account. There are no parallel passages.


1Then Moses said, "What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say? For they may say, 'The Lord has not appeared to you.'" 2The Lord said to him, "What is that in your hand?" And he said, "A staff." 3Then He said, "Throw it on the ground." So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. 4But the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand and grasp it by its tail" - so he stretched out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand - 5"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."

4:1 "What if they will not believe me" Apparently Moses was reflecting on his experience of Exod. 2:14, when the Hebrew people did not want his help. However, he must have overlooked God's significant promise made to him in Exod. 3:10. The truth is that Moses was still trying to find excuses for not doing the will of God. It is helpful for us that the Bible records the faults, as well as the strengths, of God's leaders. This makes the Bible relevant to all of us and not just to "super saints" (because there are none)!
The term "believe" (BDB 52, KB 63, Hiphil IMPERFECT) occurs several times in this chapter (cf. Exod. 4:5,8,9,31). This is a key theme in OT theology. See SPECIAL TOPIC: BELIEVE, TRUST, FAITH, AND FAITHFULNESS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT .

▣ "listen" This VERB (BDB 1033, KB 1570, Qal IMPERFECT) means "to hear so as to do" (cf. Deut. 6:4). The goal is not knowledge but obedience (cf. Deut. 5:29,31,32,33; 6:1,2,3,4,17,24,25; see SPECIAL TOPIC: KEEP).

4:2 "What is that in your hand" This is a series of three specific signs to convince the Hebrews that YHWH has appeared to Moses and has sent him on a mission of redemption.

  1. the staff turning into a snake
  2. leprosy and its cure
  3. the Nile turning to blood

▣ "staff" This is probably the crooked staff of a shepherd (cf. Ps. 23:4). Some have assumed that Moses would not bring a shepherd's staff into the presence of Pharaoh because shepherding was odious to the Egyptians (cf. Gen. 46:34). However, just because the Egyptians did not like shepherds was no reason why God would not use the traditional symbol of Himself as Shepherd and the pastoral crook as a symbol of His power and presence (cf. Exod. 4:20).
This "staff" (BDB 641) will become the power of God in the hands of Moses (Exod. 4:17; 14:16; 17:9). It will symbolize God's personal presence and character (Shepherd of His people).

4:3 "Throw it on the ground. . .it became a serpent" The general term for "serpent" (BDB 638) is different from the one used in Exod. 7:9 (BDB 1071), where Moses, using this same staff, performs the feat through Aaron for Pharaoh. Because Moses fled from the serpent, it may have been a cobra, which was the symbol of Pharaoh's power and was worn on his headpiece. Most of the plagues on Egypt were against the Egyptian deities to show YHWH's power over them, and this may be the first example of that.

4:4 "Stretch out your hand and grasp it by its tail" These are two Qal IMPERATIVES. Ken Medema's musical about the call of Moses is right on target concerning the faith required for Moses to have taken a poisonous snake by the tail. God was testing Moses.

4:5 "Lord" This is the revealed name of Exod. 3:14-16. Israel's God goes by two titles.

  1. YHWH
  2. the God of. . . (see below)

▣ "the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham. . ." It is significant to compare this with Exod. 3:6, where the SINGULAR "father" is used, referring to Moses' father. But, in this passage it is a way to refer to the covenant God of the Hebrew people (cf. Exod. 3:13,15-16). The repeated formula "the God of. . ." shows God's relationship with each one.

6The Lord furthermore said to him, "Now put your hand into your bosom." So he put his hand into his bosom, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. 7Then He said, "Put your hand into your bosom again." So he put his hand into his bosom again, and when he took it out of his bosom, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. 8"If they will not believe you or heed the witness of the first sign, they may believe the witness of the last sign. 9But if they will not believe even these two signs or heed what you say, then you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water which you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground."

4:6 "his hand was leprous like snow" When Moses placed his hand inside his robe, close to his chest, it became leprous. Leprosy was a common disease of tremendous social consequence and is described in Lev. 13:4. To the best of our knowledge, this miracle was never performed before Pharaoh. It seems from Exod. 4:30 that all three of these signs were performed before the Hebrews and they were convinced that God sent Moses. The only account of this type of sign is found in Num. 12:10, where Miriam is stricken with leprosy because of her anger, apparently over Moses marrying a black lady (Num. 12:1).

4:9 "you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water which you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground" Here again, the Nile was seen as a chief deity of Egypt (i.e., Hapi) and yet, God can control and manipulate it. A form of this miracle is one of the plagues whereby Moses touched the Nile and the entire river became blood (cf. Exod. 7:14-19). This is a diminutive form of that plague in a restricted sense to convince the Hebrews that He had truly called and sent Moses.
God's control of water is powerful OT imagery. See SPECIAL TOPIC: WATERS.

10Then Moses said to the Lord, "Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." 11The Lord said to him, "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say." 13But he said, "Please, Lord, now send the message by whomever You will."

4:10 "Lord. . .Lord" Notice how English translations differentiate YHWH (Lord) and Adonai (my Lord, 4:13). These two names are used together in Ps. 110:1 also.

▣ "I have never been eloquent" This is another of Moses' excuses. We also learn, surprisingly, that Paul was not a good public speaker (cf. 2 Cor. 10:10). It is important to remember that God did not promise we would be eloquent, but effective (cf. Acts 7:22)! This is an important word for God's servants today. When God gives a task, He equips us for it. God takes the weak of this world to confound the wise (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-31) so that the glory might be God's, not mankind's.
The rabbis have used this verse to assert that Moses had a speech impediment.

▣ "Your servant" This is an honorific title. See SPECIAL TOPIC: MY SERVANT.

4:11 This is an affirmation that God is the only God, the Creator of all that is (possible meaning of the term YHWH) and He can certainly take care of Moses' speech problem!

4:12 "I, even I" This is a purposeful grammatical feature (cf. Exod. 4:15), which emphasizes God's presence and actions. He is the God who acts!

4:13 "Please, Lord, now send the message by whomever You will" This seems, in an English translation, to be Moses' willingness to now do what God wanted him to do. But, in the Hebrew it is really Moses' last attempt at an excuse not to be God's spokesman. That is why God's anger is kindled in Exod. 4:14. The rabbis say that this was Moses' excuse because he did not want to offend his older brother, Aaron. This is just one of the many attempts by the rabbis to make Moses look better.

14Then the anger of the Lord burned against Moses, and He said, "Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently. And moreover, behold, he is coming out to meet you; when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. 15You are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I, even I, will be with your mouth and his mouth, and I will teach you what you are to do. 16Moreover, he shall speak for you to the people; and he will be as a mouth for you and you will be as God to him. 17You shall take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs."

4:14 "the anger of the Lord burned against Moses" It is as difficult to speak of the anger of the Lord (YHWH) as it is the love of the Lord. Both of these are human emotions projected on God (see SPECIAL TOPIC: GOD DESCRIBED AS HUMAN). They do communicate a truth but we must be careful not to push them to the extremes. Though God is angry with Moses, He will still use him for His purposes. This applies to us too!
This is the first time in the Pentateuch that YHWH's "anger" (BDB 60 I) is mentioned. It will become a common theme in Numbers (cf. Num. 11:1,10; 12:9; 22:22; 25:3,4; 32:10,13,14).

▣ "Aaron the Levite" Why Aaron is called a Levite is because he is from the tribe of Levi. This is a typical non-priestly usage. Moses was also a Levite. Notice that God had communicated to Aaron earlier for he was already on his way to meet Moses. Aaron may have left as soon as Pharaoh died in order to bring his brother home.

▣ "he speaks fluently" This is an INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and an IMPERFECT VERB from the same root (BDB 180, KB 210), which denotes emphasis; here, Aaron's speaking ability.
God knew Aaron, as He knows all humans.

▣ "he is coming. . ." God also knows the future. He is the God of the eternal present. All history is before Him. He knows no past, nor future. The God who hears and acts is also the God who knows!

4:16 "and you shall be as God to him" This is the use of the Hebrew term Elohim (similar usage in Exod. 7:1). The term is usually translated "God," but it can also be a reference to the angels (cf. Ps. 8:5) or even to the judges of Israel (cf. Ps. 81:1,6). See SPECIAL TOPIC: NAMES FOR DEITY, C. God will speak to Moses who will pass on the message to Aaron who will then speak to the people.

4:17 "you shall take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs" We are certain of some tasks which were performed by God through Moses by means of this staff.

  1. the plagues of Egypt, Exod. 7:15,17,20; 9:23; 10:13
  2. the splitting of the Red Sea, Exod. 16:14
  3. providing water, Exod. 17:5
  4. defeat of Amalek, Exod. 17:9
The staff was a symbol of God's power (cf. Exod. 4:20).
This refers to both the miracles like the staff becoming a snake and the plagues.
  1. before Israel they are called "signs" (BDB 16, cf. Exod. 4:8,9,17,28,30)
  2. before Pharaoh they are called "miracles" (BDB 68, cf. Exod. 4:21; 7:9; 11:9,10)
  3. the general term is "wonders" (cf. Exod. 4:21; 7:3; 11:9,10; Deut. 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 26:8; 28:46; 34:11; see SPECIAL TOPIC: WONDERFUL THINGS)

18Then Moses departed and returned to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, "Please, let me go, that I may return to my brethren who are in Egypt, and see if they are still alive." And Jethro said to Moses, "Go in peace." 19Now the Lord said to Moses in Midian, "Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead." 20So Moses took his wife and his sons and mounted them on a donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt. Moses also took the staff of God in his hand.

4:18 Here Moses, in the normal Oriental custom, asks his father-in-law for permission to leave. It is interesting that he does not share with him God's message or the real reason why he wants to leave. The Bible does not record interesting details as western histories do. It is written for a theological purpose. See SPECIAL TOPIC: OT HISTORICAL NARRATIVE.

▣ "Go in peace" Remember, Moses may have been working off the debt for his wife. Jethro sends him away with a blessing. See SPECIAL TOPIC: PEACE (OT).

4:19 "all the men who were seeking your life are dead" This refers to the Pharaoh of the oppression (cf. Exod. 2:15,23), whoever that may be.

4:20 "So Moses took his wife and his sons" So far we have only been introduced to his first son, Gershom, in Exod. 2:22. Later in the account (Exod. 18:4) we learn of a second son, Eliezer. We are not sure of the age of these boys at this point.

21The Lord said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. 22Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord, "Israel is My son, My firstborn. 23So I said to you, 'Let My son go that he may serve Me'; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn."'"

4:21 "but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go" God informs Moses that the Hebrews will believe but Pharaoh will not be convinced. This passage and ones similar to it have caused tremendous problems to western theologians. We must allow this to speak in its original context and not bring to this passage questions that it was never intended to ask or to explicate (i.e., Calvinism). In the ancient Orient, and particularly in Israel, God was the source of all things (i.e., one causality, cf. Job 2:10; Eccl. 3:38; Isa. 6:10; 45:7; 54:16; Lam. 3:37; Ezek. 14:9; Amos 3:6b). Therefore, the Jews saw no contradiction in God hardening Pharaoh's heart or in Pharaoh hardening his own heart.
It is only in light of further New Testament revelation about humans' need to respond to God that the problem of God's sovereignty and human free will becomes a mysterious paradox for the church (see SPECIAL TOPIC: PREDESTINATION). It is best to affirm both truths than it is to magnify one over the other (see SPECIAL TOPIC: EASTERN LITERATURE (biblical paradoxes)). The best place in the Bible to ascertain the relationship between these two is Romans 9 on the sovereignty of God and Romans 10 on the free will of mankind.
In Exodus Pharaoh is described as being hardened in three ways.

  1. that God hardened his heart, Exod. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8; (cf. Rom. 9:34)
  2. that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, Exod. 8:15,32; 9:34
  3. his heart was hardened but with no mention of the source, Exod. 7:13,14,22; 8:19; 9:7,35
It is also interesting to note that three different VERBS are used to describe this hardening.
  1. "to be strong" (BDB 304, KB 302) in the sense of callous, Exod. 4:21; 7:13,22; 8:19; 9:12,35; 10:20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8
  2. "to be heavy" (BDB 549, KB 540) and, therefore, lack responsiveness, Exod. 7:14; 8:15,32; 9:7,34; 10:1
  3. "to be hard" (BDB 904, KB 1151), Exod. 7:3
However, all of these seem to be used in a synonymous relationship. The Bible emphatically teaches that each of us is personally responsible for our actions, including Pharaoh and Judas.


4:22 "Thus says the Lord, 'Israel is My son, My firstborn'" This is extremely significant in that it speaks of the fatherhood of God (see SPECIAL TOPIC: THE FATHERHOOD OF GOD). This is not an unusual OT concept but can be found in Deut. 1:21; 8:5; 32:6; Hos. 11:1; Isa. 1:2; 63:16; Jer. 3:19; Mal. 1:6. However, it must be seen that God's fatherhood is not in the sense of creation but in His unique relationship to Israel (see SPECIAL TOPIC: THE SON OF GOD), His covenant people (see SPECIAL TOPIC: COVENANT). This same concept of "My Son" will later be used of the Messiah (cf. Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15). This is also the first time in Exodus that the significant concept of the "firstborn" is used. The firstborn had preeminence in the family, was the major inheritor, and became the protector of the family and family rights (see SPECIAL TOPIC: FIRSTBORN).
There is also an undercurrent here that I think is significant. God is father only in the sense of redemption but I think the ultimate purpose of God is the redemption of all humans made in His image (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). As Israel was the "firstborn" (i.e., a kingdom of priests unto God, Exod. 19:4,5), the goal of the firstborn was to encourage the other children to faith in God. See SPECIAL TOPIC: YHWH'S ETERNAL REDEMPTIVE PLAN.

4:23 "I will kill your son, your firstborn" This is a foreshadowing of the tenth and last plague, where just as Pharaoh refused to let Israel, God's firstborn, go, he shall lose his firstborn, not only his son, who was considered to be the son of the sun god, Ra, but also the firstborn of all the land of Egypt (another example of YHWH's power over Egypt's gods).

24Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and threw it at Moses' feet, and she said, "You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me." 26So He let him alone. At that time she said, "You are a bridegroom of blood" - because of the circumcision.

4:24 "Now it came about at the lodging place on the way" Apparently this was a common campground, near water, that many travelers used. It would be similar to roadside parks in the USA.

▣ "the Lord met him" It is assumed that "him" is Moses, although the PRONOUNS are ambiguous in Exod. 4:24-26. It is uncertain if the text is speaking of Moses or one of his sons. The writers of the Septuagint obviously became distressed that YHWH tried to kill him, so they changed the translation to "the angel of YHWH." The rabbis say (i.e., Jewish folklore) that the angel of the Lord took the form of a serpent and tried to swallow Moses, but when he came to Moses' circumcision he could not completely devour him and that Zipporah saw this, understood the problem, and circumcised their son. Whether this refers to the oldest or the youngest son is uncertain.

4:25 It is obvious that something happened to Moses and that Zipporah knew exactly what caused it (see Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 139-140). Apparently it was somehow related to the rite of circumcision (either to Moses or his children), which was a symbol of the covenant of God with Abraham (cf. Gen. 17:1,9-14). The reason we believe this is because Zipporah does three specific acts in Exod. 4:25:

  1. she circumcises her son
  2. she does something with the foreskin related to Moses
  3. she calls Moses by a specific title, "a bridegroom of blood"
These ambiguities make it extremely difficult to interpret this particular paragraph. The NASB has "threw it as Moses' feet," which basically follows the Septuagint. The term "Moses" is not in the Greek Septuagint or in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, which says, "touched his feet." We are not sure if this refers to (1) the son's feet; (2) to Moses' feet; or (3) if the feet are a euphemism for the genitals (male - Exod. 4:25; Jdgs. 3:24; 1 Sam. 24:3; Isa. 7:20; female - Deut. 28:57; Ezek. 16:25, cf. NIDOTTE, vol. 4, p. 1199). This is the translation adopted by the Jerusalem Bible.
The last phrase, "a bridegroom of blood," repeated in Exod. 4:26, seems to show something of Zipporah's reluctance to circumcision as a rite of passage into manhood and not a rite of a child 8 days old as commanded by God to Abraham. Some believe that Moses' life was put in jeopardy because he did not circumcise his sons, which would limit his leadership of Israel. The truth is that we are simply not certain what this passage means or how it relates to the context. In some ways, it is theologically similar to Gen. 32:25-33. It is certain that it shows the significance of circumcision and obedience in following God's commands. It is so strange it must be historical. No one would make this up!

27Now the Lord said to Aaron, "Go to meet Moses in the wilderness." So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which He had sent him, and all the signs that He had commanded him to do. 29Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the sons of Israel; 30and Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses. He then performed the signs in the sight of the people. 31So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord was concerned about the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and worshiped.

4:27 "Go to meet Moses" As YHWH spoke directly to Moses, now to Aaron. Apparently Aaron knew where Moses was living, in Midian, near the mountain of God.
YHWH knew Aaron would come because he had sent him earlier. He already knew of Moses' excuses!

▣ "the wilderness" This is not a reference to the desert but to uninhabited, arid pastureland.

▣ "the mountain of God" This refers to the special mountain on which Moses met God (Exodus 3) and where he will later bring the children of Israel (Exodus 19). The non-Hebrew name for this mountain is Sinai and the Hebrew name is Horeb. See SPECIAL TOPIC: THE LOCATION OF MT. SINAI.

4:29 "assembled all the elders of the sons of Israel" It would have been very difficult to speak to the entire group of people at one time, so Moses spoke to the elders of each tribal group and they, in turn, went home and told their constituents.

4:30 This shows that the three signs that God gave to Moses in Exod. 4:2-9 were shown to the people of God and they believed (Exod. 4:31).

4:31 "the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord" The Septuagint has the word "rejoiced" here. The Hebrew words for "heard" and "rejoiced" are similar (NET Bible, p. 122, #12). It is obvious from the context that the people were so excited that the Lord knew their plight (cf. Exod. 3:7,9) and was going to fix it (cf. Exod. 3:8,19).

▣ "they bowed low" In the Bible there are several ways used to describe the position of the body in prayer.

  1. kneel - 1 Kgs. 8:54; 19:18; 2 Chr. 6:13; Ezra 9:5; Ps. 95:6; Isa. 45:23; Dan. 6:10; 10:10; Mark 15:10; Luke 22:41; Rom. 14:11; E ph. 3:14; Phil. 2:10
  2. lifting hands - Ps. 28:2; 63:4; 134:2; 141:2; 143:6; Lam. 2:19; 2 Tim. 2:8
  3. both #1 and #2 - Exod. 9:29,33; 1 Kgs. 8:38,54; Job 11:13; Ps. 143:6; Isa. 1:15
  4. bowing low - Gen. 47:31; Exod. 4:31; Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:35
It is more an attitude of the heart than a position of the body.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. What does Moses's reluctance to answer God's call have to say to us?
  2. Is Exod. 4:4 a test?
  3. How can we understand the hardening of Pharaoh's heart?
  4. Why is Exod. 4:22 so important to Israel?
  5. What is your understanding of Exod. 4:24-26? Why?

Home  |  Old Testament Studies  |  Exodus Table of Contents  |  Previous Section   |  Next Section  |