How Moses Becomes God to Pharaoh


  • God breaks the boredom of Moses’ desert shepherding by lighting up a bush that isn’t consumed.
  • God’s “offer you can’t refuse” to Moses achieves its result, Moses and Aaron carry the message to Pharaoh.
  • The outcome of the message was disastrous if we imagine it’s goal was to relieve the suffering of Israel.
  • The “bricks without straw” order comes down the chain of command with the necessary beatings and the people’s oppression grows worse.
  • The chain of complaint (which works in reverse of the chain of command) goes back through Moses back to Yhwh. “You’re just making things worse!”
  • Yhwh ups the ante by assuming a language Empire understands.

A quick visit to the Ancient Near Eastern library reveals that God is employing stock terms in his speech.

Other ancient Near Eastern texts also record deities speaking in this way, although such statements are not common in Egyptian texts. Part of the “Sphinx Stele” from the time of Thutmose IV states: “See me, look at me, my son Thutmose. I am thy father, Harmakhis-Kepri-Re-Atum, I shall give thee my kingdom upon earth.” Assyrian texts from the 600s B.C. ascribe the following statements to the goddess Ishtar: “I am the great divine lady, I am the goddess Ishtar of Arbela, who will destroy your enemies from before your feet.… I am Ishtar of Arbela. I shall lie in wait for your enemies”; “I am Ishtar of Arbela, O Esarhaddon, king of Assyria. In the cities of Ashur, Nineveh, Calah, protracted days … unto [you] shall I grant.”

Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Vol. 1, p. 183). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Similarly Yhwh’s talk about his “strong arm” also echoes Egyptian empire:

This phrase can just as easily be translated, “my strong arm.” It appears to have a direct parallel in royal rhetoric from ancient Egypt. For instance, there is an Egyptian account of the epic battle of Qadesh (c. 1275 B.C.), in which Ramesses II led his army against the Hittites near Qadesh in Syria. The Egyptians escaped with a narrow victory but proclaimed their triumph in grandiose terms. Ramesses boasts:

Then, when my troops and my chariotry saw me,
that I was like Montu, my arm strong,
Amun my father being with me instantly,
turning all the foreign lands into straw before me,
then they presented themselves one by one,
to approach the camp at evening time.…
Then my army came to praise me,
their faces [amazed/averted], at seeing what I had done.
My officers came to extol my strong arm,
and likewise my chariotry, boasting of my name.

Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Vol. 1, p. 181). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Pharaoh asked “who is Yhwh” and he is about to get his answer.

Moses dutifully delivers the message designed to encourage the people, but Pharaoh’s tactic seems successful. They are too discouraged to respond. 

Uncircumcised Lips

Yhwh then tells Moses to go back to Pharaoh and repeat the demand.

It is tempting to understand Moses as reiterating his excuse from 4:10, that he has a heavy tongue and a heavy mouth, but that isn’t what the text says. He has uncircumcised lips.

If you don’t know anything about circumcision a quick trip to Wikipedia reveals that Moses appears to be having an anatomical misunderstanding. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the misunderstanding is our own. The Old Testament likes connecting circumcision with other body parts: ears (Jeremiah 6:10) and heart (Leviticus 26:41 and others). The issues seems not so much to be a matter of physical performance but relational purity. Something subtle, but foundational has happened inside of Moses that the author of Exodus does not want us to miss.

In Exodus 4 Moses was trying all kinds of things to get out of this assignment by attempting to convince God that Moses was incapable of accomplishing the mission God commanded. In chapter 4 God responded to the verbal performance gap Moses was trying to convince God of by reminding Moses that God was the making of mouths. What is in play in chapter 6 is something far deeper.

And Suddenly another Genealogy

Readers of Genesis of course know that it has a number of genealogies. As a young lad in Christian school I appreciated them because they inflated the page count while virtually advocating abject skimming. Who reads a genealogy?

The genealogies are used to try to communicate authority or legitimacy for certain claims that we recognize circulate around heritage. Baby Prince George comes complete with a genealogy.  This genealogy for Moses and Aaron is given to locate and legitimize the part they will play in the story.

If you skim over this genealogy you might miss something important. We have the story of Moses’ father AND mother, which is unusual, but we also notice that Moses mother was the aunt of Moses’ father. In other words Moses’ father married his aunt. This not only seems a bit icky to us, it is also something explicitly forbidden by the law that Moses will receive later in the story.

Family Problems

This is not the first family issues we’ve seen in the history of people Yhwh seems to chose. Abram was married to his half-sister Sarai, something forbidden by the Mosaic law. Similarly Jacob marries two sisters, something also forbidden in the Mosaic law. In terms of importance in the history of Israel, you’re hard pressed to find three more important people than Abraham, Jacob and Moses and each of them has some sketchiness when it comes to family legitimacy. What gives?

Relational Legitimacy and Effectiveness

The uncircumcised lips reference comes both before and after the genealogy. While this of course brings us back to the story where we left off it also highlights the connection between the genealogy and the comment. The genealogy is located seemingly as an explanation for Moses’ sense of illegitimacy. What Moses here is saying is that he can’t be used by God with Pharaoh because of his relational impurity, illegitimacy and that Moses’ involvement will impede God’s ability to accomplish his goal.

We are not left to imagine that Pharaoh will care if Moses is the product of a nephew and an aunt. What we consider incestuous is nowhere more common than in royal houses. A monarch might say “doesn’t everyone marry family?!”

What Moses here confesses is his own relational-spiritual poverty. In chapter 4 Moses imagined that he had the relational/positional status to “yeah but” Yhwh into hopefully getting out of a difficult assignment. In this chapter Moses highlights something far less offensive and far more humble. Moses doesn’t feel himself worthy of the assignment. Moses’ unworthiness will impede God’s ability to carry out his mission. God should find someone with a better family, a better pedigree, a more presentable bloodline than Moses has to offer.

Yhwh’s answer to Moses’ self-effacement is “I will make you God to Pharaoh”. That’s a radical response given the fact that Pharaoh by virtue of his genealogy and bloodline imagined himself God to Moses and Yhwh.

Ready for Revelation

One of the key themes of the Bible is that God’s relational economy is opposite our own. Proverbs 3:34 says that God mocks those who mock but gives grace to the humble. This idea is repeated again and again in both the Old and the New Testaments.

The revelation of Yhwh has been progressive for Moses. In the desert before a bush Moses was still too full of himself even though he was also full of excuses. Now at the revelation of Yhwh in his announcement of what he will do (I am Yhwh…) Moses begins to get a sense of who has approached him and what Moses looks like in his presence.

Exiles from the Garden

The story of the Bible begins with the creator and humanity living as intimates in the palace garden. In the rebellion we see our own nakedness and this intimacy is broken. What Moses begins to see now in his uncircumcised lips is his own nakedness before Yhwh.

Before he wanted out for his own selfish reasons. Now he wants out because he has grown in knowledge of himself in the presence of the LORD. He is feeling the garden exile. He knows he is from a line of sinners and he has embraced the mission of God sufficiently that he is ready to disqualify himself for the sake of the mission.

This story of God taking for himself this people is a story of healing the rupture of the palace garden. Bringing Moses back into the fold is but the first step. There is a whole nation to be rescued and enfolded and they all have uncircumcised lips and hearts. What God began doing as El Shaddai with Abraham and Jacob was to undo the rebellion and restore what had been lost. They will be redeemed.

What better place to start in redeeming the human race than in redeeming a man. It has always been this way. You can’t, however, be redeemed unless you know before whom you stand and you feel the truth about your maker and yourself.

Plagues as Flaming Sword

What is about to follow is Yhwh as lover vs. Yhwh as enemy. To Moses, who knows his insufficiency, his rebellion, the poverty of his heart Yhwh is a lover who woos.

To Pharaoh, who imagines himself God to Moses and Yhwh, who proudly displays his bloodline, his credentials, his status to the world, Yhwh will be a threat and a violent one. He has already been dealing violently with the children of Israel, putting boy babies to death by sword and water. He has dealt violently with them now in their slavery and believes that he is sufficient to deal with Yhwh. To such a person the revelation of Yhwh is a calamity of biblical proportions, as we are about to see.

Pharaoh has been attempting to create his own garden all throughout the story. The flourishing of Israel was an obstacle to the garden of his own delights. In his garden Israel, and all others are slaves.

Moses now knows there can be only one God and it cannot be himself. He is now self-effacing, self-denying, feels himself unqualified, disqualified by bloodline and behavior to be used effectively by this God. Yhwh doesn’t see it this way. The time is right and Moses is ready to be used. His humility will be his strength. When he comes to Pharaoh now, it will be God that confronts Pharaoh, not the Moses who imagined he could save Israel by shedding the blood of the Egyptian.

The Inversion of the World

This theme is all throughout the Bible. The proud are brought low, the lowly are lifted up. All you need is the knowledge of your need. All that stands in your way is your imagined self-sufficiency and self-righteousness. Jesus says “come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” The seeming failure of bricks without straw now has the table set for the revelation of God in opposition to the world of empire. The mighty will be brought low, and the slave will rejoice. Moses is now ready to be God before Pharaoh, and the children of Israel his people.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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