Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” 2 The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” 3 And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. 4 But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—so he put 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.” 6 Again, the Lord said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.”[a] And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous[b] like snow. 7 Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. 8 “If they will not believe you,” God said, “or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. 9 If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.”
10 But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” 11 Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” 13 But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” 14 Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. 15 You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. 16 He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. 17 And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.”
The Bible is many things, and one thing that it most certainly is NOT is boring. One of the reasons that some people think that the Bible is boring is because they do not believe that it is true, or that the things in it actually happened. The fact is that God actually, in history, on this earth, turned Moses’ staff into a serpent and then back again. Moses at first ran from the serpent because it was indeed a serpent. His faith is then revived when God tells him to pick the serpent up by the tail and he obeys. But even the faith of Moses is not perfect nor always strong as Moses is still fearful and timid to obey God in returning to Egypt even after receiving these miraculous signs. Moses’ desire not to return to Egypt is not because these signs were fake or unimpressive, but simply because the human heart to obey God is, in itself, altogether weak and unable. Man does not need more evidence to believe the truthfulness of God’s powerful acts, but rather, he needs faith, which also comes from God alone. This is the problem that confronts those who cast doubt and unbelief upon the works of God in history. There is more than enough evidence all around us, such that none are without excuse. What is needed then, is a change in us.
The purpose of God’s powerful works recorded in Scripture are not then for our amusement. We must note that in verse 8-9 God specifically calls these miraculous works “signs.” God turning Moses’ staff into a snake and then back again is a sign. God turning Moses’ hand leprous and then back again is a sign. And of course the blood from the Nile is a major sign. And when God gives or performs miraculous signs, He does not give them simply to “wow” us or entertain us. The very nature of a sign tells us that signs are not given just for signs’ sake. They mean something. They point to a certain reality. They point in fact, to God’s Word. And His Word is that which we must believe and have faith in. If the Hebrews did not believe the WORD that Moses SAID, then Moses was to perform these signs, which pointed them to the truthfulness and reality of the WORD that Moses SAID. God told Moses to do these things so that, verse 5, “they may believe.” So let us now consider the richness of these signs that God gave Moses for the people of Israel.
The Serpent Sign
So we begin chapter 4 with Moses basically saying that the people will not believe him. It makes sense that Moses would say this since 40 years earlier the Hebrews did not believe that Moses was sent to deliver them. So God says to Moses, “What is that in your hand?” It was a staff. We will come back to this later, but a staff is quite significant throughout the Bible, but one of the things a staff signified was authority and power. And God tells Moses to throw it down. Moses first had to be taught to let it go and to give up the clutch on his own authority and power and to trust in God’s Word, authority, and power. This is a fundamental lesson that all whom God would call into His service must learn at the beginning. We must let go of our own authority, trusting God, and operating on His terms, since apart from Him we can do nothing. And when we do, God puts His delegated authority or responsibility back into our hands. We have to let go to receive back from God.
This is fundamental to the Christian life. Whether it is in terms of our own plans, our own marriage or relationships, when we clutch on to our own wisdom and power, we will fail, and our faith will be weakened. But when we submit ourselves unto God and His ways, we will find that they are higher and better, and our faith will be strengthened.
God instructs Moses then to grab this serpent by the tail. This of course is a very dangerous thing to do, that God would instruct Moses in. Certainly that is not how you would want to handle a snake. Typically you would want to grab at the back of the head so the snake cannot snap back at you and bite you. If you grab the tail, that is exactly what the snake will do – snap back at you. And this is exactly what Pharaoh, the serpent, is going to do to Moses and Israel. Pharaoh is going to bite back. He’s going to double down over and over. He’s going to demand bricks without straw. Grabbing a serpent by the tail is a dangerous thing because of the repercussions. God instructs Moses in a dangerous thing in order to show that faith is required to trust and obey God. Moses had to grab the tail in faith. He had to trust God. When the Hebrew people see this, it is a sign for them, teaching them to trust God and His Word over what makes sense in their eyes.
But in this sign, what happens? When Moses has faith and grabs the tail it turns back into a staff. So even though Pharaoh is going to snap back, if the Hebrew people have faith, trusting and obeying God, God will turn it for good. As Calvin says, “For although the rod turned into a serpent could not speak, yet very loudly, indeed, did it announce, that what the Israelites deemed altogether impossible, would not be difficult to God.” In grabbing the tail of the serpent which becomes a staff, it is shown that Satan and Pharaoh are under the complete sovereign control and use of Almighty God. They become, as it were, a useful tool in the hand of the Almighty.
So what did this signify to the people of Israel? They were oppressed under the tyrannical authority of the serpent seen through the Pharaoh and Egypt, and that serpent turns into a rod in Moses’ hand. This shows what God is going to do. There is going to be a transfer of power – out of tyrannical oppression, they will be made a sovereign nation under God. They have been in slavery, but God is going to bring them out and rule will be put into their hands through Moses.
But furthermore, an evangelical reading of Scripture compels us to see Christ here as well. The staff is ultimately an extension or symbol of God’s authority. So when it is thrown down and becomes a serpent we see that in the gospel, God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, becomes a curse for us. In the gospel of John, Jesus even compares Himself to the serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness for salvation for those who would look to it. So Christ becomes a curse for us, and when grabbed ahold of in faith, so to speak, He does not curse us and kill us, but becomes our salvation and might and power that leads us out of the bondage of the serpent, as Moses’ staff. In gospel faith we can grab hold of Him and not die, but live and be delivered from death.
The Leprosy Sign
God continues and gives Moses another sign for the people. He tells him to put his hand into his cloak, or the Hebrew literally would be, “into your bosom” – which is significant. He takes it out and his hand is leprous, like snow. He puts it back in and out and it’s clean again. Now we know that leprosy was a big deal in the Old Covenant. It wasn’t just about illness and not spreading it. It was a ceremonial uncleanness. And in terms of Old Covenant ceremonial law, leprosy was primarily about separation from God. You were unclean and could not come near to God in the tabernacle or temple. It was a priestly duty to examine and inspect before you were made clean again. It wasn’t about not spreading illness to other Israelites. Now, of course nobody wanted to be around you if you had leprosy, you were outside of the camp. But the primary purpose of that was not just about not spreading it, but it was about uncleanness before God ceremonially and separation from Him.
So this was a sign to Israel that THEY were unclean and separated from God, and that God was going to cleanse them and bring them back into His camp. This sign shows Israel that it is not just the serpent that needs to be dealt with – THEY ALSO need to be dealt with. THEY were unclean and needed cleansing, and God was going to deal with them also. Mt. Sinai at Horeb was the Mountain of God, Israel was cut off from it, stuck in Egypt. They were unclean and many had turned to worshiping the gods of Egypt. God was going to bring them out through the waters of the Red Sea, being symbolically washed and brought to the Mountain of God, no longer cut off.
This was a very important lesson for Israel. Pharaoh the serpent was not their only problem or greatest problem that needed to be dealt with. They themselves were unclean, worshiping false gods, and they needed cleansing. Out of God’s abundant mercy He showed them that He was going to do that.
How we too, need to be reminded of this truth for ourselves again and again. Our greatest problem is NOT that we are oppressed from without, but that WE are unclean and woefully corrupt from within. We don’t just need delivered from Satan, or from persecutors, or from wicked men, we need delivered from ourselves. Our primary need is not deliverance from the wickedness of others, but from our own sin.
I mentioned that it was significant that in the Hebrew God tells Moses to put his hand into his bosom, and out it comes all leprous. Into his bosom means into his heart. Put your hand into your heart, and it comes out unclean. Our uncleanness comes not from the Egyptians smothering us, but from within our own hearts. Israel’s hearts were unclean. Our hearts are unclean, cut off and separated from God. They and we need new hearts – to have our hearts cleansed – to have our inside cleansed, to be cleansed from the inside out. It’s not what we put on the outside of our hands that makes us unclean, but uncleanness comes from inside our own heart and out of our fingertips onto our hands.
But when we are cleansed and given new hearts, we can then grab the serpent by the tail and it becomes a useful staff. When the inside is dealt with, then our hands can become useful for the good works which God has prepared beforehand for us.
The Blood Sign
God continues and tells Moses that if they do not listen to the first two signs, here’s a third: take some water from the Nile, pour it on the ground, and it will turn to blood. We will get into the Nile more as we progress throughout Exodus, but suffice it to say that the Nile was essentially seen as sacred for the Egyptians and their religious system. The Nile was worshiped. On a practical level it was the Egyptian life source for all their crops and sustenance. But it was also a part of their system of gods. So briefly, there are two main things this sign would show. First, the bloody Nile would show that God has slain the Nile god and shed its blood, being victorious over it. This was important because many Israelites had turned to worshiping the Egyptian false gods. God is showing them the Egyptian gods are impotent. He is more powerful and has and will defeat them, so do not trust in them, quit worshiping them, turn away from them, and believe again in the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Second, the bloody Nile also reminds us of the blood of the Hebrew baby boys that filled up the river as they were thrown into it in the persecution years before. It shows them that God remembers the blood that was shed, that blood cries out to Him and He hears it, and since He has not forgotten it, He will avenge that blood. The Egyptians took away the life of the Hebrews, the Hebrew God will take away the life of the Egyptians. God does not forget the shedding of innocent blood, because it cries out from the ground to Him. In his commentary on Exodus, R. J. Rushdoony says, very simply, yet powerfully, “God through Moses would render the sacred Nile loathsome by turning the water into blood. Years had passed, but God had not forgotten the infanticide ordered by Pharaoh, nor has He forgotten the abortions of the twentieth century. His judgments never fail.”
God is teaching Israel that He will 1) deliver from the serpent, 2) cleanse them and make them clean, and 3) Avenge the blood of their children and defeat Egypt’s gods – so quit worshiping them.
Our Lord Jesus Himself encapsulates these signs. He became a curse for us to deliver us from the serpent, He Himself cleanses us from sin and gives us a new heart, bringing us into fellowship with God, and He WILL judge the world, defeating all of its false gods, for He Himself has shed His own blood which is a sign of salvation to His people, and judgment on the wicked.
Word and Sign
Notice this pattern: God gives Moses two signs, then if they don’t believe the two, God gives a third sign. He gives two, or three signs. This is God’s pattern throughout the Bible of establishing reliable testimony and witness. You need two, or three, witnesses to give testimony and establish a matter. God is giving two, or three signs that testify to the truthfulness that indeed it is Yahweh God who had sent Moses and is with Moses and that what He says is true.
Moses was to go and TELL the people of Israel the WORD that God SPOKE to him. And then Moses was to SHOW them the SIGNS that TESTIFIED to that WORD. Here we see another pattern of how God works. God often gives both WORD AND SIGN. He does this both in the Old and New Testament. The WORD is proclaimed and then signs are given to testify to that word. This is easy to see in the Old Testament, God gives all kinds of signs, symbols, types, and shadows of His Word, Promises, and Covenant. You have the rainbow, circumcision, these signs of judgment, all kinds of signs in the tabernacle/temple system, many signs given through the prophets that went along with their word, etc. etc. The signs are different in the New Covenant, but God has still given us His Word, and signs to go with that Word and testify to it. He has given us the sign of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In the New Covenant then, the Word is preached and proclaimed and it is signified with bread and wine, and sometimes water, when someone is baptized. So that’s two, or three witnesses to the Word.
God has given us Word and Sign – to not be satisfied with His Word for us, which is Scripture, and to not be satisfied with His signs to us, the ordinances, is a real problem and the Lord’s anger may be kindled against you, like it was with Moses. God gave Moses His word and three signs, and Moses was not satisfied with it – he still did not want to obey God, and God’s anger was kindled against Moses. As God’s creatures we are to be satisfied with the Words and Signs that God has given us. It is more than enough for us to cheerfully and promptly believe and obey Him. What God has revealed and given to us is sufficient for life and godliness. We don’t need anything else to believe and obey.
This has always been a great problem with men and women. Many people are not satisfied with baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a sign, and want all other sorts of miracles. And that has led to all kinds of inventions and heresies and problems. We ought to be satisfied with the signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper that God has given and trust they are a sign of the Spirit’s work in us.
Moses was not satisfied with what God gave him, and Moses now falls into dangerous sin. He makes excuses about being slow of speech and even when God assures him that He will be with His mouth and will teach him what to speak, for it is God who has made man’s mouth and makes him able to speak or not, Moses still says to God, “please send someone else.” This is now disrespect and disobedience, and the anger of the LORD is kindled against Moses. Even here, the LORD God is merciful to Moses having planned to send out Moses’ brother Aaron to speak the words for Moses that God gives.
There’s a couple things to see here. One is that this is essentially Moses’ commissioning or ordaining as a prophet. God tells him, “go and tell them what I tell you and I will be with your mouth and teach you what to speak.” It’s interesting that this is very similar to the commissioning of the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah chapter one, Jeremiah also said that he was not able to speak, and God told him also that He would be with His mouth. So God has appeared to Moses, spoken to Moses, given him signs, commissioned Moses, Moses drags his feet, and God gives him help in Aaron.
Then the other thing is this: in verse 17 God gives Moses his staff, “And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.”
This is interesting that God gives Moses this staff as the instrument through which these signs would be done. In this way, the staff itself is also a sign, or symbol of the power and authority that belongs to God which God shows through Moses and bestows upon him. Certainly there was no power in the staff itself, but the power for these signs comes from God alone, who chooses to use such instruments.
Calvin says, “This, then, was the object of the miracle, that there was no occasion for mighty armies, since Pharaoh would tremble at the sight of the simple rod; and that the rod need not be wielded and violently agitated, because it would inspire sufficient terror by its own movement and agitation.”
Thus do we beautifully see the symbol of the authority and power of Christ in overturning, conquering, and ruling the kingdoms and nations of the earth, defeating false gods, and gently shepherding His own sheep. In Psalm 2 Christ breaks the disobedient kings and rulers of the earth with a ROD of iron. In Psalm 23 our Good Shepherd’s rod and staff comforts us. As Moses goes staff in hand to Pharaoh it is a symbol of salvation for Israel and judgment for Egypt, by the authority of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So also, the staff of Jesus Christ shows His salvation for His people and His judgment of the wicked, by His authority given to Him from the Father. He is our Prophet-Shepherd-King coming with Word and Sign to Save and Judge. Like Moses typified, like David typified, like Jesus is.
Not one here can escape His sovereignty and authority. Throw down the illusion of autonomy and control that you grasp so tightly to. Trust His Word to cleanse and redeem you. Believe and so obey right away, without delay, lest His anger burn.
Like Moses, though all of God’s people are yet sinful and weak on this earth, He strengthens and commissions His Church with authority and power to stand before kings and rulers and every man to speak the Word that God has given us, declaring His salvation and authority. God has indeed given His Church power to make judgments, to topple kingdoms and nations and to free men from the bondage of sin and Satan through proclamation of the gospel. God has given us our brothers to be with one another, to aid us in our weakness and fear and bring gladness to our hearts. And most of all, Christ Himself is with us, and His Spirit teaches us what to speak. The staff of authority is taken from the kingdoms of this world and given to Christ’s Church to instruct and to teach the nations from the authority of the risen and reigning Christ.
The enemies may be mighty, the path may be unclear, the danger may be great, and the obstacles may be many. But who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus said, “Therefore, go…and I will be with you unto the end of the age.”
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