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David Frankel





Reconstructing the Priestly Moses



APA e-journal

David Frankel





Reconstructing the Priestly Moses






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Reconstructing the Priestly Moses

 Making Sense of the Opening of Vaeira


Reconstructing the Priestly Moses

Moses, by Alexandre Bida ca. 1838-1863 CC The Walters Art Museum

‍Introduction: The Appointment of Moses

The appointment of Moses by God in the burning bush scene in Exodus 3-4 is well-known. Less well known, and often overlooked, is his appointment again at the beginning of Parashat Vaeira (Exodus 6:2-7:13), this time in Egypt. Why is he appointed twice?

In Nahum Sarna’s NJPS Exodus commentary (1991), this second appointment, in Egypt (6:2-7:13), is titled “Divine Reaffirmation,” and his subtitle for 7:1-7 is “Reaffirmation and Renewal of Moses’ Mission.” Sarna, thus, reads that Moses’ mission has to be renewed or reaffirmed. Undoubtedly, this is the way that the editor (the Redactor) wanted us to read the text. But this interpretation is unsatisfying, and compelling reasons suggest that these originated as two different reports of the commissioning of Moses.[1]

Part 1

The Confusing Opening of Parashat Vaeira

Many of the elements in the opening of Parashat Vaeira (6:2-7:13) are found already in the burning bush scene and its aftermath (3-6:1), and their repetition is problematic.

God Instructs Moses to Speak with the Israelites

In the opening of Parashat Vaeira (Exod. 6:2-12), God appears to Moses and tells him to inform the children of Israel of God’s plan to take them out of Egypt and bring them to the land. Moses complies but the Israelites won’t listen because their spirits are crushed by cruel bondage. This story is told as if God hadn’t already told Moses to speak with Israelites (3:16-22) and as if Moses hadn’t already spoken with them (4:29-31). The latter text seems unaware of Moses’ first talk with the elders of Israel, which went much better.

Moses Doesn't Reference his Failed Visit to Pharaoh

In 6:10, God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh for the second time, and demand that he let the people out of his land. Moses argues with God saying (verse 12): “If the Israelites didn’t listen to me, how is Pharaoh going to listen to me?” This response of Moses is very strange since according to Exod. 5:1, Moses and Aaron already went to Pharaoh and asked that the Israelites be allowed to go out. Pharaoh responded by increasing the harsh labor on the Israelites, commanding that they have to gather the straw in addition to making the same amount of bricks! Yet Moses makes no reference to this in his response to God.

Had Moses and Aaron already gone to Pharaoh, and already met with failure, he should have said to God in verse 12: “I already went to Pharaoh, and it didn’t work! Why should it work now when the last time I tried talking to Pharaoh he just made the work harder for the Israelites?!”

Appointment of Aaron: An Inexplicable Repetition

The inexplicable double appointment of Aaron as Moses’ spokesperson shows that two different stories have been combined here. In the first commissioning scene (4:10), Moses complains to God that he is slow of speech and tongue, and God responds by providing Moses with a spokesperson: Aaron (4:14-16). Then, in the beginning of Vaeira (6:12, 30), Moses again complains that he is of impeded speech, and God again responds by providing him with Aaron as a spokesperson (7:1-2). Strikingly, the two stories use different terms to describe Moses’ speech impediment: “heavy of speech and heavy of tongue (כְבַד־פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן)” in Parashat Shemot (4:10), but “uncircumcised of lips (עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם)” in Vaeira (6:12, 30).

The table below compares the two versions (see phrases in bold). Even minor elements, such as Moses being a god, are repeated, suggesting that these two stories are genetically related.

First Story

ד:י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־יְ-הֹוָה֘ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָי֒ לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי גַּ֤ם מִתְּמוֹל֙ גַּ֣ם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁ֔ם גַּ֛ם מֵאָ֥ז דַּבֶּרְךָ֖ אֶל עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֧י כְבַד פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִיד:יד וַיִּֽחַר אַ֨ף יְ-הֹוָ֜ה בְּמֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הֲלֹ֨א אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ הַלֵּוִ֔י יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי דַבֵּ֥ר יְדַבֵּ֖ר ה֑וּא וְגַ֤ם הִנֵּה הוּא֙ יֹצֵ֣א לִקְרָאתֶ֔ךָ וְרָאֲךָ֖ וְשָׂמַ֥ח בְּלִבּֽוֹ: ד:טו וְדִבַּרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֔יו וְשַׂמְתָּ֥ אֶת הַדְּבָרִ֖ים בְּפִ֑יו וְאָנֹכִ֗י אֶֽהְיֶ֤ה עִם פִּ֙יךָ֙ וְעִם פִּ֔יהוּ וְהוֹרֵיתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֽׂוּן: ד:טז וְדִבֶּר־ה֥וּא לְךָ֖ אֶל הָעָ֑ם וְהָ֤יָה הוּא֙ יִֽהְיֶה לְּךָ֣ לְפֶ֔ה וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּֽהְיֶה לּ֥וֹ לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:
4:10 But Moses said to Yhwh, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue.” … 4:14 Yhwh became angry with Moses, and He said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you. 4:15 You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth—I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do—4:16 and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman,with you playing the role of God to him.

Second Story

ו:יב וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר הֵ֤ן בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֹֽא שָׁמְע֣וּ אֵלַ֔י וְאֵיךְ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֣נִי פַרְעֹ֔ה וַאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִםז:א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה רְאֵ֛ה נְתַתִּ֥יךָ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְפַרְעֹ֑ה וְאַהֲרֹ֥ן אָחִ֖יךָ יִהְיֶ֥ה נְבִיאֶֽךָ: ז:ב אַתָּ֣ה תְדַבֵּ֔ר אֵ֖ת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲצַוֶּ֑ךָּ וְאַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ יְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְשִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאַרְצֽוֹ:
6:12 But Moses appealed to Yhwh, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of uncircumcised lips!” … 7:1 Yhwh replied to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. 7:2 You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land.

Reintroducing Moses and Aaron

The commissioning of Moses in Vaeira is disrupted by a long genealogy of Reuben, Simon and Levi that focuses on the Levitical clan, and most specifically, Aaron’s family (6:14-25). Upon completing the description of the Levite genealogy, the Torah ends with the following:

ה֥וּא אַהֲרֹ֖ן וּמֹשֶׁ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֤ר יְ-הֹוָה֙ לָהֶ֔ם הוֹצִ֜יאוּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם עַל־צִבְאֹתָֽם: הֵ֗ם הַֽמְדַבְּרִים֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֣ה מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֔יִם לְהוֹצִ֥יא אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם ה֥וּא מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן:
That is Aaron and Moses. These are the ones that spoke to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Israelites out of Egypt. That is Moses and Aaron (Exod 6:26-27).

This is odd, since it sounds like an introduction to Moses and Aaron, but we have already heard about them in the previous chapters!

The Age of Moses and Aaron – Young or Old?

Moses and Aaron’s age in the Vaeira account is also surprising given the preceding chapters. Exodus 7:7 places Moses and Aaron at the ages of 80 and 83, respectively, at the time they speak to Pharaoh. On the other hand, chapters 2-5 suggest Moses was much younger; after all, he has a new bride and a young child when he returns to Egypt to speak with the Israelites and Pharaoh in chapter 4.

Part 2

The Opening of Vaeira: Moses' Commission in the Priestly Source

These observations led many scholars to deduce that at one time, the text of Exod. 6:2-7:13 in Vaeira was its own, independent, report in which Moses is being commissioned for the first time. It originally did not follow after chapters 3-5.

Reconstructing P’s Commissioning of Moses

Based on similarities of content and language (see the bold below), the opening of Vaeira originally followed 2:23b-25:

ב:כגb וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים מִן הָעֲבֹדָֽה: ב:כד וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת יַעֲקֹֽב: ב:כה וַיַּ֥רְא אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱ-לֹהִֽים (או: וַיִּוָּדַע אֲלֵיהֶם) [2]:
2:23b The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. 2:24 God heard their moaning, and remembered His covenant with Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob. 2:25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice (or: and He appeared to them).
ו:ב וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה: ו:ג וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣-ל שַׁ-דָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם… ו:ה וְגַ֣ם׀ אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת בְּרִיתִֽי
6:2 God spoke to Moses and said to him, I am Yhwh. 6:3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My name Yhwh… 6:5 I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant

Thus, everything between 2:25 and 6:2 belongs to a separate narrative.[3]

The Two Commissionings of Moses: P and Non-P

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, a version of which I follow here, each of these narratives was once part of a different document that existed independently of the other.

One of the “documents” in the Documentary Hypothesis is P, the Priestly source.[4] The source is easily recognizable because of both its style and its subject matter. For example, one important agenda item for P is the priesthood.[5] P is also quite meticulous about details, whether ritual or genealogical. Given that the genealogy (6:14-25) is very detailed and really focuses on Aaron’s line more than anything else, scholars attribute the second version of the commission of Moses found in Vaeira (Exodus 6:2-7:13) to P.[6]

The identity of the other source is less clear, and thus, in the ensuing analysis, I will refer to the first version (Exod. 3-6:1) as the non-priestly source (non-P).

Part 3

Priestly Problems with the Older Moses Story

It is important to compare these two stories to see in what way they are similar and in what way they differ, and how they might be connected.

The Priestly Version as an Alternative to the Non-Priestly Version

I follow the scholarly opinion that P knew non-P and was written to supplant it,[7] erasing all of its “problematic” issues and retelling the story “properly.” In its commissioning of Moses sequence, the once independent P version simply told the readers that God appears to Moses in Egypt, without any narrative introduction explaining who he is.

The only background given, which comes after God’s opening speech, is the information provided in the priestly genealogy (6:14-27, esp. 20). This observation makes sense of the odd ending to the genealogy discussed above since this is, in fact, the place where Moses and Aaron are introduced in the Priestly text.

The Non-P text contained a number of details that were problematic to P and are, therefore, left out.

Moses' Problematic Behavior

P omitted elements of the Non-P Moses story that depicted Moses behaving in a less than ideal fashion:

  1. Moses murders an Egyptian when he thinks no one is looking.
  2. Moses marries a Midianite woman (the daughter of a priest).[8]
  3. Moses develops a close relationship with his father-in-law, a Midianite priest.[9]
  4. The “bloody bridegroom” account (Exodus 4:24-26) implies that Moses did not circumcise his son.[10]

Moses the Egyptian

P also omitted the many indications in Non-P that Moses was very Egyptianized:

  1. Moses is raised by the Egyptian princess (2:10).
  2. Jethro’s daughters refer to Moses an “Egyptian man” (2:19). In fact, it is not clear if Moses ever tells Jethro that he is actually a Hebrew.
  3. Moses calls his first son Gershom, saying, “I am a sojourner in a foreign land” (Exod 2:22). Thus, Moses thinks of Egypt as the homeland of his longings.[11]
  4. Possibly (according to one interpretation of Exod. 3:13), Moses is so Egyptian, that he doesn’t even know the name of the Israelite deity that only the Israelites know.

In P, everything about Moses before his appointment by God is erased. The only background P gives is the genealogy, according to which Moses is simply the son of Amram and his aunt/wife, Yocheved, and the younger brother of Aaron. Any hint of his Egyptian background is absent.[13] Moreover, the P text makes no mention of Moses’ marriage, thus solving the Midianite wife / Midianite priest problem. The genealogy in Exodus 6 mentions the marriage of his parents (both Levites), and his brother, Aaron (to a Judahite woman), and his nephew Elazar, but not a word about Moses’ marriage or children (here or anywhere else in P)!

Conclusion: The Priestly Version of Moses

In Non-P, Moses is a young Hebrew man, brought up in Pharaoh’s palace, who feels the plight of his people and tries to defend them, killing an Egyptian in the process. He is exiled by Pharaoh and spends his young adult years in Midian with his Midianite wife and his Midianite high-priest father-in-law. It is there, in exile, upon the birth of his first son, that God comes to him at the burning bush and tells him to return to Egypt and free his people.

P’s story is quite different. Moses is not a murderer who flees Egypt and forgets the suffering of his people. He is not Egyptian in appearance and background. Most important, he doesn’t marry a non-Israelite woman and has no association with a Midianite Priest. All the stories that told such things are eliminated in P.

P’s Moses is not a young and powerful man leading an uprising; he and his brothers are old men, who have lived in bondage in Egypt all their lives. Thus, the exodus owes nothing to Moses’ vigor, temper, or physical strength. Israel is freed only by divine strength, with God using as an agent an old man of whom we know nothing but his excellent, Levitical pedigree.


January 15, 2015


Last Updated

October 6, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.