The Priestly Moses
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 in Egypt. 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’s Mission.” Sarna, thus, reads that Moses’s 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 accounts originated as two different reports of the commissioning of Moses. Many of the elements in the Egyptian commissioning are found already in the burning bush scene and its aftermath (3:1–6:1), and their repetition is problematic.
“Amnesia” in the Account of Moses’s Reaffirmation
In Exodus 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’s first talk with the elders of Israel, which went much better.
In addition, 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 (v. 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 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 (vv. 6–9)! 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 Aaron as a spokesperson:
שׁמות ד:י וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְ־הוָה בִּי אֲדֹנָי לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי... ד:יד וַיִּחַר אַף יְ־הוָה בְּמֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר הֲלֹא אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ הַלֵּוִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי דַבֵּר יְדַבֵּר הוּא וְגַם הִנֵּה הוּא יֹצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ וְרָאֲךָ וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ. ד:טו וְדִבַּרְתָּ אֵלָיו וְשַׂמְתָּ אֶת הַדְּבָרִים בְּפִיו וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִם פִּיךָ וְעִם פִּיהוּ וְהוֹרֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשׂוּן. ד:טז וְדִבֶּר הוּא לְךָ אֶל הָעָם וְהָיָה הוּא יִהְיֶה לְּךָ לְפֶה וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים.
Exod 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.
Then, in the second commissioning scene (6:12, 30), Moses again complains that he is of impeded speech, and God again responds by appointing Aaron as a spokesperson (7:1–2).
שׁמות ו:יב וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם... ז:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה רְאֵה נְתַתִּיךָ אֱלֹהִים לְפַרְעֹה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֶךָ. ז:ב אַתָּה תְדַבֵּר אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּךָּ וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ יְדַבֵּר אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְשִׁלַּח אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאַרְצוֹ.
Exod 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.
Strikingly, the two stories use different terms to describe Moses’s speech impediment: “heavy of speech and heavy of tongue” (כְבַד־פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן) in 4:10, but “uncircumcised of lips” (עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם) in 6:12 and 30. Even minor elements, such as Moses being a god, are repeated, suggesting that these two stories are genetically related.
Reintroducing Moses and Aaron
The commissioning of Moses in 6:2–7:13 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 passage ends with the following statement:
שׁמות ו:כו הוּא אַהֲרֹן וּמֹשֶׁה... ו:כז הֵם הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לְהוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם הוּא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן.
Exod 6:26 That is Aaron and Moses… 6:27 These are the ones that spoke to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Israelites out of Egypt. That is Moses and Aaron.
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 account in chapters 6–7 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 is 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.
Moses’s Commissioning in the Priestly Source
These observations led many scholars to deduce that at one time, the text of Exodus 6:2–7:13 was its own, independent, report in which Moses is being commissioned for the first time. It originally did not follow after chapters 3–5. Based on similarities of content and language (see the bold below), Exodus 6:2 originally followed 2:23b–25. In this version, God hears the suffering of the Israelites:
שׁמות ב:כג ...וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים מִן הָעֲבֹדָה. ב:כד וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת נַאֲקָתָם וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ אֶת אַבְרָהָם אֶת יִצְחָק וְאֶת יַעֲקֹב. ב:כה וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים (או: וַיִּוָּדַע אֲלֵיהֶם).
Exod 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).
God then responds by introducing himself to Moses:
שׁמות ו:ב וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְ־הוָה. ו:ג וָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְ־הוָה לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם... ו:ה וְגַם אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם וָאֶזְכֹּר אֶת בְּרִיתִי.
Exod 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.
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. 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. 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 Exodus 6:2–7:13, to P.
The identity of the other source is less clear, and thus, in the ensuing analysis, I will refer to the first version (Exod 3:1–6:1) as the non-priestly source (Non-P). It is important to compare these two stories to see in what ways they are similar and in what ways they differ, and how they might be connected.
P Was Written to Replace Non-P
I follow the scholarly opinion that P knew Non-P and was written to supplant it, erasing all of its “problematic” issues and retelling the story “properly.” In its commissioning of Moses sequence, the once independent P version simply tells 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 contains a number of details that were problematic to P and were, therefore, left out.
Moses’s Problematic Behavior
P omits elements of the Non-P Moses story that depict Moses behaving in a less than ideal fashion:
- Moses murders an Egyptian when he thinks no one is looking (2:11–12).
- Moses marries a Midianite woman (the daughter of a priest) (2:16–21).
- Moses develops a close relationship with his father-in-law, a Midianite priest.
- The “bloody bridegroom” account (4:24–26) implies that Moses did not circumcise his son.
Moses the Egyptian
P also omits the many indications in Non-P that Moses is very Egyptianized:
- Moses is raised by the Egyptian princess (2:10).
- Jethro’s daughters refer to Moses as an “Egyptian man” (2:19). In fact, it is not clear if Moses ever tells Jethro that he is actually a Hebrew.
- Moses calls his first son Gershom, saying, “I am a sojourner in a foreign land” (2:22). Thus, Moses thinks of Egypt as the homeland of his longings.
- Possibly (according to one interpretation of 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.
Moreover, the P text makes no mention of Moses’s 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 (vv. 20, 23), but not a word about Moses’s marriage or children (here or anywhere else in P)!
Moses, the Hebrew Elder
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.
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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).
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