Bible study 54 – Exodus 4
Posted: November 26, 2016 Filed under: 2 - Exodus, Bible study, Short stories
(If you don’t want to read a 4000 word story, here’s the gist of it: Moses is charged by God with using some magic tricks to convince the Jews to follow him, and to talk with Pharaoh. Moses convinces God to make Aaron do the talking. Moses moves back to Egypt, meets up with Aaron, and they convince the Jews.)
Moses cast a glance down at his flock further down the slope. He was getting impatient. The “plan” that was being laid out at length by the talking bush in front of him was getting steadily more winding and inconsistent. When the bush started to discuss in detail the logistics of disencumbering the Egyptians of their jewelry, Moses finally waved his left arm and interrupted.
“Alright alright, I can tell you’ve given this a lot of thought. But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’ I think we should deal with such basic problems first.”
The bush didn’t have a face, but it was as if its emotions radiated through the flames. Focused excitement turned into annoyance, but this quickly changed to satisfaction. “Do not worry about this, Moses. I have prepared for all eventualities. What is that in your hand?”
Moses looked down at his right hand. He still had his wooden walking stick. He looked back up at the bush. “A staff,” he said impatiently.
“Throw it on the ground,” the bush commanded.
Moses was getting restless now. He forcefully threw the staff down on the ground in front of him, and was about to talk back to the bush, when suddenly he saw a squirming movement by his feet. He looked down, but the staff was gone; a wooden-colored snake crawled around in its place. “Holy…” Moses exclaimed, and jumped a step backwards.
“Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail…” the bush started.
Moses looked suspiciously at first the snake, then the bush. But neither the snake nor the bush made any response, and after a few seconds of standing still he moved slowly forward. “Are you sure about this? I think that’s a naja haje cobra. They are very poisonous.” Nevertheless, he carefully reached out his hand, and seeing that the snake didn’t react, grasped for its tail. The moment his skin made contact, he held his breath – but suddenly the snake was gone, and in his hand was a staff. Moses stared silently at it in wonder.
The bush continued speaking, as if nothing had happened. “…so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you. Now, put your hand inside your cloak.”
Moses looked at the bush, then at his hands, then at the bush again. “You are not planning on… turning my hand into a snake or something, are you?” he asked suspiciously.
“No such thing!” the bush answered. “Just do it.”
Moses looked inside his cloak, but nothing was hidden there. He slowly slipped his left hand inside, half expecting to get a nasty snake bite; but he couldn’t feel anything. Relieved, he pulled it back out. “What the… AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!” he screamed. “My hand is all rotten! What did you do to me?” Moses’ left hand was swollen up, covered with scales and rashes, and it had turned as white as snow.
“Not to worry,” the bush said jovially. “It will be all right again, just put your hand back into your cloak.”
Still in terror, Moses navigated his dead, disfigured hand into the cloak again. When he took it out and it was back to normal, he let out a sigh of relief.
“If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign,” the bush said.
“Oh right, that sounds reasonable,” Moses said as he panted heavily, wiping off sweat from his forehead with his right hand (which was still holding firmly around the grip of the staff), while looking with relief at his beautiful left hand.
“Now, if they will not believe even these two signs or heed you…” the bush started, but Moses interrupted him.
“Nonono, it’s enough with these two signs! I’m sure uncle Kohath and all the others will believe me once I materialize a snake and make a disgusting mess of my hand, I don’t need any more signs!”
The clearly annoyed bush raised its voice and repeated, “…OR HEED YOU,” and Moses stopped talking. “…you shall take some water from the Nile,” the bush continued, “and pour it on the dry ground.”
The terrified look on Moses’ face slowly dissipated. (“This one doesn’t sound so bad?”)
“And the water that you shall take from the Nile will become…”
“…wine?” Moses tried anxiously.
“Blood on the dry ground,” the bush finished.
“What the Baal is wrong with you!?” Moses exclaimed repulsed. “Why does everything you do have to be something weird and repugnant? Why can’t you just make a simple and really convincing sign? Like writing “I AM GOD AND EVERYTHING MOSES SAYS IS TRUE” in the clouds or something? Or just talk to the Israelites yourself, for that matter? In fact, if you are so powerful and have all these magical powers, what do you even need our help for?”
“Fancy having your other hand turned into a clump of rotten meat?” the bush retorted.
Moses suddenly realized that the bush was burning at least twice as intensely as before. He turned around and looked at his flock down by the foot of the mountain. Some of the sheep had started moving in the wrong direction in search of food. He would have to hurry if he was to gather all of them before dark. He looked back at the bush. “Your plan is flawless, my Lord.” The bush radiated satisfaction upon being addressed properly. “But O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
The bush laughed at the objection. “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf?” Moses’ hand inadvertently reached for his ear, dropping the staff. “Seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”
Moses kept his eyes wide open, and swallowed.
The bush continued. “Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”
Moses considered the situation. Until half an hour ago, he had been looking forward to finish looking after Jethro’s sheep, go back home and play with his son Gershom, and spend the evening with his wife Zipporah; and, crucially, continue doing this until he was old and weak, and could make his own son or son-in-law do the same. Now he had been charged with travelling all the way to Egypt where he was a wanted criminal, convince all the other Hebrews to follow him with some unsound magic tricks, pretend to try to convince the Pharaoh to let them all leave, watch Egypt be destroyed before his eyes when the Pharaoh refused, then lead the looting of the Egyptians… and Baal only knows what was supposed to follow; all of this by a flaming bush with a propensity for gore and violence, that claimed to be his ancestors’ god.
He glanced longingly down at his flock again. It wasn’t hard to decide whether he wanted to go on the proposed adventure, or stay here in Midian; the question was whether choosing the latter was worth living out the rest of his life mute, deaf, blind, and covered with scales.
“O my Lord, please send someone else,” he said as he fell down on the ground and kneeled.
The bush flamed up as if a barrel of oil had been poured on it. The heat flowed over Moses’ back, and he could smell burnt hair. But before he was entirely enveloped, the flame subsided. Moses looked up. The bush looked disappointed, but was obviously conjuring up new plans already. Moses was already afraid of what they would be.
Finally, the bush spoke again. “What about your brother Aaron the Levite?”
Moses’ face expressed surprise. “Aaron? I suppose he’s still in Egypt. I haven’t talked to him since I came here to Midian.”
“But I have; he just walked into another flaming bush outside his house. I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad.”
“You’ve spoken to Aaron? Did… did you say hi from me? Is he fine? How is mother?” Moses poured out at hearing about his brother.
The bush ignored him. “You shall travel to Egypt to meet him, and 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 what you shall do.”
Moses started to object. “Now you’re making things unnecessarily complicated again. Instead of just talking to everyone yourself, you’re having me speak to Aaron speak to…” but he was cut short by the Bush.
“He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”
Moses looked at the staff on the ground in front of him. The whole plan still seemed insane to him, but at least he could push some of the responsibility on Aaron now. He had a feeling he couldn’t bargain more out of the bush. Besides, he would get to meet his family again, and could introduce Zipporah and Gershom to them. Finally, he picked up his staff and nodded resignedly to the bush. The bush in turn gave a warm, cozy flame, before the flame slowly shrinked away. Just when it had almost died, it reappeared in a short, intense flash, as if to say “I still see you,” and then finally disappeared, leaving the bush undamaged.
Moses looked at his staff, turned around, and walked with heavy steps back down to his flock.
“Moses, you’re late. What happened?” his father-in-law exclaimed as Moses fell exhausted through the door. Gershom was playing on the rug nearby, and his wife was hurriedly putting a ladle back into the pot to go greet him. “Zipporah was worried, so she asked me to help. Not much I could do, though.”
“My husband, are you alright?” Zipporah exclaimed as she embraced him.
“Don’t worry, I just…” Moses searched for the right words. “While I was relieving myself in the bushes, a lion came and scattered the flock. It took me a while to gather them again. Sorry for making you all worry.”
“As long as you are not hurt,” Zipporah said. “I told you not to take the flock to Horeb! That mountain is holy, and strange things often happen there.”
Moses kissed her. “But the grass is thick there. And all those old stories about Horeb are just myth.”
Zipporah didn’t give up. “Are you saying that everything father teaches the village at the fire every night is myth? Like last night, when he talked about a family assaulted by a demon just up the slope of Horeb.”
“And what happened to them?” Moses smiled at her.
It was Jethro that answered. “Well, they died. But according to the old Midian scriptures, that was because the wife didn’t cut of her son’s foreskin and bring it in contact with her husband’s genitals with the holy words ‘Truly you are a bridegroom of blood…’”
“What in Sheol?” Moses exclaimed. “Father-in-law, I admire you and respect your teachings, but some of these stories…”
The old priest threw up his hands and smiled. “That’s the scriptures!”
Moses shook his head and went silent for a second. Finally, he turned to his wife and said, “Listen, Zipporah… Can you take Gershom and go water the sheep for the night? I need to talk to your father.”
She gave him a stern look, but did as he said. When she had left, Jethro leaned forward. “It wasn’t just a wild animal that scared the flock, was it? What really happened at Horeb?”
Moses sighed. “It’s not important. Look, Jethro… Lately I’ve been thinking about my family a lot. You know, back in Egypt. Things were really rough when I last saw them, and I really worry for them. Please let me go back to my kindred in Egypt and see whether they are still living.”
Jethro leaned back with a look of surprise. “That’s very sudden, Moses. Would you be taking Zipporah and my grand-child?”
“Of course. I could never live without them.”
“But, would you come back? Would I ever see my daughter again?”
Moses looked down. “I… I don’t know.”
Jethro was silent. His eyes were pointed at Moses, but he seemed to be looking at something far, far away. Finally he focused his eyes at Moses again, and gave him a warm smile. “Look, Moses, I don’t know what happened at Horeb, but I know you. You’re an honest and wise man, and you never do anything of importance without thinking through it at length first. In fact, you never do anything of importance unless you really, really have to,” he added with a laugh. Moses smiled, but looked a little uncomfortable. Jethro’s laugh died down. He managed to keep his smile on, but his eyes were glistering. “I can’t stop you if you’ve made up your mind. Please, take care of Zipporah and Gershom. Go in peace.”
Moses looked up at his father-in-law and nodded. The old man looked as if he was using all his strength not to burst. Moses embraced him, and then left the house to let him cry in peace.
The sun was mercilessly radiating heat from above, but Moses didn’t want to stop and rest just yet. He took one step at a time, with a small flock of sheep behind him and one donkey on each side. One donkey was carrying provisions, and the other his wife and his child. He looked back, at Zipporah’s face, and smiled.
Things weren’t as bad as he had thought. “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead,” the bush had told him in a dream the night before they departed. Or in other words, the old Pharaoh was dead, and the new one apparently didn’t care about Moses’ crimes. He wondered if this meant that all criminals had suddenly been pardoned, but his train of thought was interrupted by Gershom.
“Look! Grass!” Gershom was pointing south-west. Moses looked in the same direction, and sure enough, there was a green patch over there. Grass meant water.
“We probably won’t find a better place, might as well stay there for the night. Good job, Gershom!” Moses said, and rumpled his son’s hair.
After reaching the waterhole, they unloaded the donkeys and set up camp. Zipporah made a simple supper, and when the sun set they went into the tent to sleep.
Moses was lying on his back on the ground, looking up at the tent ceiling. He was thinking about what the bush had said to him in a dream a few nights after their departure.
“When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power…” Moses shuddered just thinking about it. “…but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.”
At this point in the dream, Moses had started objecting again. “O my wise and powerful Lord, why would you do that? Why don’t you just soften his heart instead, so he will let us go, and then we can avoid this convoluted…” but the bush in the dream had lightened up, and Moses became unable to speak.
The bush continued. “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.”’”
(“Technically speaking, it will be I who have asked the Pharaoh for leave to worship, not the bush,” Moses thought to himself. “Plus it was supposed to be Aaron, but I guess he forgot about that part of the deal.”)
“‘But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’”
Moses had been horrified at this last part of the order. Not only would he have to threaten the Pharaoh of Egypt with murdering his firstborn son; he also had a sneaking suspicion that it was actually some sort of analogy for all firstborn sons in Egypt, or all Egyptians, or something. But with this the dream had ended, and Moses had no one to complain to.
His thoughts started drifting to his family; Aaron, his mother and father, uncle Kohath. The Pharaoh’s daughter, who had looked after him since he was a teenager. He really wished the bush wouldn’t do her any harm…
He woke up at the sound of something moving outside. He could hear it wasn’t his sheep. A boar? He grabbed the staff lying next to him, and slowly got up and towards the exit of the tent. In the corner of his eye he could see his wife and son, still sleeping.
Outside it was dark, but the nearby campfire lit up the tent. “I’ve told Gershom so many times not to leave the fire unattended…” Moses mumbled to himself and walked towards the fire to extinguish it.
Then, the campfire moved.
“Oh no…” Moses exclaimed, as he saw that the branches in the “campfire” were not blackened by flames.
The flaming bush moved quickly towards him, its fire burning more and more intensely. Moses stood still, not sure what to do, until the bush came close enough to touch him. “OOOOWWW!” Moses screamed at the pain in his legs, and quickly retreated. “What are you doing, my Lord?”
“Fight back, you coward!” the bush answered, and set off towards him again.
Moses tried to think. (“How do you even fight a burning bush?”) He looked at his hands: The staff! He quickly threw it on the ground, and to his satisfaction it turned into a snake. The snake crawled towards the burning bush… and then noticing the intense flame, changed direction and hid behind a nearby stone. (“What was I expecting?”) He almost put his hand inside his cloak again, but realized that a decomposed hand would be of very little use in the current situation.
“Fight me, Moses!” the bush shouted. “Like your ancestor Jacob wrestled me in the old days!”
Moses dimly remembered some stories he had heard as a child, of his grand-grand-grand-father Jacob wrestling a god and winning – only to have his hip pulled out of joint at the last second. But how could he wrestle a burning bush?
He took a few insecure steps towards the bush. As expected, his skin turned hotter the closer he got. He swallowed. With immense courage, and a giant leap of faith, he stretched out his hands to grab the bush and try to wrestle it.
“OOOOOOOOWWWW NOOOO AAAAA!! THE PAIN!!” The hair on his arms burned up instantly, and his skin turned black. When he realized he couldn’t even move his fingers anymore to grab onto the bush, he withdrew and fell on the ground, howling in pain.
“What is wrong with you, son of Amram?” the bush said in disappointment. “How am I supposed to bless you, confirm the covenant and call you Israel, if you can’t even defeat me in melee combat? Are you really Jacob’s descendant?”
Moses answered with a continuous cry of pain.
The bush looked as if it tried to shrug. “So this is what has become of Israel’s children. Weaklings. I suppose I will just have to kill you.” The bush closed in on Moses, its flames glowing stronger and stronger, finally starting to scorch Moses’ feet.
It was in that moment that Zipporah sprang out from the tent, a flint in one hand, and a piece of skin in the other. Behind her came Gershom crawling out from the opening, crying and with blood running down his thighs.
Zipporah ignored the heat, and threw herself down next to her husband. In the same movement, she brought the piece of skin under Moses’ cloak, and put it onto his penis. “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” she cried out with power in her voice.
The bush let out a scream of terror, and started retreating. “Witchcraft! This is the magic of Midian!” Its flames died down, and it scurried off towards the distance. When it was almost out of sight, it stopped and turned. “Moses! Our agreement is still valid! You are to meet Aaron in Egypt!” Then the bush disappeared into the darkness.
Zipporah looked triumphantly at her husband lying next to her, passed out from the pain. “‘A bridegroom of blood by circumcision’,” she exclaimed. “I can’t wait to tell father that his spells worked!”
“And behold – it turns into a snake!”
Moses listened satisfied to the amazed gasps of the Hebrews in front of them, as Aaron gingerly stretched out his arm to pick up the snake wriggling on the ground. Aaron was much better at this sort of thing. He completely owned his audience, which included all the Hebrew elders. Moses looked away as Aaron started moving his hand into his cloak.
When the brothers a week earlier had met for the first time in years, they had both broken down in tears. It had been an emotional moment, with hugs and kisses. Aaron told Moses everything that had happened to their parents and their relatives, and Moses introduced Aaron to his new family.
It turned out that the bush had shown himself before Aaron, and said “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. He will be by the mountain of God.” Aaron had complained that the only “mountain of God” he knew was Horeb, several weeks of travel east in Midian; but the bush had informed him that he had recently taken possession of another mountain closer to Aaron’s home. It had happened to be in Moses’ path, and they met each other the day that the bush had said they would.
Moses looked back at Aaron. He was pouring a mug of water onto the ground in front of his astonished audience. “… and with this last sign, I will prove to you that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: ‘I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt.’” The water turned red, and much of the group let out astonished gasps. Others bowed down and started to worship.
Moses smiled, but his true feelings were more complicated. Aaron seemed satisfied with his new position as assistant-prophet, but he hadn’t witnessed first-hand the bizarre notions and vagaries of their new master. Hopefully, the project would result in their whole people being brought to safety in a fertile part of Canaan, with Moses as their leader; but he was more worried about the process of getting there. What sacrifices would he have to make on the way? What crazy plans would he have to convince a whole people of following?
But in his mind, he saw the burning bush at mount Horeb; he saw its flaming rage and anger; he saw himself covered in scales and burn-marks, deaf and blind; he saw his crying child, mutilated by the crotch, and his desperate wife holding a flint and his foreskin; he saw screaming Egyptian men and women; fields covered with swarms of insects; dying children; rivers of blood; drowning men; countless human-beings wandering through a scorched desert; and again the burning bush, its fire swelling up and engulfing the entire world. And he knew that he could not avoid his destiny.
Once again, I had a little too many comments on the text to properly address them in a short summary, so instead I let Moses express them on my behalf in a 7-page story. Again, I have obviously added many details not present in the original text (which is about 800 words long, compared to my 4000 words); but my story contains all the information of the biblical text, and all quotes spoken by someone is reproduced verbatim in the story. I also never contradict the original story, and feel that given the circumstances, it is a reasonable interpretation. All right, Moses probably wasn’t intended to be as sceptical as I describe him, and God probably didn’t assume the form of the burning bush when he attacked him at night. But God’s plan is kind of insane, and Moses does express heavy reluctance to follow it; and the part where he is attacked literally just reads: “On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him.” I obviously didn’t make up Zipporah’s weird circumcision ritual either. If you think my story sounds made-up, it is probably because the Old Testament is a very weird book.