Exodus 6:9-7:13: No More Faltering Lips
Our passage is Exodus 6:9-7:13. Inserted within this block is a genealogy of Aaron and Moses (6:13-27) designed to establish the status of the two brothers Aaron and Moses, but especially Aaron (note in the genealogy that when both Aaron and Moses are mentioned by name, Aaron’s name occurs first; in the larger Exodus story Moses is always named first). This was quite significant for later Israelites in establishing the lineage of the priestly descendents of Aaron. While certainly of historical interest in the study of the development of the Israelite (and later Jewish) priesthood, since this insertion falls outside the main story line of Exodus for our purposes we can simply note it in passing.
In terms of the story line, Moses has just accused Yahweh of not rescuing his people at all and has questioned Yahweh as to what He is doing, if anything. God answered Moses with a second revelation of the meaning of the Divine Name, Yahweh. In sum, Yahweh's purpose is fourfold: (1) I will liberate Israel, (2) Israel will be my people and I will be their God, (3) they will personally know/experience Me, and (4) I will give them land (= a full, blessed life).
That brings us to 6:9. Moses reports this to the people but they pay no attention to him. Their bondage is so great that they cannot believe any more good news from God and Moses. Next Yahweh tells Moses to go tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Moses responds like you and I would: "If Israel won't listen, why will Pharaoh listen? I speak with faltering lips." This same Yahweh-Moses exchange is basically repeated in 6:28-30 following the genealogy insertion, "Since I speak with faltering lips why would Pharaoh listen to me?"
On a first reading "faltering lips" seems to be another attempt by Moses to use his poor speaking abilities as an excuse not to go to Pharaoh. But on closer examination of the Hebrew text something else is going on here. In Moses' earlier excuse he claimed to have "heavy lips and a heavy tongue" (4:10). Here the word translated "faltering" is literally "uncircumcised." Moses claims his lips are uncircumcised (as opposed to heavy) and that is why Pharaoh will not listen to him. What are uncircumcised lips?
As we saw earlier, circumcision marked one as belonging to God's covenant people. It was a sign of God's ownership and promises. When Moses says that his lips are not circumcised he is saying that when he speaks there is no sign of God. He talks, but there is no sign of the Divine Presence in his speech. He went to Pharaoh and said, "Thus says Yahweh, ‘Let my people go!’" and Pharaoh – yawn – hardly acted as if he were confronted by a word from the God of the universe. The result of his speech was not freedom but increased bondage and oppression. His speech appeared to be absent of God's presence and power. And thus, his speech/lips faltered. What was spoken was not accomplished. There was no sign that God was in it.
Have you been there? Have you ever spoken what you truly believed the Lord was calling you to speak only to have your speech land on deaf ears or worse, have the opposite effect than you intended? Because your message was God driven you expected great results but got none, as if God was completely absent from your speech and you were just talking on your own? That's where Moses seemed to be.
God hears Moses. His complaint is legitimate. Yahweh answers: "Look. I have made you like God to Pharaoh and Aaron will be your prophet. Say everything I command you. Tell Aaron to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go."
How does Yahweh's response answer Moses' complaint? What does it mean that he will be like God to Pharaoh and Aaron will be his prophet? Obviously, to be like God to Pharaoh is to have more power than Pharaoh, to have Pharaoh submit to that power.
But more, notice the role of Aaron. What makes a prophet a prophet? What legitimates a prophet? One's words must come true in order to be recognized as a prophet, not in terms of prediction of the future but in terms of the effect of the words as reflecting God’s reality). If the words fail, then the speaker was no prophet (see Criteria of False Prophets).
But Aaron is a prophet delivering Moses' word to Pharaoh and Moses will be as God. The point is, Moses' words will come true - they will be full of power and marked by Yahweh's presence. Moses' lips will be circumcised. When he speaks Pharaoh will have to acknowledge Yahweh - but not too soon.
Yahweh goes on to tell Moses, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply signs and wonders he will not listen to you. I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring out my people and the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh." Yahweh is going to work on both sides of the battle, so to speak. He is going to work on Moses' behalf, empowering his word with signs and wonders. On the other side, Yahweh is hardening Pharaoh's heart so that he will not respond favorably to Moses.
Why? Why does Yahweh harden Pharaoh's heart so that it takes ten plagues/mighty acts of judgment before Israel is told to go? That has been a question that has plagued me. Here are a few possible ways of approaching this difficult issue (for a textual and theological analysis of this issue see The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart).
(1) If the matter is settled after only one battle, Pharaoh and the Egyptians can write-off Yahweh's victory as a lucky, last-second shot. So after one loss Pharaoh, Egypt, and perhaps even Israel could say, "Yahweh isn't really more powerful. Yahweh just got lucky that day. Pharaoh is still the One who is." By hardening Pharaoh's heart so that it's a "ten game series" Yahweh eliminates any imagination that Pharaoh still is and Yahweh is just lucky.
(2) By hardening Pharaoh's heart Yahweh also eliminates the illusion that Pharaoh is in charge and that Pharaoh "let" the people go. Pharaoh cannot posture that he is the superior player and he just let the weaker opponent win a game for once. No, by hardening Pharaoh's heart Yahweh shows that Pharaoh is not in a position (on a throne) to grant permission to Yahweh. Yahweh is the One who is. Yahweh does not need Pharaoh's permission. When it comes to Yahweh Pharaoh has no permission to grant. Yahweh is above all permission. Hardening Pharaoh's heart makes it clear to Pharaoh, Egypt, and Israel that Yahweh is the enthroned One who alone has custody of permission.
(3) The fact that Yahweh acts on Pharaoh, rather than vice versa, is a further indicator of Yahweh's superiority. Yahweh's “is” is so strong that Pharaoh cannot even control his own heart. We might say that Yahweh got inside Pharaoh's head, or that Yahweh knew how to push Pharaoh's buttons, or that Yahweh could send Pharaoh through changes. The truth being witnessed to is that God truly is the determiner of reality, not just among Israel, but in Egypt, and even with regards to Pharaoh's heart. Yahweh is.
The outcome of all these heart-hardening (or heart-strengthening, depending whose side you're on) mighty acts of judgment: "the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh." Not just Moses, not just Israel, not just Pharaoh, but all Egypt will have personal knowledge/experience that Yahweh is the One who is. The exodus goal is for all peoples to have knowledge of God.
Moses went back to Pharaoh and did just as God commanded. Yahweh gave him another snake sign to do with Aaron's staff so that he would be ready when Pharaoh demanded a sign. Aaron threw his staff down and it became a monstrous snake. Pharaoh was unimpressed. He called in his magicians and they did the same thing. There were staffs-become-monstrous-snakes slivering all over the palace floor. But Aaron's staff swallowed up all the other staffs. His was of superior power. Pharaoh's heart was hard; he would not let the people go.
But Moses now knew that his lips were not uncircumcised. Aaron's staff swallowed up the others. His lips had not faltered. Yahweh was with him and the battle was on. Just as Aaron's staff swallowed up the Egyptian magicians' staffs, so it was only a matter of speech before the Egyptian armies would be swallowed by the Red Sea in defeat. Yahweh is. And the word of Yahweh never returns void.