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Shemot/Exodus 4:2 And the L-rd said to him, "What is that in your hand?" And he said, "A staff."
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We pick up in the middle of the conversation betweenHaShem and Moshe at the Bush, after HaShem has enlisted Moshe as His agent to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, releasing them from their slavery to Pharaoh. Moshe has a pretty shrewd understanding of the Israelite psyche and - doubting his ability to sell himself as the natural leader of the Israelites on the basis of a desert encounter with a talking thorn-bush that was on fire - has just asked, "What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The L-RD did not appear to you?" (Shemot 4:1, NJPS). Given his own track-record, albeit forty years ago, Moshe appears to have good grounds for asking the question.
Language-wise, the snippet of conversation is unexceptional. The speaker toggles neatly from HaShem, who is identified as the first speaker, to Moshe by the common technique of a second speech verb: , "and he said". The text will toggle back to HaShem speaking at the start of the next verse by exactly the same device. The expression , written as one word here rather than the more usual is intended to emphasise the word-play: - "what is it?" - "a staff". The word in between - , "in your hand" - simply provides the current location of the staff and perhaps a degree of ownership; Moshe will shortly be told to throw it on the ground.Targum Onkelos splits into two parts: - the usual targumic practice to translate "as read" rather than "as written". Gunther Plaut clarifies that , a rod or staff, is in fact Moshe's shepherd's staff.
So why does HaShem ask Moshe what he has in his hand? It cannot be that HaShem doesn't know and, unless Moshe is having a senior moment or has lost track of it during this unusual conversation with a burning thorn-bush - surely not something that he does every day - Moshe knows perfectly well what is in his hand. Umberto Cassuto proposes that "the purpose of the question was to draw Moshe's attention to the fact that the object in his hand was only an ordinary stick and thereby to make his amazement at the sign that would be wrought before his eyes all the greater."1 Or, says Nahum Sarna, quotingIbn Ezra, "the query serves to certify that the object is an ordinary shepherd's crook and is not invested with magical powers." We have the advantage over Moshe at the moment of this exchange, because we know how the conversation develops. The Sforno comments that "a rod is inanimate whereas a hand is alive, but G-d, who can destroy and bring to life, will cause the hand to be as dead through leprosy and grant life to the inanimate rod."
RabbiHirsch explains that the staff itself is "an , a sign, a means to accomplish the conviction that the man who comes equipped with such powers is a messenger of the One unique Power that reigns over the ordinary natural order of things. What is a staff? A staff is the most natural emblem of man's mastery over nature." The Baal HaTurim, on the other hand, suggests that the staff is a sign to Moshe himself, that by drawing attention to the staff, HaShem is telling Moshe, "Do not allow yourself to become arrogant. If you do not fulfil My mission, this staff will fulfil My mission." That has the same sort of feeling to it as Yeshua's reply to the Pharisees who complained about the amount of noise His disciples were making when He entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before Pesach: "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out" (Luke 19:40, ESV).
Did you notice how Cassuto and Sarna both used the word 'ordinary' to refer to Moshe's staff and Hirsch then said 'natural'? Peter Enns helps us to see the significance of the ordinary: "G-d uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary. The plagues are ordinary phenomena that G-d uses to do extraordinary things. There is nothing unusual about gnats, flies, frogs and so forth. G-d asks: 'What is that in your hand? A staff? Let Me show you a little of who I am by doing something unexpected with it.'"2 When used by G-d, the ordinary things of life take on His immeasurable power and become so much more than ordinary, they become transformed into instruments of blessing or terror in His hand. Yeshua took five small loaves and two fish - a ordinary packed lunch for one boy - and fed over five thousand people with twelve large baskets of pieces left over! The disciples needed to look at the ordinary and see Yeshua doing the unexpected.
HaShem uses the word again when He calls the prophet Jeremiah. Twice He shows Jeremiah a picture and asks, " What are you seeing?" Twice the prophet replies - "I see a branch of an almond tree" (Jeremiah 1:11, NJPS), "I see a steaming pot, tipped away from the north" (v. 13, NJPS) - describing the vision that he sees and then HaShem explains what the visions mean. The question is asked to show the ordinariness of an almond tree - there are many in Israel - and a steaming pot, seen outside most houses most days as the meal is cooked. These are every-day commonplace sights. And yet the ordinary is clothed with extraordinary meaning - when G-d uses it to illustrate a revelation or a prophetic word. HaShem does the same again with Jeremiah - "And the L-RD said to me, 'What do you see, Jeremiah?' I answered, 'Figs -- the good ones are very good, and the bad ones very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten'" (24:3, NJPS) - and the prophet Amos: "He said, 'What do you see, Amos?' 'A basket of figs,' I replied. And the L-RD said to me: 'The hour of doom has come for My people Israel; I will not pardon them again'" (Amos 8:2, NJPS). The prophets needed to learn to look at the ordinary and hear G-d speaking the extraordinary.
In a similar way,the Scriptures abound with ordinary things being used in extraordinary ways. Gideon's sign - wet on dry, dry on wet - was given using a normal fleece that was already cut. Elijah, the widow of Zarephath and her son were fed for many days because "the jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty" (1 Kings 17:16, ESV), starting from the handful of flour and little oil that were left in the house. Elisha met the needs of a prophet's widow from "nothing in the house except a jar of oil" (2 Kings 4:2, ESV). Yeshua paid the half-shekel tax for Peter and Himself by telling Peter to "go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel" (Matthew 17:27, ESV). The book of Acts reports people being healed by Peter's shadow (Acts 5:5) and "handkerchiefs or aprons" (19:12, ESV) that had touched Paul. Jeremiah's powerful message about G-d reworking Israel as clay happened at potter's house as Jeremiah saw the potter "working at his wheel" (Jeremiah 18:3, ESV).
Just as the disciples and the prophets needed to learn to expect the unexpected through the ordinary things around them every day as Yeshua spoke and taught, as G-d called and spoke, so we too need to open our eyes and our ears to what G-d is already doing and wants to increase in our days. There are two essential lessons here: firstly, that G-d uses the everyday things to do His signs - the mundane and the commonplace, the ordinary and the routine - and transforms them and us by the power of His Spirit to become His instruments for grace in our world. The second lesson is that we already have everything He needs as His starting point. Too often we look for miracles when what He needs is already at hand if we will but pick it up or use it. We must train ourselves to expect G-d to transform and use us and our everyday material surroundings to work His miracles of revelation and grace.
G-d told Avram, "Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever" (B'resheet 13:14-15, ESV). Yeshua told the disciples, "Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together" (John 4:35-36, ESV). These are miracles of perception that reveal the true state of the world and the kingdom of G-d, notwithstanding the contrary (and false) narrative that society constantly tries to peddle. The common feature of both is the simple action of lifting our eyes to see what G-d is doing and showing us.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 46.
2. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 109.
Further Study: Isaiah 51:6-8; Ezekiel 40:4; Matthew 13:15-16; Revelation 3:18
Application: Are your eyes open and looking up or are you simply gazing downward trying not to trip over your own feet? Call on the Master Oculist to prescribe the lenses you need to see the reality of the kingdom of G-d around you every day and to see the ordinary transformed into the extraordinary as G-d works His miracles in and through you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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