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Shemot/Exodus 4:21 When you go to return to Egypt, see all the wonders that I have put in your hand and you shall do them before Pharaoh.
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HaShem here speaks to Moshe and sets up a puzzle in Moshe's mind. Why? We need to see the second half of the verse as well: "I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go" (NJPS). Leon Kass nicely articulates Moshe's confusion: "I must perform all the G-d-given wonders, but they will not persuade Pharaoh to let the people go? Why? Because G-d Himself will make them ineffective, by strengthening Pharaoh's heart. So why, if the goal is getting the Israelites out of Egypt, would G-d wish to delay its attainment?"1 "What am I doing?" Moshe asks; "Am I just a mouthpiece speaking futility?" Let's explore this conundrum and see what we can learn.
Our first task is to consider the way HaShem's words are often translated: "See that you do all the wonders that I have put in your hand before Pharaoh". This re-arranges the word order and ignores the trope marks which seem to indicate, "See! | (all the wonders that I shall put in your hand) | (and you shall do them before Pharaoh)". As the Hebrew reads, the pointing makes "all the wonders ..." the object of the imperative verb , see!, while the second verb includes the object pronoun 'them' as the first word in the last clause. This makes 'seeing' and 'doing' two separate actions. Changing the word order to bring the verbs together - "See that you do ..." - may sound smoother in English, but makes 'do' the dominant verb with 'see' a qualifier with the same sort of meaning as "take care to".
Nachmanides favours the re-arranged sequence when he writes, "When he took the rod of G-d in his hand to take the first step of the journey, G-d warned him, 'See that you perform all the marvels ...' Do not forget any of them." Moshe's performance must be complete; every single one must be carried out. This dovetails with Ibn Ezra's comment about the heart hardening: "He informed Moshe that He intended to harden Pharaoh's heart so that he would not let them go on account of any of the plagues right up until the last one." The Sforno implies that Moshe and Pharaoh are acting out a predetermined script that both of them must follow precisely: "You will succeed to do them before Pharaoh providing you change nothing, for if one sins regarding the commandments of his Creator by adding or subtracting, he impairs the intent and it will fail."
Umberto Cassuto, on the other hand, emphasises the original Hebrew word order, writing, "At this moment when you are about to start on your journey - see, take heed of all that I have told you so far and remember all the signs I have put in your hand, in order that you may be ready to perform them, so that you may do them before Pharaoh."2 Here, while the 'doing' remains important, 'seeing' must come first. Moshe must see, pay attention to and understand the wonders that have been placed in his hand so that he can do them correctly. The Sforno supports this position as well: "See all the wonders - examine each time all the wonders that will be placed in your hands, to perform them in the manner and order which I shall command you." The execution of each wonder in its due place, sequence and time, is dependent on Moshe being sure of the objective and the certainty of it being accomplished. The Be'er Yitzkhak explains that Moshe is to "see the miracles in his mind's eye now and be in a frame of mind to proceed with their performance courageously." In particular, Rashi adds, he must "perform all of My wonders before Pharaoh and not be afraid of him."
The Jewish commentators are united in agreeing that the three signs Moshe has already been given - turning his staff into a snake and back again, turning his own hand white and back again, turning fresh water from the Nile to blood - are not being viewed here. Those signs are for the elders and leaders of Israel, whereas these wonders are to be shown to Pharaoh. Nahum Sarna says that "the 'marvels' are the forthcoming plagues." The Ramban comments on the word to explain that they are in Moshe's hand because "you will perform them and no-one else." The text also surprises us by using - the Qal affix 1cs form of the root , "to put, set or place", so "I have put" - rather than , the prefix form, "I will put".Rashi proposes that this is really a future-perfect tense meaning that by the time Moshe speaks to Pharaoh, HaShem will already have put them in his hand. Alternatively, we might see it as an affix of certainty or resolve:3 HaShem has said it, so it will certainly happen, it is as good as done.
What are these 'wonders' that Moshe is to perform? David Clines tells us that the word - a masculine plural noun with a definite article, singular from the unused root , in Arabic "to be entire, perfect" - refers to wonders, signs, portents, miracles, often of HaShem4, for example, "And the L-RD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes" (D'varim 6:22, ESV) and "Remember the wonders He has done, His portents and the judgments He has pronounced" (Psalm 105:5, NJPS). Rabbi Hirsch explains that "mophet is a sign ad hominem, which lays hold of a man to force him to take notice of the teaching which the sign gives", while Walter Brueggemann proposes that "this term refers to extraordinary deeds that intrude upon settled, controlled life and generate new possibilities."5
But, the second half of the verse tells us, Pharaoh will ignore all these wonders because HaShem will 'stiffen' his heart. Sarna comments that "the motif of the stiffening or hardening of Pharaoh's heart runs through the entire Exodus story; it appears exactly twenty times. The king's intransigence will by then have become habitual and irreversible; his character has become his destiny." As Kass has already pointed out, this seems quite contrary: G-d does miracles precisely to bring about the release, but He hardens Pharaoh's heart to ignore them. "G-d works both sides of the street," Brueggemann observes; "G-d does wonders that shatter all present reality, but G-d also sponsors resistance to the newness on behalf of the status quo."6 Perhaps this is, Peter Enns suggests, to show that "the deliverance of Israel from Egypt is entirely G-d's doing and under His complete control. The impending Exodus is a play in which G-d is author, producer, director and principal actor."7
Alternatively, perhaps we can see that there is partnership going on. It is not that G-d could not or cannot, quite unilaterally and entirely on His own, vanquish Pharaoh and free His people. On the contrary, He has chosen to work with Moshe to achieve the release of the Israelites. Terence Fretheim puts it this way: "Both Moshe and G-d are to do and say certain things, working together in this confrontation with Pharaoh. G-d has chosen to act with intensity in these matters, but not alone; Moshe is given considerable power."8 There is complementarity at work; this is G-d's choice and will. Moshe must see and do everything exactly as he is told, so that G-d may harden Pharaoh's heart, so that he has no excuse and arrives at the correct end of the journey. If Moshe hadn't done what HaShem showed and told him, Moshe would have let Pharaoh down by not helping him to reach the point where he could sincerely say: "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the L-RD as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!" (Shemot 12:31-32, NJPS), thus admitting the sovereignty of G-d.
We see the same mechanism at work when Moshe is told - using exactly the same verbs, 'see' and 'do' - "See that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain" (25:40, ESV), while HaShem works with the people, "Bezalel and Oholiab and all the skilled persons whom the L-RD has endowed with skill and ability to perform expertly all the tasks connected with the service of the sanctuary" (36:1, NJPS), so that they can fashion the Tabernacle and everything in it according to His design. After the work is complete and Moshe has inspected and approved it, he assembled the Tabernacle and "the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the L-RD filled the Tabernacle" (40:34, NJPS); G-d dwelt visibly in the midst of His people. Had the work not been done exactly, G-d's presence would not have appeared and all the people would have been let down.
Perhaps the prime example is Yeshua Himself. Throughout His ministry, the gospels repeatedly tell us that "this was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet" (Matthew 2:15, ESV). During His crucifixion and resurrection, themselves both foretold by the prophets, Yeshua fulfilled every detail exactly. The Psalmist's cry, "my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws" (Psalm 22:15, ESV) is met by "Yeshua, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), 'I thirst'" (John 19:28, ESV); His burial by "a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph" (Matthew 27:57, ESV) completes "he was with a rich man in his death" (Isaiah 53:9). The resurrection, according to Yeshua's own words "the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matthew 12:39) because "Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17, ESV), fulfilled David's prophecy: "You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let Your holy one see corruption" (Psalm 16:10, ESV).
Not unexpectedly, the same charge is laid on us as disciples of Yeshua: we must do exactly and everything we are told to fulfil God's purposes. Yeshua included the disciples in His own mission - "We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day" (John 9:4, ESV) - and emphasised the importance of obedience: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21, ESV), adding, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15, ESV). As disciples, we should be doing the same things that Yeshua Himself did - "whoever believes in Me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father" (14:12, ESV - and, as with Moshe, it is the doing that is important: "it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before G-d, but the doers of the law who will be justified" (Romans 2:13, ESV). If we do not obey Yeshua through the written word and the leading of the Spirit, then not only do we let ourselves down and let Yeshua down by our disobedience, but we also let others down who are looking to us or need our words or actions to help them reach their goal. Let us not fall short in hearing and doing the word!
1. - Leon R. Kass, Founding G-d's Nation - Reading Exodus (New Have, Yale University Press, 2021), page 82.
2. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 55.
3. - Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 30.5.1d page 489.
4. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 209.
5. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus", in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 310.
6. - Ibid.
7. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 131.
8. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 76.
Further Study: Micah 6:6-8; John 13:15-17; Hebrews 13:7-9
Application: Do you struggle to follow through consistently on what Yeshua has told you to do? I suspect that we are all in the same boat: "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38, ESV). Cry out to the L-rd and ask for a fresh anointing of His Spirit to come alongside you and help you to do as well as see so that all G-d's people may be blessed.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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