“Does Moses Contradict G-d?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, G-d appears to Moses in the midst of a burning bush charging him to go to Pharaoh and to take His people, the Children of Israel, out of Egypt.

Moses demurs, modestly asking G-d (Exodus 3:11), “Mee ah’no’chee kee ay’laych el Pharoh, v’chee oh’tzee et b’nai Yisrael me’Mitzrayim?” Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and take the Children of Israel out of Egypt? G-d reassures Moses that He will give him signs to prove that he was sent by G-d. He further confirms that when Moses takes the people out of Egypt, they will worship G-d on the very same mountain that G-d has just appeared to him, Mount Horeb.

G-d then reveals his sacred name to Moses and tells him, (Exodus 3:16-17) “Laych v’ah’safta et zik’nay Yisrael,” Go and gather the Elders of Israel and say to them, “The L-rd, the G-d of your forefathers has appeared to me…’I have surely remembered you and what is done to you in Egypt.’ And I have said, ‘I shall bring you up from the affliction of Egypt…to a land flowing with milk and honey.'”

The Al-mighty then explicitly tells Moses (Exodus 3:18), “V’shah’m’ooh l’koh’leh’cha,” And they will heed your voice. Then you and the Elders of Israel shall come to the king of Egypt, and say to him: “The Lord, G-d of the Hebrews, has met with us. And now please let us go.”

Moses, however, reflecting his continued reluctance, responds by saying (Exodus 4:1), “V’hayn lo yah’ah’mee’noo lee, v’lo yish’m’ooh b’koh’lee, kee yom’roo: Lo nir’ah ay’leh’cha Hashem.” But they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, “The L-rd did not appear to you!”

G-d then provides Moses with a series of signs-–his staff turns into a snake, his hand becomes leprous, and water becomes blood. Eventually, Moses agrees to go to Pharaoh on the condition that his brother Aaron will accompany him and be his spokesperson.

The excuse that Moses gives to G-d before agreeing to go is rather perplexing. He is no longer pleading unfitness or unworthiness. Instead he appears to boldly contradict what G-d has told him. G-d clearly said (Exodus 3:18) “V’shah’m’oo l’koh’leh’cha,” they will listen to your voice! Moses replied (Exodus 4:1), “V’hayn lo yah’ah’mee’noo lee, v’lo yish’m’ooh b’koh’lee,” they will not believe me nor harken to my voice. Is it really possible that Moses disrespectfully contradicts G-d outright?

The great Nehama Leibowitz, in her studies in Shemot/Exodus, cites four different opinions from three classical commentators who propose to resolve this theological conundrum.

In the first of his two opinions, R. Abraham Ibn Ezra states: “The Almighty had promised that the Elders would believe him [Moses], but did not mention that [all the people would].” Ibn Ezra, in effect, argues that when G-d, in Exodus 3:18, says, “They will listen to thy voice,” He is referring to the Elders, who will surely listen to Moses and firmly believe in him. However, when Moses, in Exodus 4:1, says, “They will not believe me,” he is referring to the people, who would neither believe nor listen to him. The difference then between G-d and Moses is the question of who will listen and who will believe.

Ibn Ezra offers a second response, saying, “‘They shall harken to thy voice,’ but not believe you in their hearts.” In effect, Ibn Ezra now addresses the question of how. G-d says (Exodus 3:18) that the people will listen, but it will be only an external obedience. When Moses says (Exodus 4:1) that they will not believe, he is arguing that their belief will not be sincere.

The Ramban also addresses the issue, saying that Moses’ response of “They will not believe me” refers to after they see that Pharaoh refuses to let them go. Therefore, argues the Ramban, G-d insists, in Exodus 3:18, that there will be immediate acceptance when Moses appeals to the people. Moses, however (Exodus 4:1), counters with the claim that after Pharaoh rejects their appeal, the people will show a lack of faith and rebel. The Ramban addresses the question of when will the people believe.

The Rambam, Maimonides, also weighs in on this question in his Guide to the Perplexed, and argues: “Granted [says Moses] that they will accept the doctrine that G-d exists through the medium of these rational proofs with which you have furnished me. But by what means shall I demonstrate that this existing G-d has sent me?” Maimonides, therefore, argues that G-d in Exodus 3:18 tells Moses that the people will believe in the Sender, meaning G-d. Moses, however, responds in Exodus 4:1 that they will not have faith in the Messenger, meaning Moses. In effect, Maimonides addresses the question of in whom will the people believe.

What is remarkable about Professor Leibowitz’s analysis is that she presents four cogent arguments, each asserting that Moses did not speak unbefittingly to G-d, because G-d and Moses were each referring to different issues and aspects in their responses. Hence, Moses certainly did not contradict G-d.

Professor Leibowitz continues to examine each one of the four proposed responses, pointing out that, on the basis of a close textual analysis, only Maimonides’ interpretation is borne out, while the Ibn Ezra’s and the Ramban’s interpretations conflict with the text. Showing how Maimonides’ interpretation correlates exactly with the text without the need to reinterpret even one additional word means, Leibowitz argues, that G-d gives Moses signs, not to prove G-d’s existence or to authenticate the sender, but rather to confirm that the emissary was indeed speaking in the name of G-d.

Not all the commentators, however, agree with the conclusion that Moses did not speak to G-d in an unbefitting manner. In fact, Rashi asserts vigorously, “Oh’tah sha’ah dee’ber Moshe sheh’lo k’hogen,” on that occasion, Moses spoke unbefittingly! It is for this reason that G-d asks Moses (Exodus 4:2), “Mah zeh b’yadehcha?” What is that in your hand? Moses answers, “Mah’teh,” a staff. Rashi learns that, by asking this question, G-d indirectly rebukes Moses, saying to him, “You [Moses] deserve to be smitten with the thing that is in your hand [the staff], since you have spoken ill of My children.”

Who would ever believe that a simple set of verses such as these, could have so many elucidations and interpretations. Indeed, many commentators and interpreters struggle to justify Moses’ response, determined to clear him from the charge of speaking improperly to G-d. And yet, at the same time, another great commentator simply says, “Why struggle?” As Nehama Leibowitz concludes, “Our sages were no respecters of persons, however great. They were ready to see the faults of both patriarch and prophet.”

No matter which interpretation is correct, we have before us an amazing excursion into the study of biblical exegesis. We see how the brilliant minds of the rabbis are capable of perceiving nuances in the text that often escape less sophisticated observers. Clearly, every single word, jot and tittle in the Bible has infinite value, and communicates invaluable lessons for all times.

This is the treasure of Torah study. How fortunate we are to be its beneficiaries.

May you be blessed.