President's Word

Rev Dr Stephen Lee
Lam Ko Kit Tak Professor of Biblical Studies
 

Independent Pronouns in the Lord’s Sending of Moses

‘Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”’ (Exodus 4:10) This is a familiar passage where Moses was sent by the Lord from the burning bush, but kept finding excuses to decline. A more literal translation will go like this, ‘Moshe said to YHWH: Please, my Lord, no man of words am I, not from yesterday, not from the day-before, not (even) since you have spoken to your servant, for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I.’ (Everett Fox The Five Books of Moses 1995.) The word ‘not’ is repeated thrice, drawing attention to the climatic point: despite the Lord calling, Moses remains the same.

Was Moses really ‘slow of speech and tongue’? The Hebrew text describes him as ‘heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue’, which can also be understood to imply that Moses was prudent in speech; every word he spoke carries weight – an exact opposite of being a ‘man of words’. Moses has indeed chosen his words very thoughtfully; the first person singular independent pronoun ‘I’ appears at the beginning and the end of his response to the Lord, echoing each other as a nice inclusio. Moses fully recognized his own inadequacy when faced with the divine call, and his sense of self-awareness has become both a strength and a limitation of his character. He could only focus on the ‘I’ he saw, but is this the ‘I’ that not even the Lord can do anything about?

How did the Lord answer Moses? He apparently tried to imitate Moses by using the same first person singular pronoun twice as well: ‘Who gave man a mouth. . . Is it not I, the Lord? And now, go, and I Myself will be with your mouth.’ (Exodus 4:11-12, Robert Alter The Five Books of Moses 2004.) Moses said, ‘Not I ... I’, and the Lord also said, ‘Not I ... I’. But they differ in that Moses thought of himself as incapable of change, while the Lord was in fact the One ‘who makes him mute or deaf or sighted or blind’. Yes, we are often stranded with the finitude of our own self, yet we must also learn to turn and look upon the Lord, the sovereign ‘I AM’. He calls us and sends us, and it is He who will also transform us, so that we may carry out the task He has laid upon us.

This is, however, not the end of the conversation between Moses and the Lord. Whi le Moses cont inued to express his reluctance by saying, ‘O Lord, please send someone else to do it’, the text notes that ‘the wrath of the Lord flared up against Moses.’ (Exodus 4:13-14) But the Lord did not force Moses to change immediately, He offered help instead to meet the challenges ahead: ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well’. Now we may recall Moses did have a big sister who spoke to Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:4-8) , but we do not yet know whether Aaron was the older or younger brother, until we are told later that he was three years older than Moses. (Exodus 7:7) In other words, even before Moses was born, the Lord had already prepared his brother Aaron to help him speak to Israel and Pharaoh. Centuries later, Jeremiah was called to become a prophet, and the Lord pointed out to him right from the beginning, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.’ (Jeremiah 1:5) Such is always the profoundly humbling experience for every one called by the Lord.

When introducing Aaron, the Lord intentionally used the independent third person singular pronoun twice, as if He was continuing the same motif of the previous dialogue, ‘I know that he speaks well, he, and here, look! he, coming out to meet you.’ (Exodus 4:14) Different conjugations of a Hebrew verb are already sufficient to specify the subject, so that no additional independent pronoun is required. Hence the sentence above sounds a bit unusual, leading us to ask: Does it mean that Moses, the Lord, and Aaron are equally important?

With this question in mind, we read the Lord’s concluding remarks (Exodus 4:15, 16), where the three independent pronouns (‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘he’) keep resurfacing repeatedly, but most English and Chinese translations prefer to overlook these seemingly tedious pronouns for the sake of better readability. The Lord first reassured Moses, ‘And I, I shall be with your mouth and with his mouth’, and then He went on to explain, ‘And he will speak, he for you to the people, and it is he, he will be for you a mouth, and you, you will be for him God’. The final clause is no doubt a literary metaphor we all recognize, but these independent pronouns also help us to realize one fact. In the Exodus event, the Lord (‘I’), Moses (‘you’), and Aaron (‘he’) were an integral team; together the three of them fulfilled the salvation promise in the history of the people of Israel.

The Old Testament never wants to glorify a singular heroic figure. ‘Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses’ (Deuteronomy 34:10)? Not exactly. The Lord has specifically said to Moses, ‘I will raise up a prophet like you from among their brothers.’ (Deuteronomy 18:18) These two Biblical verses (from the same book!) are not contradictory statements, but the paradoxical facets of one truth.

 

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