There’s really no way to know how many hours I’ve spent in Exodus 3 and 4 – that little stretch of Scripture where God pulls Moses into the fold of the great exodus he wants to pull off. It’s safe to settle somewhere around “a whole lot.” I’ve always held Moses’ calling close to my chest. This opposed to, say, Joseph’s calling. When his came in a dream, he woke with starry eyes and a pleasant sigh and got right to it. Long before he got his coat of many colors, that fella was dressed to the nines in confidence. But not Moses. A bush that burns but never burns up? The voice spilling out from it – one like the thunder of rushing waters or the blast of a trumpet? That voice attached to someone who seemed to know Moses more than Moses knew himself? All of this and yet when the call came, this from Moses: “‘Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.’” All of this and yet when the call came, this from Moses: “Oh, my Lord, can you not see the cracks? Let me name them for you.”
For years Moses’ reply always struck me as his listing one of the chief reasons God ought to look elsewhere when enlisting help: His speech impediment (whether that be base ineloquence or something more extensive, like a stutter or a stammer). Perhaps that’s exactly what Moses’ reply is – a pushback at the enlisting process. But what happens immediately before his pointing out his brokenness makes me think he’s offering more than a pushback. Could it be an invitation?
Just a moment before Moses replies to God’s call, he casts down his shepherd’s staff (at God’s request) and marvels as it squirms into a snake. He marvels again when he catches the thing by its tail (at God’s request) and it once again straightens into a staff. And as if these miracles weren’t quite enough, God uses Moses’ cloak as a vaudeville magician uses an old top hat: In goes Moses’ perfectly healthy hand, and out it comes leprous (and back in it goes leprous, and out it comes healthy). How could Moses not be stunned speechless by it all? And is it possible his speechlessness reminds him just how speechless he often is because of a tied tongue? And did he wonder to himself, If God can make a snake of a staff (and back again), and turn a healthy hand leprous (and back again), what can he do with this mouth of mine?
“Oh, my Lord, can you not see the cracks? Let me name the biggest for you. You know – that you might patch it up before we head off to Egypt.”
But how the conversation goes from here is frustrating, to say the least.
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.’”
The second half of God’s response almost seems to promise a “patching up” at some later date. But the second half is servant to the first, and the first half of God’s response sounds as if God was at peace with letting Moses grow up with a tied tongue. And look again at the second half: There’s really no promise of a makeover, but rather the promise of presence and instruction. And so here is where Moses offers pushback (because the invitation seems to have been rejected): “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” And God’s response is even more devastating than the first: “‘Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. … You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth. … He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth.’” How about this? God further withholds a “patching up” of Moses, while also acknowledging Aaron’s exceling at where Moses does not. It had to have been maddening to Moses – as maddening as it is for us, when God does the same in our circumstances of calling.
Maddening and necessary, of course.
Can you imagine what would have happened should God have accepted Moses’ invitation to touch his tongue and make him preacher of preachers, debater of debaters, prophet of prophets? When you think on the possibilities, they’re a bit terrifying. Though he certainly had a difficult forty years in there, Moses’ reputation grew in power in the years to follow – up to and including the years God walked the earth in flesh. How many times do the religious leaders rail against Jesus with a terse, “Well, Moses said…” Consider the crowds that followed him: “And now are you finally going to give us bread just as Moses did?” And you really do wonder if Peter’s desire to throw up a few tents on the mountain was more in response to Moses showing up than Jesus having shown his glory like never before. Why else would God have to poke the stubborn disciple a bit to listen to Jesus above any other? There was a marked elevation of Moses – and this despite that crack right down the middle that came in the form of a tied tongue. And so what if a further “patching up” had been done? What if on top of everything else, Moses had been granted the ability to speak as if he had the tongue of an angel? Could Moses’ elevation ever have been overcome, so that one greater could be lifted higher still?
But really, we’re getting ahead of ourselves to jump right to New Testament times. Can you imagine what would have happened should God have accepted Moses’ invitation to touch his tongue and gift him with stirring speech just in time for his meeting with Israel’s elders? Remember God’s overall aim: “‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land.’” And remember what God wants Israel’s elders to say after their meeting with Moses: “‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us.’” And whose glory is it that God wants Pharaoh and all the people of Egypt to tremble before? I’ll ask it again: What if a further “patching up” had been done? Could Moses’ elevation ever have been overcome, so that one greater could be lifted higher still? It seems to me that if the patching up had come, there was a far greater chance the elders would have shouted, “The great Moses has come to us!” It’s more likely an entire people settled in a land of milk and honey years later would turn to their children and their children’s children and say, “The Lord heard our cries, and he sent us Moses – golden-tongued, wonder-working Moses.” Terrifying indeed.
I wonder: Is God’s rejection of Moses’ invitation for a bit of “patching up,” because God knows it will be at least a tad harder for a people to prop up a stammerer as their champion? Is it because he knows the elusiveness of eloquence might chase away hero worship? Some might scoff and turn up their noses at a God who would do such a thing, but we are talking about God here. He does have a bit more to offer us than any one man or woman. And so all the power to him to limit us to draw us to him all the more. All the power to him to do or not do what is needed, this so that the glory of who he is, is not trapped up in a much smaller me or you.
When Leonard Cohen died a few months ago, everyone was stumbling over themselves to quote the bard – and most were quick to toss around that really wonderful line from “Anthem”: “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” It’s worth repeating. But you tweak it a bit, and another newer line is worth repeating as well, because Cohen only got it half right: “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets out.”