“Who am I?” and “Who are you?” were the first two responses Moses made to God’s revelation of himself and his plan at the Burning Bush. Now his reluctance is made increasingly clear with three further responses.
God had clearly said (3:18) that the elders would listen to him, but his experience 40 years earlier (2:14) and the fact that he would now be unknown to his people perhaps explains why Moses is not quick to trust God’s word. Graciously God gives him three signs. The fact that they are called signs (so verses 8-9) suggests they are more than mere magic tricks to wow the crowd, but they are significant, intended to instruct as well as astonish. A snake it seems was symbolic of Pharaoh’s power (his headdress was a cobras head); to grab a snake by the tail is the most dangerous place, but Moses would be demonstrating God’s sovereignty over Pharaoh exercised through him. If the snake spoke of what God would do to the Egyptians, what happens to Moses’ hand probably speaks of what God would do for his people: he would transform them, heal them, make holy what was unclean. The third is a preview of the first plague.
For all God’s power demonstrated in the signs, Moses feels his own weakness. His slowness of speech might refer to the fact that he feels his Egyptian and Hebrew is pretty rusty, or that he is not great orator, or might suggest some kind of speech impediment. God’s response is to shift the focus of Moses’ attention from himself to God. The creator God has made each of us as he intended, with whatever strengths and weaknesses, and our usefulness depends not on our giftedness but his enabling.
Now clearly his reluctance is shown to be a matter not simply of “I can’t” but “I won’t”, and the LORD is angry. And yet with wonderful mercy and patience, God provides someone to help with the very thing Moses most feels his weakness: speaking. Indeed God has foreseen the need and prepared for it: Aaron “is already on his way”.
This section marks a transition as the action moves back to Egypt, and the three incidents recorded, each in their own way, foreshadow what will happen in the rest of the book.
Moses leaves with his father-in-law’s blessing, but more importantly with further encouragement from the LORD. The importance of Israel as God’s firstborn son, and the cost to Pharaoh of his firstborn son, looks ahead to the Passover.
This is a strange incident. Having chosen his servant, God now tries to kill him! What this incident makes abundantly clear though is the importance of the covenant. The Israelites weren’t better than the Egyptians, the only thing that distinguished them, their only safety, was the covenant. Without that even Moses’ family wasn’t safe. The covenant is at the heart of the book (chapters 19-24) and its importance is absolutely crucial.
Relations between Moses and the Israelites would not always prove to be easy, but here is a foreshadowing the goal: God’s people united, and united in worship (“they bowed down and worshipped”). The final chapters of the book, describing the building of the tabernacle speak of that ultimate goal of all that God will do.
Each of these three little incidents in verses 18-31 foreshadow what will happen in the rest of the book.