“What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2). This is what God asked Moses when he told God that the people would not believe him and his words. Moses did not have anything special in his hand. He did not have the sceptre of a king or the sword of an army commander. Neither did he have the powerful pen of an accomplished writer nor the magic wand of a magician who can keep people spellbound with amazing performance. All that Moses had was the staff of a shepherd, a sign and symbol of his low status as a shepherd. Though in his mind it was meant just for the sheep, in God’s mind it had greater functions.
When Moses put it on the ground according to the divine command, it became a snake (Ex. 4:3). This was a sign that Moses had to perform before his people and Pharaoh. One may wonder why God chose the shepherd’s staff to transform to a serpent and not any other creature! The sign God wanted Moses to perform before Pharaoh was a sign that is comprehensible and meaningful to Pharaoh. In the Egyptian religious thought, the serpent is the symbol of royal and divine authority and the image of the serpent was inscribed in the diadem of Pharaoh. Thus, the staff that Moses held in his hand, in the eyes of Pharaoh, was the powerful symbol of his divine authority. It devouring the serpents of the Egyptian magicians proves the unquestionable dominion of the God of Moses over the gods of Pharaoh.
The second sign that God entrusted Moses to perform was equally powerful. When Moses put his hand inside his cloak, it became white as a leper’s hand (Ex. 4:6). It is believed that the Egyptians considered the Hebrews as despicable as “a nation of lepers.” Besides, in their slavery the Hebrews might have become so degraded and unclean like lepers. Thus leprous hand of Moses symbolized the miserable state of the Hebrews. However, when Moses put his hand inside his cloak again, the hand was cured. The sign, thus, powerfully manifests God’s plan and power to save the Hebrews from their present abominable condition.
Moses and Aaron asked Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to go to worship their God in the wilderness (Ex. 5:3). The request they made was not something innocuous. That Pharaoh reacted furiously to the Hebrews proves that their demand was offensive to Pharaoh on different grounds, one of which was religio-political. Pharaoh was king by divine right. By claiming that they have a different God, Hebrews were virtually saying that the god of Pharaoh was not acceptable to them. If the Hebrews do not accept the god of Pharaoh, nor do they have the obligation to acknowledge the authority of Pharaoh who wields authority in the name of that god. That way, the move of the Hebrews to worship God in the wilderness may have appeared subversive to Pharaoh.
Pharaoh too reacts with the same defiance to the God of Hebrews. He explicitly states that he does not know the God of Hebrews. The God of Hebrews is too small to catch the attention of the ruler of the Egyptian empire! With insolent defiance Pharaoh refuses the demand of Moses and Aaron to allow the Hebrews to worship their God. Moreover, in an open rebellion against the God of Hebrews Pharaoh decrees that the burden of the Hebrews should be increased.
Pharaoh’s logic is that people think of their gods and worship because they are lazy and they have free time. Hence Pharaoh designs strategies to make people more productive. He compels the Hebrews to make the same amount of bricks with additional work of collecting the hey (Ex. 5:7-9). The new working conditions have caused enormous pressure on the Hebrews. When they finish the day’s work, they too are almost finished. They had no energy left to think about family or believe in God or hope for a new future. The little time left was too little for sufficient sleep. They produced bricks; but they lacked the building blocks for a healthy body, happy family, sound religion, and secure life. Paradoxically, as the Hebrews’ productivity increased their life became barren.
Every society where people are simply tied to their workplace obligations either under pressure or motivated by greed, calls for a Moses who can convince people of their identity as the people of God and to help them to journey together as a community to realize their God given goal through a meaningful life.