Torah Portion of the Week: God’s Spokesman

Parashat Va’eira.

"Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh" by François II de Dinteville (1537).
Wikimedia Commons

The Ten Plagues are intended to demonstrate God’s power to Egypt – and to Israel. To that end, God prevents Pharaoh from immediately acquiescing to his demands: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst” (Exodus 7:3-5). A circle is created: Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites; God inflicts a plague on him and his people. Some of the time, Pharaoh adamantly refuses and God inflicts an additional plague. Other times, Pharaoh promises to free the Israelites and put an end to the suffering but, when the plague passes, he once again becomes intransigent, whereupon God reacts by delivering yet another plague, and so on. However, in order to describe this circle properly, we must take into account a third player, who mediates between God and Pharaoh: Moses.

Parashat Va’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35) opens with God’s revelation to Moses. Originally, this was apparently an alternate to the description that appears in Parashat Shemot, which was read last week; however, both descriptions are included in the Torah and appear in sequence. God’s revelation in this week’s portion serves to reappoint Moses as the leader who must demand, in the name of the Almighty, that Pharaoh release Israel from Egypt. This time, too, Moses tries to get out of this job. This initial refusal is a set pattern in the appointment of biblical prophets. God’s proposed solution to Moses’ refusal teaches us something about Moses’ superior qualities and about the prophet’s role in general.

In both readings, Moses argues that a physical impediment prevents him from being a prophet. In last week’s portion, he says, “I have never been a man of words... I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exod. 4:10). In this week’s, he argues: “See, I am of impeded speech; how then should Pharaoh heed me!” (Exod. 6:30). God appoints Aaron, Moses’ brother, as his spokesman. It’s a bizarre solution because the prophet is already serving as a spokesman – God’s spokesman. Who needs a spokesman who requires a spokesman? If Aaron is a “man of words,” why does God not appoint him his prophet rather than Moses?

Both weekly readings describe the role of the “spokesman’s spokesman” by means of an analogy illustrating the modularity of the relationships between God, the prophet and the prophet’s audience. In Shemot, God tells Moses, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth – I will be with you and with him as you speak and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him” (Exod. 4:14-16). Similarly, God tells Moses in Va’eira, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land” (Exod. 7:1-2).

This is a somewhat surprising analogy: God seems to be appointing Moses as a god. However, the text does not actually claim that Moses is a god but uses the term “god” in a relative sense: Relative to God, Moses is a prophet; relative to Aaron and Pharaoh, Moses is a god. Aaron is Moses’ spokesman or prophet – the spokesman of a human “god” who is God’s spokesman. The question remains: Why another intermediary link, in addition to the fundamental intermediary link – the prophet?

In his article “Between Justice and Mercy: The Prayer of the Prophets” (in Hebrew), Yochanan Muffs shows that the biblical prophet is not only God’s emissary to Israel but also – and just as importantly – Israel’s emissary to God. In the cases of the sins of the Golden Calf and the spies, notes Muffs, God, who is enraged, seeks to annihilate Israel, and Moses dissuades him from doing so. But Moses assumes the same role in Egypt – not as Israel’s, but as Egypt’s, representative before God.

During the plague of the frogs, Pharaoh begs Moses and Aaron, “Plead with the Lord to remove the frogs from me and my people” (Exod. 8:4). Moses alone does the pleading: “Moses cried out to the Lord in the matter of the frogs which he had inflicted upon Pharaoh” (8:8). The Torah adds: “And the Lord did as Moses asked; the frogs died” (Exod. 8:9). In the plague of swarms of wild beasts, Pharaoh begs Moses and Aaron, “Plead, then, for me” (8:24). Here Moses is also the one who prays and whose prayers are immediately answered: “So Moses pleaded with the Lord. And the Lord did as Moses asked: He removed the swarms of beasts from Pharaoh, from his courtiers, and from his people” (8:26-27). Similarly, in the plague of hail, Pharaoh beseeches Moses and Aaron: “Plead with the Lord” (9:28); Moses alone does the pleading and is answered: “Moses spread out his hands to the Lord: the thunder and the hail ceased” (9:33). After the plague of locusts: “‘plead with the Lord your God’ So he [Moses] pleaded with the Lord” (10:17-18).

The struggle between God and Pharaoh has been described here as a circle: demand for liberation, refusal, plague, agreement to free Israel, additional refusal, another plague. With some of the plagues, refusal leads to another plague without the intermediate stages – agreement, cessation of plague, refusal. When the intermediate stages exist, they include another component: Moses’ prayer for Pharaoh. The text repeatedly shows God ending a plague not because of Pharaoh’s insincere agreement to free Israel, but as a direct result of Moses’ prayer: “And the Lord did as Moses asked.”

In contrast with his stubborn reluctance to represent God before Pharaoh, Moses readily accepts the Egyptian leader’s repeated requests that he represent him before God. Perhaps that is why God appoints Moses, not Aaron, as his prophet, despite his limited rhetorical capabilities. Although eloquent speech is a vital quality for bringing the divine word to mortals, God seeks a prophet who can bring before him the words of mortals – even mortals God wants to defeat. For this job, other qualities are needed, and apparently Moses has them.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.