MOSES, MESSENGER OF WEAKNESS 
 
by David C. Deuel
Joni and Friends Christian Institute on Disability
United States
Excerpt from Disability in Mission: The Church’s Hidden Treasure
Used by permission

We too often expect that weakness leads to failure and strength to success. In God’s missions, he inverts this paradigm, turning weakness into success and strength into failure. God’s enabling is the pivot, which he himself sets in motion. Humility, dependency and faithfulness in the face of disability and suffering beat all human odds. God, using the full resources of his creation, always completes his mission. Exodus 3–15 chronicles Moses’ journey from weakness to enablement, as God turns creation upside down to make Moses’ mission successful.

God often uses people to accomplish his plans. Christ-followers are his agents in this world, sometimes referred to in Scripture as his ‘messengers.’ In power, God’s messengers deliver his words and perform his works. Joseph and Moses stand tall as Israel’s first two national messengers. They conduct back-to-back missions as God works out his plan of redemption. Joseph’s mission takes him from Israel to Egypt; Moses’ mission from Egypt back to the Promised Land. Israel, an entire nation, goes with them. In worshipful reflection, the psalmist praises God for sending both leaders to his people, for this is how the Lord remembers his covenant. ‘Remembering’ means planning, and then taking action to provide for and protect his people. Think of how this worked out when God sent Joseph ahead into Egypt. Years later, God would use Joseph to rescue his people from a devastating famine in Israel. Similarly, the Lord sent Moses to rescue his people from Egyptian persecution.

God Sets Up the Exodus

Through the cruelty and deception of Joseph’s brothers, God deploys Joseph to Egypt to make him a leader of the great Egyptian empire in advance of a devastating famine. When crops begin to fail, Joseph blesses the Egyptians with his God-given wisdom, preserving them and his own people from starving. On the day that Joseph’s brothers finally come before him to beg his forgiveness for selling him as a slave into Egypt, Joseph tells them, ‘It was not you who sent me here, but God’ (Genesis 45:8). And later, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good’ (Genesis 50:20). The good that God intended was Israel’s preservation during a time of regional famine. God’s plan included his growing a small clan of families into a large and powerful nation. God’s missions typically accomplish many aspects of his plan all at once.

Israel’s exodus and its annual celebration, the Passover, are foundational in Scripture. The celebration of Passover is taken up in every historic period, and practically every book of Scripture. Later biblical writers look back to it in each generation, even into the New Testament, when Jesus’ contemporaries freely identify him as a second Moses. These events and the subsequent giving of God’s law formed Israel’s foundation as a nation. That makes Moses’ story special. Moses stands out as the most extraordinary human leader in the Old Testament. No one surpasses him. The book of Deuteronomy closes with this reflection on his life:

Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10–12)

Conspicuously absent from this glowing reflection on Moses’ leadership is any mention of his power of speech. Moses performs the mighty acts of God, the magnificent signs and wonders of his day; but he only speaks to God, to Aaron and to a few others that we know of. Leaders of Moses’ magnitude normally make moving and impressive speeches, public proclamations and royal edicts. Why is nothing said about Moses’ spoken messages? Moses’ life is a story of weakness associated with slow speech and heavy tongue. Whether this was a specific disability has been contested by theologians and somewhat depends on one’s definition of disability. Using a functional and inclusive definition (see introduction) his issue seemingly has many characteristics of a disability leading him to avoid speaking in public. For the purposes of this chapter we refer to this limitation as a disability.

Moses initially declined God’s commission, using this speech disability as an excuse. Yet, God reminds Moses that he both gave him his disability and chose him to be his messenger to Egypt. That is why Moses’ mission in weakness might seem paradoxical until we grasp that weakness is the occasion for God’s enablement. In the end, Moses led the exodus from Egypt, the crowning event in the Old Testament, with a disability; a true messenger of weakness.

Moses Declines God’s Commission

The wisest teachers in Pharaoh’s court trained Moses to rule as an Egyptian leader, perhaps even as a Pharaoh. In contrast, God chose to teach Moses to shepherd his people in the ignobility of the wilderness. Moses’ zeal for God’s people and his humility before the Lord were essential character qualifications. But crucially, it was God himself who selected and trained Moses. There was no screening process with multiple candidates. Moses was destined in the eternal plan of God to lead the mission. God makes no mistakes. Moses’ disability was no mistake.

One day, Moses was tending his sheep near Mount Sinai, the very place where God would later give him the law. As Moses led his sheep into new pastures to graze, the Lord’s angel appeared to him in a burning bush and began speaking to him. After instructing Moses about God’s holiness, the angel commissioned the prophet to go as a messenger to Pharaoh, the Egyptians and to God’s people. As God’s agent, Moses must perform God’s mighty acts of judgment in Egypt. But the humble shepherd, weak in speech, must also speak God’s messages. Moses panicked.

Courageously, Moses was willing to perform the plagues against the Egyptian slave masters and was not afraid to die for the mission. But because of his speech problem, he questioned his ability to complete God’s mission, and declined his assignment. It is unclear exactly why speech was Moses’ weakness. Commentators speculate about the cause. But one thing is certain: God responds as if Moses’ inability is a dis-ability. How do we know this?

When God responds to Moses’ refusal, his answer is striking: ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’ (Exodus 4:11). The words deaf, mute, sighted and blind all indicate physical disabilities.[1]The four terms play a crucial role in interpreting the passage. Moses is not afraid to speak; he just doesn’t think he can.

Moses’ reasons for not delivering God’s messages might sound straightforward, but Moses subtly crafts his response to blame God for his disability.

God Enables Moses

God’s response in Exodus 4:11 doesn’t just shed light on Moses’ disability; it also reveals something about God’s relationship to disability. Wouldn’t we expect God to say, ‘Who makes those unable to speak, able to speak?’ God has a fuller understanding of Moses’ limitations than Moses does. This verse addresses God as the one who assigns disabilities, and sets the stage for his helping people with disabilities through his people. In Moses’ case the helper will be Aaron. Yes, God teaches his servant that he is the God of ability! God will provide for Moses; Moses only needs to trust and obey.

God is not just the cause of disability, but the upholder, enabler and final rescuer of people with disabilities. To see God as responsible is very different from blaming God for disability, which would be a serious error. The prophets echo God’s role: ‘In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away and those whom I have afflicted’ (Micah 4:6 ESV). This again reminds us that God assumes sovereign responsibility for those with disability; and it brings assurance that he will one day heal them. As the psalmist proclaims, ‘The Lord gives sight to the blind . . . ’ (Psalm 146:8).

In the book of 2 Samuel we read of Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth, who had a physical disability and felt alone and abandoned. Not only did he lose his entire family, but he was unable to provide for himself in a world that relied on physical labour to survive. In faithfulness, God used King David to provide for him. David also protected him from enemies who wanted to kill him for misdeeds that his grandfather Saul committed. Not only did God provide for and protect him, but Mephibosheth sat at the royal table with David’s family. David even assigned managers to care for Mephibosheth’s fields so that he could enjoy the dignity of human labour and success. And so we see again how God meets the needs of people with disabling conditions through others. Fittingly here, God chose a king to care for an orphan with a disabling condition.

If God calls us to serve in his mission, he will enable us. And if he gives us a mission assignment, he also empowers us for the task. For those who have a disability, as 80 percent of us will as we age, this passage brings reassurance. Disability should not keep us from experiencing the joy of serving God. What is more, our greatest joy in serving God may come from helping others with their disabilities, as David and Job did. Might we say with Job, ‘I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame’ (Job 29:15). Perhaps Jobs have been the hand of God to many people with disabling conditions throughout history.

Why would the God of all power create Moses with a disability and commission him, rather than heal his disability? Wouldn’t that have been easier than wrangling with him about how he could do what God asked him to?

God Holds Up the Arms of Moses

When God responded to Moses’ refusal, he explained his role in helping those with disability. In short, the Lord challenged Moses to look beyond his speech limitations to the ways God enabled him, even through others. God said, ‘I will help you speak and will teach you what to say’ (4:12). Moses would then ‘put words in his [brother Aaron’s] mouth’ (Exodus 4:15). Amazingly, this was how Israel would hear the voice of God for a period of over forty years. What God limits in each of us he provides through other people.

How far will God go? He will unleash all of creation! God also sent his angel, his own mysterious presence, to accompany Moses on every step. It was the angel who assisted Moses in performing the plagues against Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. The angel gave Moses the power to engage all of God’s creation against those who oppressed and mistreated God’s people. One by one, the plagues pummeled the Egyptian enemies who had murdered Israelite infant boys and beaten the Jews into building Egypt’s infrastructure. All creation bowed before the Lord. The angel, who commissioned Moses at the burning bush, never left his side until the mission of leading the people to the Promised Land was complete. Like Moses, who could not enter the land flowing with milk and honey, the angel stopped on the plains of Moab before the people entered their land.

Finally, we would miss an important detail in the Moses story if we did not ask whose plan it was for Aaron to be Moses’ spokesman. God proposed the solution, not Moses. Moses had refused God’s mission because no workable solution was obvious, but God’s answer was that Aaron be the mouth of Moses for the voice of God. Through difficult conversations with God, Moses agreed to receive God’s messages. But God still needed Moses to conduct one final mission—to compose and sing his praises and lead others in songs of praise.

Moses Praises God in Song

God put songs in Moses’ heart despite his speech disability. In two passages of Scripture, we are told that the prophet composed and sang praises to God in worship. That’s right. Moses could sing before others, but not speak to them. Moses’ compositions, the Song of the Sea and the Song of Moses, are two of the finest lyric poems in Scripture. So while he found it impossible to speak to people, he ministered to them beautifully and courageously in the words of the songs he wrote. Moses recited the following song ‘from beginning to end in the hearing of the whole assembly of Israel’ (Deuteronomy 31:30).

Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;

hear, you earth, the words of my mouth.

Let my teaching fall like rain

and my words descend like dew,

like showers on new grass,

like abundant rain on tender plants.

I will proclaim the name of the Lord.

Oh, praise the greatness of our God!

He is the Rock, his works are perfect,

and all his ways are just.

A faithful God who does no wrong,

upright and just is he.(Deuteronomy 32:1–4)

It’s interesting that Moses used the terms ‘speak,’ ‘words of my mouth,’ and ‘proclaim.’ It’s as if he was saying ‘Look at me! God has given me a voice to speak!’

Conclusion

It is striking that the man closest to God was the least able to communicate his experience to others.[2]Moses’ disability did not prevent God from using him. This is weakness pressed into service. Significantly, God (to whom Moses had no trouble speaking) never offered to cure Moses’ speech disability. But Moses could capture the beautiful connection between praise and poetic art. He had a disability; he also had a gift.

God performed mighty acts through Moses’ disability. In time, and through suffering, Moses eventually became the servant God called him to be. This reluctant messenger gave Israel God’s perfect law and also built the first earthly tabernacle, so that God could dwell among his people. It was through Moses that God spoke Israel’s official statement of faith: ‘I forgive wickedness, rebellion, and sin’ (see Exodus 34:7). To this day, God’s people remember Moses as God’s prophet, teacher and national leader. As God enabled his hesitant messenger, God will enable us too—very often in and through our suffering, disabilities and weaknesses.

God can perform mighty acts through our disabilities. Paradoxically, in weakness, we can ask God to enable us with his unlimited power and wisdom. Our weakness magnifies God’s greatness.

 

[1]C L Seow, A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 21.

[2]William C Propp, Exodus 1-18 (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 211.

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