The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus

Author: Louis Ginzberg

Moses Punished for His Stubbornness

In spite of all these safeguards, Moses was not yet ready to accept the mission God wished to impose upon him. He persisted in urging his fears, saying: "But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice, for they will say, ’The Lord hath not appeared unto thee.[] And the Lord said unto him, "What is that in thine hand?" And he said, "A rod." And the Lord said: "Thou deservest to be castigated with it. If thou didst not intend to take My mission upon thyself, thou shouldst have said so in the beginning. Instead, thou didst hold back with thy refusal, until I revealed to thee the great secret of the Ineffable Name, that thou mightest know it if the children of Israel should ask thee concerning it. And now thou sayest, I will not go. Now, therefore, if thou wilt not execute My charge to thee, it will be executed by this rod. It was My wish to distinguish thee and make thee My instrument for doing many miracles.[131] But thou deservest a punishment for having suspected My children of lack of faith. The children of Israel are believers and sons of believers, but thou wilt show thyself of little faith in thy career, and as thou followest the example of the slanderous serpent, so shalt thou be punished with leprosy, wherewith the serpent was punished."

The Lord now bade Moses put his hand into his bosom and take it out again, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, as white as snow. And God bade him put his hand into his bosom again, and it turned again as his other flesh. Beside being a chastisement for his hasty words, the plague on his hand was to teach him that as the leper defiles, so the Egyptians defiled Israel, and as Moses was healed of his uncleanness, so God would cleanse the children of Israel of the pollution the Egyptians had brought upon them.

The second wonder connected with the rod of Moses likewise conveyed a double meaning, in that it pointed to the coming redemption of Israel, and taught Moses a specific lesson. At the bidding of God, Moses cast his rod on the ground, and it became a serpent, to show him that when he traduced Israel, he was following the example of the abusive serpent, and also to show him that the great dragon that lieth in the midst of the rivers of Egypt, though he was now hacking into Israel with his teeth, would be rendered harmless like the rod of wood, which has no power to bite.

And, again, through the third miracle he was bidden to perform, God conveyed to Moses what would happen in the latter years of his own life. The sign He gave him was to make known to him that, before the water came, blood would flow from the rock at Meribah, when Moses should strike it after uttering the hasty, impatient words that were destined to bring death down upon him.[132]

For seven days God urged Moses to undertake the mission He desired him to execute. He resorted to persuasion, that the heathen might not say, that He abused His power as the Ruler of the world, forcing men to do His service against their will. But Moses remained obdurate, he could not be won over.[133] He said: "Thou doest a wrong unto me in sending me to Pharaoh. In the palace of the Egyptian king there are persons that know how to speak the seventy languages of the world. No matter what language a man may use, there is someone that understands him. If I should come as Thy representative, and they should discover that I am not able to converse in the seventy languages, they will mock at me, and say, ’Behold this man, he pretends to be the ambassador of the Creator of the world, and he cannot speak the seventy languages.’ " To this God made reply, as follows: "Adam, who was taught by none, could give names to the beasts in the seventy languages. Was it not I that made him to speak?"[134]

Moses was not yet satisfied, he continued to urge objections, and he said: "O Lord of the world, Thou wouldst charge me with the task of chastising Egypt and redeeming Israel, and I am ready to be Thy messenger. But is it seemly that a man should execute two errands at once? Nay, my Lord, for this two men are needed." God made answer, and said, "Moses, I know well whom thou hast in mind with thy request, to be thy companion in the mission I assign to thee. Know, therefore, that the holy spirit hath already come upon thy brother Aaron, and even now he is awaiting thee on the way of Egypt, and when his eyes rest upon thee he will rejoice."

Furthermore God spake to Moses, saying, "When I appeared unto thee the first time, thou wast meek, and didst hide thy face, not to see the vision. Whence cometh now this effrontery of thine, that thou addressest Me as a servant his master? Thou speakest too many words by far. Perchance thou thinkest I have no messengers, hosts, seraphim, ofanim, ministering angels, and Merkabah wheels, to send to Egypt, to bring My children thence, that thou sayest, ’Send by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send.’ In sooth, thou deservest severe chastisement. But what can I do, seeing that I am the Master of mercy? If thou escapest unpunished, thou owest it to thy father Amram, who rendered great services in behalf of the preservation of the Israelitish people in Egypt."

But Moses replied: "O Lord of the world, I a prophet and the son of a prophet obeyed Thy words only after much hesitation, and I cannot expect Pharaoh, a wicked man and the son of a wicked man, and the Egyptians, a disobedient people and the sons of a disobedient people, to give ear to my words. O Lord of the world, Thou dost send me to Egypt to redeem sixty myriads of Thy people from the oppression of the Egyptians. If it were a question of delivering a couple of hundred men, it were a sufficiently difficult enterprise. How much severer is the task of freeing sixty myriads from the dominion of Pharaoh! If Thou hadst called upon the Egyptians to give up their evil ways soon after they began to enslave Israel, they might have heeded Thy admonitions. But if I should go and speak to them now, after they have been ruling over Israel these two hundred and ten years, Pharaoh would say, ’If a slave has served his master for ten years, and no protest has made itself heard from any quarter, how can a man conceive the idea suddenly of having him set at liberty?’ Verily, O Lord of the world, the task Thou puttest upon me is too heavy for my strength."[135]

Moses said furthermore: "I am not an eloquent man, nor can I see of what avail words can be in this matter. Thou art sending me to one that is himself a slave, to Pharaoh of the tribe of Ham, and a slave will not be corrected by words. I consent to go on Thy errand only if Thou wilt invest me with the power of chastising Pharaoh with brute force." To these words spoken by Moses, God made reply: "Let it not fret thee that thou art not an eloquent speaker. It is I that made the mouth of all that speak, and I that made men dumb. One I make to see, another I make blind; one I make to hear, another I make deaf. Had I willed it so, thou hadst been a man of ready speech. But I desired to show a wonder through thee. Whenever I will it, the words I cast into thy mouth shall come forth without hesitation. But what thou sayest about a slave, that he cannot be corrected by words, is true, and therefore I give thee My rod for Pharaoh’s castigation."

But Moses still stood his ground. He raised other objections. "His grandchild," he said, "is closer to a man than his nephew. Nevertheless when Lot was taken captive, Thou didst send angels to the aid of Abraham’s nephew. But now, when the life of sixty myriads of Abraham’s lineal descendants is at stake, Thou sendest me, and not the angels. When the Egyptian bondwoman Hagar was in distress, Thou didst dispatch five angels to stand by her, and to redeem sixty myriads of the children of Sarah Thou dost dispatch me.[136] O Lord, send, I pray Thee, by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send in days to come." To this God answered, saying, "I said not that I would send thee to Israel, but to Pharaoh, and that one whom thou madest mention of, I will send to Israel at the end of days—Elijah will appear to them before the great and terrible day."[137]

If Moses refused to do the errand of the Lord, there was a reason. God had revealed to him the treasures of the Torah, of wisdom, and of knowledge, and the whole world’s future. Now he beheld in the inner chamber of God rows of scholars and judges interpreting the Torah in fortynine different ways as they sat in the court of hewn stones; and he saw, besides, Rabbi Akiba explaining the meaning of the crowns upon the letters. Then said Moses: "I do not care to be God’s messenger. Let Him rather send one of these great scholars." Then God ordered the Angel of Wisdom to carry Moses to a place of myriads of scholars, all interpreting the Torah, and all making use of the formula: This is a Halakah revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Now Moses recognized that even the greatest scholars of future generations would be dependent upon him, and then, at last, he was ready to execute the mission God desired to lay upon him.[138]

But Moses had to pay dear for having hesitated in the execution of the Divine bidding. God said to him: "It was appointed that thou shouldst be priest, and Aaron should be the Levite. Because thou hast refused to execute My will, thou shalt be the Levite, and Aaron shall be priest,"—a punishment that did not fall upon Moses personally, but only upon his descendants, all of whom are Levites. As for himself, he performed a priest’s service in the Tabernacle.[139]

Moses had said to God, "Thou hast been speaking to me now these many days, nevertheless I am still slow of speech and of a slow tongue." For this he received another punishment. God said to him: "I might change thee into a new man, and heal thee of thy imperfect speech, but because thou hast uttered such words, I refrain from curing thee."[140]


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Chicago: Louis Ginzberg, "Moses Punished for His Stubbornness," The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, trans. Rodwell, J. M. in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus Original Sources, accessed January 20, 2019,

MLA: Ginzberg, Louis. "Moses Punished for His Stubbornness." The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, translted by Rodwell, J. M., in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, Original Sources. 20 Jan. 2019.

Harvard: Ginzberg, L, 'Moses Punished for His Stubbornness' in The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, trans. . cited in , The Legends of the Jews—Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus. Original Sources, retrieved 20 January 2019, from