Moses’ Uncircumcised Lips

Up to this point Moses has been a failure, at least with regard to accomplishing great things. His first attempt as a young man to defend his brothers by killing the Egyptian resulted in his fleeing into the desert. Here as an old man of 80, under divine coercion, he goes back to Egypt to deliver his brethren only to make matters worse for them. The drama builds up to the genealogy of Aaron and Moses (Ex. 6:14-25). One might wonder why a genealogy would be stuck into the narrative so as to disrupt the drama. This is, in fact, worth wondering about.

The genealogy is integral to the narrative in that it is bracketed by Moses’ strange and grotesque expression about being a man of uncircumcised lips (6:12 and 6:30). It is hard for the mind to follow this metaphor; it is obscene. It is one thing to follow the expression spiritually with regard to an “uncircumcised heart” (Deut. 10:16), but applied to the lips it is foul. Commentators, by and large, do not even touch upon it. We detect in this expression a shame and anger in Moses concerning his impediment. We have no idea how he dealt with it growing up in a very sophisticated environment where eloquence was no doubt admired in the educated class. It must have been very painful. He may even have been relieved to disappear in the wilderness where only the herds heard his voice. This is critical for us to ponder here, for it is through the very instrument of Moses shame and embarrassment, the very thing that pains him most in the depths of his soul, that becomes most important to God.

The text sets aside this personal frustration to establish Moses linage in the genealogy. Much can be said of this, but here we will simply say that it establishes Moses’ and Aaron’s legitimacy. Reuben’s and Simeon’s lines are truncated and are only mentioned because they are the first two sons of Jacob, and sets Levi in context as third son. What follows is three generations of Levi, who lives 137 years, taking us to Aaron and Moses through Kohath, who lives 133 years, and Amram, who lives 137 years. These years are made up of 3s, 7s and 100s, “perfect” numbers in combinations and multiples. We add these together with the 83 years of Aaron’s life which totals 490 years, and if we subtract the estimated time Levi dwelt in Canaan before he went down to Egypt with his family, we come to the number 430 years, the number we have in Ex. 12:40 for Israel in Egypt (Cassuto). This way of reckoning has more to do with the symbolic power of the numbers than exact calculation of years. The point is that God is the God of time and generations who fills out the details of all history, and acts at just the right moment, even though it seems to us that He sleeps through generations. As for Moses, he and his brother find themselves at the very point of God’s great act of salvation as His agents. This greatness is contrasted with Moses’ self shame about his speech impediment. The narrative concludes this section almost mocking him for complaining “Behold, I am a man of uncircumcised lips…” (6:30).

God reverses Moses’ shame into the highest of honors. It creates a relationship between him and Aaron that parallels the relationship between God and His prophets. Prophets are God’s mouthpieces. It is critical to see that Moses is not without the power of speech for he does speak to Pharaoh all that YHWH commands (7:2). The point is that Moses becomes like God to Pharaoh in that he has a prophet before him that does all his miraculous bidding. From this moment on, and for the first time in his 80 years of life, Moses’ uncircumcised lips no longer are an issue for him.

Practically every one of us has an issue that brings deep personal shame to us, something that torments our souls, and which we would like to hide. Even St. Paul himself struggle with such an impediment (II Cor. 12:7-10). However, when we see that this impediment is intentionally given to us for the very purpose of perfecting God’s work through us, then these old wounds and hurts become a non-issue. In fact, we stand back in amazement and see that the very thing that has brought us shame YHWH turns to our honor.

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