Open Exodus 4:1-12.
Is the kingdom of God something we establish, or something God brings into being? That’s an important question. Exodus says it comes from God, and yet he acts in partnership with his people.
In Moses’ time, God established his representative kingdom among the nations. Abraham’s descendants were under oppressive earthly rule, so God’s intentions were “to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and broad land” (3:8).” He has hand-picked Moses as his agent for this task. Moses questioned whether he is the right person for the job (3:11), fearing Israel would not listen to him (3:13). The sovereign assures him that his problem will not be convincing Israel but convincing Pharaoh (3:18-19). Moses is unconvinced: “Look, they won’t believe me or listen to me” (4:1). I wonder if the monarch hears Moses’ disbelief as an insult.
Perhaps Moses does not doubt God’s power as much as his own. Hand is a keyword in this story. The Hebrew word yāḏ has a wide range of meanings. Literally, it can denote the hand, finger, or arm. Metaphorically, it can mean possession, power, control, or care. Moses has been stating his powerlessness, that he is unlikely to have any influence if he relays YHWH’s message. God asks him, “What’s in your hand?” (4:2) Moses could have taken the question metaphorically and answered, “My influence? I have a handful of sheep, but even they don’t belong to me.” Instead, he takes the question literally and replies, “A stick.” Either way, the response is the same: Moses says he has no influence or power over anything. Great armies stand behind Pharaoh’s power, and Moses has only a stick.
Actually, Moses is wrong about that. The great monarch has chosen Moses as his mouthpiece, so there is much more in Moses’ hand than he realises. The sovereign asks Moses to throw down the stick, so Moses has nothing at all in his hand. Moses lets go of his walking stick — the one familiar companion he has chosen for his wanderings. As it falls onto the holy ground of YHWH’s temple/palace in the wilderness, the stick takes on a life of its own. Out of his hand, it is no longer just a stick. Moses recoils in fear. The monarch instructs Moses to stretch out his hand and take it again. Never again will Moses look on it what is in his hand as just a stick. He now refers to it as “God’s stick,” the sceptre of the divine ruler (4:20).
Then the monarch shows Moses something else about his hand. Moses places his hand inside his cloak. Imagine the horror as Moses realizes it is now diseased (4:6). In the ancient world, fear of leprosy was more intense than fear of snakes, for leprosy forced you to live in isolation from the rest of the community. Moses knows these feelings: for 40 years he has lived in fear and in self-imposed exile. Does his diseased hand disqualify him from the task of facing Pharaoh? Or does his diseased hand strike fear into his enemies? Moses plunges the diseased hand back under his cloak. It is cleansed. Never again will Moses look at his hand as just a hand.
Moses is God’s agent. God’s power is in Moses’ hand. He gives Moses one more sign of what he can do with his hand: draw water from the Nile, and pour it out as blood (4:9). Forty years ago, the hand of Moses spilt blood on the Egyptian sand, and he fled in fear. This time the hand of Moses will prophetically enact the first of the mighty acts of YHWH to bring Pharaoh to his knees. Moses struck one Egyptian with the force of his own hand and killed him, but YHWH will strike Egypt with a mighty hand and bring Pharaoh to submission:
19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this revelation for the kingdom of God. The divine ruler himself will bring into submission the powers that resist his authority; it is not something that humans must do. Nevertheless, he calls human agents like Moses to declare his hand — to deliver the message on behalf of the heavenly ruler, and then to let God’s authority stand behind his agents.
Moses is ambassador of God’s kingdom to Egypt. He is the spokesman of the great ruler who is calling Pharaoh into line.
Would God be wiser not to trust his power into human hands?