#88. Does Yahweh command Moses to perform the signs before the elders of Israel OR before Pharaoh? (Ex 3:16, 4:1, 4:8 vs Ex 4:21)


The opening chapters of Exodus display narrative inconsistencies, doublets, differing styles and vocabulary, and indeed contradictions that have continuously led scholars to reaffirm the text’s composite nature. Having said that, it is difficult to assign with certainty some of these passages to the Elohist or Yahwist source. P remains clear; but since the Elohist now starts to use the divine name Yahweh, seeing that it has now been revealed, this feature no longer separates the Yahwist and Elohist textual traditions from this point forward, and the task of distinguishing the two becomes more difficult.

Nevertheless, Exodus’ variant textual traditions have Yahweh commanding Moses to perform the staff into snake sign in front of the elders as a sign, and, on the other hand, in front of Pharaoh as a sign. The two indeed occur in the combined narrative, but this clearly is not how one of the sources originally conceived of this.

For example, in the tradition that has Yahweh command Moses to perform these sings in front of the elders of Israel, it is specifically stated that Yahweh gives these signs to Moses for this and only this purpose: “so that they will believe that Yahweh their fathers’ god, Abraham’s god, Isaac’s god, and Jacob’s god appeared to you [Moses]” (4:5). In other words Yahweh devises these signs for this purpose.

Besides the brief mention in Exodus 4:21, which might be an editorial insert, the other passage that claims that the signs are for Pharaoh, Exodus 7:8-12, comes from P. It is quite possible that the P source never had Yahweh commanding to produce these signs in front of the elders of Israel, but only for Pharaoh. There are some other interesting differences going on between E and P that we will examine shortly as well.

Lastly although Exodus 4:1-15 has Yahweh commanding to Moses that he, Moses, perform these signs in front of the elders so that they believe him, and although Aaron is brought on board because Moses is less than competent in his speech (4:10-15), so Aaron is to speak to the people, it is nevertheless Aaron who performs the signs in front of the elders (4:30)! Aaron both speaks and performs the signs! Aaron is the Priestly writers’ forefather so to speak, and throughout the remainder of Exodus we will see places where Aaron starts to subvert the role of Moses in one particular textual tradition, P’s.

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