5.11. “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10-12)

 (10) But Moses said to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

(11) And the Lord said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?

(12) Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.”

(10) But Moses said to the Lord, “Please, O Lord”: Even after so much intense give-and-take between God and himself, Moses steadfastly continues to refuse the mission.

I have never been a man of words … I am slow of speech and slow of tongue: This does not mean, of course, that Moses is incapable of expressing himself clearly. The Torah quotes Moses again and again, and even records his lyric song on the shore of the Red Sea (15:1 ff.). Moreover, Moses at the very end of his life delivers an epic address, the entire book of Deuteronomy, whose name in Hebrew is Devarim, which means “Words.” It is thus clear that Moses can be “a man of words” after all. We will discuss this issue in detail – including Moses’ said transformation – in the introduction to our commentary on Deuteronomy.

Either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant: The literal translation is “Not only since yesterday, nor even the day before yesterday, nor even from the time that you first spoke to your servant.” The Midrash explains that for seven straight days God exhorted Moses to accept the mission of going to Egypt, but Moses adamantly refused.

I am slow of speech and slow of tongue: Here we see that when Moses says he has “never been a man of words,” there are actually two aspects to this: He is “slow of speech” (lips, mouth) and “slow of tongue.” Language exists at two distinct levels:

  • Language as internal content, an instrument for expressing concepts (this is lashon, which means “language,” but also “tongue,” the organ of the mouth).
  • Language as an external form of expression (this is safah, another word for “language,” which also means “lip”).

(See Bible Dynamics on Genesis, commentary to the story of the Tower of Babel [Gen 11:1 ff.] for further discussion).

In this verse, Moses is saying that he has difficulty with both of these aspects.

Rav A. I. Kook explains that we sometimes encounter a problem of self-expression at a high level, such that a person understands higher ideas, but is unable to express those ideas in images that someone else can understand. That is, he is “slow of tongue.”

A different problem occurs at a somewhat lower level, at which a non-verbal expression in a melody or image becomes possible, but words still fail, which means that the higher “slowness of tongue” has been overcome, but the person is still “slow of speech.” Only at a lower level does it become possible for the person to express his understanding in words.

(11-12) And the Lord said to him, “Who gives man speech? … I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say”: Moses’ speech disorders are not a shortcoming, but a virtue. These impairments are necessary in order for the Torah to be faithfully transmitted through him. Under these circumstances, rather than embellishing God’s words with his own ideas, Moses will transmit neither more nor less than what the Almighty actually commands him to say.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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