Faith Does NOT Precede the Miracle
Faith Precedes the Miracle. “Signs shall follow them that believe” (Mark 16:17). You “receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). We are used to this fundamental principle of the gospel—that faith must be exercised before we see miracles in our lives. Well, hold the phone; back up the video; take a time out! What we are about to study breaks that rule. God has his reasons. But when it comes to God’s demonstration of power for the Israelites in Egypt, the saying should be miracles precedes faith; belief shall follow the demonstration of signs; and they will receive many witnesses without a trial of their faith!
Well, that doesn’t seem fair, but it sure explains what happens in Egypt and Sinai. The Lord promised the land of Canaan to the posterity of Abraham (Gen. 13:14-17), Isaac (Gen 28:13-15), and Jacob (Gen 35:12). How does that work when their collective posterity is enslaved in Egypt? In order to keep his covenants with the Patriarchs, the Lord had to get the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Nephi taught, “Behold, he loved our fathers, and he covenanted with them, yea, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he remembered the covenants which he had made; wherefore he did bring them out of the land of Egypt” (1 Ne. 17:40). For His own reasons, God makes a big show of the event. He is making a name for Himself—the God of Israel. He is showing that his power is greater than all the gods of Egypt. In a rare show of force, God is unusually demonstrative and punitive.
How does this take shape? Rather than wait for the people to believe in the prophet, God decides to prove that Moses has been chosen by signs and wonders. Rather than hope that the people believe that God is on their side, He proves it with plagues upon the enemies of Israel. Rather than softening Pharaoh’s heart to let the people go on the first request, God hardens his heart (if you dare believe it possible) so that He can dispense more plagues upon the wicked. The Exodus was scripted in heaven. In order to fulfill the prophecy that Moses is like that prophet (Deut. 18:15–19) whom the Lord would raise up (speaking of the Messiah), the plagues of Egypt have to match the plagues that attend the Second Coming of Christ (Rev. 16).
As we study the Exodus and the journey to the Promised Land, it will be much easier if we realize that this story is in many ways an exception to how God normally deals with his children. Great signs of power, the parting of the Red Sea, pillars of fire and clouds of smoke, severe punishments for violating the Law, the annihilation of the peoples of Canaan including the slaughter of women and children. Isn’t that genocide? What is going on here?
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.
God said, "Thou shalt not kill;" at another time He said, "Thou shalt utterly destroy." This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. by Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976], 256)
Is this why people don’t like the Old Testament? The God of the New Testament seems so different than the God of the Old Testament. Shouldn’t they be the same? Well if we think of the Exodus as an exceptional circumstance, a special case, a reversal of sorts, the whole story begins to make a lot more sense. There must be a reason for everything that happens—and there is. We just have to sort out God’s purpose. If we do, the Old Testament will become as rich and instructive as any other scripture.
Exodus 4:1 Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me
Moses, of course, was right. The Hebrews would not believe him without some sign from God. That just shows the state of spiritual immaturity of the people. They are in a state of near apostasy; it will take a lot for them to buy into Moses’ story of the burning bush.
Exodus 4:2-3 Cast (the rod) on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent
This was a sign for the Israelites more than for Pharaoh, but we have only brief record of this sign before the Hebrews (Ex. 4:30). More familiar is the record of Moses using it before Pharaoh wherein the Egyptian sorcerers were able to do the same (Ex. 7:10-12).
“If ye teach the law of Moses, also teach that it is a shadow of those things which are to come” (Mosiah 16:14). In this instance, the rod-snake-rod miracle prefigures the story in the wilderness wherein Moses made an image of a serpent and set it on a pole (or rod). The children of Israel were to look upon it and live (Numb. 21:6-9; 1 Ne 17:41). Thus the serpent-rod sign was actually a type for the Messiah.
Exodus 4:6 Put now thine hand into thy bosom. And… behold, his hand was leprous as snow
Could this sign have any significance other than a demonstration of God’s power? If we teach the law of Moses as a shadow of those things which are to come, then we will be reminded of one Jesus of Nazareth, who had such power over leprosy that he could heal 10 lepers at a time (Lu. 17:12-14).
Exodus 4:9 take of the water of the river, and pour it upon the dry land: and the water… shall become blood
Water turned to blood? Anyone remember the water turned to wine (Jn. 2:1-11)? Anyone remember the symbolism of wine representing the blood of Christ (Lu. 22:20)? Wait! We’re not done. Moses turns water to blood. At the Second Coming, the Lord will turn the sea “as the blood of a dead man: and… the rivers and fountains of waters…became blood” (Rev. 16:2-3). Why? “For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy” (Rev. 16:6).
Exodus 4:10 I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue
Spencer J. Condie
Some of God's choicest servants-Enoch, Moses, and Elijah-were slow of speech. While a radiant countenance and eloquent speech are desirable qualities in preaching the gospel, it is the Holy Ghost, not the sentence structure, which begets conversion. (Ensign, Oct. 1980, 34)
Henry B. Eyring
We need not be overwhelmed with our feelings of inadequacy. Whoever we are, however difficult our circumstances, we can know that what our Father requires of us if we are to qualify for the blessings of eternal life will not be beyond our ability. What a young boy said long ago when he faced a seemingly impossible assignment is true: "I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them" (1 Ne. 3:7). (Ensign, Feb. 1998, 10)
Gordon B. Hinckley
It is not always easy to be obedient to the voice of the Lord. We may feel inadequate. We can draw comfort from the conversation Moses had with Jehovah, who called him to lead Israel out of Egypt. At the time, Moses was a fugitive and a herder of sheep. How totally inadequate he must have felt! (“If Ye Be Willing and Obedient,” Ensign, July 1995, 4)
Joseph Smith, whom God chose to establish this work, was poor and uneducated, and belonged to no popular denomination of Christians. He was a mere boy, honest, full of integrity, unacquainted with the trickery, cunning and sophistry employed by the politicians and the religious hypocrite to accomplish their ends. Like Moses he felt incompetent and unqualified for the task, Ex. 4:10 to stand forth as a religious reformer, in a position the most unpopular, to battle against opinions and creeds which have stood for ages, having had the sanction of men, the most profound in theological obedience; but God had called him to deliver the poor and honest-hearted of all nations from their spiritual and temporal thralldom. And God promised him that whosoever should receive and obey his message, and whosoever would receive baptism for remission of sins, with honesty of purpose, should receive divine manifestations, should receive the Holy Ghost, should receive the same Gospel and blessings as were promised and obtained through the Gospel. (Journal of Discourses, 13:287)
Exodus 4:14-16 Aaron the Levite thy brother… shall be thy spokesman unto the people
Not every prophet has needed a spokesman, but Moses and Joseph Smith were both given another to act as their voice to the people. Aaron was older than Moses; presumably he was more eloquent of speech as well. Oliver Cowdery was more educated than Joseph, but he wouldn’t need a spokesman forever. Oliver was his first spokesman.
Joseph Fielding Smith
The gift of revelation promised to Oliver Cowdery was to be a protection to him (D&C 6:10-12; 8:3-5)… There was another gift bestowed upon Oliver Cowdery, and that was the gift of Aaron. Like Aaron with his rod in his hand going before Moses as a spokesman, so Oliver Cowdery was to go before Joseph Smith. Whatever he should ask the Lord by power of this gift should be granted if asked in faith and in wisdom. Oliver was blessed with the great honor of holding the keys of this dispensation with Joseph Smith, and like Aaron did become a spokesman on numerous occasions. It was Oliver who delivered the first public discourse in this dispensation. (Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946-1949], 1:48)
Oliver Cowdery was not Joseph Smith’s spokesman for very long. This role was assumed by Sidney Rigdon during much of the Kirtland period (D&C 100:9-11). By the Nauvoo period, Joseph no longer needed one. Besides Oliver was out of the church, and Sidney was out of his mind (not really, but Joseph no longer trusted him).
Exodus 4:16 he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God
The word of the Lord to Sidney Rigdon in 1883 was, “I will give unto thee power to be mighty in expounding all scriptures, that thou mayest be a spokesman unto him, and he shall be a revelator unto thee” (D&C 100:11).
I must teach the Elders, and they should teach you. God made Aaron to be the mouthpiece for the children of Israel, and He will make me be god to you in His stead, and the Elders to be mouth for me; and if you don’t like it, you must lump it. I have been giving Elder Adams instruction in some principles to speak to you, and if he makes a mistake, I will get up and correct him. (April 8, 1844) (DHC 6:318-320.)
Exodus 4:19 return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.
Moses’ departure from Egypt was not an act of paranoia. There really were men seeking his life. Almost every prophet experiences the same threat. Jesus did as well (Mark 3:6).
Exodus 4:21 I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.
In the Joseph Smith Translation, the text is changed every time it reads that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. This makes us feel better because we know that God softens hearts, and Satan hardens them. However, we have stated before that this story is exceptional in many ways. Could there be a reason for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart?
“I… will stiffen his heart, make him unyielding, impermeable to reason. The narrative makes different statements as to whether Pharaoh’s obduracy is self-motivated or caused by God. Here and in [Ex.] 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27:11:10; 14:4, 8, 17, God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart, but in 7:13, 14, 22; 8:11, 15, 28; 9:7, 34, 35 Pharaoh stiffens his own heart. These different ideas about Pharaoh’s motivation are consistent with a tendency in the Bible to see dual causality operating in history: the protagonists act according to their own character and motives, yet at the same time they are acting according to God’s plan… But commentators have also noted that the different depictions of Pharaoh’s motives fall basically into two stages: he stiffens his own heart for the first five plagues, and God stiffens it in plagues six, eight and nine… it seems that the narrative has arranged the plagues to indicate that God did not stiffen Pharaoh’s heart initially but only after Pharaoh had done so himself many times. In essence, God punished Pharaoh in kind, depriving him of the freedom to change his mind and escape further punishment… the process is drawn out so that God’s power can be made abundantly clear. (The Jewish Study Bible, ed. by A Berlin & MZ Brettler [New York, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2014], 105)
Exodus 4:22 Thus saith the Lord
This is the first instance of “Thus saith the Lord” in the Bible. The phrase is iconic for prophets speaking the will of the Lord. Interestingly, the first usage doesn’t preface a commandment from God. Rather, it introduces God’s love for the house of Israel. They are his chosen people. Nothing we do in the modern church, whether baptism, temple ordinances, priesthood blessings, etc. is done outside the umbrella of God’s covenant people. As soon as you’re baptized, you’re in the group God says is his son, even his firstborn.
Exodus 24-26 the Lord met him, and sought to kill him
Without the Joseph Smith Translation, we would be as lost as the rest of the world in trying to explain this enigmatic passage. With it, the meaning seems clear—Moses made the mistake of forgetting to circumcise his son. Should this surprise us? He was raised as an Egyptian not a Hebrew. We can imagine the Israelites celebrated many circumcision ceremonies while the Egyptians paid no attention. Moses should have known better but it was an honest mistake—an oversight. Well, the Lord was not pleased. Neither was Zipporah his wife. (Neither was his son, but nobody ever cares about the poor guy getting circumcised!)
Exodus 27-28 Aaron… went, and met him in the mount of God and kissed him
Chronologically, these two verses belong after verse 16 not after verse 26. Scholars recognize, and this is just one of many examples, that our current Bible is the conglomeration of two or more texts. One scribe writes one part of the story; another writes a different version of the same event. Or in this case, one scribe tells what happens to Moses and another goes back to tell how Aaron and Moses met on the mountain.
Exodus 4:30-31 Aaron spake all the words… and did the signs in the sight of the people… And the people believed
We end this chapter where we began—in the paradox of miracles before faith. Aaron told the people that Moses would save them, that he was the Lord’s prophet. They didn’t believe. Three miracles were performed in front of their eyes to prove the divinity of their call. It worked. When we look at faith that follows miracles, we will find that it is quite inferior to that faith which precedes them. The Hebrews received their witness before the trial of their faith. The result was faith that had not been tried and ultimately would not stand the test of time.