Moses’s Heavy Mouth (Exod 4)
In Exod 4, God gives Moses a series of signs to communicate to the people. Moses, however, is reluctant. He remarks that he is “not a man of words” (
How can someone who is “heavy of mouth and tongue” be a prophet? What does the phrase mean anyway?
The phrase “heavy of mouth and tongue” is hardly a straightforward one, as various translations attest. The Hebrew provides some clarity but no certainty. The adjective used here, cbd, literally means “heavy.” It can indicate physical weight, but it can also indicate metaphorical weight, as when something is “difficult, “ honorable,” or “significant.” In
Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, “heavy” bodily organs indicate sensory disability (e.g.,
What does it matter if Israel’s first prophet struggles with speech, perhaps having a speech impairment?
For some Jewish thinkers (like Rashbam, mentioned above), it mattered a lot. It was unthinkable, even blasphemous for Moses to be lacking in some manner. So early rabbinic legend even suggests that Moses, by angelic instruction, burned his mouth on a coal as a toddler and was “heavy” of tongue thereafter (Exod. Rab. 1:26). By this reading, the impairment was viewed as a sign of divine favor engraved on the prophet’s flesh.
From another perspective, Moses is not distant from perfection; that is, he is more like God rather than less like God. Like God, Moses needs someone to communicate on his behalf, and like God, Moses communicates visually (for example, using the staff to perform signs, 4:17), perhaps more so given his reticence to speak.
There is, however, a growing trend among some modern readers to highlight Moses’s disability, rather than explain it away. By this reading, God’s power becomes manifest when God selects and enables someone who considers themselves an ineffective and/or unlikely choice. This passage is significant for these readers because of the reason given for the origins of disability and because it provides an example of God interacting with a disabled person with their disability retained rather than removed. One highly relevant answer to the question “what does it matter” might therefore lie in the embodied difference of the first prophet’s heavy tongue, which is presented as an unsurprising fact of embodiment or even divine creation.