For most of us, the name Moses evokes powerful images. Moses standing before mighty Pharaoh. Moses leading the exodus from Egypt. Moses raising his staff over the Red Sea. Moses ascending Mount Sinai as it quaked and flamed with the presence of God. Moses smashing the tablets on which God Himself had written the Ten Commandments. Moses dying on Mount Pisgah, able to see the Promised Land, but not able to enter it.
Few of us, however, think of Moses as having a speech impediment. Yet, this may have been the case. The man who stood before Pharaoh and demanded, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Let My people go,’” (Exodus 5:1) may have stuttered. Those who hold this view—and there have been many, including prominent Jewish rabbis like Shlomo Yitchaki, who lived during the Eleventh Century A.D.—point to the words of Moses himself.
When first called by God to lead the exodus, Moses said, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). The Hebrew word for “eloquent” in this verse, devarim, means “words.” A more literal rendering is “I am not a man of words.” Even more telling is Moses’ reference to having slow speech and a slow tongue. The Hebrew word he used, kaved, means heavy—a heavy tongue; hence, by extension, slow, halting, difficult speech.
Later, when commanded by God to address Pharaoh, Moses replied, “The children of Israel have not heeded me. How then shall Pharaoh heed me, for I am of uncircumcised lips” (Exodus 6:12). According to one well-known Hebrew scholar, this phrase, “uncircumcised lips,” means stammering or stuttering; as if the lips were covered with skin, making it difficult to speak clearly.
There are other explanations for Moses’ reference to his slow tongue and slow speech, some bordering on the ridiculous: a fear of public speaking, difficulty finding the right words, the inability to speak fluent Hebrew after many years in Pharaoh’s household. According to one rabbinical legend, Moses’ speech problem was the result of burning his tongue on a hot coal when only a boy.
But the simplest explanation is that Moses had a speech impediment. And whatever that impediment was, he viewed it as severe enough to disqualify him from God’s call. “O my Lord,” he said in Exodus 4:13, “please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.”
God, however, would not accept Moses’ excuses, saying, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say” (Exodus 4:11-12).
Clearly, Moses was one of the greatest, most gifted of Old Testament prophets. And as such, he does evoke those powerful images of standing before mighty Pharaoh, leading the exodus, raising his staff over the parting Red Sea, climbing fiery Mt. Sinai, and smashing the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written.
But knowing that Moses may have stuttered somehow makes him more “human,” and reminds us that what Moses accomplished was done solely through the grace and power of Almighty God—the faithful God who was in Moses’ life, on Moses’ journeys, and with Moses’ mouth. And this to such an extent that Stephen would later describe Moses in Acts 7:22 as “mighty in words and deeds.”
As someone once said, “God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.”
Mark Weis is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, with locations in North Port and Fort Myers, Florida.