Was Moses Ineloquent or "Mighty in Words"?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
In one of the more well-known scenes of Scripture, the Lord, in the midst of an unconsumed burning bush, appeared to Moses on Mount Horeb. He revealed to Moses that it was time to deliver the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. It was time to give the descendants of Abraham the land of Canaan, which He had promised to his descendants more than 400 years earlier (cf. Genesis 12:1,7; 13:15; 15:13). It was time for Moses to lead God’s people out of Egypt (Exodus 3:10).
Moses, however, was not convinced that he was the one to go to Pharaoh and make such demands. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?” Moses asked the Lord (Exodus 3:11). “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” (4:10). “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh heed me?” (6:30).
Some wonder how Moses could be ineloquent, if Stephen, in his speech to an angry mob prior to his death, described Moses as one “mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22, emp. added). According to Bible critic Steve Wells, author of the The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, Acts 7:22 contradicts Exodus 4:10-16 and 6:12-30 (2013). R. Paul Buchman likewise lists these verses on his Web site “1001 Contradictions and Discrepancies in the Christian Bibles” (2011). Allegedly, Acts 7:22 is incompatible with what we learn about Moses in Exodus 3-6. How could Moses be “mighty in words,” yet also be ineloquent?
First, it is possible that Moses was not as ineloquent and “slow of speech” as one might initially think. The Bible student must keep in mind who made the statements about Moses’ speech in the book of Exodus. God did not say that Moses was incapable of speaking effectively—Moses did. Moses made these statements about himself. What’s more, Moses made the statements about himself after God had instructed him (1) to go back to the land where he had fled 40 years earlier for fear of his life (Exodus 2:15), (2) to present himself before the most powerful king on Earth (3:10), and (3) to tell the king of Egypt to let hundreds of thousands of Israelite slaves go free (Exodus 3:10; cf. Numbers 1:46). Moses was obviously afraid and doubted if he could do what God commanded. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?” Moses asked (Exodus 3:11). He said: “Suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you’” (4:1). Even after seeing two amazing miracles (4:3-8), Moses still offered excuses (4:10). Moses was so troubled over the entire matter that he finally pleaded with God saying, “O my Lord, please send someone else” (4:13, ESV, emp. added).
What was God’s response to Moses? According to Exodus 4:14, “[T]he anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses.” In addition to Moses being “very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3), Moses appears to have been so alarmed by the thought of going back to Egypt and making demands of Pharaoh that he highly exaggerated his ineloquence. Could it not be said that Moses stated fairly eloquently his case for being “ineloquent”? What’s more, when he wrote all of these events (and others) down by inspiration years later (in the Pentateuch—Joshua 8:32; John 5:46), he was equally as “eloquent.” [NOTE: Simply because God spoke of Aaron as one who “can speak well” (Exodus 4:14), does not necessarily mean that Moses was not an eloquent speaker, or that God thought that Moses was not up for the task at hand. Obviously, God had more confidence in Moses’ abilities than Moses did. It was Moses’ fear and hesitancy, not his alleged ineloquence, that led our longsuffering God to elevate Aaron as His spokesman.]
If the skeptic refuses to accept that Moses was much more eloquent than the prophet claimed in his meeting with God on Mount Horeb, the Bible student might also point out that Stephen’s reference to Moses being “mighty in words and deeds” was (in context) in reference to Moses during the first 40 years of his life in Egypt (Acts 7:22). In Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, he reminded his Jewish audience that Pharaoh’s daughter brought Moses up “as her own son. And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:21-22). Stephen then stated: “Now when he [Moses] was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel…” (7:23). It was after another “forty years had passed” (7:30)—after Moses had become a shepherd and had dwelt in the land of Midian for 40 years—that, at the age of 80, Moses made excuses before God of being ineloquent. Thus, in context, these statements were made about a man at two very different periods of time in his life. And, as everyone should know, two different statements cannot rationally be said to contradict each other if they are referring to two different time periods. How many of us were better at something in our younger years? Could Moses have not been a more eloquent speaker at 40 than at 80 (after spending four decades as a shepherd in a foreign land)?
[NOTE: Some might argue that since Moses said to God, “I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant” (Exodus 4:10, emp. added), this means that Moses was never “mighty in words,” neither at 40 nor 80. Keep in mind, however, (1) it was Moses making this assertion, not God, and (2) we cannot be certain how far back in the past Moses meant for this statement to apply. He just as easily could have been referring to a time just before God appeared to him from the burning bush. What’s more, the events recorded in Exodus 3-4 could very easily have lasted days or weeks (cf. 4:14,27-28). Commentator Albert Barnes believes that this statement in Exodus 4:10 “seems to imply that some short time had intervened between this address and the first communication of the divine purpose to Moses” (1997).]
Sadly, skeptics not only ignore who made these statements, as well as the different time periods under discussion in the related passages, they also ignore the fact that different words are used, which do not necessarily mean the same thing. Even if Moses was not exaggerating about his ineloquence, and even if the statements in Exodus 3-6 and Acts 7:22 were referring to the same period of time in Moses’ life, being “slow of speech and slow of tongue” is not necessarily incompatible with being “mighty in words” (Acts 7:22). In fact, the phrase “mighty in words” (dunatos en logois) immediately follows Stephen describing Moses as “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” How could Moses, an (alleged) ineloquent speaker, be “mighty in words”? Asking this question a little differently could help us answer it much easier. Could a man (1) of royalty, (2) who was very well educated, and (3) whose actions were described as “mighty,” ever be considered “mighty in words,” even though he may not be the greatest of orators? Most certainly. How many first-class athletes and coaches have given extremely motivating speeches to their teams and fans (e.g., Tim Tebow), and yet they may not be viewed as “eloquent” speakers? How many statesmen have risen to the occasion and delivered stirring addresses at crucial times in history (e.g., President George W. Bush’s speech at Ground Zero three days after the 9/11 attacks), though the statesmen generally were not viewed as great orators? How many people throughout history have been “mighty in words” as a writer, but not as a speaker? How many gospel preachers have I heard in my lifetime, who (1) knew the Scriptures extremely well, and (2) had done amazing things in their lifetime, and yet although they may not have been considered “great orators,” could truly be said to be “mighty in words”? Considering that “the gospel of Christ…is the power of God to salvation” (Romans 1:16), many stirring sermons have been preached the past 2,000 years by rather weak men. Even one of the greatest gospel preachers this world has ever known (the apostle Paul), stated to the Corinthians: “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:1).
Skeptics’ criticisms of Exodus 3-6 and Acts 7:22 should only further confirm how superficial and manipulative their accusations against the Bible writers really are. The fact is, Bible critics have no proof that these passages contradict each other; yet, as with so many alleged discrepancies they champion, skeptics seem to care little about making false, unprovable allegations. In other arenas, such individuals would be ostracized for such blatant carelessness and dishonesty.
Barnes, Albert (1997), Barnes’ Notes (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Buchman, R. Paul (2001), “1001 Contradictions and Discrepancies in the Christian Bibles,” http://www.1001biblecontradictions.com/I2a%20-%20HOJ%20%5B76-103%5D.html.
Wells, Steve (2013), The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/moses_speaker.html.