Moses’s Miracles | Aleph Beta

Moses' Miracle

The Miracles Performed By Moses In Egypt


Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The Signs And Miracles Performed By Moses Before Pharaoh

Rabbi Fohrman introduces the three signs that God gave to Moses to instill faith in God within the people and to prove His might to Pharaoh. Rabbi Fohrman, then, delves a bit more deeply into these three signs, questioning them and their effectiveness and looking to a connection between them and belief.

Discover other great videos at Aleph Beta, including ‘Did God Allow Slavery’, ‘The Ten Plagues Explained’, and ‘Why Did God Take Away Pharaoh's Free Will?


What Miracles Did Moses Perform?

Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Aleph Beta.

It’s Pesach season, and there's lots of really interesting things we can talk about in Pesach season. We can talk about the pyrotechnics of the plagues, we can talk about the tense bargaining sessions between Moses and Pharaoh – you name it. But today, we are not going to talk about any of the really interesting parts of the Exodus. We're going to talk about the boring stuff, the stuff that gets cut out of almost every cinematic representation of the Exodus story, from The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston to The Prince of Egypt – you name it, no one talks about this. We're going to talk about the three signs that take place at the burning bush.

Yep, the three signs. You know, you might not remember that there even were three signs that took place at the burning bush. But at the burning bush, Moses says to God: Look, Master of the Universe, You've got the wrong guy, just forget about it, they are never going to believe me. The people are not even going to think that God appeared to me. This whole thing is just not going to work! And to prove that it will, God gives him three signs, signs that he can reproduce to inspire belief in anybody who might see them. 

Three Persuasive Signs

First, God tells Moses to take his staff, to cast it down, and then it turns into a snake. Moses recoils, but God says: No, no, no, no – grab hold of the tail of that snake! Moses does so, and it turns back into a staff. So God says: They should believe you if they see that sign, but if they don't, here’s a second sign – take your hand, put it in your cloak next to your chest, and then take it out. Moses does so, and when he takes out his hand, it’s leprous, it’s as white as snow. He then puts his hand back into his cloak, takes it out again – and suddenly his flesh is healed. 

So then God says: Those are two things that really should inspire belief in anybody who sees them, but if that doesn't work, take some water from the river Nile, pour it on the ground, and it will turn into blood. And that's it. Those are the three signs that are going to convince anybody who might be skeptical about Moses’ mission.

If you just think about those three signs in a vacuum, you’d say: Oh wow, those signs are pretty cool, but let me ask you a couple of questions about that.

Question number 1: Is there any meaning to these particular signs? Could God just as easily have said: And now, Moses, to prove that you in fact represent Me, the Almighty – take Aaron and put him behind this black cloak and take out this saber and slash him in two, and magically he's going to step right out from behind that cloak and he's going to be whole again, he won't have been harmed! And if they don't believe that, Moses, here's a big top hat, reach your hand in and take out a rabbit out of the hat! 

Is that what these signs are? Are these just sort of random, really impressive Divine magic tricks? Is there any rhyme or reason as to why these particular things were shown to Moses – the staff and the snake, the white hand, the water turning into blood? Why were these the things that were supposed to inspire belief?

Okay, so that's one question. But here's another question. Let's talk about the effectiveness of these signs. How effective were they, really, at achieving their aims?

If you actually look at how this played out, for example, there's this moment when, very dramatically, Aaron casts down his staff, and it turns into this great snake-like thing. So it's very impressive, right? But look at the next thing that happens. Pharaoh's magicians, his astrologers, they take their staffs, and they cast those staffs down, and those also turn into snakes. So, you know, what's the deal with that? I mean, if you're God, couldn't you have come up with a magic trick that no one else could do?

So, maybe you’d protest and say: Well, you know, at the end of the day, Aaron's staff does end up swallowing all the other snakes, so you see that God's magic is of a higher caliber than the Egyptians’ magic! I suppose you could say that. But couldn't God have picked a sign that no one else could replicate at all? 

So again, maybe you'd respond that, well look, maybe Pharaoh wasn't the main intended audience; the main intended audience were the Israelites themselves. After all, Moses' issue that he expressed back at the burning bush to God is that “the people, the Israelites, won't believe me!” So maybe the signs were there to inspire faith among the people, not for Pharaoh’s astrologers? So let's examine that possibility, and let's ask, how good were these signs at actually inspiring faith among the people?

Let’s look and see what happens. Moses, he comes back from the burning bush, he gathers everyone together and he shows them the signs, and the text says: וַיַּאֲמֵן הָעָם (Exodus 4:31) – The people believed, just like God said they would. So end of story, right? It worked. But how well did it really work? The people actually seem to lose this faith very quickly. Early on in the narrative of the exodus from Egypt, Pharaoh, annoyed at Moses, he doubles the workload of the people. And when that happens, the people seem to lose whatever faith they had. they met up with Moses and Aaron and the people said to them: What are you guys doing?!? You've just made everything worse for us! Leave us alone with all this talk about exodus. Let’s just serve Pharaoh in peace and forget about all this nonsense.

Look, it doesn't seem like the signs have been doing very much at this point. So why even bother with them? Why are they even there?

The Meaning of Belief

So here is the beginning of a very tentative theory I want to share with you. According to the text, the signs are there to inspire belief. Now look again at the Hebrew word that appears וְהֵן לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לִי (Exodus 4:1) – They won't believe me, Moses says to God. Moreover, after Moses actually does perform the signs for the people, look what it says: וַיַּאֲמֵן הָעָם (Exodus 4:31) – and the people had faith, the people believed. You see, it’s the same Hebrew word there, it appears both times. But what exactly do we mean by emunah in this context? What do we mean, really, by this kind of belief?

And by the way, it happens a third time, at the culmination of the Exodus story. After Israel crosses the Sea of Reeds and the pursuing Egyptian army is smashed by the waves, the text says again: וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּיקוָה וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ (Exodus 14:31) – The people believed in God and Moses His servant. 

So you see, over and over again, we are talking about emunah, belief. But throughout this all, it's not so easy to figure out exactly what this word means. If it means conventional belief in God, believing that there is a higher power in the Universe who likes the Hebrews and is willing to assist them – well, these points in the Exodus don't really seem like turning points from a belief or emunah standpoint. Because, if you would have asked me to pick a moment in the Exodus story where a non-believer might look at events and say: Hey, you know, if that's really happening I'm changing my mind, now I believe… I don't think I would have picked either of the places in which the Torah talks about belief among people who see amazing things. 

I wouldn't have picked the three signs because they're not dramatic enough, they just seem to be magic tricks, so I don't know if that would have done it for me. And you know, when we look at the story of the splitting of the Sea, I would say: Boy, that’s pretty impressive, I would definitely believe in God if walls of water came magically cascading down on my enemies and the Sea split! But the truth is, I think I would have believed even before that. Because what happened in the middle, before the splitting of the Sea? There were these huge, grand, epic plagues, ten of them. I mean, all of that has “Master of the Universe” written all over it. If you saw the ten plagues, those things would make you believe! So it wouldn't take the splitting of the Sea to make me believe.

So the problem is that the two times the Torah talks about belief don't seem to actually be the moments where most people would turn the corner on belief. The three signs, it's too little. The splitting of the Sea, it’s too late. But the text is telling you that it's not so.

What I want to suggest to you is that the three signs that take place at the burning bush – they aren’t trivial things to be written out of the story, they're not these random magic tricks. The signs help us understand a deep, underlying truth about the Exodus. By engineering the ten plagues, by engineering our escape from Egypt, God didn't just make us free. All that’s true, but beyond all that, the Exodus did something else too. It inspired us to understand why we ought to be loyal to God, why we have a right to believe that God can actually connect with us. Let’s take a look at these three signs more closely, and let’s try to discern the story they have to tell us.

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