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Moses’s Heavy Mouth


The Rylands Haggadah

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” (Exod 4:10) and thus cannot be an effective spokesperson for God; his “heavy” tongue and mouth limit him in some manner. God responds by speaking about sensory disability as part of an intentional plan for human diversity: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exod 4:12). And God offers accommodations, promising to be “with” Moses’s mouth, enabling his speech. Moses refuses this, asking that someone else be sent. As a concession God offers Moses a human assistant, someone that does not replace him but that stands alongside him and speaks for him. Aaron is to Moses what Moses is to God.

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 Ezek 3:5-6, Ezekiel uses the same phrase, with the prophet referring to incomprehensible (cbd) foreign tongues (paralleled to “obscure/foreign lips”). This has led numerous ancient and contemporary interpreters to suggest that Moses’s complaint refers to a linguistic struggle; he does not speak the correct language. Thus, the Jewish philosopher Rashbam (twelfth century CE) argued that phrase means that Moses was not fluent in the Egyptian spoken by the elite of his day.

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, “heavy” bodily organs indicate sensory disability (e.g., Gen 38:10) or spiritual disobedience (e.g., Exod 7:14). Jeffrey Tigay concludes that Moses’s condition should be understood as a medical condition. Moses has some sort of physical or psychogenic speech difference (often termed a “speech impediment” and which Jewish commentator Rashi [eleventh century CE] refers to as a “stutter”). This interpretation arguably makes more sense of God’s response in Exod 4:11, where God speaks about diversity through sensory disability, not languages.

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.

  • Jones-Kirsty

    Kirsty L. Jones is a PhD student at Georgetown University working on disability and the senses in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. She also teaches at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. She is the author of “Home but Not Healed: How the Sensory Profiles of Prophetic Utopian Visions Influence Presentations of Disability,” in Sounding Sensory Profiles in Antiquity (SBL Press, 2019) and “Three Blind Vices? Vision and Blindness in the Samson Cycle” (BibInt 28 [2020]).