Oh, wait… Didn’t you know? Moses had a speech impediment. Yeah… The deliverer of all of Israel, the man who challenged the pharaoh and won, the leader of an entire nation through whom the very Law and Ten Commandments of God were spoken through—God’s uber-mouthpiece—couldn’t talk. Well, not without extreme difficulty, anyway. God chose a man with a speech condition to be His lead spokesperson.
Though mention of this disability isn’t brought up in the story until later, when Moses is arguing with God about speaking to the pharaoh (Exodus 4:10; 6:12, 30), we are choosing to place it here because, if these authors are correct in our conclusions, Moses’ condition would have started as a young child or teen, but it would have caused embarrassment and social issues in crucial developmental years for a young adult or fully grown man. That’s right about here-ish in the narrative. We don’t know for certain how his disability would have affected his relationships—especially his years growing up in the palace where he may or may not have been forced to do much talking anyway and, as royalty, wouldn’t have been heckled by the general public for it.
But hold on! Doesn’t it say in Acts 7:22 that Moses was “mighty in words and deeds”?
Yes, but don’t misunderstand. The emphasis here doesn’t have to be upon his ability to articulate, but upon the weight his words had—however they sounded coming out of his mouth—upon the eventual fate of the pharaoh and the rest of Egypt. Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible explains:
In words—From Exodus 4:10, it seems that Moses was “slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” When it is said that he was mighty in words, it means that he was mighty in his communications to Pharaoh, though they were spoken by his brother Aaron. Aaron was in his place, and “Moses” addressed Pharaoh through him, who was appointed to deliver the message, Exodus 4:11–16.[i]
But also, it’s important to remember that Moses’ in-person speech may not even be what is referenced here in Acts. Not all words have to be spoken if words on scrolls can also be powerful; if they were written down and passed down to countless generations of Jews (which they were)…who therefore followed his “mighty instructions” (Mosaic Law). Jamieson-Fausset-Brown states: “mighty in words—Though defective in utterance (Ex 4:10); his recorded speeches fully bear out what is here said.”[ii]
The discussion between scholars about Moses’ speech problem has gone on for thousands of years. The research materials we have in our office here go on for pages. In the space we have here—and considering the nature of this book—we are not going to deeply delve into the hundreds of different theological opinions and Hebrew language notes compiled by brilliant academics since…well, since the time of Moses. And we mean that literally. Moses’ authorship of the first five books in the Bible was only barely finished when the skill of scriptural interpretation began with the rabbis. Astute men of intensely impressive knowledge in biblical languages and ancient cultures have been discussing this very conundrum since as early as we can trace. Therefore, we aren’t going to be able to do the topic the justice it deserves here and now by providing the lengthy breakdown.
As for the shorter breakdown, just to get a little bearing on the conclusion these authors are leading to, requires quickly addressing whether this “speech” problem could have been spiritual or mental, rather than a condition of the literal mouth or tongue.
First, many of the theories that the references were only symbolic, as opposed to involving any element physiologically, are somewhat problematic. For instance, one popular argument relies on the fact that the Hebrew description of “heavy” language in Exodus 4:10 was synonymous with “deep” language, meaning that Moses was especially profound. These scholars have no problem explaining why, in Hebrew, one word is synonymous with another and it could actually mean “profound.” But the logic dies here: Why, if Moses is “so deep” and “so profound,” would he use these excellent-communication traits of his to claim he’s not a good communicator, when these traits are benchmarks of a great communicator? It cancels itself out. Imagine this in modern words: “No, God, don’t use me to speak to the pharaoh! I can’t speak because I’m just so good at it!”
Some in this camp say that it’s actually Moses’ deep, profound thoughts effecting his ability to isolate a single thought fast enough to articulate it—a “mind is faster than the mouth” conundrum—and that his speech is therefore paralyzed or slowed while he struggles knowing which “heavy” thing on his mind to address first. But this take on it is challenged as well, in part because of Moses’ complaint that he is “not eloquent” (which is a matter of lacking smoothness, elegance, and persuasion in one’s spoken words, not a matter of trying to articulate thought into spoken words).
Moving to another theory, there’s a linguistics argument that suggests Moses was fluent in Egyptian (pre-Coptic), as this was the language spoken at the palace, but that he didn’t know the Hebrew of his people, and therefore couldn’t smoothly intermediate between both sides. Or, if we reverse that—theorizing that he was fluent in Hebrew only but couldn’t speak to the pharaoh due to a language barrier—we arrive at another existent theory. Both of these are nearly impossible. One casts an irrational (and unnecessary) “silent era” onto his palace years; the other assumes he only barely communicated with his wife and father-in-law for the forty years he lived in the desert with Israelites.
Still others explain that the association between circumcision and cleanliness herein ties Moses’ insecurity to a matter of spiritual imperfection or unpreparedness. This is a possibility linguistically, but the context keeps hitting a snag. Of all the “purely symbolism” explanations, this “spiritually imperfect/unprepared” approach might have been the most convincing to us, if it didn’t require further explanation as to why he is, in 4:10, talking about the slowness of literal speech utterance, not a hesitation from being emotionally or spiritually immature or unprepared. Last of all, because an instance of “uncircumcised ears” appears later in Jeremiah 6:10, some of these symbolisms are tossed out the window because the euphemism might work with “lips” but not with “ears,” and so on. After a while, it just gets too complicated to even be practical that Moses, in two words, meant to insinuate all these intricate spiritual truths…
In fact, after a while, most theories about Moses’ speech problem require intricate, unnecessary, and laboring steps to “the deeper meaning” or “the other explanation” when a literal impediment is such a readily available, perfectly-fitting possibility. (This is true immediately in 4:10. It’s also true for 6:12 and 6:30, though not as immediately. For reasons that would require us to stop here and look closely at both a) all the spiritual significance behind the act of circumcision as well as b) the actual act of circumcision, itself, we will skip visiting at length why, but suffice it to say that these authors believe: Moses’ circumcision metaphor was a symbol, but it was a symbol of a literal impediment.)
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As to what kind of impediment, there are a few possibilities. An orofacial myofunctional disorder is when the bones and muscles in the face grow abnormally, causing a dysfunction not only in speech, but also frequently in eating, drinking, and breathing through the nose. It could be, but since none of the rest of this was ever mentioned in Scripture, it’s anyone’s guess. Dysarthria is less likely, because it requires a right-hemisphere brain injury to weaken the muscles of the face and jaw (such as the slurred speech from a stroke victim). This, too, assumes Moses would have left out whatever injury he sustained to the brain when he wrote his autobiographical/biblical accounts. With this same shadow of doubt, many other injury-related speech problems can also be only marginally considered. (One clearly unbelievable legend that can probably be attributed to Jewish scholar and commentator Bahye ben Asher [also known as Rabbeinu Bahye] around the turn of the fourteenth century starts with the claim that a very young Moses wouldn’t stop trying to grab at the flashy crown of the pharaoh. Pharaoh’s men told him this was a bad omen, so the child would have to be killed. Instead, however, Moses would be tested. A golden bowl was brought in and presented to Moses next to a pile of glowing coal. An angel guided Moses’ hand to grab the coal, after which the young Moses placed his fingers in his mouth to suck the sting of the burn, and his fingers were so burned that they afflicted his tongue permanently, rendering him physically incapable of sounding palatal consonants, like the letters “s” and “t.” We don’t know if Bahye invented this idea, or if he merely perpetuated it, but uhhh…no. That’s not what happened.)
However, at the end of the day, the actual issue of “slow speech” that Moses appears to be describing in this original conversation with God is most likely a bad stutter. It fits the literal “slow speech,” “slow tongue” lamentation; it doesn’t clash with reasonable interpretations of the “uncircumcised lips” reference; and the symptoms of the condition can agree with the biblical account. The celebrated theological and unrivalled master of multiple ancient biblical languages, Dr. Michael Heiser, agrees: “[Moses] says, ‘I can’t talk well.’ And it is true that you could look at those Hebrew terms there and it could be that Moses was a stutterer. That’s certainly possible.”[iii]
And there it is, folks. A stutter. Moses, himself, the soon-to-be leader over the nation of God, all those chosen people, all those souls looking to him for guidance and direction through the exodus, through the parted waters, past endless deserts with fiery pillars and clouds leading them all over the place, through the wilderness and around mountains for forty years…all this leadership from a man who didn’t feel he could string a sentence together.
Heiser is one of thousands of scholars that acknowledges the stutter probability. In Heiser’s case, though, he goes on to explain why none of this matters, because the point is not whether Moses has a stutter or not, it’s about trusting that God will carry the words; it’s about not making excuses (of which Moses has plenty in these passages) when we’ve been given direction from God.
In a different book, we would agree with Heiser that the stutter is a marginal issue. That the bottom line is: Don’t argue with God. Don’t make excuses. Don’t tell God why He was wrong when he picked you… Just do what God is saying.
However, in this book, the speech impediment matters.
The guy has been called by God—by the Almighty Creator of all of the universe—to perform leadership in a way that diametrically opposes his flawed capabilities! This is the Lord God, King of all Heaven, choosing a stuttering Hebrew who wasn’t really born into royalty to lead his people like a king…even while he cannot speak!
He. Is. A. Misfit!
God could have chosen from any human on the planet, and He chooses the near-mute!
…Hmmm. Dunno. Just out of “mere speculation,” though, could it be because He likes to confound those humans who think they’re all-that-and-a-bag-of-beef-tacos by using a humble vessel they would never expect to carry out His power and will (c.f., 1 Corinthians 1:27)?
Naw, naw. It couldn’t be that. Sorry. We got excited for a second.
Oh hang on, we’ve got one. Maybe it’s because God’s power is, like, made even better and stronger through us when we are weak and rely on Him to do wonders through us (c.f., 2 Corinthians 12:9–11)?
Oh, oh, oh! Is it because He, Himself, can help us with our flaws, teach us what to say in scary situations and things like that, because He’s the Designer who made us in the first place and has the final word over whether our misfit imperfections are going to keep us from doing what He’s asked us to do (Exodus 4:11–12; Luke 12:12)?
What are we thinking?… Where are we coming up with these ideas, anyway?…
Excuse our sarcastic, hyperbolic tones… It’s far too often that a Christian, especially a misfit, says God can’t use them for a specific job because of X, when X is exactly why God has chosen them for that specific job. Nowhere has this ever been more radically true than with Moses, who doubted his ability to speak, and then went down in history as one of the most important speakers since Creation.
Now, where were we…?
UP NEXT: Mr. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” Just, Uhhh, Killed a Guy
[i] Barnes, Albert, Barnes Notes on the Whole Bible (E4 Group, Kindle Edition), Kindle locations 229914–229918).
[ii] Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D., Commentary, 180; emphasis added.
[iii] Heiser, Dr. Michael, “Exodus 4:1–17,” March 23, 2019, Naked Bible Podcast, transcript of episode 264, last accessed July 15, 2021, quoted material from page 8: https://nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/NB-264-Transcript.pdf.