Exodus 4:1-5: A Staff Transformed into a Serpent

Verse 1:[1] And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.


[They will not believe, etc., וְהֵן] And behold: the ו/and is superfluous (Vatablus). Or, behold is in the place of if (Ainsworth out of the Septuagint[2]), just like Jeremiah 3:1[3] (Ainsworth). They will not believe. He appears to contradict God, who had said, Exodus 3:18, and they shall harken. Response: 1. He does not simply mean that they are not going to believe; but not immediately, not by bare words, not without signs. It was sufficient for the truth of the Divine word, if they would in the end give over. 2. Moses here appears to set forth a doubt, not plainly to assert; that is to say, Behold, let us suppose that they are not going to believe me (Rivet).


They will not believe me; which he conjectured both from reason, because the greatness and strangeness of the deliverance made it seem incredible; and their minds were so oppressed with cares and labours, that it was not likely they could raise them up to any such expectation; and from the experience which he had of them forty years before, when their deliverance by his means and interest at court seemed much more credible than now it did.


Verse 2:[4] And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, (Ex. 4:17, 20) A rod.



[What, etc.? מַזֶּה] It is the same here as מַה־זֶּ֣ה,[5] What is this? (Munster). These three signs primarily certify the mission of Moses (Tirinus); however, mystically they designate the threefold state of the Israelites. The rod signifies their flourishing state, and the dominion of Joseph; the rod cast down and changed into a snake, the casting down and affliction of the same; the restoration of the rod, their revived liberty and power (Tirinus, Menochius, Lyra). Likewise, the leprous hand and bloody water figure this, that the Egyptians were exhausting the good health and strength, and so the vital sap and blood, of the Israelites (Tirinus). Or rather, they taught that so many and such great miracles were not accomplished by the power and hand of Moses (which was impure and leprous), but by a higher (Lightfoot’s Gleanings from Exodus 1). [These things Lightfoot further observes concerning these miracles.] It was an indication that Moses had by no means done these things by the power of the devil, because the serpent (the most prominent type of him) he was able to handle as he pleased. 2. He was commanded to apprehend its tail only, verse 4, for to meddle with the serpent’s head belonged to Christ.[6] 3. Indeed, here it was a נָחָשׁ/serpent; in Exodus 7:10 it became a תַּנִּין, that is, a crocodile, as it appears. 4. These two miracles in a special way had respect unto that great Prophet by whose power already at that time Moses worked. For not any of the Prophets from Moses to Christ either cast out the devil, or healed leprosy by his own hand (Lightfoot’s Gleanings from Exodus).


Verse 3:[7] And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.



It became a serpent, that is, was really changed into a serpent; whereby it was intimated what and how pernicious his rod should be to the Egyptians.


Verse 4:[8] And the LORD said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand…


[Seize the tail] There was a danger there of a strike: nevertheless, believing, Moses is not hurt (Ainsworth).


The tail was the dangerous part; whereby God would try Moses’s faith, and prepare him for the approaching difficulties.


Verse 5:[9] That they may (Ex. 19:9) believe that (Ex. 3:15) the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee.


[That they may believe] Understand, either, Thou shalt do that, etc., or, This I have done, so that they may believe. Or it is to be referred unto that, Throw it down upon the earth (Vatablus). There are similar ellipses in Mark 14:49, that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, in the place of which Matthew 26:56 has this was done so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled; and in 2 Samuel 5:8, compared with 1 Chronicles 11:6 (Ainsworth).


That they may believe that, etc.: An imperfect sentence, to be thus completed, This thou shalt do before them, that they may believe. See the like in 2 Samuel 5:8, compared with 1 Chronicles 11:6; and Mark 14:49, compared with Matthew 26:56.

[1] Hebrew: וַיַּ֤עַן מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֹּ֔אמֶר וְהֵן֙ לֹֽא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לִ֔י וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמְע֖וּ בְּקֹלִ֑י כִּ֣י יֹֽאמְר֔וּ לֹֽא־נִרְאָ֥ה אֵלֶ֖יךָ יְהוָֽה׃


[2] Greek: ἐὰν οὖν.


[3] Jeremiah 3:1a: “They say, If (הֵן/behold; ἐὰν, in the Septuagint) a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return unto her again?...”


[4] Hebrew: וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אֵלָ֛יו יְהוָ֖ה מַזֶּ֣ה בְיָדֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מַטֶּֽה׃


[5] The Qere.


[6] Genesis 3:15; 1 John 3:8.


[7] Hebrew: וַ֙יֹּאמֶר֙ הַשְׁלִיכֵ֣הוּ אַ֔רְצָה וַיַּשְׁלִיכֵ֥הוּ אַ֖רְצָה וַיְהִ֣י לְנָחָ֑שׁ וַיָּ֥נָס מֹשֶׁ֖ה מִפָּנָֽיו׃


[8] Hebrew: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה שְׁלַח֙ יָֽדְךָ֔ וֶאֱחֹ֖ז בִּזְנָב֑וֹ וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָדוֹ֙ וַיַּ֣חֲזֶק בּ֔וֹ וַיְהִ֥י לְמַטֶּ֖ה בְּכַפּֽוֹ׃


[9] Hebrew: לְמַ֣עַן יַאֲמִ֔ינוּ כִּֽי־נִרְאָ֥ה אֵלֶ֛יךָ יְהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתָ֑ם אֱלֹהֵ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֖ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹֽב׃

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Dr. Steven Dilday holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Campbell University, a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and both a Master of Divinity and a  Ph.D. in Puritan History and Literature from Whitefield Theological Seminary.  He is also the translator of Matthew Poole's Synopsis of Biblical Interpreters and Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology.

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