Moses’ Three Signs

Moshe Ben-Chaim


Exodus, 4:1-9: 1) “And Moses answered and said, ‘They (the Jews) will not believe in me and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say. ‘God did not appear to you.’ 2) And God said to him, ‘What is in your hand?’ and he said, ‘A staff.’ 3) And He said, Throw it to the ground’, and he threw it to the ground, and it became a serpent. And Moses fled from before it. 4) And God said to Moses, ‘Send forth your hand and grasp it by its tail’. And he sent forth his and he seized it, and it was a staff in his palm. 5) ‘In order that they believe you, that God appeared to you, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 6) And God said to him, ‘Further, bring now your hand into your chest’, and he brought his hand into his chest, and he took it out, and behold his hand was leprous as snow. 7) And He said, ‘Return your hand to your chest’, and he returned his hand to his chest, and he took it out, and behold, it returned to its flesh. 8) ‘And it will be if they do not believe you, and they do not listen to the voice of the first sign, then they will listen to the voice of the second sign. 9) And it will be if they do not listen to also these two signs, and they do not listen to your voice, and you will take from the waters of the Nile, and you will spill it onto the dry land, and it will be that the water that you take from the Nile, and it will be blood on the dry land.”

God instructs Moses on his mission to free the Jews. God then responds to Moses’ doubt of the Jews’ conviction in his divine appointment, by giving him three signs. These signs will prove God’s appearance to him. A number of questions arise. Before reading further, take time to review the verses above, and discuss them with others. Simply reading on will remove your opportunity to engage in the process of learning and the use of your own thought. This process is how we become better Torah students, thereby refining our own thinking for future study. It is also an enjoyable activity. The Torah was purposefully written in a cryptic style so as to engage the mind in this most prized activity of analysis, induction, deduction and thought - our true purpose whose rewards are unmatched, both here, and in the next world. Once you have spent due time reviewing the issues, feel free to read the questions enumerated below, and our possible answers.


1. The sign of blood is said to be the ultimate proof of God’s directive. How does this sign surpass the others? 2. If blood is more convincing than a staff turning into a serpent, or leprosy, why not instruct Moses to perform the blood sign first? Three signs would then not be necessary! 3. What are the ideas conveyed through each specific sign? Why were these three selected? 4. Why does God give Moses signs easily “duplicated” by the magicians? 5. What is meant by the “voice” of each sign? 6. In both cases, the transformation of a staff into a serpent, and Nile water into blood, does not take place until both objects reach the ground, as it says, “and he threw it to the ground, and it became a serpent”, and “it will be blood on the dry land.” What is the reason for this “miracle at a distance”? 7. Why do the first two signs “return” to their original objects? What need does this serve? 8. Why is Moses requested to “conceal” his hand in order for it to become leprous? God could certainly make him leprous without him concealing it. 9. In contrast to the sign of blood where God tells Moses what will happen to the Nile’s waters before the sign’s performance, why does God not tell Moses what will happen to the staff or his hand before those miracles? 10. What will the Jews learn when they hear Moses referring to God as “the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”?

We must say the following: The reason for three signs is twofold; 1) God wished the viewer to be convinced of His appointment of Moses with minimal, emotional amazement; and 2) God wished this from everyone, as additional signs of less deniability accompany the first. God knows what the most convincing sign is, i.e., blood, but He desired it come last in the sequence. A Rabbi Mann teaches in this weeks JewishTimes issue, God desires we use our minds.


Action at a Distance
It is for this very reason that additional features are found in these signs. I refer here to the fact that both the staff, and the Nile’s waters transformed only once on the ground. It is not the ground that is essential here, but the “distance” between Moses’ hand and the transformation. All magicians require tactile control of their manipulated objects. Without physical contact, they cannot create illusions through sleight of hand. However, Moses’ objects did not transform, while in his hand, but only once distanced from his control. “Distance” teaches that this was not sleight of hand - his hand was nowhere near the transformation! These signs could only be explained as true miracles, as God’s actions.

Magic Does Not Exist
Sforno on Exod. 4:3 cites Talmud Sanhedrin 67b: (Responding to the plague of lice, and their inability to mimic it) “Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘this is the finger of God.’ This proves that a magician cannot produce a creature less than a barley corn in size. [Strengthening this first position] Rav Pappa said, ‘By God, he cannot produce something even as large as a camel! [So what does it mean that a magician cannot produce a creature less than a barley corn?] [It means] these that are larger than a barley corn, he can collect, and produce the illusion that he has magically created them.” This Talmudic portion teaches that the human hand cannot control that which is too small.

Sleight of hand was known in the times of the Talmud, and in Egypt’s times. All magic is illusory. What these Egyptians performed by hand was quicker than the eye, but only when the object was large enough to manipulate. Our Rabbis did not accept that any powers exist outside natural laws. God is the only One capable of altering natural law – only He created it, only He controls it. Saadia Gaon too stated that the Egyptian’s blood trick was performed by the use of colored dyes, and the frogs leaped out of the Nile by their use of chemicals that frogs repel. Sforno also states that the Egyptian’s snakes had no movement, i.e., they were not real. Moses’ staff transformed into a “nachash”, not the lifeless “tanin” of the Egyptians. The difference in terms indicates to Sforno, a difference in the two performances.

Blood is the source of life. When one sees water transformed into blood, one realizes that life itself is in God’s hands. This strikes at the core of any person’s greatest fear - death. Additionally, its creation from the Nile disputed the Nile’s position of grandeur. But as God wishes we come to know Him by the use of our higher nature - our intellect - He did not order the blood sign first in sequence. God offers a person the chance to rise to a higher level by following his mind. With a minimalist performance, man has the opportunity to exercise his thinking, and derive truths concerning God’s will (His appointment of Moses) and His very existence.

Creation: Arrived at Through Reason
I digress to focus your attention on a related and essential idea: God’s position as the Creator is the most import concept of human comprehension. Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed”, Book II, end of Chap XXV: “...Owing to the absence of all proof, we reject the theory of the Eternity of the Universe: and it is for this very reason that the noblest minds spent, and will spend their days in research. For if the Creation had been demonstrated by proof, even if only according to the Platonic hypothesis, all arguments of the philosophers against us would be of no avail. If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions. I have thus shown that all depends on this question. Note it.”

Maimonides teaches, “all depends on this question”. What does he mean? I believe him to mean that by design, God wished that our conviction of this most central idea - God as Creator - must be arrived at through thought, and understanding, not through amazement at marvelous feats. In other words, our recognition of God as the Creator ‘must’ be apprehended through our reasoning. This is the highest form of recognition of God, and the preferred method to knowing Him, and His works. “All depends on this question,” means that proof of Creation was purposefully left to the realm of the “philosophical”, and not to “emotional” via astonishing, miraculous displays. It is easy to witness a miracle, and be convinced, but in such a case, our mind forfeits the exercise of reasoning - THE mark of man’s perfection. It is fitting that man use his crowned capacity in the pursuit of this question, of God as the Creator. I now return to our topic.

The Serpent and Leprosy
Before resorting to blood, why did the staff transform into a serpent? On the surface, both the staff and a serpent have similar appearances, they are narrow, elongated shapes. Once transformed into a serpent, the viewer might second-guess what he saw, “Was it in fact a staff before hand, or was it a serpent in some stiffened state?” Control of one’s emotions and clear thinking are required so as not to dismiss a miracle. Moses was given these signs for the very reason that the Jews were bent on disbelief in God’s appointment of Moses. Hence, subsequent to a sign, the Jews might seek to explain away the miracle. To say the very minimum about this specific sign, we may suggest that it teaches that God controls life. He can turn a lifeless staff into a living organism. God’s control of life would appear to offer the most impact on the Jews. Therefore God’s signs were indications of His control of life. But this was yet animal life. More impressive, was Moses’ hand becoming leprous. Here, God sought to teach that He controls human life. He does so in the negative (becoming leprous) as well as the positive (healing of Moses’ leprosy). The fact that Moses own hand was smitten, may serve to teach again that it was not Moses who created such a feat, as one would not risk self injury. Similarly, one would not create a dangerous serpent.

Another observation of the serpent and leprosy is that the transformation into a serpent displays God’s control over the “matter” of creation, while leprosy displays His control of His “laws” of creation. Transforming a staff into a serpent displays God’s control over matter itself. Disease has a natural process. Moses’ leprous hand displays that God controls “how” things behave. These two, initial signs bear witness to God control of both aspects of Creation - of matter, and laws governing that matter.

Perhaps, in order to minimize the affect of “astonishment”, God instructed Moses to first conceal his hand before it became leprous. For if a hand became leprous in plain sight, it would overwhelm the viewer, prohibiting his mind from fully functioning. This feat would startle him. Therefore, God told Moses to hide his hand. God also gave Moses signs easily “duplicated” by the Egyptians. And as Rabbi Mann taught, this was for our reason that the viewer use intelligence to discern true miracles of God, from man’s sleight of hand. We may also suggest that the “voice” of each sign refers to the underlying “concept” derived by the mind, as opposed to the feat per se. God wished the viewer to understand each sign’s message - its “voice”.

Why did the first two signs return to their original forms? This may also be a practical issue, that Moses may once again perform these signs.

Why does God not tell Moses what will happen to the staff or his hand before those miracles? Mindful that God enabled these signs as a “response” to Moses’ concern that he be validated, perhaps God did not inform Moses of the sign until it happened for good reason: God wished that Moses sense the effects of a these signs, just as would the Jews. By experiencing the sign without advance warning, Moses could identify with the perception and emotional impact afforded the Jews through these signs. Thereby, Moses’ “first hand” knowledge gave him the security in these signs. God answered his concern in a primary fashion. He now knew how the Jews would react to these signs - that they were impressive. Had God told Moses what was about to happen, his expectation would lessen the emotional impact of these signs.

The Fulfillment of God’s Promise
Our final question was, “What will the Jews learn when they hear Moses referring to God as “the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? I believe this may serve to illustrate God’s consistent kindness. As Moses was God’s emissary for the Redemption, the Jews would be more inclined to accept this news and Moses’ role, by recalling how God favored their ancestors, and not just on one occasion, but the lifetimes of many individuals. The Redemption was not a deviation, disbelieved by the Jews, but it was consistent with the manner in which God relates to His people - to His prophets’ descendants. We learn from this that God saw it necessary even prior to the act of redemption, the Jews required a psychological conviction in God’s forthcoming salvation. This state of mind was necessary, and God reassured the Jews of His unchanging kindness through this statement.