When God appeared to Moses at Mount Sinai and told him to return to Egypt and bring the people “out of the iron furnace” (Deuteronomy 4:20), Moses presented five objections why he should not go back to Egypt and speak to Pharaoh. In his fourth objection, Moses emphasized what has been commonly interpreted as his lack of eloquence as a public speaker. According to the translation of the New Revised Standard Version, Moses said to the LORD: “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 4:10).
The words of Moses to God, if translated literally, would be as follows: “Not a man of words I . . . for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue I.” Moses’s words to God have been translated differently be the various English versions:
“I am not a man of words; I have never been so, and am not now, even after what you have said to your servant: for talking is hard for me, and I am slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10 The Bible in Basic English).
“I'm a terrible speaker. I always have been, and I'm no better now, even after you've spoken to your servant! My words come slowly, my tongue moves slowly” (Exodus 4:10 The Complete Jewish Bible).
“I have never been eloquent-- either in the past or recently or since You have been speaking to Your servant-- because I am slow and hesitant in speech” (Exodus 4:10 Holman Christian Standard Bible).
“ I'm not a good speaker. I've never been a good speaker, and I'm not now, even though you've spoken to me. I speak slowly, and I become tongue-tied easily” (Exodus 4:10 God’s Word to the Nations).
“Lord, I've never been a good speaker. And I haven't gotten any better since you spoke to me. I don't speak very well at all” (Exodus 4:10 New International Reader’s Version).
“I'm not very good with words. I never have been, and I'm not now, even though you have spoken to me. I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled” (Exodus 4:10 New Living Translation).
These translations have one thing in common: they emphasize that Moses was a poor communicator and that he did not have the ability of speaking eloquently. The translations above reflect the view that the prophet was known by the use of words to proclaim God’s word. The response of Jeremiah to God’s call to the prophetic ministry reflects a similar objection. Jeremiah said to God: “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak” (Jeremiah 1:6).
However, some commentators have interpreted Moses’ claim that he was heavy of language to mean that he was unable to speak a foreign language. In this case, Moses was saying that he had forgotten how to speak either Egyptian, Hebrew, or both. According to the traditional view of Moses’ life, he spent forty years in Egypt, forty years in Midian, and forty years in the wilderness (he died at the age of one hundred and twenty years, cf. Deuteronomy 31:2). Thus, Moses’ many years away from Egyptian and Hebrew speaking people caused him to forget one or both languages. This view is based indirectly on Ezekiel 3:5 where God told Ezekiel that he was not sent to minister “to a people of a strange speech and of a hard language.”
In his commentary on Exodus, when dealing with Moses’ speech problem, Adam Clark wrote:
It is possible he was not intimately acquainted with the Hebrew tongue, so as to speak clearly and distinctly in it. The first forty years of his life he had spent in Egypt, chiefly at court; and though it is very probable there was an affinity between the two languages, yet they certainly were not the same. The last forty he had spent in Midian, and it is not likely that the pure Hebrew tongue prevailed there, though it is probable that a dialect of it was there spoken. On these accounts Moses might find it difficult to express himself with that readiness and persuasive flow of language, which he might deem essentially necessary on such a momentous occasion; as he would frequently be obliged to consult his memory for proper expressions, which would necessarily produce frequent hesitation, and general slowness of utterance, which he might think would ill suit an ambassador of God.
The view that Moses’ speech problem was that he was not eloquent or that he had forgotten Egyptian or Hebrew, is not very convincing. The expression “heavy of mouth” seems to describe some kind of physical disability. Genesis 48:10 says that “the eyes of Israel [Jacob] were heavy from age: he could not see (Darby Translation). In Isaiah 6:10, heavy ears belong to people who cannot hear (the same idea is present in the Hebrew of Isaiah 59:1 and Zechariah 7:11).
Because Moses’ words imply the idea of physical disability, many modern commentators have said that Moses’ inability to speak well was caused by a medical condition that caused stammering. According to modern research on the problem of stammering, emotional stress and anxiety can cause a person to stutter. This view says that Moses probably suffered some traumatic experience in his youth that caused him to stammer or that Moses had suffered an intense mental and emotional situation that led him to stutter.
S. Levin, in his article “The Speech Defect of Moses,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 86 (October 1992): 632-633, has proposed a new theory to explain Moses’ speech problem. Levin proposed that Moses had a cleft lip. Levin wrote that in describing his condition, Moses said he was “heavy of mouth,” “heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10) and “uncircumcised of lips” (Exodus 6:12 KJV). Levin said that to the Israelites, the uncircumcision of the Philistines was considered a physical defect and a deformity that needed to be corrected.
According to Levin, Moses’ words in Exodus 4:10 and Exodus 6:12 clearly suggest that there was a problem with Moses’ mouth and that this was the reason Pharaoh would not listen to him: “I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?” (Exodus 6:30 KJV).
In his article, Levin provided several examples from the book of Exodus that he said clearly demonstrate that Moses was born with a physical malformation. For example, Levin said that because of his cleft lip, Moses was easily recognized as the person who killed the Egyptian. He said that Moses was not appointed a high priest because the law did not allow a person with a physical defect to serve as a priest (Leviticus 21:16-21). In addition, he said that after Moses was born, his mother hid him for three months because of maternal embarrassment at his physical abnormality.
Levin wrote that cleft lip is a relative frequent anomaly in babies. According to Levin, about 1 in 1000 babies is born with a cleft lip and that this situation in more prevalent in oriental babies and more common in males.
I find Levin’s argument unpersuasive. Although Moses’ words apparently suggest that he was afflicted with some kind of physical disability instead of lack of eloquence, the text does not provide enough information to help interpreters to identify the cause of Moses’ speech problem.
Tigay has made reference to an Akkadian cognate for the Hebrew word heavy (kbd) by saying that the Akkadian word kabātu “is used in medical texts as a symptom of several parts of the body” (p. 58). Parts of the body that are afflicted with “heaviness” include the head, knee, shins, feet, eyes, nose, and mouth.
Thus, English versions that speak of Moses’ ineloquence, that is, that he was a poor speaker, may be providing an interpretation to Moses’ words that is foreign to the text. The view that Moses had forgotten his Egyptian or his Hebrew does not reflect the true meaning of Exodus 4:10. Although the text seems to indicate that Moses had a physical disability, the text does not provide interpreters with enough information to help them diagnose Moses’ medical condition. The view that Moses’ speech difficulty was caused by a medical condition is almost certain. That this medical condition was stammering or a cleft lip is impossible to determine.
My next post will deal with the question of whether Moses was left-handed. Read the post here.
Adam Clark, Clark’s Commentary on the Old Testament. The Ages Digital Library. In loco (Commentary on Exodus 4:10).
S. Levin, “The Speech Defect of Moses,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 86 (October 1992): 632-33.
Jeffry H. Tigay, “‘Heavy of Mouth’ and ‘Heavy of Tongue’: On Moses’ Speech Difficulty,” BASOR 231 (1978): 57-67.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary