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Moses & Aaron & Their Staff(s): Biblical Contradictions?

Moses & Aaron & Their Staff(s): Biblical Contradictions? November 21, 2020

vs. Dr. Steven DiMattei

Dr. Steven DiMattei is a biblical scholar and author, formally trained in the New Testament and early Christianity, with M.A degrees in Classics and Comparative Literature as well. Rumor has it that he is an atheist, but I haven’t been able to confirm that on his site. He put up a website called Contradictions in the Bible. It seems inactive now (or he has lost interest or moved onto other things: who knows?), but the themes are things I really enjoy discussing and debating, and his articles are still online for all to see; thus fair game for critique — and stimulating food for thought, too. There is almost nothing I like to discuss and think about more than the interpretation of the Bible. Steven wrote in a post dated 5-7-16:

One of my reasons in choosing the word “defend” to describe my aims as a biblical scholar and author was in part to attract Christian apologists to my work and hopefully to get them to read these ancient texts on their terms and from within their own cultural contexts and to create a conversation around the biblical texts, their authors, and their competing beliefs, messages, worldviews, theologies, etc. As you can imagine this has proven quite difficult, nay impossible. Many Christian apologists and fundamentalists just cannot read, or simply identify, the text on its own terms separate from the beliefs and assumptions about the text handed-down through this collection of ancient literature’s title, “the Holy Book.”

Here  I am: an apologist quite willing to engage in conversation. It takes two. So we’ll see if Steven is willing to follow through on his stated desire. I have had my own long history (in almost 40 years of apologetics) of “difficult, nay impossible” attempts to discuss matters with many people who tend to be of a few particular belief-systems, though I have no problem talking with anyone who is civil and can stick to a topic. I don’t just say this, I have a demonstrable record of doing it, which is evident on my blog, with its 1000+ dialogues. But as I said, dialogue takes two, and I would add that it also requires a degree of at least minimal mutual respect. Steven’s words will be in blue.

*****

Steven makes a great deal about these alleged biblical contradictions in at least three articles:

#91. Moses’ staff OR Aaron’s staff OR God’s staff? (Ex 4:2, 7:15, 17:20, 9:23, 10:13 vs Ex 7:9-12, 7:19 vs Ex 4:20, )

#92. Does the staff turn into a snake OR a serpent? (Ex 4:3 vs Ex 7:9-10)

#105. Does Moses strike the Nile with his staff for the first plague OR does Aaron with his own staff? (Ex 7:15-18 vs Ex 7:19-20)

I think his fundamental fallacy, spread throughout these articles and many others, is thinking in “either/or” (hyper-rationalistic) terms, as opposed to the “both/and” outlook, which typifies the biblical and ancient Hebrew outlook. We shall see how this is a wrong path and frequent source of confusion in his arguments, and indeed, massively in scores of arguments about alleged biblical contradictions from all sorts of biblical skeptics (I’ve refuted these errors in particulars scores of times, myself).

Exodus 4:2, 7:15, 7:20, 9:23, and 10:13 all indicate that the staff or rod involved in producing Yahweh’s signs was Moses’ staff, perhaps even his personal shepherd’s staff. Indeed 4:2, which introduces the staff in the narrative, seems to imply that it was already on Moses’ person: “‘What’s this in your hand?’ ‘A staff.’”

However, Ex 7:10, 7:12, 7:19, 8:1, and 8:12 refer to the same staff now as “Aaron’s staff” and, more surprisingly, depict Aaron, not Moses, performing the famous rod-to-snake, err -serpent (see #92) sign. But if that weren’t enough then there is the reference in Ex 4:20 to the staff as—literally—“the god’s staff.” So whose staff was this: Yahweh’s, Moses’ or Aaron’s? [#91]

I would say, “why must we necessarily choose?” It could refer to one and the same. The Wikipedia article, “Staff of Moses” observed:

Relation to Aaron’s rod

Because Aaron’s rod and Moses’ rod are both given similar, seemingly interchangeable, powers, Rabbinical scholars debated whether or not the two rods were one and the same. According to the Midrash Yelammedenu (Yalḳ. on Ps. ex. § 869):

the staff with which Jacob crossed the Jordan is identical with that which Judah gave to his daughter-in-law, Tamar (Gen. xxxii. 10, xxxviii. 18). It is likewise the holy rod with which Moses worked (Ex. iv. 20, 21), with which Aaron performed wonders before Pharaoh (Ex. vii. 10), and with which, finally, David slew the giant Goliath (I Sam. xvii. 40). David left it to his descendants, . . .

It has to be understood also that Aaron functioned as Moses’ assistant or representative:

Exodus 4:10-16 (RSV) But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either heretofore or since thou hast spoken to thy servant; but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” [11] Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? [12] Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” [13] But he said, “Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person.” [14] Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well; and behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you he will be glad in his heart. [15] And you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. [16] He shall speak for you to the people; and he shall be a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God.

Hence, the phrase “Moses and Aaron” appears 64 times in the RSV, in the [Protestant 66 book) Old Testament: all but five of these instances in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The great bulk of these in Exodus occur in chapters 4-12, then there are only four more instances in chapters 16, 24, and 40. Basically, then, the usage is almost confined to the first third of the book. It’s as if Moses gained more confidence over time and started speaking and acting on his own as time went on. Wikipedia, “Aaron” comments:

According to the Book of Exodus, Aaron first functioned as Moses’ assistant. Because Moses complained that he could not speak well, God appointed Aaron as Moses’ “prophet” (Exodus 4:10-17; 7:1). At the command of Moses, he let his rod turn into a snake. Then he stretched out his rod in order to bring on the first three plagues. After that, Moses tended to act and speak for himself.

During the journey in the wilderness, Aaron was not always prominent or active. At the battle with Amalek, he was chosen with Hur to support the hand of Moses that held the “rod of God”. When the revelation was given to Moses at biblical Mount Sinai, he headed the elders of Israel who accompanied Moses on the way to the summit. While Joshua went with Moses to the top, however, Aaron and Hur remained below to look after the people. From here on in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, Joshua appears in the role of Moses’ assistant while Aaron functions instead as the first high priest.

The initial relationship of Moses and Aaron– ordained by God — is typified in the following passage:

Exodus 4:27-30 The LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went, and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. [28] And Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD with which he had sent him, and all the signs which he had charged him to do. [29] Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. [30] And Aaron spoke all the words which the LORD had spoken to Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people.

It is not unbiblical or “unHebraic” at all for the Bible to refer to creatures as representatives of other creatures or of God Himself. I wrote in another article of mine:

Another fascinating motif in Scripture is “the angel of the Lord”: who is sometimes referred to as God Himself; other times as His direct representative. In one passage (Judges 13:15-22), we see reference to God (13:16, 19, 22), but also to the angel of the Lord as His direct representative (13:15-18, 20-21 and in the larger passage, 13:3, 6, 9, 13). The angel is honored (v. 17), they fall on their faces to worship (v. 20) and at length the angel is equated with God as His visible manifestation (v. 22). But the difference between the angel and God is highlighted by the angel being described as a “man of God” (13:6, 8) and “the man” (13:10-11).

Elsewhere, the angel of the Lord is equated with God (theophany) in Genesis 31:11-13 and Judges 2:1, but differentiated from God as well, as a representative: (2 Sam 24:16; 1 Ki 19:6-7; 2 Ki 19:35; Dan 3:25, 28; 6:23; Zech 1:8-14). Even with Moses and the burning bush, there is a reference to “the Angel of the Lord” (Ex 3:2) and yet two verses later, “God called to him out of the bush.”

We also see an equation of God’s work and the work of men who follow Him (“both/and”), in St. Paul and the Gospel of Mark:

Mark 16:20 And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.

1 Corinthians 3:9 For we are God’s fellow workers; . . .

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.

1 Corinthians 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Because of this sort of “both/and” thinking, the idea that the staff or rod could be both Moses’ staff and God’s (and/or also Aaron’s) at the same time is perfectly biblical. Steven himself acknowledges at least this possibility:

Granted some of these references are to be understood metaphorically (e.g. Isa 30-32; Ezek 30:24-25), but others clearly are not, such as the reference in Ex 4:20 to “the god’s staff.” [RSV: “rod of God”] There is nothing metaphorical about this; apparently it is the rod that Moses holds in his hand (4:2-5). . . . 

Thus it is not inconceivable that Moses’ rod is some sort of divine staff, or perhaps an extension of Yahweh’s staff, . . . [#91]

A further related biblical passage bears this out:

Exodus 17:9 And Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out, fight with Am’alek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.”

It is simultaneously God’s and it is Moses’ rod or staff. In biblical thinking this is not a contradiction, as shown by analogy above. God calls this same staff of Moses “your rod” (Ex 14:16) and He also refers to “the rod of Aaron” (Num 17:10; cf. 17:6, 8).

It is apparent what the Priestly writer is up to. Moses is relegated to the position of Yahweh’s mouthpiece. And this is the traditional view. It is Moses who communicates verbally with Yahweh and it is Moses who conveys verbally Yahweh’s commandments and wishes. Even in P’s plague narrative Yahweh commands Moses to tell Aaron to take up his staff and perform the sign. [#91]

If Moses can be God‘s “mouthpiece” then by the same token and by analogy, Aaron could be Moses’ mouthpiece and act on his behalf as a representative, with his rod. No problem. No “contradiction.” Nor is it a contradiction later on when Moses habitually acts on his own, with the staff, or rod (Ex 9:23; 10:13; 14:16 cf. 14:21, 26-27). The important thing is that God is in control of the whole thing and His will is accomplished through the words and actions of Moses and Aaron, as His representatives (and Aaron as Moses’ spokesman or mouthpiece or representative / assistant). Where Steven and others see supposed “contradictions” we see men of God working together in concert with God, to do His will, because God was at work in them, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13).

Steven doesn’t fully understand this, so he attempts to create yet another of his innumerable proposed “biblical contradictions” in his piece #105 (see above). Here is the complete passage that he thinks is self-contradictory:

Exodus 7:14-20 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he refuses to let the people go. [15] Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; wait for him by the river’s brink, and take in your hand the rod which was turned into a serpent. [16] And you shall say to him, `The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness; and behold, you have not yet obeyed.” [17] Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, I will strike the water that is in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it shall be turned to blood, [18] and the fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile shall become foul, and the Egyptians will loathe to drink water from the Nile.”” [19] And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, `Take your rod and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'” [20] Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded; in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants, he lifted up the rod and struck the water that was in the Nile, and all the water that was in the Nile turned to blood.

It’s quite obvious (the “both/and” biblical / Hebraic thinking that I have explained, being understood prior to interpreting this passage), that Aaron is Moses’ representative. This was already fully explained three chapters earlier. I reiterate the key part of it:

Exodus 4:15-16 And you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. [16] He shall speak for you to the people; and he shall be a mouth for you, . . .

With this interpretative / exegetical / cross-referenced understanding and background, the meaning of Exodus 7:14-20 is quite clear. When God says to Moses, “you shall say to him . . .” (7:16), it’s understood that this could or would include Aaron as his spokesman (4:15-16). In case anyone misses this aspect, God specifically tells Moses to “Say to Aaron” [the same stuff God told him to do] (7:19). Then the text summarizes that they worked in concert (“Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded . . .”: 7:20). It’s fascinating that after mentioning both, the text states, “he lifted up the rod . . ” We can’t immediately tell which one did it.  But the context of 7:19 strongly suggests that Aaron did: according to his role as assistant. There simply is no difficulty. Steven will have to strike this off of his long “dirty laundry list” of alleged biblical “contradictions” (or else explain to us how what I have argued is incorrect and false).

In case anyone missed the “arrangement” the same thing happens in the next chapter. God told Moses to warn Pharaoh of the plague of frogs (8:1-4). Then God tells Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out his hand, to cause the plague to start (8:5-6). It’s a joint effort. Even Pharaoh knows this, since it is reported, “Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron” (8:8). He addressed both of them. Moses alone answered (8:9-11). Yet the text says that Pharaoh “would not listen to them” (8:15). Then God tells Moses to tell Aaron to cause the plague of gnats (8:16), and again the narrative notes that Pharaoh “would not listen to them” (8:19). They’re workin’ together to do God’s will. It’s no “contradiction” at all. Even Pharaoh (in effect serving as a “hostile witness”) knows it, but our beloved biblical skeptics do not.

Exodus 9 continues the notice of joint effort. God sometimes says what He says to Moses alone (9:1, 12-13, 22), and also sometimes to “Moses and Aaron” (9:8). When God speaks to only one of them; it’s almost always to Moses, as the leader. Then it’s reported that “Moses said to Aaron” (16:9, 33; 32:21). The only time God speaks directly to Aaron alone in the book of Exodus, He says, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses” (4:27). The same pattern holds in Leviticus. It’s always Moses telling Aaron what God told him, except one time, where God is instructing Aaron of his duties as high priest, which is a different function altogether: one that he alone does, and not Moses (see Ex 10:8-11). Even then, Moses informs Aaron of additional instructions (10:12-15).

[W]hat Yahweh had commanded in Exodus 7:14-18 was not done. Moses did not strike the Nile with his staff. Aaron did, and with his own staff! [#105]

But Steven doesn’t comprehend what has just been explained. I don’t think it’s rocket science. It’s simply taking the Bible at face value, on its own terms. But prior (overly “critical”) bias interferes with that goal. He goes on to indulge in great speculation about how all this is supposedly designed, and is contradictory. But he never considers the factors that I bring to bear above, which are all (I think) plausible exegetical arguments as to how the text can be plausibly harmonized and synthesized. I think he needs to.

Lastly, Steven (using fallacious documentary hypothesis categories and analysis) wants to make an issue of whether the staff was turned into a snake or serpent, in his piece #92 (see above):

Not only do the Elohist and Priestly sources disagree on whose staff we’re talking about: Moses’ or Aaron’s (#91), but they also use different terms when it comes to describing the serpent or snake it turns into. In E (4:3) the staff becomes a snake (nahash[Strong’s word #5175], but in P (7:10) it becomes a serpent (tannîn) [Strong’s word #8577]. Each author chose a different term, and the Priestly writer might have even had a reason for changing nahash to tannin.

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible comments on Exodus 7:10:

and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and it became a serpent: or a “dragon”, as the Septuagint version; this word is sometimes used of great whales, Genesis 1:21 and of the crocodile, Ezekiel 29:3 and it is very likely the crocodile is meant here, as Dr. Lightfoot thinks; since this was frequent in the Nile, the river of Egypt, where the Hebrew infants had been cast, and into whose devouring jaws they fell, and which also was an Egyptian deity.

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible adds:

Here a more general term, תנין tannı̂yn, is employed, which in other passages includes all sea or river monsters, and is more specially applied to the crocodile as a symbol of Egypt. It occurs in the Egyptian ritual, nearly in the same form, “Tanem,” as a synonym of the monster serpent which represents the principle of antagonism to light and life.

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers interprets Exodus 4:3:

(3) A serpent.—The word here used (nakhash) is a generic one for a snake of any kind, and tells us nothing as to the species. A different word (tannin) is used in Exodus 7:10, while nakhash recurs in Exodus 7:15Tannin is, like nakhasha generic term.

The third comment above provides, I think, the best answer to the false conundrum raised by Steven. A generic term doesn’t contradict a more specific term. It would be like references to the same item as “book” and “romance novel paperback”. They don’t contradict, since “paperback” is a species of “book” and “romance novel” is a type of literature in a book (whether hardback or not). Strong’s Concordance defines nahash as “serpent” and tannin as “serpent, dragon, sea monster.” We see, then, that an acceptable translation of both is “serpent”: and thus RSV renders all five of the Exodus passages in question as “serpent.”

The Amplified Bible, which was designed to bring out the literal meanings of words in context, is fascinating in this regard:

Exodus 4:3 . . . a serpent [the symbol of royal and divine power worn on the crown of the Pharaohs] . . .  ][“serpent” used for 7:9-10, 12, 15]

The second point made is as important and instructive as the first. The author of Exodus clearly uses the terms as synonyms in some sense (whether generic or not), since he utilizes nahash at 4:3 and 7:15 and tannin at 7:9-10, 12: all (except 4:3, in which God gives a “sneak preview”) referring to exactly the same incident. Thus, within three verses of each other (7:12 and 7:15), the author uses two Hebrew words for the same object. And this is supposed to be a “contradiction”? It’s not. It would be like saying “paperback” and “book.” I could say, for example, about my own books: “my first book is a paperback.” The two words refer to the same thing.

Taking a look at the many Bible translations in my library, I see that the RSV practice of using “serpent” for both 7:12 and 7:15 is followed by at least six major versions (Knox, Douay/Rheims, NASB, KJV, ASV, Jewish 1917; while NRSV uses “snake” twice). In other instances where there are different terms, they can clearly be harmonized with each other as referring to the same thing in different ways:

snake / serpent: Confraternity, NAB

serpent / snake: NEB, REB

reptile / snake: Moffatt, Goodspeed

In none of these instances is there the slightest contradiction. If we look up serpent at Dictionary.com, the very first definition it gives is “snake.” Merriam-Webster Online states first: “1a archaic a noxious creature that creeps, hisses, or stings” and then “snake.” Snake in the same source is first defined as “any of numerous limbless scaled reptiles (suborder Serpentes . . .” and in Dictionary.com first, similarly, as “any of numerous limbless, scaly, elongate reptiles of the suborder Serpentes . . .”

It’s all much ado about nothing. These are the absurd lengths biblical skeptics will go to find a (or any!) zealously sought-after, notorious “biblical contradiction.” It’s a case study in misguided zeal blinding one. Straining at gnats, Steven thinks he is milking this “rod motif” for all it’s worth and comes up with another of his so-called “contradictions”:

#103. Does Aaron perform the rod-to-snake/serpent trick in front of the Israelites OR Pharaoh? (Ex 4:30 vs 7:10)

Here he writes:

[T]oday’s contradiction is more a doublet than anything else. . . . Yahweh originally commands Moses to perform the signs in front of the people so that they believe Moses (4:5, 4:17), then he commands Moses to do them in front of Pharaoh (4:21).

And how is that a contradiction, pray tell? Signs and miracles always had this dual purpose: to embolden and strengthen the faith of the believers (e.g., Ex 4:8-9, 30-31; 10:2; Num 14:11, 22; Dt 4:34; 7:19; 26:8; Josh 24:17) and to persuade unbelievers that there was a God Who did such things (e.g., Ex 7:3, 9-10; 10:1; Dt 6:22; 11:3; 34:11). This is a common occurrence all through the Bible, and it’s not a contradiction. After Moses parted the Red Sea, the Bible states:

Exodus 14:31 And Israel saw the great work which the LORD did against the Egyptians, and the people feared the LORD; and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Moses and Aaron simply “killed two birds” (persuading the Hebrews and the Egyptians of God’s power and faithfulness) with one “stone” (signs and wonders by means of the “rod of God”).

Case closed . . .

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Photo credit: Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh (1537), by Master of the Dinteville Allegory [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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