There are many turns of phrases and unfamiliar phrasings throughout the Bible that can call into question our interpretation of things or lead us to take a second look at the intention behind them. As I was reading through Exodus, one such instance caught my eye in Exodus 6:12-13, which states: “But Moses said to the Lord, “Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me. How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?” But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and gave them a charge about the people of Israel and about Pharaoh king of Egypt: to bring the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt.“
The mention of uncircumcised lips admittedly gave me a moment of pause. Despite the emphasis placed upon circumcision in the Bible, it seemed like a strange way of phrasing that. I was prepared to dismiss it as a peculiar turn of phrase, but the same phrase cropped up again in Exodus 6:28-30: “On the day when the Lord spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, the Lord said to Moses, “I am the Lord; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say to you.” But Moses said to the Lord, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips. How will Pharaoh listen to me?”“
Exploring this interpretation of the phrase called me back to an earlier passage in Exodus 4:10-13: “But 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.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.”” We see this repeated assertion that Moses seemed to have issues with speech. The text does not specify to what extent, but we can garner an understand from his claims that he wasn’t eloquent and he wanted God to choose someone else as a representative. Even after Moses had been given miraculous signs in order to illustrate the authority and mission bestowed upon him by the Lord, he still felt that his poor manner of speech was enough to make him unworthy in the eyes of his people.
In my research, I came across this article, which offered a unique comparison for the question I was asking. As Rabbi Isaacs states, the Torah discusses different forms of circumcision beyond just the physical. In fact, she asserts that “The Jewish people (in the physical case, men) are challenged not only to have an external circumcision, but also an internal one, a circumcision of the heart. This language is often used to signal the importance of humility and submission to the will of God and Law.“ Some scholars believe that the verses in Exodus point towards Moses having a stutter or some other manner of speech impediment that might have made him hesitant to speak up on God’s behalf. However, this article also offers a unique alternative perspective: in terms of the narrative, perhaps Moses’s struggle with speech was directly tied to and symbolic of the exile of his people and their eventual freedom and reconnection with God.
An article by Steve Rodeheaver seems to reinforce that the phrase has literary significance, as well as physical representation through Moses’s poor speech. He states that “…circumcision marked one as belonging to God’s covenant people. It was a sign of God’s ownership and promises. When Moses says that his lips are not circumcised he is saying that when he speaks there is no sign of God.” This seems to offer an interesting combination of the literal and the symbolic. Moses does seem to labor under “heavy lips and a heavy tongue,” but there seems to be a greater literary significance in Moses initially being hesitant to take on God’s task before he became more self-assured with it.
Another instance that offers explanation for both the literal and symbolic meaning of uncircumcised lips can be found in this commentary on Exodus. It states that “”Uncircumcised” is used, according to the Hebrew idiom, for any imperfection which interferes with efficiency.” This supplements what we have seen thus far, in showing that Moses struggled with speech in some ways, but it also leaves room for a more symbolic reasoning behind why Moses’s trouble with speech made him hesitant and concerned about his efficacy at first.
Circumcision was an immensely important gesture to the Israelite people, as it was representative of their covenant with God. We see this importance stressed countless times through the Bible after its inception. In equating his poor speech to being uncircumcised, Moses was drawing a parallel to illustrate how truly inadequate and undeserving he felt of the task that God had set before him. We think of great leaders as being charismatic and magnetic in their influence over their followers, yet we are told numerous times that Moses had a “heavy tongue” and that he had Aaron do much of the speaking for him. This is not the first time in the Bible where someone who deemed themselves unworthy was chosen for a task by God, nor will it be the last. Perhaps in terms of the narrative, that was a device meant to show how even the most tentative of people could step into a successful leadership role and take part in an epic narrative.
In the end, I think it’s fascinating to consider that the phrase had a dual meaning. It certainly seems to speak to Moses’s struggles with speech, but I believe there is a larger literary meaning there as well, in showing a symbolic link between Moses’s own struggles and the greater struggle of his people.