What is the significance of Exodus 3:18–4:9?

The Lord tells Moses that the elders of Israel will heed his voice (vs. 18). Moses says, “suppose they do not believe me or listen to me…” (4:1). God performs a miracle “so that they may believe that the Lord…has appeared to you” (vs. 5). Moses remains unconvinced so the Lord performs a second miracle and comments, “If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign. But if they will not believe even these two signs or heed you, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground” (vs. 8–9).

If the future is eternally settled in God’s mind, God would have known exactly how many miracles, if any, it would take in order for the elders to believe Moses. The meaning of the words he chose (“if,” “may”) could not be sincere. If we believe that God speaks straightforwardly, however, it seems that he didn’t know exactly how the elders would respond to Moses.

This verse demonstrates that God is confident in his ability to achieve the results he is looking for (e.g. getting the elders of Israel to listen to Moses) even though he must work with free agents who are, to some extent, unpredictable. He relies on his infinite wisdom and a degree of providential guidance in order to accomplish his goals. We have difficulty fathoming such a wise, gentle yet powerful sovereignty, which is perhaps why many are inclined to believe that God needs something like a “crystal ball” vision of what is coming in order to accomplish his purposes. If we simply allow the text to say what the text says, however, we are led to embrace the beautiful truth that God is omni-resourceful and thus doesn’t need to have everything in the future settled. He is confident he can persuade the elders of Israel to listen to Moses, though he is not sure how many miracles he’ll have to perform in order to achieve this goal.

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