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Twice in Exodus Moses declares that he has "uncircumcised lips."

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?” (Exodus 6:12, ESV)

But Moses said to the LORD, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips. How will Pharaoh listen to me?” (6:30)

It is clear enough from the context, that Moses means he is "unskilled at speaking" (and some translations take it that way). However, the question remains why use this expression to say so?

A couple commentaries I checked seemed to think it was unlikely to have been a pre-existing idiom, but rather one coined by Moses (or Exodus' author). Either way, it seems unlikely to me that it means simply "unskilled," but rather has a slightly different connotation in some way. Historically, some commentators thought it was used to refer to a physical impediment. Is that option still viable? What other viable explanations have been offered?

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  • See also Jeremiah 6:10, where the explanation in the text is more direct. – Susan Nov 20 '15 at 1:26
  • @Susan Might the clause be a question? "Am I of uncircumcised lips"? As in: "But Moses said to the LORD, “Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me. How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for am I of uncircumcised lips?”" – user10231 May 1 '16 at 14:25
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The NET translates this passage thusly

But Moses replied to the Lord, “If the Israelites did not listen to me, then how will Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with difficulty?”

Their justification for this is helpful and can be found in the notes provided along with the translation

The “lips” represent his speech (metonymy of cause). The term “uncircumcised” makes a comparison between his speech and that which Israel perceived as unacceptable, unprepared, foreign, and of no use to God. The heart is described this way when it is impervious to good impressions (Lev 26:41; Jer 9:26) and the ear when it hears imperfectly (Jer 6:10). Moses has here returned to his earlier claim – he does not speak well enough to be doing this.

The first step in the conversion process to Judaism (for men) was circumcision.(Genesis 34) Babies born into Judaism were to be circumcised on the 8th day and slaves which were purchased were to be immediately circumcised and this was to be a sign of God's covenant with His people. (Genesis 17)

Therefore, any who were uncircumcised were not dedicated to the LORD and unfit for His service. For this reason, anyone wishing to participate in Passover had to be circumcised.

Similarly, Moses had to be circumcised before he was fit for service to the LORD and he was not allowed to go before Pharaoh before he was circumcised. This was therefore Moses' way of saying that he was unfit for service as the mouthpiece of Israel.

Another interesting aspect of this is that there are many scholars who believe Moses may have had a speech impediment - a tradition which has been around for quite some. In antiquity, the culture was extremely superstitious. Any malady, infirmaty, handicap or disorder was typically thought to be a result of sin - even accidents and so forth. It is for this reason that we see this passage in John 9:1-2

Now as Jesus was passing by, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who committed the sin that caused him to be born blind, this man or his parents?”

Furthermore, being unclean was synonymous with being sinful. This is why there was often little separation between being unclean due to something like Leprosy and being unclean due to a sinful deed. Unfortunate afflictions like Leprosy were simply proof of one's sinful deed. If Moses' mouth was unclean due to a speech impediment or oral deformity, saying he was uncircumcised is another way to say that his mouth is unclean.

This can be seen in Leviticus 12:1-3 in which a woman becomes clean again after 7 days by circumcising her Son. For this reason, those who were uncircumcised were also unclean. (Isaiah 52:1)

Wake up! Wake up! Clothe yourself with strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful clothes, O Jerusalem, holy city! For uncircumcised and unclean pagans will no longer invade you.

Conclusion

Moses' lips were uncircumcised because Moses thought they were unfit for service to God. They were uncircumcised because they were unclean due to sin which can be seen and heard in his speech deformity. For this reason, Moses' speech was described as "faltering" and "unskilled" and Moses was said to speak "with difficulty" in other translations. Moses believed his lips were sinful, unclean and generally unfit for service to God as a result of his trouble with speech and thus describe his lips as "uncircumcised".

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Circumcision was a "legal" contract with god. As Both Aaron & Moses were of the Levite tribe, they both had a birthright to be religious leaders of Israel, however since Moses was cast into the river or reeds, he was of the house of Pharaoh and lost his legitimate rite to speak for and to the people of Israel. This is the meaning of the uncircumcized lips, he had no right to speak for and to the people of Israel. Here God tells Moses to speak to Pharoah on behalf of the Hebrews, and Moses replies that he has no authority to do so, and that he does not even have authority to speak to the people is also mentioned as the people do not hearken to him. God replies that Aaron will be Mose's prophet, and Moses will speak to Pharaoh thus Aaron is included to give the legitimate go-between of Israel and Moses. No doubt the phrase "uncircumcized lips" was a common phrase of the time that meant "authority to speak", it could be researched more in Egyption sayings, as Moses did use the speech phrases of his time and place (egyption)

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  • The word king מל-כ-ו - circumcise מל the son of God's כ word ו . Moses wondered why the king would hear one who was not a king. – Bob Jones Jul 4 '20 at 0:11
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וידבר משה
then says Moses

לפני יי לאמר
to the LORD to say

הן בני ישראל
here sons of Israel

לא שמעו אלי
they don't listen to me

ואיך ישמעני פרעה
how then will pharoah listen to me

ואני ערל שפתים
and I am unfamiliar in speech

I don't think [ערל] means "uncircumcised" literally. They are "uncircumcised" by implication, persons who are not familiar to Jewish/Israeli customs would in biblical times highly probably be "uncircumcised".

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    How/why would Moses qualify as being unfamiliar with Jewish customs? – James Shewey Nov 19 '15 at 9:02
  • The word [ערל] is "unfamiliar" with slight implication of "uncouth", not "unfamiliar with Jewish customs". [ערל שפתים] = unfamiliar of speech. I gave the reasoning how the word [ערל] as found used elsewhere in the Bible, actually means unfamiliar people in the midst of Israel. – Cynthia Avishegnath Nov 19 '15 at 15:01
  • Really? People downvote me for giving you the correct translation? Really you actually thought the word [שפתים] after [ערל] has no use in the sentence? – Cynthia Avishegnath Nov 19 '15 at 15:02
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    No, people downvoted you because you did not show your work or provide cogent reason as to why your translation is correct. If I wanted to get a "correct" translation, I'd just use biblegateway. The OPs question wasn't even "what should the translation be" it was "why did Moses use this phrase instead of something straightforward and what does it mean", so actually answering the OPs question will help you get upvotes too. – James Shewey Nov 19 '15 at 16:09
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    This barely attempts to answer my question. I did not ask for a translation, I asked why the word "uncircumcised" was used. Obviously, it cannot be literal; merely saying it means "unfamiliar" does not answer the actual question of why ערל was used instead of a more straight-forward phrasing. – ThaddeusB Nov 19 '15 at 17:04

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