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?

  • See also Jeremiah 6:10, where the explanation in the text is more direct.
    – Susan
    Nov 20, 2015 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, 2016 at 14:25

7 Answers 7


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.


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".


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)

  • 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, 2020 at 0:11

I think it refers to "readiness to serve GOD", which in effect means not able or contracted to speak for GOD. One is circumcised as a sign of a covenant with GOD. Once we are circumcised we are "ready" for our life under GOD, in all ways. Moses was saying his lips were not prepared for GOD'S service.

Meaning: Unskilled speaker generally and definitely not anointed to speak for the LORD!

  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Nov 27, 2021 at 23:09

Circumcision made one holy according to Jewish custom. So one that knows God as Lord of their life knows that our lips (speech,language) is unholy. We are very challenged this side of Gods kingdom to make demands and give reason without condemning someone….and it is our voice carried by the prince of the air that has the power to rob, kill and destroy lives

  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Mar 31, 2022 at 2:32

Uncircumcised lips does not imply a speech impediment. When a child is circumcised in the foreskin of the penis, it does not mean that there was a physical disability in the penis, which we have restored. Circumcision is a metonymy for consecration, sanctification, clean. Uncircumcision is a metonymy for unclean, like Gentile pagans, dirty. Thus, the translations which render it as speech impediment, are childish in their understanding of basic figure of speech.

The sense in which the word is used clearly shows that Moses is afraid and deems himself unworthy to speak to Pharaoh, who is a God. It has the same meaning as Isaiah 6:5 where he calls himself unworthy to see and speak to God, for having unclean lips ἀκάθαρτα χείλη. Not because Moses and Isaiah were really unclean, filthy like the Gentiles, but because they deemed themselves unworthy in fear.

Moses, a man of unclean lips: After seeing the vision of the throne of God and the glory of God and seeing the Lord high and lifted up upon a throne, Isaiah said, “… Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:4) Isaiah did not try to make any excuses, he did not try to look better than he was, he did not try to reason out what he was seeing. Isaiah admitted that he was a man of unclean lips and that his people were as well and that he had no right to be standing and looking upon the glory and righteousness, holiness, and majesty of the Lord of hosts. Isaiah humbled himself and confessed before God that he was a sinner and undone and unclean.

There were other times in the Bible that people had an encounter with God and felt themselves unworthy and unable to speak. After one encounter with God, Moses declared that he was a man “of uncircumcised lips?” (See Exodus 6:12) When Jeremiah had an encounter with God, he said, “Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.” (See Jeremiah 1:6) When the Israelites had an encounter with God at Mt. Sinai, “they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” (See Exodus 20:19)

For each of these people mentioned above, God had a solution. For the Israelites, God allowed Moses to be their go-between and speak to God and carry God’s message to them. When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, He said, “…I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say.” (Exodus 4:12) Later, when Moses and Aaron stood before Pharaoh, God said to Moses, “Thou shalt speak all that I command thee: and Aaron thy brother shall speak unto Pharaoh…” (Exodus 7:2) The Lord said to Jeremiah, “…Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.” (Jeremiah 1:7) Moses, Aaron, and Jeremiah were all of unclean lips and felt inadequate to do God’s work. However, God put His words in their mouths so that they could speak with confidence because the message was from Him.

The sages translated the uncircumcised lips as ἄλογός in LXX Exodus 6:12, which means a-logos- illogical, unreasonable as animals. The uncircumcised Gentiles were also viewed as dirty, filthy, sinners as to be irrational and unreasonable animals. For this reason the NT also used the word ἄλογός in the same context, as brute irrational animals/pagans.

  • Jude 1:10 (ESV) But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like ἄλογα unreasoning animals, understand instinctively.

  • 2 Peter 2:12 (ESV) But these, like ἄλογα irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction,

By abusing himself as an unclean man, Moses is merely showing his fear and lack of confidence in facing the Pharaoh.


These are only my thoughts when reading this passage. Moses told God he could not speak before pharaoh because he had uncircumcised lips. What did he mean? His flesh was circumcised as a sign of the covenant between him and God. This could be easily seen if necessary. But when Moses spoke to the Israelites, they did not accept his message. How could he go before pharaoh with God’s message, if God’s people did not accept the message God gave him? He feared without their acceptance, he had no sign, showing his message was from God.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics.SE and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others.
    – agarza
    Feb 27, 2023 at 21:35
  • Welcome to the site, Rich. You seem to have the beginnings of an answer here, but a lot more is needed to provide a hermeneutic one. Evidence has to be offered, on the basis of the text in question, so if you can do a bit more work, that would be good.
    – Anne
    Mar 1, 2023 at 18:00

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".

  • 1
    How/why would Moses qualify as being unfamiliar with Jewish customs? Nov 19, 2015 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
    Nov 19, 2015 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
    Nov 19, 2015 at 15:02
  • 2
    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. Nov 19, 2015 at 16:09
  • 2
    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, 2015 at 17:04

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.