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Exodus 4:16 is typically translated as something like

"Moreover, he shall speak for you to the people; and he will be as a mouth for you and you will be as God to him." (NASB 1995)

Yet, Bill Schlegel in John 1:1 is parallel to the man Moses? says

"Now, most English translations put in the word “as” in translating God’s declaration: “you shall be as God to him”. But the Hebrew of this verse וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּֽהְיֶה־לּ֥וֹ לֵֽאלֹהִֽים does not have the word “as” in it. The more literal translation is “You will be God to him” (cf. Exo. 29:45; Jer. 24:7, 32:8; Eze. 34:24; Zec. 8:8)."

There is obviously a discrepancy between what Schlegel is saying and what the standard translation is of Exodus 4:16, although Schlegel wouldn't disagree about the intended sense of 4:16 - Moses isn't literally God.

The Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament also drops the 'as' in commentary on Exodus 4

""Put the words" (sc., which I have told thee) "into his mouth;" and I will support both thee and him in speaking. "He will be mouth to thee, and thou shalt be God to him." Cf. Exodus 7:1, "Thy brother Aaron shall be thy prophet." Aaron would stand in the same relation to Moses, as a prophet to God: the prophet only spoke what God inspired him with, and Moses should be the inspiring God to him. The Targum softens down the word "God" into "master, teacher." Moses was called God, as being the possessor and medium of the divine word."

Here repeatedly they talk of Exodus 4:16 as if the 'as' does not exist.

The article Was Moses “a god”? Exodus 4:16 and 7:1 talks a bit more about the specifics of the Hebrew.

"The Hebrew word translated “as” is the particle le (pronounced “luh”). Although the particle could simply mark the words “mouth” and “God” as direct objects of the repeated verb “shall be,” in context it may be taken as expressing comparisons."

So it sounds like the original Hebrew is ambiguous in terms of how to understand the word typically translated as 'as' here.

What are the grammatical and contextual arguments for and against adding an 'as' in Exodus 4:16's "you will be (as) God to him"?

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2 Answers 2

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As to your question about the ל (lamed) in Exo. 4:16. Keil and Delitzsch got it right. The ל should not be translated as “as” or “like”.

First, ל does not mean “like” or “as”. Like or as would be כ (kaf).

Secondly, you can see the same kind of grammatical construction earlier in the same verse (“he will be your mouth”, not “like a/your mouth”) and in passages like these: Exo. 29:45; Jer. 24:7, 32:8; Eze. 34:24; Zec. 8:8, 1 Chron. 28:16 (there are many more):

Exodus 29:45

I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their לGod.

NOT translated, “and I will be like their God”.

Jeremiah 24:7

I will be their לGod and they will be my לpeople.

NOT: “I will be like God to them, and they will be like a people to me”

1 Chron. 28:6

…I have chosen him to be my לson, and I will be his לfather.

NOT: “I have chosen him to be like a son, and I will be like his father”.

This is the normal way for Hebrew to express statements such as: “I will be God”, “you will be a son”, that is, with “to be” verbs. The ל is part of the grammatical construction. If anything, following the “to be” verb there may be a sense of “become”, but it’s generally better just to translate such phrases as “will be”.

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    Indeed, the same lamed construction occurs several times in Ex 4:16 - לְךָ֖ = "for/as you" (twice); לְפֶ֔ה = "for/as a mouth"; לּ֥וֹ = "to/for/as him"; לֵֽאלֹהִֽים = "to/for/as God". I agree that translators must make choices in all these cases, but one cannot extrapolate a single instance to all others. "as" woks quite well in the other cases in Ex 4:16. However, you have not answered the question.
    – Dottard
    Nov 14, 2022 at 23:55
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    An outstanding answer from someone who knows Hebrew, does translation work, and lived in Israel for around 30 years. Exodus 4:16 is a mistranslation. Nov 15, 2022 at 22:04
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The MT Hebrew for Exodus 4:16 is not in the least ambiguous.

The OP question regarding adding the word "as" misses the point because the the translation "God" for "אלהים" is already incorrect.

The word אלהים, "elohim", in the OT has many meanings, depending on context. The base meaning is the divine, or the all powerful or the holy or that is to be worshiped. There is no parallel English word. But אלהים is often used to refer to sovereign worldly authorities such as judges rulers, as in (NIV):

  1. Exodus 21:6 then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.
  2. Exodus 22:8 But if the thief is not found, the owner of the house must appear before the judges, and they must determine whether the owner of the house has laid hands on the other person’s property.
  3. Exodus 22:9 In all cases of illegal possession of an ox, a donkey, a sheep, a garment, or any other lost property about which somebody says, ‘This is mine,’ both parties are to bring their cases before the judges. The one whom the judges declare guilty must pay back double to the other
  4. Psalm 82:1 - Used both as "God" and as "judges" in one verse (!) God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”
  5. Psalm 82:6-7 I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.

because these people have ultimate earthly authority.

In Exodus 4:16, there is no reference to God. The translation of the verse should be:

He (Aaron) will speak to the people for you and he will be a mouthpiece for you and you will be his source of authority.

This translation (my own) is consistent with, the commentaries of:

  1. the RASHI לרב ולשר
  2. the RASHBAM שר ושופט, מה שתצוה לו יעשה

and with the Aramaic translations known as:

  1. Onkelos: וִימַלֵּיל הוּא לָךְ עִם עַמָּא וִיהֵי הוּא יְהֵי לָךְ לִמְתוּרְגְּמָן וְאַתְּ תְּהֵי לֵיהּ לְרָב
  2. Jonathan: וִימַלֵיל הוּא לָךְ עִם עַמָא וִיהֵי הוּא יֶהֱוֵי לָךְ לִמְתֻּרְגְמִין וְאַנְתְּ תֶּהֱוֵי לֵיהּ לְרַב תְּבוֹעַ אוּלְפַן מִן קֳדָם יְיָ
  3. Jerusalem : הוּא יֶהֱוֵי לָךְ לִמְתּוּרְגְמָן וְאַתְּ תֶּהֱוֵי לֵיהּ כִּתְבַע אוּלְפַן מִן קֳדָם יְיָ

and with the Arabic translation of Sa'adiah ben Yosef Gaon, (אוכ'תאד) أستاذ.

All of these translate אלהים in this context as "master", "minister" or "teacher".

Understanding the verse in Hebrew is not difficult for native speakers. The problem is that there is no modern word parallel to אלהים. IMHO the translation choice of "God" or "gods" here is either a deference to older translations, or just a plain misunderstanding.

The meaning of the verse is that even though it is Aaron who is speaking to the people, the authority will be coming from you (Moses).

In the context of the dialog between God and Moses in this chapter of Exodus, this verse is a limited concession to Moses. It is a reassurance to Moses that he will have Aaron to handle the technical act of communication, but it is also a notice to Moses that he will still be responsible for conveying God's message through Aaron.

To translate אלהים in this context using a word that implies divinity of any sort confuses the reader. God couldn't be suggesting that Moses will be divine in any way. God isn't going to be setting up Moses as some other kind of divinity. Compare this verse with Leviticus 25:38 and Numbers 16:41 in which God says that He will be for us an אלהים. The same word is used, which indicates that the basic meaning of the word is something like "unquestionable authority".

See also:

  1. https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/13773/50181
  2. https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/search?q=elohim
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    I appreciated this answer. People who know Hebrew understand that "elohim" has broader usage than many like to think. Many have elevated the term beyond its actual meaning. True, it often refers to God--but "elohim" is not, by itself, God. It can be gods, angels, judges (humans), and more. Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6, affirming its meaning that God called people "elohim" (gods)--which, in the Greek, was translated as "theoi" (plural for "god" -- see John 10:34). If Jesus calls us "gods," then the word is not so deified as many would like to think.
    – Biblasia
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:18
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    "The translation of the verse is" This seems like a really important part of your answer. Where is the translation you're offering from? Nov 24, 2022 at 17:24
  • Also, why do you think the Masoretic Text is authoritative (or do you)? Nov 24, 2022 at 21:43
  • @OneGodtheFather My own translation, consistent with, the commentaries of the RASHI, and the RASHBAM, and with the Aramaic translations known as Onkelos, Jonathan and Jerusalem, and with the Arabic translation of Sa'adiah ben Yosef Gaon. All of these translate אלהים in this verse as "master", "minister" or "teacher". Understanding the verse in Hebrew is not difficult for native speakers. The problem is that there is no modern word parallel to אלהים. IMHO the translation choice of "God" or "gods" here is either a deference to older translations, or just a plain misunderstanding. Nov 25, 2022 at 5:36
  • @OneGodtheFather The MT is the oldest corpus that we have. It is the basis for the English translations to which the OP refers. The LXX is a translation, that is, a derivative, of an urtext that was very close to the MT, and for for this verse probably identical. "Authoritative" is a communal decision that is not related to the OP question. For example, some Syriac Christian communities see the Peshitta as authoritative, superceding the MT, even though they do not dispute that the Peshitta is a derivative work of the MT. Nov 25, 2022 at 5:49

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