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January 2016 – The Rhetoric Of Moses

He was born a common man but lived an uncommon life.  From early childhood he was special, perhaps even favored.  Moses, whose name means, according to the biblical narrator, “to draw out” was rescued from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter.  He would become a prophet and a leader, eventually “drawing out” the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt.  His story is the greatest told because it became the foundation of Judaism.

According to Parashat Va-Era, God, told Moses to speak to Pharaoh and persuade him to free the Israelites, (Exodus 6:ll).  But the reluctant servant, humbled by God’s request, answered saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me, how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of uncircumcised lips”, (Exodus 6:12).  In other words, with my condition, how can I be convincing to the Israelites and to Pharaoh.

Although destined to be a great leader, Moses lacked an expected quality of leadership – the ability to speak effectively.  Most traditional commentators explain that Moses had either a speech defect, lack of confidence or a deficiency with the Egyptian language.  Whatever his human weakness was, it became part of God’s master plan to free an oppressed group of slaves and give them a leader like Moses that could take them to the promised land of their ancestors.

Why would God choose a man unable to speak effectively for a job that required persuasion?  Perhaps because God had knowledge about the power of rhetoric as a means of discovering the best way to persuade.  The laconic, but humble communication style of Moses was exactly what God wanted.  This is the rhetoric of Moses.

To fully understand the rhetoric of Moses we begin by relegating his human weakness to nothing more than a challenge.  Then we can replace the weakness with an alternative method for achieving goals.

This is rhetoric.  It is through a rhetorical understanding of Moses, that his greatness is recognized.

Obstacles in life help shape our character.  The life of Moses was filled with obstacles.  When Pharaoh decreed that all Israelite male babies be killed, Moses was fortunate to be rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter.  The Princess saw the child floating in a basket on the river and beckoned her handmaid to fetch the baby.  Because Pharaoh’s daughter knew the baby Moses was a Hebrew, she gave him to her handmaid to be nurtured and cared for.

Moses grew up as the adopted son of the Pharaoh’s daughter, but his knowledge about God and the sacred traditions of Israel were taught to him presumably by his birth mother, the handmaid to Pharaoh’s daughter.  As an adopted child of a princess, Moses received the best education Egypt had to offer, but his moral passion and instability to tolerate injustice remained loyal to his origin.  He never forgot he was an Israelite first.

The Egyptian Court gave Moses the training needed to be a leader of human beings, but did not prepare him for the task God would ask him to accomplish.  Moses did not see himself capable of persuading Pharaoh because he was not a man of words (Exodus 4:10).  Why then was he so successful?v

According to Aristotle rhetoric is a method of discovering an available means of persuasion.  Aristotle explains there are three basic appeals an effective persuader must have, ethos, pathos and logos.

Ethos refers to the credibility and character of the persuader.  Aristotle argued that a persuader must be credible in the eyes of their audience to be taken seriously.  Pathos is the ability of the persuader to empathize with the audience.  Logos means a persuader must have a structure or plan the audience follows to present his/her ideas.  Moses utilized all these things.

The ethos of Moses was established throughout the years he spent in the Egyptian court.  He was known for the strength of his convictions and was even banished for support of the Israelites.

Moses had more than compassion for the Israelites.  He was one of them and empathized with their plight.  But the pathos of Moses had to be established with two audiences: the Israelites and Pharaoh.  This demonstrates the uniqueness of Moses.  He had been raised like an Egyptian prince but had the heart and mind of an Israelite.

The logos of Moses was clear.  God gave him the plan he was to present to Pharaoh-the plagues.  Each time Pharaoh refused to release God’s people, Moses signaled for the next plague.  It was not until the tenth plague, when the angel of death took the first born son of every Egyptian family, did the Pharaoh claim defeat and free the Israelites.

Great persuaders think first about how to be effective and use what is available to them before any communication takes place.  For Moses, the most available and effective means of persuasion was his ethos, pathos and logos.  Despite his speech deficiency, Moses triumphed as an effective persuader.
Moses’ story illustrates an important message.  We cannot view ourselves based on what we believe are weaknesses. God’s plan for us may mean that what we see as a defect is indeed one of our greater assets.