If the pen really was mightier than the sword, the idiom would be unnecessary. Nobody says, “Atom bombs are stronger than paper clips,” or “Ferraris are faster than Fiats.” Most simple slogans are untrue. “He who hesitates is lost” is contradicted by “Look before you leap.” “Out of sight, out of mind” is contradicted by “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” The truth is usually a composite of the two extremes. One must balance too much hesitation with too much impetuousness. One can miss those who are far away but after a while one can also forget them. Similarly, sticks and stones can break bones but words written by a pen cannot. Yet there are certainly times when the impact of words is greater than that of guns.
Because we’re all imperfect humans, our emotions can propel us toward ill-considered action rather than thoughtful words. The little boy in the playground pushes or punches rather than inviting his antagonist to a mediation. The business owner might impose his will rather than collaborate with others in what could have been a superior solution.
There are times when actions are needed and there are times when words are needed. Being able to pull up the correct response is crucial. Even the great Moses grappled with this tension.
At the burning bush, for about 35 verses God argues with Moses, persuading him to take on the mission of bringing Israel out of Egypt. God promises that Pharaoh and the Israelites will listen to Moses. God gives him wonderful signs to impress the Egyptians. After God’s many assurances, Moses finally yields. (Exodus 3:4—4:17)
Would you not have thought that the story would have ended quite soon with the triumphant march of Israel out of Egypt? Yet in fact, what happens is quite the reverse. The plight of the Israelites is worsened. As a result of Moses’ agitation, the Children of Israel must deliver the same quota of work while scavenging for their own raw material. (Exodus 5:18) At the burning bush, God gave Moses no inkling that all would not proceed smoothly. Something went wrong.
To add to the mystery, after this dreadful disappointment, Moses tells God that Pharaoh will never listen to him on account of his speech impediment. Twice he explains that Pharaoh will not listen to him, using the Hebrew term “aral sefatayim,” loosely translated as ‘sealed lips’. (Exodus 6:12 & 6:30)*
However, back at the burning bush, Moses used different terminology when he said, “…I am not a man of words…” (Exodus 4:10). There he said, “Lo ish devarim anochi,” which seems to mean, “I am not a man of words.”
Why did Moses use two different phrases to refer to his speech?
The answer lies in the remarkable conversation Moses had with God at the burning bush. God said, “I shall dispatch you to Pharaoh and you shall take my people out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10)
Moses responds, “…when I come to the Children of Israel…” (Exodus 3:13) Had Moses been talking to a human boss, he might have heard this: “Are you deaf, Moses? What do you mean asking me about going to the Children of Israel? Did I tell you to go to them? No! I said quite clearly, ‘Go to Pharaoh’ — not the Children of Israel. Just do what I tell you!”
But Moses was talking to his Heavenly Boss. If we ignore His word, God usually allows us to proceed along the path of our own desires. God basically said to Moses, “Well, okay, if you insist, go ahead and try it your way.” It was only later, once Moses’ approach had failed and Israel was even more miserable than they had been that God said to Moses, “Okay, let’s try it my way now. This time, go to Pharaoh like I originally told you.” (Exodus 7:2) This time Moses obeyed (Exodus 7:6) and the process of the Exodus was under way.
When Moses originally demurred by saying, “I am not a man of words,” the Hebrew word translated as ‘words’ also has a second meaning. Devarim** does mean words—but it also means physical things, including actions. In Hebrew, God’s language, when one word has two meanings, we only get the whole picture by integrating both understandings.
words = דברים = concrete things
Ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that Moses was not referring to a speech impediment. He was really saying to God, “Hey, I’m not a man of words; No, I’m actually a man of things, of actions. I’m the guy who killed an Egyptian for harassing my brethren. (Exodus 2:12) I did not engage him in a discussion about the root causes of Egyptian anti-Semitism. I’m the guy who chased away the Midianite shepherds who were bothering Jethro’s daughters. (Exodus 2:17) Don’t send me to talk to Pharaoh. Let me go to the people of Israel and stir up a great national revolution. We’ll take our freedom by force; by the people throwing off their yoke of Egyptian oppression. I want action not words.”
God knows that Moses must discover for himself that this redemption has to come from God, not from a people’s liberation movement. Real redemption will come through doing it God’s way, not our own way.
Like Moses, sometimes we too must learn painful lessons by trying avenues that fail. We can save ourselves much heartache by doing the right thing first. Sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword and sometimes it is not.
See the Hebrew for yourself in our recommended Bible:
*p. 178; 15th line, final two words: ערל שפתים
*p. 180; 13th line, 3rd and 4th words from the left: ערל שפתים
**p. 172; 11th line, 5th word from the right: דברים
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