Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
As we look in on an 80 year old Moses in Exodus 3, the Israelites are slaves in the land of Egypt. They have been in terrible bondage for at least the entire life of Moses, and possibly 40 years longer. As we meet him here, Moses is a shepherd in the land of Midian (probably south of Canaan and to the east of the Sinai peninsula). Moses is an Israelite, saved from death at the hands of the Egyptians as a baby, raised in the court of Pharaoh as an adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 40 years before, he killed an Egyptian who had been mistreating a Hebrew slave and fled Egypt to avoid punishment, in all probability the death sentence. He has spent the past 40 years living with the Midianites, who were distant relatives (Midian being a son of Abraham by Keturah), raising a family, and herding sheep.
Exo 3:1 Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
Moses “was keeping.” The Hebrew tense indicates that he was doing so as was his habit. It was “on the west side.” If you are looking east (as was the Hebrew custom when describing directions) it was the “backside” of the desert. “the mountain of God” is that in retrospect, as the place that God chose to meet with and speak to Moses.
Though he has no inkling of it at this time, Moses is going to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and 40 years of herding sheep was good preparation for that job. He knows the territory, he knows what it means to grind out a daily life in faithfulness to a task he’s been given, and is used to dealing with wayward dense creatures. He comes to Horeb or Sinai.
2 And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.
The “angel” of the LORD is better the “messenger” of the LORD. The word is ambiguous as to whether this is a person of the Godhead or whether it is a created spirit. Many Bible scholars see this ambiguity as an Old Testament prefiguring of Jesus. In any case, God speaks to Moses out of a bush that burns, yet is not consumed.
Apparently, Moses doesn’t at first understand what he’s looking at. It is just an especially strange sight that he wants to see up close. A dry bush in the desert ought to be consumed by fire in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. Moses is curious.
3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”
Consider God’s choice of visual aid here. The fire symbolizes God’s purity/holiness. The fact that the bush is not consumed speaks to us about God’s self-existence. The flame is self-maintaining. God and only God has existence of His own.
4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
God speaks to Moses by name. He knows us, He speaks to us by name. The wonder of our condition is that He offers us real relationship. And Moses, at least to begin, answers.
Notice the nature of this encounter. Moses is not in some kind of trance having some kind of mystical experience that is somehow impossible to describe in words. He is wide awake and communicating with God in propositional terms, i.e. in terms of words, sentences, logic, etc. He comes away aware of what he is to do, not thinking about how tingly he felt. His focus is not the experience, but the call. If Moses was a 21st century American, he’d go on the lecture circuit giving his testimony and jot off a book or two on how to meet God in the burning bush.
Moses had very little indeed with setting up this encounter. God is sovereignly choosing to call Moses. It is God who takes the initiative here. And it always is this way.
5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
The sense/tense of the “do not come near” indicates that Moses shouldn’t continue to approach as he is doing. There will be a time when Moses speaks face to face with his Creator, but at this point he doesn’t yet adequately understand who God is. The caution from God conveys to Moses and to us that while God speaks to us by name, He is also “holy.” He is “separate” or “other.” We may come, but it must be on His terms, not ours. We don’t just bluster up to Him.
Take off your sandals, because that is a way of expressing humility before God in this context. Obey. Properly respect the One who is speaking. The place Moses is standing is “holy ground” in a Biblical sense, not a pagan sense. It’s holy because at this time, this is where God chooses to meet Moses. It is God being there and speaking to Moses that sets the place apart. It’s not “holy” in the sense that we ought to organize pilgrimages, or carry off some dirt with supposedly magical powers. That kind of nonsense is never part of the real Biblical picture or understanding. In fact, when later the Jews get too cocksure that God “resides” in Jerusalem and that fact is their security, He allows the Babylonians to lay the city waste.
This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the word that is translated “holy” here. God’s presence sets this time and place apart, consecrates it to His service.
6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
This is a revealing verse. Moses has just been snooping around, apparently reasonably comfortable with the situation, even willing to speak with the burning bush. But now he realizes that he is speaking with the one true and living God, and the proper response is the one He gives. He hides his face. That’s a response of awe, reverence, and respect. It is the proper response of a creature before his Creator. Our modern supposedly Christian attitudes towards God are often entirely too flip and presumptuous. We forget with whom we are dealing, and the end of it is our own harm and that of non-Christians as well. Because we don’t properly revere God, they see no reason to honor him at all.
Moses somehow knew of the God of his fathers, possibly through contact with his natural mother back in Egypt, or possibly through the instruction of his father-in-law, Jethro, who was (as stated in verse 1) “the priest of Midian” and who may or may not have known the available truth about God. The reference to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is one that spans a very long time and quite different people. But all three of them over the course fo their lifetimes learned to trust God and not themselves. It is interesting that the singular “father” is used to stand for line of faith. God is speaking at once of the whole line of faith.
Moses sees his vulnerability before the Creator. Unholy creatures unaided before a completely holy God are in mortal danger.
7 Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings,
“I have surely seen” says the LORD. Of course He “sees and hears” in the ordinary sense of the word. The point is not that He is aware, but that He is concerned with the affliction of His people. And what is more, in His providence, it is time for Him to intervene on their behalf. He “looks upon” His people and “comes down.”
8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
He will come in deliverance, again not as if He wasn’t present before, but that it is now the peoper time for Him to act. He will take His people to a good and broad land, literally “oozing” with milk and honey.
9 And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.
I have seen the oppression/misery. I have heard them crying out. The best guess is that the Israelites have been under persecution in Egypt for 120 years at this point. 40 years earlier Moses had made one feeble attempt on his own to fix one injustice in Egypt and had ended up a fugitive. Why hasn’t God acted before now? If His purposes were simply to make things pleasant for His people, He could, would and should have. But His purposes are to make from the Israelite nation one that would be His own and serve Him. Now the time is right in His purposes. And here comes the shocker for Moses.
10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
Send Moses??? There may well still be a murder warrant out for him in Egypt! Besides, he tried to approach the Israelites once before and was rebuffed. And humanly speaking, all he has done for the last 40 years was herd sheep! Anyone he knew in the halls of power is almost certainly dead and gone at this point.
What God is giving Moses to do here is enormous. There are around 2-3 million Israelite slaves in Egypt at this point. The Pharaoh is one of the strongest rulers on earth. He has no reason to give up perfectly good slave labor that is building for him. Moses never was a leader of the Jews, and has been out of the country for 40 years. He is 80 years old, way past the prime of life! Moses is being commissioned to go get the Hebrew slaves and lead them on foot out into the desert and into the promised land. This only sounds possible to us because looking back at it through history we know it was done. Without the benefit of hindsight, this is humanly speaking really just flat out of the question. It’s out of the question if God is not sending you!
Moses reveals that he has some knowledge of God, but not perfect knowledge of Him. He starts to ask questions. He, like the rest of us, wants to see the details of the end from the beginning. But that is only God’s prerogative.
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
Times have changed. Moses is 80, not 40. He’s been knocked around in life and now knows he’s not the center of the universe. He’s not even a match for Pharaoh. He once was sure he was the savior of Israel. Now he knows that in and of himself he’s capable of nothing. “Who am I?” Humanly speaking, that’s a reasonable question. And the answer is that in fact Moses is nobody, but God is God!!! That is the point that Moses is going to learn through this whole thing and that we ought also learn. God is God! That is what matters. J.A. Motyer commenting on this passage says that God is going to change Moses’ “I can’t, therefore I won’t” to “I can’t, but HE can, therefore I will.” “Moses’ position was ‘Look, I’m not up to the job. You shouldn’t have picked me.’ The Lord’s reply was ‘Of course you are not up to the job. I knew that when I chose you for it. The point is not your ability but mine!'” God’s promise was not to somehow transform Moses to the point that he was up to the task, but rather:
12 He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
God said “I will be with you.” That’s it. That’s the whole thing. All else is details, and we are never given the details in advance. The promise is that God will be with Moses. There is no explaining of exactly how it will all work out, only that God will be with him. Motyer is quite incisive on this point. Even pious God-fearing believers often think of a call of God as a promise that God will change and equip us and enable us. But that is not it! Moses’ initial round of dealing with Pharaoh is no more effective than his earlier attempt to right the wrongs of slavery. He’s more humble, he’s obedient, but he’s naturally no more effective than he was 40 years before. The glory here is that GOD is in this. The promise is of His presence, not of any supernatural transformation of Moses.
The promise of a “sign” is enlightening. What’s the sign? It’s something that, at the moment, Moses can only see by faith. It’s not another present miraculous occurrence. It’s “only” a promise. It is not a present “persuader” but a future confirmation. The confirmation that Moses has been hearing rightly is the future opportunity to give God thanks together with the people of Israel, not in captivity, but here in the desert. It’s significant that even this is contrary to what Moses might expect. Horeb/Sinai is not on the direct route from Egypt to the promised land. But it is here that God will be worshiped by a liberated people. The word rendered “serve” by the ESV and “worship” by the NIV is the same word as is used for being a slave. The Jews, who were slaves to Pharaoh, will be led out and serve/worship/be slaves to the one true and living God.
The order here is significant. We’d like to have signs as present signposts of how to proceed. “Oh Lord, just give me a sign and I’ll know it’s you and do what you want!” we say. That’s us. The order here is that God has spoken clearly, letting Moses know his will. Moses is wiggling, thinking of his inadequacy. God promises that indeed he will have a sign to confirm it all. But when??? When it’s all over!! Then he’ll be able to look back and see that it was all as God promised. The sign comes after, not before the task.
The Hebrew word translated “I will be” is the same word as the personal name of God (that is usually translated “I AM”). God calls himself the “I AM,” and one of the vital meanings of that is “I am with you.”
13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
A lack of reliance on one’s own resources is a good thing. On the other hand, a refusal to trust God to do what He calls us to labor in is sin. Moses has heard the gracious promises of God, and that should be enough. But it is not. He starts to backpedal. Commentators will tell you that the “What is his name?” is not so much a question of identity as it is the question of “is He favorably disposed toward us?” or “what (new) revelation of God do you bring?” The question is only too human. It is a frail question, lacking in a real understanding of, or faith in who God is. The answer in verse 14 is grand and true to the very core of things.
14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”
I AM WHO I AM , Yahweh, Jehovah, the I AM, the self-existent One, the very definition of all that is good and right and true, I am He who is. I am the One who will be understood through my own acts and my own words of revelation. I am He who truly exists and will be actively present with you as you do what you’ve been commissioned to do. I am the One who will be there, just as I promise. I am the One that you will find to be more than adequate. Amen!
In Genesis 17:1 God reveals enough of His nature to Abram, that He calls Himself “El-Shaddai” which is often rendered as “God Almighty.” Perhaps Moses has heard of this. If so, and probably even if he has not, Moses wants more than a bare name here, he wants some better understanding of the nature of Him with whom he is speaking, and God gives him that in His personal name. I AM the self-existent One. I take My definition from no one or anything else. In that, I AM the proper standard for judging all else. It is My character and nature that defines big concepts like “goodness,” “justice,” etc. There is no place for one of My creatures to adopt any other standard or apply their own criteria to Me. This name outlaws silly conversations like “I imagine that God is like …”
There is also the notion of God being all-sufficient for both Moses and us. That is He is the “I will be … (with you)” to Moses.
15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
The One who is, is of course, the eternal One, the One whose faithful works will remembered forever, the One who forever remains the definition of all that is good. This is the One who is the first cause and the Sustainer of all that is. This revelation is both completely consistent with and arguably more explicit than what has been given to the patriarchs to this point.
16 Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt,
Moses is told to go. There is no contradiction between God acting and Him sending. It’s His good pleasure to use people in His work. Moses is to carry good news and to act/lead on God’s behalf.
17 and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”‘
18 And they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’
19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand.
God is patient and merciful with His creatures, including those who purposely oppose Him. Pharaoh will be given every possible chance to bow the knee to God before judgment comes. But there will come a point at which that opportunity to repent comes to an end. It has to be that way.
20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go.
“wonders” is a fine word. The Jews correctly had a view that all of what God does is equally miraculous. R. Alan Cole explained it this way: “We think of a ‘miracle’ as a transcending, or suspension or reversal of the natural order. The Hebrew thinks of it as a marvelous use of the natural order, by the God who created it and controls it. In one sense therefore, the Hebrew did not distinguish between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural,’ for all was God’s work.”
21 And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty,
22 but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.”
There is in this an early foreshadowing of God’s law for the Jews that when a slave was freed, that person wasn’t to go away without means. This people has been enslaved for generations. That they leave Egypt with some small compensation for their service is only right.
Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.