There are special moments in history that stand out from the rest. They are literally moments when God leaves His home in Heaven and sets foot on our “low land of sin and suffering.” These moments, when God visually manifests Himself to man are called theophanies. Some of the most famous moments in Scripture occur under these circumstances.
Moses, a man like you and I, experienced things very few are able to experience. At his death, Joshua (or whoever else wrote the final chapter of Deuteronomy) commented on Moses’ special place amongst the Israelites. He said there hasn’t arisen a prophet in Israel since Moses who “knows the Lord face to face” in 34:10. That verse implies by its very message a relationship between our hero and our God that was intimate, personal, and exceptionally rare.
In the New Testament, Jesus takes this idea to its natural conclusion. Not only did He know God personally, He was God. He broke down all the barriers that exist between God and His creation. He was Immanuel (“God with us”). We no longer had to fear God being in God’s presence, we could experience life right alongside Him. We could embrace Him and He embraced us back.
In today’s lesson, we’ll begin to see Moses become the person God always knew He could be. It took many years (probably 80 or so) to get Moses ready to lead the people of Israel. In that time, God orchestrated events, brought people into his life, and allowed Moses to grow into the man who would “answer the call.”
The third chapter of Exodus and the first sixteen verses of chapter four describe an exceptional moment in the history of God and His people. Up to this point, God’s people had been a scattered, leaderless mess. There had been people (i.e. Joseph) and moments that brought them together, but as a nation, they were total pushovers. At this time, God sets apart their leader and his servant for the great task of guiding the Israelites out of Egypt.
All along, God had big plans for Israel. He set about to do something great with them and finally, the time had arrived. In a secluded place, God called the first great shepherd of His people. He gave Moses instructions, inspiration, and an invitation to change the world. At times, Moses’ reaction is disappointing, but not all that surprising. We all know that sometimes God’s people have a hard time understanding His message or directions. Thankfully, God is patient, understanding, and relentless in the fulfillment of His Will. As we explore the text, consider the following thoughts and ideas.
In 3:1, we observe that Moses was tending a flock of sheep near Mt. Horeb, “the mountain of God,” in the wilderness of Midian (Sinai). There is some debate about where this mountain exists but more-than-likely the southern part of the Sinai peninsula is logical. This is the Mt. Sinai that Moses would lead the people to later in their great journey to Canaan. When describing it as “God’s mountain” we must be careful to remember, it’s not where God dwells, it’s merely where God appeared.
3:2 describes the appearance of the burning bush. We must notice the uniqueness of this sentence. The verse says it was “burning with fire, but not consumed.” It also says “the Angel of the Lord appeared in the flame of fire.” That description literally means “the messenger of YHWH,” but we know it’s not some servant, but God Himself. Later, when God appears at this mountain to the people of Israel in Exodus 19:18, it says, “Mount Sinai was completely in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire.” In this story, fire symbolizes the presence of God.
In 3:3-4, God is anxious to have a conversation with the patriarch. He calls out to him, “Moses, Moses!” We should be somewhat amazed that Moses felt compelled to speak back. I truly believe many would have run away at that moment, but Moses was not afraid. In 3:5, God tells Moses he wasn’t ready to approach the bush. He was told to “take off his sandals, for where he stands is holy ground.” May we learn a lesson from this verse. Approach God carefully, respectfully, and with the highest regard for who He is. To be in God’s presence isn’t your right, it’s a privilege.
By 3:6, Moses has come to know who is speaking. When God defines Himself as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” He is not limiting Himself, instead, He is revealing Himself. I am sure Moses knew the stories of these men. He knew of the promise. He knew of God’s great faithfulness to them. After that statement, Moses must have known the One who spoke to Him is the same God who spoke to them. For all intents and purposes, this means Moses will not bring some new or unknown God to his people, but rather a fuller revelation of the One whom they have known.¹ His fear to “look upon God,” was a sign of respect and humility. James 4:10 sheds light on this scene when it says:
Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
In 3:7-10, God lays out His plan for Moses. Notice the details that unfold. God says He has seen the oppression of “My people in Egypt,” and “I know their suffering,” in 3:7. He also says, “I have come down to deliver them out of Egypt and bring them up from that land to a place flowing with milk and honey,” in 3:8. He repeats Himself from earlier by once again saying “I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them,” in 3:9. And finally in 3:10, He says, “I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people out of Egypt.” I’d encourage you to see the similarities between this verse and John 20:21 when Jesus says to His Apostles, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” It seems these verses imply proactive participation on God’s part, not reactive leadership. He is interjecting Himself into their lives instead of the other way around.
Unfortunately, Moses’ response at 3:11 is anything but receptive. He is unsure that God has chosen wisely. Far too many people are guilty of these thoughts. They feel burdened by the expectations of being the one God chose. Naturally, those feelings are to be expected, but they are still disheartening. How can you question God when He appears in such unusual circumstances? I’m amazed that Moses was compelled to say “no” to the very presence of God. Unbelievably, God gave Him a pep talk instead of a scolding in 3:12 and said, “I will certainly be with you.”
From 3:13-22, God gave Moses more instructions pertaining to the Israelites and their acceptance of his leadership. Moses knew they’d need some convincing to follow him, so God intervened. Notice the specific details that are highlighted related to God’s name in 3:14-15. It says there:
And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Moreover, God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The Lord 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 this is My memorial to all generations.’
At this moment, God indicated emphatically that He intended to be known by the name “Yahweh” (“Lord”). Previously, He had been known by a number of designations, but then He chose, from that point forward to be known by His personal name. The NRSV translates the latter part of 3:15 as “this is my title for all generations,” the NIV, “this is the name by which I am to be remembered.² I would encourage you to remember that Jesus clearly defined Himself by this name as well in John 8:58 when He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” I’d also encourage you to see other passages where Jesus said “I am the bread of life,” (John 6:35); “I am the light of the world,” (John 8:12); and “I am the true vine,” (John 15:1).
In the first sixteen verses of chapter 4, God blessed Moses with the ability to perform miracles. Despite everything God has said (and done) up to this point, Moses is still not sure the Israelites will listen to him. Notice the details surrounding God’s gifts. The rod Moses is carrying has the ability to become a serpent (4:2-5). In 4:4-8, Moses hand becomes leperous and is then subsequently healed and in 4:9, God gives Moses the ability to turn water into blood.
After all this, Moses is still unsure and used his lack of eloquent speech to discount his ability in 4:10. God encouraged him in 4:11-12 by saying, “Go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what to say.” Despite those promises, Moses was still fearful and asked God to send anyone else in 4:13. Notice that here, God finally got angry at Moses’ doubt. I truly believe many of us would have walked away from Moses at that moment, frustrated or even angry at his response. However, God is more patient that we are. One question we must ask, “is it right to argue with God?” Should we try to talk Him out of what He plans to do? Moses did and God’s patient is quite extraordinary. At times, we are too reluctant to express our true feelings to God. We should speak openly with God but never disrespectfully. In the end, the question we must answer is “did we submit to God’s Will?” Even though Moses argued, in the end, He did submit.³
When God answered Moses’ reservations by giving his brother Aaron a great role in these events, He didn’t marginalize Moses’ concerns or abandon His Will. He told Moses, Aaron will be “your spokesperson to the people.” I strangely find these moments to be somewhat ironic considering Acts 7:22 which says, “Moses was mighty in words and deeds.” As we continue to explore this story, we’ll see the timid man at the burning bush became a powerful messenger of God in Pharaoh’s presence.
I truly believe this scene was a turning point in God’s history with Israel. They had always been His people, for that, I have no doubt. What changed here was His investment in their physical wellbeing. He was about to make them a nation unlike any other. He was about to do to Egypt what seems almost unthinkable still to this day. He was going to prove a point. He had said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob” and now He was going to say “I am also the God of their children.” For centuries they believed God had forsaken them. After these events, they will no longer be able to say that.
While God no longer appears to us in burning bushes, clouds, or as a voice from Heaven, He is still preparing servants like Moses to lead His people. He is still investing in our lives and orchestrating moments that teach us, inspire us, and point us in the right direction. He is still speaking to us through His Word. He is still reaching out through providence. He is still the God of our fathers and He still has big plans for us. I hope you find great confidence in these scenes. They show us God in all His glory. He isn’t some far-flung un-invested deity counting down the days until judgment. He is invested in the lives of His children. He cares and He sends people into their lives to deliver His message.
¹ R. Alan Cole, Exodus, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 72.
² Coy D. Roper, Exodus, Truth for Today Commentary, (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 2008), 59-60.
³ Roper, Exodus, 80.
All Scripture is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.