We are left to imagine what Moses was thinking during his forty years of exile tending sheep (tso’n), after forty years of exaltation in Egypt. I’m not even sure what he was thinking when he went to Horeb (Sinai). Did he know it was the mountain of God (har ‘elohiym), and seek it out deliberately? Or, more likely, did his apparently random walks finally lead him to what seemed the backside (‘achar) of nowhere, where God seems to enjoy waiting for us.
And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush [was] not consumed.
We’ve seen the angel of Yahweh (mal’ak Y@hovah) before (with Hagar and Abraham), though not in such dramatic garb. And in fact it is the visible manifestation (mar’eh), not the voice of God, which grabs Moses’ attention:
And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.
This is actually one of the few passages in the Bible that feel really “magical” to me (the other being Elisha’s miracles , and perhaps Jesus’ coin-fish). Elsewhere, though the book is laced with supernatural activity, it is almost treated as commonplace, without fanfare or special effects. So, why “stoop” to such “theatrics” now?
Perhaps when you’ve been wandering the desert for forty years, God needs to go out of His way — and get you out of yours — in order to gain attention. That is, the burning (ba`ar) bush (c@nah) is God’s mercy, both in helping Moses see God, and in giving him a relatively gentle warmup (pun intended) to the startling revelation coming up.
At another level, though, this reflects one of the defining aspects of transformationalism. The unconsumed burning bush could symbolize “sustainable passion.” Worldly success often carries a high price in terms of health and family; to pursue and achieve great things while maintaining one’s spiritual, physical, and emotional center is very unusual — and attractive. Would that God could use us like he used flaming shrubbery:
And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here [am] I.
Lots of interesting parallels. Yahweh (Y@hovah) saw (ra’ah), and so did the one diverted (cuwr). God (‘elohiym) spoke (‘amar) to Moses, and the one He called to (qara’) spoke back. There’s no pronouns in the Hebrew; it’s more like “There was a response.” Somehow I suspect Moses was less “Here am I” and more “Huh?”
And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest [is] holy ground.
Hmm, interesting opening. After recognizing Moses (twice over), but before introducing Himself, God establishes some boundaries (both literal and symbolic). This is the first use of the Hebrew word holy (qodesh), though its root was used once before in sanctifying (qadash) the first Sabbath. In a sense, God first establishes that He is holy, set apart and worthy of honor, before He tells us anything more about Himself. Only after establishing that respect — and presumably waiting for Moses to slip off (nashal) his sandals (na’al) — does He give a formal introduction:
Moreover he said, I [am] the God of thy 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 upon God.
At first blush, a very reasonable fear-response (yare’) on the part of Moses. Despite his Egyptian upbringing, he presumably knew some of the stories; even Jethro could probably have told him something about the patriarchs, due to their overlapping heritage. Its one thing to realize oneself in the presence of “the holy”, its another to recognize that as the Person who called your entire race into being.
But, what’s surprising is that it says he “hid (cathar) his face” (paniym). I initially assumed it was a sort of shame, like Adam concealed (chaba’) in the Garden. But, intriguingly, it is the exact same phrase Cain uses to describe his anticipated punishment — for murder. And the word for hid is used only one other time in Genesis, to describe Jacob being outside Laban’s accountability. I get the impression that Moses wasn’t merely in awe of God’s grandeur, but rather feeling explicitly guilty about his prior murder and failure to help his people.
If so, that makes the following scene even more poignant — and excruciating:
And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which [are] in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;
A powerful set of verbs: God has surely seen (ra’ah ra’ah), heard (shama`), and knows (yada`). Doubly cutting for a man who has also looked upon that suffering (`oniy), but now doesn’t want God to look upon him. I wonder if he is expecting a tongue-lashing for his earlier failure. If so, he must be shocked by God’s next statement:
And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
Wow! What an amazing promise of deliverance (natsal). If I was Moses, and he felt like anything I imagined, this must’ve been a powerful relief. God was descending (yarad) to do what I had failed at before. Go God! Perhaps God was just telling me this as a comfort, or to let me know they’d be passing by as He brought (`alah) them out. How considerate of Him to give me advance warning. Right?
Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.
Oh, that’s nice you’re going to send (shalach) … who? where? to do what?? Excuse me?
And Moses said unto God, Who [am] I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?
It occurs to me that this would make a great Bob Newhart sketch, due to the sheer incongruity of this has-been shepherd trying to grapple with a divine call. I mean, think about it: after all these years, and all this failure, what could God be possibly thinking, asking this runaway murderer to deliver His people?
And he said, Certainly I will be with thee; and this [shall be] a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.
Very strange. I can’t find the first “I will be with thee” promise in the Hebrew, and the only sign (‘owth) is that they will serve (`abad) God on this mountain (har) after they get out (yatsa’). If I were him I’d prefer to have a solid sign beforehand.
Yet, that’s not what Moses asks, at least not yet. Perhaps the fact that God is revealing Himself on this mountain is sufficient explanation for why Moses is saddled with this duty. But, that might raise the question why the God of the Hebrews would appear in such an out-of-the-way place. Even if Moses is willing to overlook that incongruity, he may well be concerned that nobody else will:
And Moses said unto God, Behold, [when] I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What [is] his name? what shall I say unto them?
I always wonder if Moses is really worried about them, or primarily asking for his own benefit. I assume that name (shem) is more about identity and character than mere appellation. Who is this, really* And how can I know for sure, not to mention prove it to others?
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM
hath sent me unto you.
An extraordinary answer: I AM (hayah) that I AM (hayah). Its times like this I wish I could really read Hebrew to figure out what all is implied, though I suspect the mystery would still persist. The bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that God is. Period. He is not a god of this, or a god of that, or even a god of them. He just is. And He is sending (shalach) Moses. That’s all the answer He apparently thinks they need.
Well, not really, since He does elaborate:
And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this [is] my name for ever, and this [is] my memorial unto all generations.
I’m not sure I follow all that, particular the connection between Yahweh (Y@hovah) and “I am” (hayah) as being God’s name (shem), much less His memorial (zeker). Then again, I suspect Moses didn’t either — this is a lot to digest! Especially since it is followed by some detailed instructions:
Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and [seen] that which is done to you in Egypt: And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.
Not bad; that cleanly summarizes their conversation, and gives Moses the answer he said he wanted. And follows up with a promise, as well as a specific word for Pharaoh:
And they shall hearken to thy voice: and thou shalt come, thou and the elders of Israel, unto the king of Egypt, and ye shall say unto him, The LORD God of the Hebrews hath met with us: and now let us go, we beseech thee, three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.
Hey, that’s sounding pretty good. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand
And I will stretch out my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof: and after that he will let you go.
Yow! And as if that wasn’t enough:
And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty: But every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put [them] upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.
Whew. God doesn’t seem to do anything by half-measures. Its a pretty mind-blowing series of promises. I’m sure Moses would’ve been thrilled to hear about all the wonderful things God was going to do for His people (his people too, after all) — except for the little detail that Moses would be the one on the spot when everything went down. I don’t think he’s happy being the weakest link in God’s plan, as we’ll see next time.
God, I so feel for Moses. Sometimes it does feel like everything I’ve done for you has been a hollow failure, and I want to hide from your face. Are you out of your mind, trusting me with a new calling of great importance? Sure, I want to see your people set free, and at one level I believe You can do it. But, maybe not enough to lay what’s left of my tattered self-image and reputation on the line. Or maybe not enough to believe that you can do it through a weak vessel like me. Are You sure its You speaking to me? Am I? And if I’m not sure, why should anyone else believe? Dare we confront the powers that be, whom you’ve already told us won’t listen? Can we really believe that we will somehow prosper and not suffer for this? Does the fact that You Are — I AM — really make all the difference?
O LORD my God, the God of my fathers. I wait for you. Selah.
About the Title:
Today’s title is a really bad pun on “I AM”, the burning bush, and how God ‘ambushed‘ Moses, as well as perhaps his weariness.