Last Sabbath I made a promise to one of the students in my Sabbath School class to write a commentary as is my usual fashion for Sabbath School, since I will be gone when the lesson is supposed to be given next Sabbath. And it so happens that I am a bit sick and that church was cancelled, which means that although I am getting to this particular commentary a bit later in the Sabbath than I had expected to, I am still going to be able to get it done as I had promised. On the surface, the story of Moses and the Burning Bush is rather simple and straightforward, but as is often the case, there is a lot more going on to the story. Today, I would like to discuss the story and wade into the thicket a bit when it comes to digressions about this story and what it means for us today.
The story of Moses’ experience with the burning bush and God who speaks through it takes up the material of Exodus 3 and 4. It begins, however, with a hint of curiosity in Exodus 3:1-3: “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.””
Digression: The life of Moses can be divided into three parts. For the first forty years of his life, he was raised as an adopted Egyptian prince of heroic deeds. After a failed attempt at encouraging his enslaved people at the age of 40 led him to kill a cruel Egyptian taskmaster, he fled into exile and spent the next forty years tending the flocks of Jethro in Midian. For the final forty years of his life, starting from this point, Moses will lead the children of Israel through the wilderness he knows so well to the Holy Land. Let us note that God uses an interesting phenomenon to draw Moses’ attention, a bush that burns but is not consumed. When God is inspiring our actions, we can be a lot like that curious bush, on fire with zeal and courage but not being consumed. When we are being inspired by anger or lust or other motivations, we are too easily consumed by what sets us on fire, so to speak. Let us also note the location of this miracle, which takes place on Mt. Horeb, where Moses would later lead the Israelites to where they would receive the Ten Commandments from the hand of God.
Now that God has Moses’ attention, they begin a conversation where God gives Moses a command to take off his shoes as well as marching orders in Exodus 3:4-10: “So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Moreover 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 upon God. And the Lord said: “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites. Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.””
Digression: The concept of taking one’s shoes off because something is sacred space is something that we do not tend to understand very well in our own time. However, it is the custom of many families for people to take their shoes off upon entering the house so that they do not track dirt and mud all over the house. This is a similar enough habit that we can see the parallels easily enough. Let us also note that Moses replied to the call of God with the phrase “Here I am,” which is a characteristic phrase that appears often in the Bible. The website Knowing Jesus has identified 43 locations in the Bible where someone replied “Here am I” or “Here I am,” many of them prophets who are being called by God. The genuine prophet does not select himself as a servant of God set aside for that purpose, rather he (or she) is called by God and responds to that call. Frequently, as is the case here, the prophet is reluctant to heed God’s call.
As we just mentioned, Moses’ reply to the call of God to free Israel from slavery is less than enthusiastic, as it is written in Exodus 3:11-22: “But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” So He said, “I will certainly be with you. And this shall be a sign to you that I have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” Then Moses said to God, “Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” 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.’ Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared to me, saying, “I have surely visited you and seen what is done to you in Egypt; and I have said I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”’ Then they will heed your voice; and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt; and you shall say to him, ‘The Lord God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now, please, let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’ But I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not even by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be, when you go, that you shall not go empty-handed. But every woman shall ask of her neighbor, namely, of her who dwells near her house, articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing; and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.””
Digression: Moses is very reluctant to go to Egypt. Why is this the case? Let us note that Moses’ last experience in Egypt was less than positive. He had killed a brutal taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave, risking the wrath of the Pharaoh, and then he finds the Israelites abusing each other and rejecting his implicit call to be a leader. Moses, like many people, is a bit timid after such experiences of exile and rejection. Let us also note a couple aspects of importance about the name that God introduces himself to Moses with. Two aspects of his identification are important in the New Testament. First, when Jesus Christ tells an audience of his contemporaries in John 10 that before Abraham was, I AM, the crowd seeks to stone Him for blasphemy for having called Himself God. Likewise, Jesus Christ makes use of this passage to prove a resurrection, by noting that God had introduced Himself to Moses by saying, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and not “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Grammar is important, as that difference in tense means that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are counted by God as alive because they will be resurrected, and not as dead and gone and simply in the past.
As is often the case, the aftermath of a call from God can be messy, and so it is here. Moses’ unwillingness to go back to Egypt leads God to promise that Aaron, his older brother, will be his spokesman. And some unfinished business has to be taken care of as well. Moses had not circumcised both of the sons he had fathered in Midian, and so before he can return to Egypt, this needs to be resolved. As it is written in Exodus 4:18-26: “So Moses went and returned to Jethro his father-in-law, and said to him, “Please let me go and return to my brethren who are in Egypt, and see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” Now the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead.” Then Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on a donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the rod of God in his hand. And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”’”And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lordmet him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!”—because of the circumcision.”
Digression: Why was God so angry at Moses, to the point of threatening to kill him, for not having had his son circumcised? Since circumcision was the identifying mark of someone who was a follower of God among the children of Abraham, just as baptism is for believers after the time of Jesus Christ, to not circumcise a son was to keep him from being a citizen of God’s people. Someone cannot be a leader of God’s people without being committed to following God’s ways, as that is something that God will not tolerate. This particular incident seems to have led to trouble between Moses and Zipporah, as we do not read of Zipporah going with Moses to Egypt, and do not hear of her again until Exodus 19 when Jethro seeks to reconcile the two of them when the children of Israel return to the area of Mt. Sinai where Moses had seen the burning bush in the first place. The Bible does not say whether Jethro’s efforts at reconciliation were successful, as no mention of Zipporah is made in the rest of the Pentateuch, but it is easy to see this silence as a polite refusal to shame Moses by discussing his failed marriage.