Exodus 3: The Calling of Moses and the Name of God

Burn by JustinChristenbery from deviantart.com

Burn by JustinChristenbery from deviantart.com

Exodus 3:1-12- Moses, the Mountain, the Burning Bush and the Voice of God

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “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.

 7 Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from 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 country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

Chapters three and four are the calling of Moses into his large task of being the leader, law bringer, prophet and teachers of the people of Israel. The call of Moses on the mountain with the burning bush, the angel of the LORD, the voice of God and Moses’ reluctance to take up the call is a very rich text densely condensed into the narrative we have handed on to us. Moses’ transition from tending the flock of his father-in-law to tending the people of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the task of confronting the king of Egypt is a daunting one.

Moses’ father-in-law is here called Jethro instead of Reuel. There are multiple interpretations of why the name changes in this part of the story. One is that Jethro is a title, perhaps an honorary title given to a priest of Midian, while Reuel is the name of his father-in-law. Another theory comes from the source theory that was particularly popular in scholarly interpretations of the Pentateuch in the previous generation of scholars. Much as scholars in this vein would discern different source material behind the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy based on the way that the texts referred to God and their theology (the classic J-E-P-D, or Jehovah {or YHWH}, Elohist {primarily using the term Elohim to refer to God}, Priestly and Deuteronomist divisions that some may have learned in a bible class came out of this theoretical approach). According to this theory we see a seam where the compiler of the book of Exodus uses a different source to tell this part of the story. Regardless, in the narrative of Exodus we have Reuel and Jethro are referring to the same person, the father-in-law of Moses and the one out of whose household the LORD will call the leader to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.

Mountains in ancient literature are the typical places where a theophany (appearances of a divine being) occur, perhaps because of their proximity to the skies (the heavens) and perhaps because of their inaccessibility. Mount Horeb, Mount Sinai, the temple mount, the Mount of the Transfiguration or the mountain where the Sermon on the Mount and even Golgotha in its own way become places where the presence of the divine somehow encounters the people who are on the mountain when God appears. These mountaintop experiences of the immanent presence of the divine are both clarifying and terrifying. They often represent critical points within the communication of God with God’s people and so here, like in the giving of the law, God will set apart the people of Israel for a special purpose within the world and Moses for a special purpose with the people.

Many people of all ages are familiar with the story of the burning bush, where God speaks to Moses out of the fire but the story is more complex than that. Much as in the book of Genesis (example Genesis 22: 15) the angel of the LORD is the one who appears and speaks, and yet God’s voice is heard through this mediating messenger. The burning bush, which is not consumed by the fire, catches Moses’ attention. This magical moment is designed to lure Moses into this experience of the God’s words and call. The LORD is portrayed as watching for the moment when Moses is lured into this experience and encounters the fire and the angel of the LORD. Even though later in Exodus Moses will speak to God ‘face to face’ here the presence of God is mediated. Somehow the angel of the LORD is a messenger and yet an extension of the voice of God and here, even though mediated, the presence of God draws closer and makes this piece of mountainous property a holy place where God is present in a more immediate way. Much as the angel of the LORD will be the mediator of God’s presence to Moses, now Moses is being prepared to be the mediator of God’s presence to the people of both Israel and Egypt.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight” Proverbs 9:10 can state, and here Moses’ initial reaction to this intensified presence of the LORD is to hide his face and to fear.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a fascinating discussion of ‘of what was Moses afraid?’ (Sacks, 2010, pp. 35-40) where he pulls on Rabbinic wisdom to draw several parallels in Moses’ life: Moses here hides his face and later the Israelites will see Moses’ face radiant after he talks with God and be afraid to approach him; he is afraid to look upon God here and later in Exodus he will see the form of God. And yet, why is the fear of the LORD the beginning of wisdom, or why is Moses afraid. Rabbi Sacks argument that to see the face of God is also to see ultimate justice of history and to understand why sometimes humans must suffer would be a wisdom whose price was too high. Whether these thoughts in any way parallel Moses’ thoughts we will never know but there is a perspective that we, no matter how broad minded we try to be, cannot see. Certainly, leaders at times must make choices that will cause pain for a portion of their followers to forward some greater good, or parents at times deny their children momentary pleasures for their health, security or well-being. Yet, we as people, while we can say with Martin Luther King, Jr. that ‘the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ we still are, like Moses, called to become angry and upset about oppression and the injustice of this world. Moses is probably chosen because he could see the injustices, like those committed towards the Hebrew people or the daughters of Jethro in the previous chapter and felt compelled to act upon those injustices.

God has heard and seen the misery of the people and now God is going to act upon that observation. Moses will be the instrument that the LORD uses to bring the people from slavery to the promised land. God’s actions in the world often are mediated through the people God calls, indeed Israel as a people’s calling is to mediate God’s presence and blessing to the world. Being an instrument of God is both an incredible but also a fearful calling, perhaps this is one of the central reason why so often one of the first things said is ‘Do not be afraid’ but that is not said here. Instead the promise of God’s presence with Moses is to be the reassurance that he will need to boldly go before Pharaoh.

The land that the Israelites are to go to is here referred to for the first time as a land of milk and honey. As Carol Myers, can remind us this refers to, “The products of animal husbandry (represented by “milk”) and viticulture (represented by “honey,” or grape syrup) represent the productivity of a land that, in fact, has a difficult topography and chronic water shortages.” (Myers, 2005, p. 54) Honey in the bible is rarely bee honey, there are expectations like Judges 14 in the story of Samson, and mainly this fruit syrup. The land of milk and honey is only a productive land on the condition of the LORD of Israel granting fertility and rains at the appropriate time. It is not, like the American heartland, a comparatively easy place to grow crops and herds. The people’s prosperity, like their entire life will always be dependent upon the generative gift of the LORD their God.

Moses’ response to the call is one of self-doubt. It is easy to forget in the boldness that Moses will need to later embody before the people, before Pharaoh and before God that his initial response is one of self-doubt. Perhaps for most of us this is the natural response. We are unable to see within ourselves the very characteristics that God based God’s calling upon. The things that we may see as challenges, perhaps in Moses’ case his inability to see the injustices occurring without acting, may be the very characteristics that God sees as necessary for the calling we have. Moses will bargain with God here and in chapter four about Moses’ perceived insufficiencies and needs for reassurance and even when it may not be the way the LORD would prefer God accommodates Moses. Moses the man is critical to God’s work of liberation and even though he cannot see who he will become God sees within him the potential and the characteristics that God needs for him to be the instrument chosen for this task.

Hebrew Letters for the Name of God

Hebrew Letters for the Name of God

Exodus 3: 13-22 The Name of God

13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, 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 my title for all generations.

 16 Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery 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 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; let us now go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, so that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ 19 I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go. 21 I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed; 22 each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor’s house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians.”

There is both power and necessity in a name. There is necessity in a name in being able to differentiate creatures, people, things and even God. Just as in Genesis 2: 19-20 where God brings Adam each of the different creatures to name, so there is a need to have a way to distinguish the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from the gods of Egypt or Canaan. One of the things that people throughout the narrative of Genesis did was give names for the God they encountered (for example Hagar will name God ‘El-Roi’, Melchizedek will call God ‘El-Elyon’).  Here God is asked for what God’s name is and God’s response ‘I AM WHO I AM’ and its later four Hebrew Letter YHWH will be the one name that of God that is spoken rarely if ever among the Jewish people.

The divine name is behind the later commandment in Exodus 20:7 “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his holy name.” Many Jewish people will not even write the word God, substituting G_d. Even in the translation of the Bible the name is not casually written. Only here is the name translated “I AM” and throughout the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) the four-letter name of God is translated LORD. A person reading in Hebrew would pronounce ‘Adonai’ the Hebrew word for Lord rather than Yahweh which is scholarship’s best guess at the proper pronunciation of the divine name.

In the fantasy series Eragon to know the true name of something is to have power over that item and magic was worked by knowing something’s true name. This is an ancient idea that Christopher Paolini picked up knowingly or unknowingly in those stories. For example, in an exorcism if one can call upon the name of the demon being exorcised it is a sign of power (an example of this is in the story of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5: 1-20 and parallels). There is an entire tradition of Jewish mysticism based upon the names of God which have some resonance of magical power. Here the name of God is both necessary and powerful, in a certain sense God unveils a part of God’s identity in releasing this name. Yet, the name itself, “I AM,” has a certain veiling quality as well. Coming from the ‘to be’ verb of Hebrew it both reveals and refuses to reveal. The LORD says, “I exist” and perhaps I am behind all existence (which would fit with the Hebrew understanding of God as the creator of all things) and yet it is only four letters. Yet, those four letters would necessitate a commandment to prevent their misuse, the name of God is a powerful thing. This is also a dynamic that the Gospel of John uses in respect to Jesus’ numerous ‘I am’ sayings (I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the gate, I am the way, the truth and the light, etc.)

God calls Moses to go and assemble the elders and then foreshadows much of what is to come in the remainder of Exodus through Joshua. The land to which they are going is now named as the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hittites and Jebusites. The initial request is to go out for three days to sacrifice, a request that will be denied multiple times by Pharaoh. Also foreshadowed is the conflict between Pharaoh, and by extension the gods of Egypt, and the LORD. Finally, the Egyptians giving to the people of Israel as they begin their journey jewelry, wealth and clothing. God may see what is ahead for Moses and the people and yet Moses will still need to see some evidence from God how this may come about.



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