In Egypt, the Israelites “were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them”—and “there arose a new king over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph” (1:7-8). Seeing that the Israelites were growing strong, the king oppressed them and tried to enlist midwives to kill male Hebrew babies (1:15). The mother of baby Moses hid Moses in a basket in the bulrushes, and he was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him in the palace (2:1-10).
When Moses grew up, he sympathized with his people, who were suffering under their taskmasters. When he saw an Egyptian mistreating some of the Israelites, Moses killed the Egyptian. Then he fled to Midian to escape punishment (2:11-22). There he married Zipporah, the daughter of a priest of Midian, who bore him a son (2:21-22).
And then we read these momentous words: “It happened in the course of those many days, that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the children of Israel, and God was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:23-25). We will hear echoes of these words in verse 7 below.
EXODUS 3:1-6: MOSES WAS KEEPING THE FLOCK—MINDING HIS BUSINESS
1Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the back of the wilderness, and came to God’s mountain, to Horeb. 2The angel (Hebrew: mal’ak—messenger) of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3Moses said, “I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.”
4When Yahweh saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, “Moses! Moses!”
He said, “Here I am.”
5He said, “Don’t come close. Take your sandals off of your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground.” 6Moreover he said, “I am the God of your father (singular), the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look at God.
“Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the back of the wilderness, and came to God’s mountain, to Horeb” (v. 1). Although Moses was raised in the palace as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter (2:10), he has assumed the anonymity of an ordinary shepherd who works for Jethro, his father-in-law. The words, “to the back of the wilderness,” suggest that Moses led the flock beyond the usual grazing grounds.
“and came to God’s mountain, to Horeb” (v. 1b). The Hebrew word horeb means “a desolate region” or “ruin.” Sinai and Horeb are different names for the same mountain. “Where a distinction appears, the mountain itself is Sinai and the neighboring wilderness area bears the wider designation Horeb” (Harrison & Hoffmeier, 526). It is also called “God’s mountain” (Exodus 3:1; 4:27; 24:13) and “the mountain of God” (18:5) or “the Mount of Yahweh” (Numbers 10:33). While its location is uncertain, one possibility is a mountain called Jebel Musa (the mountain of Moses) in the southern part of the Sinai.
There is no indication that Moses was seeking the mountain of God. To the contrary, his surprise at seeing a bush burn without being consumed suggests that he was merely acting as a shepherd, seeking good grazing land for his father-in-law’s sheep.
We don’t know Moses’ age at this time, the narrator will soon tell us that he was eighty years old when he and Aaron spoke to Pharaoh” (7:7).
“The angel (mal’ak—messenger) of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (v. 2a). We should not make assumptions regarding the appearance of this mal’ak—this messenger. The common image of an angel that looks like a man with wings is, at best, a feeble attempt to envision something beyond our experience.
There is no record of this mal’ak giving a message to Moses. In verse 4, God will address Moses directly, and the text gives no further indication of an angel. As a result, Waldemar Janzen believes that the word mal’ak in this verse might refer to Yahweh himself—that Yahweh is the mal’ak—the one delivering the message.
“He looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” (v. 2b). There is no indication here that Moses notices the mal’ak. Instead, it is the burning bush that draws his attention. A shepherd would be concerned about the possibility of a brush fire spreading and threatening the sheep.
“Moses said, ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt'” (v. 3). The fact that the bush is not consumed by the fire holds Moses’ attention. Desert brush usually flashes up like tinder and is quickly consumed.
In our desire to understand this burning bush, we must not limit ourselves to the possibilities afforded by nature. We need not look for desert bushes that might burn for a very long time. This burning bush is no natural phenomenon, but rather a theophany (a manifestation of God). God put the bush there to get Moses’ attention—and it does.
The bush is mentioned only once again in the Hebrew Scriptures—in Deuteronomy 33:16. In the NRSV translation of that verse, “bush” appears only as a footnote.
“When Yahweh saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, ‘Moses! Moses!'” (v. 4a). As noted above, it is Yahweh who calls Moses rather than the mal’ak (unless Yahweh is the mal’ak).
The repeated name is not unusual in scripture. Repeated names signal an especially important moment in God’s dealings with humans: “Jacob, Jacob” (Genesis 46:2)—”Samuel, Samuel” (1 Samuel 3:10) —”Simon, Simon” (Luke 22:31)—”Saul, Saul” (Acts 9:4). The doubling of the name can also express endearment (Stuart).
“He said, ‘Here I am'” (v. 4b). Moses is doing something more than answering “Present!” At the least, he means that God has his full attention. At the most, he means that he is standing by for his marching orders (see Isaiah 6:8; 53:6; Luke 1:38). In this instance, Moses is most likely announcing that he is both present and listening carefully.
“He said, ‘Don’t come close. Take your sandals off of your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground'” (v. 5). God issues two commands here. The first is for Moses to come no closer. The second is for him to remove his sandals. The rationale is that Moses is standing on holy ground—that this is a holy place and a holy moment. He needs to honor the moment and the one who makes it holy. He needs to show respect—reverence.
This time and place are holy because of Yahweh’s presence. A key characteristic of Yahweh is that he is holy—unique—wholly other—righteous—that he radiates glory. There is great power associated with such holiness. Yahweh will later refuse to allow Moses to see his face, because to see Yahweh’s face would be to die (33:20). Perhaps Yahweh orders Moses not to come closer because of that danger.
But J. Gerald Janzen notes that a guest would take off his/her shoes when entering a host’s home, so he equates Yahweh’s command for Moses to take off his shoes with an invitation to hospitality.
As we who have read the full story know, this is a watershed moment for Moses—and not only for Moses, but for all people everywhere. Until this moment, Moses has been going about his business in the ordinary way. After this moment, he will live a God-directed, God-powered life that will change the history of his people—and of the world. That isn’t an honor that he sought. It is, in fact, an honor that he will five times try to refuse (3:11, 13; 4:1, 10, 13).
“Moreover he said, ‘I am the God of your father (singular), the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6a). The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a common Biblical formula (Exodus 3:15, 16; 4:5; 1 Chronicles 29:18; 2 Chronicles 30:6; Matthew 22:32; Mark 12:26; Luke 20:37; Acts 3:13; 7:32). However, Yahweh first identifies himself as the God of Moses’ father (singular). This singular word suggests that Yahweh is talking about Amram, Moses’ father (see 6:20). This is a very personal approach. Moses would know of the great historical figures, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—but he would be touched by this mention of his own father.
“Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look at God” (v. 6b). Moses’ fear is well-founded (33:20). It is the fear of the inferior in the presence of the superior. It is the fear of the unholy in the presence of the holy. It is the fear of a man who knows that this is a seminal moment—but has no idea what is coming next.
EXODUS 3:7-12: I HAVE SEEN THE AFFLICTION OF MY PEOPLE
7Yahweh said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. 8 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 large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey; to the place of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 9Now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to me. Moreover I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10Come now therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
11Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
12He said, “Certainly I will be with you. This will be the token to you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
“Yahweh said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows'” (v. 7). In this verse, “three of the verbs of 2:24-25 are reiterated, ‘I have seen… I have heard… I have known.’ …These are the three actions that God characteristically takes toward Israel, for Israel is the object of God’s intense attentiveness” (Brueggemann).
“I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians” (v. 8a). Yahweh has “come down” to “deliver them up.” He has entered the human world to correct the plight of his people.
“and to bring them up out of that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey” (v. 8b). This promise has roots in the covenant that Yahweh made with Abram many years earlier. In that covenant, Yahweh promised that he would give Abram’s descendants the land “from the river of Egypt, to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18).
Now Yahweh promises Moses and the Israelites a good land—”a land flowing with milk and honey.” This is the first mention in the Bible of a land of milk and honey, but it will not be the last (3:17; 13:5; 33:3; Leviticus 20:24, etc.). It is Yahweh’s promise of providence on a grand scale—fruitfulness—abundance.
“to the place of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite”(v. 8c). With this list of peoples, Yahweh shows where he will settle the Israelites—and with whom they will have to contend. The first three of these groups were significant powers, and the others less so (Durham).
“Now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to me. Moreover I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them” (v. 9). Yahweh has heard their cries of woe and their prayers for deliverance. He has seen the injustices rendered by their Egyptian overlords.
“Come now therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (v. 10). Ever since Yahweh first addressed Moses from the burning bush (v. 4), Moses has been waiting for the other shoe to drop. He surely understands that Yahweh has not just dropped in for a casual visit. Now Yahweh reveals his intent—an intent that must hit Moses like a bombshell. Yahweh intends to deliver his people, and he intends for Moses to serve as his agent. He will require Moses to negotiate with Pharaoh.
So Yahweh says, “Come now therefore, and I will send you.” The time is here. The waiting is over. It is time to act. Moses, the shepherd of Jethro’s sheep, will become Moses, the shepherd of Yahweh’s people.
“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?'” (v. 11). “Who am I?” reflects Moses’ understanding of his modest resources and the magnitude of the task. Yes, he was raised in the palace, but that was long ago. He killed an Egyptian and fled for his life. He has been living anonymously in a foreign land for many years. He has become a simple shepherd. How can a shepherd negotiate with Pharaoh?
“Who am I?” also reflects Moses’ recollection of his earlier attempt to help the Israelites (2:11-22). His efforts on that occasion resulted in the death of an Egyptian. The following day, he was confronted with his guilt, not by an Egyptian, but by an Israelite whom he was trying to help. That situation quickly unraveled to the point that Pharaoh sought to kill Moses (2:15). In that instance, Moses proved himself a bumbler with regard to helping the Israelites—and the Israelites proved themselves to be a prickly and unappreciative bunch.
Moses might be the first to express his understanding of his woeful inadequacy, but he won’t be the last. Others will include Gideon (Judges 6:15)—Saul (1 Samuel 9:21), and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:6).
This is just the first of five objections that Moses will raise (see also 3:13; 4:1, 10, 13). His final plea will be simply, “O Lord, please send someone else” (4:13).
“(Yahweh) said, ‘Certainly I will be with you'” (v. 12a). This is the answer to Moses’ objection. It doesn’t really matter who Moses is, because Yahweh will enable Moses to work by Yahweh’s power. Yahweh will be there with Moses, and Yahweh will not let Moses fail.
“This will be the token to you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (v. 12b). What is the sign? There are two theories. One is that the sign was the burning bush. The other is that the sign will be when Moses brings the Israelites back to Horeb/Sinai to worship God there. While the original Hebrew text allows each of these possibilities, most scholars favor the second theory, and that is the interpretation behind the NRSV translation.
EXODUS 3:13-15: I AM WHO I AM
13Moses said to God, “Behold, when I come to the children of Israel, and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you;’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What should I tell them?”
14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM,” (Hebrew: ‘eheyeh ‘asher yahweh) and he said, “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” 15God said moreover to Moses, “You shall tell the children of Israel this, ‘Yahweh, 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 this is my memorial to all generations.
“Behold, when I come to the children of Israel, and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you;’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What should I tell them?” (v. 13). In verse 11, Moses asked, “Who am I?” Now he asks, “Who are you?”
People of that day considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. As is obvious from this verse, they also assumed that a name—at least some names—possessed something of the power of the one who wore that name. That is at least part of the reason for the prohibition in the Ten Commandments against misusing God’s name (Exodus 20:7).
While that might sound foreign to us today, it is not. When we talk about a person’s reputation, we are talking about something that expresses the essence of that person. A person’s reputation also conveys a certain power or lack of it.
Moses’ desire to know God’s name, then, comes out of his need for authentication once he engages the Israelites. Perhaps, if he can tell the people God’s name, that will persuade them to believe him. Knowing God’s name will give him authority.
But we shouldn’t miss the fact that this request for God’s name is also a stalling tactic—an attempt to slow down the process until… until what? Moses probably doesn’t know “until what?” He just knows that the game is moving too fast and that he is out of his league. He is off-balance and needs time to get his feet under him. Maybe, just maybe, if he can delay the action a bit, he will come up with a persuasive reason why God should call someone else.
“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ (‘eheyeh ‘asher yahweh) and he said, ‘You shall tell the children of Israel this: “I AM has sent me to you”‘” (v. 14). It is from this answer that we get Yahweh as God’s name. In Hebrew, it is four letters—YHWH.
“The name is cryptic, and perhaps intentionally so. It could mean that the deity is inscrutable, indefinable, or Wholly Other” (Seow, 590-591).
In many English translations, YHWH is often translated “the Lord,” in part because the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament uses the Greek word kyrios (Lord) to translate the Hebrew YHWH into Greek.
Because post-exilic Jews considered YHWH too holy to say aloud, they substituted Adonai (Lord) for YHWH in public readings of the scriptures. Pious Jews today sometimes substitute “the Name” for YHWH.
“God said moreover to Moses, ‘You shall tell the children of Israel this, “Yahweh, 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 this is my memorial to all generations'” (v. 15).
Yahweh now identifies himself as the God of Moses’ ancestors—the God of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). This will be meaningful to the Israelites, who know and revere these names. They know of Yahweh’s dealings with these patriarchs in the past, which should reassure them with regard to Yahweh’s dealings with the Israelites in the present.
God announces that this name (YHWH or Yahweh) will be his name forever.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bruckner, James K. New International Biblical Commentary: Exodus (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008)
Brueggemann, Walter, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Brevard S. Childs, The Old Testament Library: Exodus (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1974)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Craghan, John F., Collegeville Bible Commentary: The Book of Exodus (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1985)
Dunham, Maxie D., The Preacher’s Commentary: Exodus (Dallas: Word, Inc., 1987)
Durham, John I., Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 3 (Dallas, Word Books, 1987)
Fretheim, Terence E., Interpretation Commentary: Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
Harrison, R.K. and Hoffmeier, J.K., in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Four: Q-Z – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Janzen, J. Gerald, Westminster Bible Companion: Exodus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Janzen, Waldemar, Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Exodus (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Rawlinson, George, The Pulpit Commentary: Genesis-Exodus, Vol. 1 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date given)
Seow, C.L., in Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: D-H, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007)
Strawn, Brent A., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Stuart, Douglas K., The New American Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan