Exodus 3: Moses and the Burning Bush

By Mary Jane Chaignot

According to biblical texts, Moses spends 40 years tending his father-in-law’s flocks. These years are virtually silent, revealing no information about his life beyond the flocks. Apparently over time, he leads them farther and farther to find good grazing lands. Finally, he leads them beyond the wilderness and “comes to Horeb, the mountain of God.” Though scholars are uncertain what Horeb means, one thinks it means “wasteland.” Others suggest it means “heat, or glowing,” a possible reference to the sun. Either way, it seems like a poor choice for grazing.

Why he’s there has been the subject of much speculation. Clearly, he is a long way from home. Some scholars suggest he is being led by an unknown force. Others suggest he goes there merely in pursuit of good pasture (see above). Still, others think there is some significance in that it is far away from any temple, altar, or priestly activities. In a way, it is its own wilderness.

The narrator informs the reader that upon Mount Horeb, “the angel of the Lord appears to him in a flame of fire out of a bush.” Mountains are frequently places where humans encounter deities. In this case, however, it is an angel who appears. Typically, angels are messengers for God, but this angel never speaks. In fact, it immediately turns into an encounter with God. So it is not clear why the scenario begins with an angel. It seems to have no purpose. More confusing, however, is the fact that the bush is “blazing but is not consumed.”

Scholars are fairly confident in the translation, but admit that the words are an attempt to explain the inexplicable. Clearly, something miraculous is happening, and it demonstrates just how inadequate words can be. So the narrator says the bush is burning but is not consumed. This is a theophany, where God becomes visible to humans. The bush is likely a shrub with a fierce flame that bears the image of an angel in its midst. Moses notices that and says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” He is not frightened, just curious. He goes over to look.

As soon as the Lord sees that he has turned aside to see, God “calls to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses’!” Moses’ immediate response is to answer, “Here I am.” It is important to note that God initiates this conversation by calling him by name. There is no explanation regarding the distinction between the messenger of the Lord and the Lord who speaks. Scholars again struggle with the words, but suffice it to say that the messenger is now the Lord. Readers may wonder if Moses has any insights regarding the speaker. The triplet of the uncharred bush, the fire, and the voice suspends all sense of natural phenomenon.

God immediately gives two short commands. He tells him to stop: “Do not move any closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This is the first time “holy” is used in relation to God. There has been nothing up to this point that would suggest this is anything but a normal place. Suddenly, however, it is holy. Two points are worth noting. Its holiness lasts only as long as this incident, and Moses does not build an altar or mark it in any way. This is also the first time that someone is asked to remove sandals as a sign of respect. The text does not state that Moses does so, but there is no reason to think that he doesn’t comply.

The voice continues, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This has to be an illuminating moment for Moses on many levels. He is born Hebrew, raised Egyptian, and living in a foreign land. He has given up all contact with his previous life. Perhaps he’s been trying to figure out for a long time who he really is. Suddenly, the decision is made for him. “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

In an instant, things change. Moses is no longer driven by curiosity; he hides his face, “for he is afraid to look at God.” He is, no doubt, filled with awe-inspiring fear, possibly dread. Reminded of his heritage, he must come to terms with his past and his inability to escape. God is in a foreign land calling to him. “I am the God of your father” and the patriarchs. This God has made promises to the patriarchs of his past, and He has chosen Moses to fulfill these promises.

God continues that He has seen the plight of his people in Egypt, and He intends to send Moses to rescue them. The speech has several interesting parts. God begins by saying that He “has observed the misery of my people in Egypt.” He has “heard their cry on account of their taskmasters,” and He knows their sufferings. Scholars insist that the words do not describe a distant God watching dispassionately. God knows their sufferings; He is completely present with them. Readers might be tempted to ask why it has taken so long. The Israelites have been in Egypt 400 years. Surely, their bondage has been in place for a long time. Yet, a careful reading of the text has them crying out for the first time at the end of chapter 2; the very next line has God saying that he has heard their cry. He is ready to act.

God continues, “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.” This is a new description of the Promised Land, and it certainly doesn’t speak to the experience of the Israelites. But “milk and honey” describe a lush, fertile land. In noting the disparity between God’s description and the experience of the Israelites, scholars have oftentimes pointed out that the hardships are due to human failure, not to the infertility of the land. Perhaps this is true, but it is also possible that at this point the people need a compelling reason to leave Egypt. The promise of fertile land will boost morale and enable their courage.

God intends to bring them to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. This land is fully occupied. No less than half a dozen different nationalities are represented. God does not give any detail as to how this will all take place, but it is clear that He will be present to “bring them” in a way that they cannot do for themselves.

After again repeating that He has heard their cry, he says, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Suddenly, God’s intention becomes completely clear. He has chosen Moses to act on his behalf. Moses recoils. It is one thing to hear about God’s intention to act; it’s something else to discover that those actions will be occurring through himself. The enthusiastic response of “Here am I” changes to “Who am I to do this?” No doubt the tone has changed too. Scholars call this the commissioning of Moses. Like so many of the prophets, Moses is less than enthusiastic. He is a simple shepherd, caring for his flocks. Days are peaceful; life is predictable. His only concern is finding adequate pasturelands. So he says, “Who am I to do this?”

God does not address his concern but says, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign: When you have brought the people out, you will come here to worship.” That’s a very interesting thing for God to say because in this case, the sign comes after the deed has been done. Most people, including Moses, might prefer it to be the other way around. Yet, God is implicitly accepting his fears and promising to be with him. The game plan, however, does not change at all. God is virtually saying, “Go, do this; then come back here and you will see.” Everything is clear.

However, Moses remains unconvinced. What next ensues is a remarkable dialogue between Moses and God. Seven or eight times Moses resists, and each time God insists! There is no other place in the Bible where this happens. Many of the prophets write about their “call” experiences. Several say, “God told me to speak, and I spoke.” Moses, on the other hand, resists vehemently. He is simply not interested. Does that make a difference as far as God is concerned? No! It doesn’t make any difference at all, and yet, God is taking Moses as he is. He doesn’t transform him. There is no magical finger coming out of the heavens to zap him into a new personality or person. He is still Moses. Yet, God will take each and every one of his complaints and deal with it.

Moses begins. “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?” Moses has already made the leap from going before Pharaoh to needing the cooperation of the Israelites. God replies, “I am who I am.” He continues, “Thus you shall say, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God further explains, “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.”

“I AM” can also be translated as “I will be whom I will be.” Or “I am who I am becoming.” Scholars don’t know how to translate it. The Hebrew letters mean the essence of life itself. The name given to Moses is known as the Tetragrammaton (four letters) because it is written with four letters. Translated, it is commonly written as YHWH, or Yahweh. Ancient people cautioned against saying the name of God aloud, lest they might inadvertently use His name in vain. So when reading, they substituted the name Adonai. Centuries later, when vowels were added to the consonants, it became Jehovah, which is how God’s name is mostly translated today. Jehovah means “God;” Yahweh means “LORD.”

The fact that scholars don’t know how to translate it says a lot about the nature of God. He is self-existent. God is without beginning or end. It is also noteworthy that the latter two expansions on His name begin with, “Thus says the Lord….” This is an introductory formulaic phrase that will be used by later prophets when they are speaking on God’s behalf. This is not the only name for God used in the Bible, but it is certainly the most common and the least understood. This discussion will continue next month.