Moses objects, God commissions (again)

4 Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?”

YHWH’s second commissioning of Moses appears to meet with even less success than the first. This time Moses asks another question – ‘what if they don’t believe me.’ A quick look back at God’s speech to Moses at the end of chapter 3 shows that God had been keen to reassure Moses of this exact point. Moses is disbelieving exactly where God has been most reassuring.

God, however is not going to give up:

2 Then the LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?”

“A staff,” he replied.

3 The LORD said, “Throw it on the ground.”

Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. 4 Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. 5 “This,” said the LORD, “is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.”

There is something quite comic in this sign – imagine Moses running from the snake that was once his staff. This is the first sign that Moses can do for the elders. Then there is a second, and a third:

6 Then the LORD said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous[a]—it had become as white as snow.

7 “Now put it back into your cloak,” he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.

8 Then the LORD said, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. 9 But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.”

These signs are not strictly necessary. Moses has already seen the bush on fire, but not consumed. Moses has heard the divine voice. He should simply believe and trust. But it isn’t that easy – he doesn’t. He is still full of doubts. Yet God does not just give up on Moses. God does not decide to find a more co-operative shepherd.

Instead God graciously gives Moses signs. Signs that help Moses immediately – even if they do give him a bit of a fright at first – which may also be the point. The God Moses is dealing with is the God who has power to turn a staff into a snake, and the power to make leprous and to heal.

The third sign actually prefigures the first plague also, so again builds confidence in what God can do in and through Moses.

But Moses has another objection:

10 But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”

He moves now away from the problem of how the people might react (which was his problem in 4:1, and in 3:13) and, as in 3:11 focuses on himself. This time it is the claim that he is not a good speaker. He is slow of speech. We don’t know whether this is a genuine claim of speech impediment – if so, it seems to fade out of view as Exodus continues, or more a matter of nervousness and lack of experience in speaking – which can feel just as real.

11 Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12 Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”

God’s response once more is to remind Moses that it is not Moses’ inadequacy, whether that is perceived or real which ultimately matters. Ultimately it is God’s power and presence that matter. It is God who gives speech and sight. The one who is speaking to Moses as Moses continues to find reasons to get out of doing what God has asked him to is the one who has the power over speech and silence, sight and blindness.

And God’s response to Moses’ objection is to call him to go once more – now the third time that Moses has been asked to go in this account. Moses is to go in the assurance that not only is God with him in the general sense, but he will be with his mouth and teach him what to say.

God’s presence is particular. Moses has a particular need, and God will be with him at that point of need, teaching him how he is to speak. When God calls he will also equip, and if we are supposed to be doing something for him he will make sure we can do it. He knows our weakness and he will be with us at that point of weakness.

I’m reminded of the account in 2 Corinthians of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’:

2 Corinthians 12:7-9 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

We can guess that God chose Moses partly because of this speech difficulty. Moses’ speech will be so important in Israel’s story, and so Moses, and Israel, need to know that Moses’ ability to speak comes from God. It is not a natural facility. Our natural gifts are used in God’s service, and but often mixed in with those gifts is some area of great weakness.

Such weaknesses do not disqualify us from God’s call. Indeed they may make us more fitted (in a sense) to God’s service, for then we, and others will know that it is not our abilities that have produced success, but God’s great grace in working through our areas of deep weakness – because God is the God whose power shows up best in weak people.

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Moses: Renewed Commission

Exodus 3:16 Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, 17 and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction 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 And 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; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ 19 But I know 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 the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. 21 And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, 22 but each woman shall ask of her neighbour, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewellery, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.”

Having answered Moses question about his name God now commissions Moses for the second time, this time with more detailed instructions, that also aim to reassure Moses as to the reception he will get – notice how he says that the elders will listen to Moses, and how the rescue will eventually happen.

In general v17-18 seems fairly similar to what has gone before, but there is one important difference that links this section very closely into the end of Genesis. This difference comes in v16, and isn’t immediately obvious in English where the ESV has ‘I have observed you’. The word ‘observed’ here is a Hebrew word which has a large range of meanings, but it is often translated ‘visit’ or sometimes ‘oversee’. Sometimes, as here, that is in a positive sense – God pays attention to their trouble and does something about it. Later in Exodus the word re-appears with a more ominous overtone when it comes in relation to God paying attention to sin.

But, if you are reading in the Hebrew, and reading through from Genesis into Exodus the previous mention of this word is in Genesis 50 (highlighted in bold):

Genesis 50:24-25 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”  Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”

This use of the word comes at the scene of Joseph’s death, where we see Joseph’s trust in the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He knows the Israelites will be in Egypt for a while, but he also knows they will be brought up out of the land. God has not forgotten them, and he will once more pay attention to their plight.  In the Hebrew the verb ‘to visit’ is in a particularly emphatic form both times it appears – so the ESV above has ‘surely visit’ to emphasis that God really will do it.

The use of the word to Moses, and especially to the elders of Israel, who stand as heirs of Jacob’s sons, is therefore a huge encouragement. Again in Exodus 3 it comes in the particularly emphatic form, as if to make sure we don’t miss it.  God will really and truly do what he says he will do.  God’s promises are being fulfilled. YHWH is indeed the God who makes and keeps his promises.

That should serve to strengthen Moses’ faith and trust that as YHWH explains to him what will happen next, YHWH will do as he has said. Here Pharaoh’s resistance and the plagues are anticipated, and the eventual escape taking the Egyptian jewels with them also. YHWH knows the end from the beginning and so he can be trusted.

One small detail can often sound troubling, and that is the request for a 3 day journey, which sounds like a trick to get the people out. It may be, of course, that YHWH isn’t that worried about deceiving Pharaoh if it means saving his people from extermination by a brutal dictator, and so deliberately tells Moses to tell something less than the truth (see the end of chapter 1 if you think he could never approve such a course of action). It may also be that the offer of a three day journey is an offer of grace – giving Pharaoh the chance to show that he can be gracious. Or it could be the first move of a negotiation strategy – once Pharaoh concedes that, more can be demanded.

Whatever the exact explanation of that detail is, the end result of this commissioning is clear – YHWH has it covered. Israel will get out of Egypt, God’s people will go free and Pharaoh will be defeated. So Moses just needs to go and gather the elders of the people, because YHWH assures him – ‘they will listen to you’. Surely Moses will act in obedience to this second commissioning? Find out tomorrow… (or read Exodus 4 for the – slightly comic – next instalment…)

Moses: objection II “Who are you?”

Moses is obviously not reassured by the affirmation of God’s presence and by the provision of a sign, because he has another question to raise to God’s plan. This time it goes like this:

Exodus 3:13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

Moses is imagining himself heading to the Israelites to carry out the mission. He knows what God has told him so far – that this God that has spoken to him out of the bush is the God of their fathers, but he does not know his name.

God’s name is Yahweh, usually written LORD in our English bibles, and that first appears in Genesis 2, where the story teller tells us of how the LORD God created the heavens and the earth. In Genesis 4 we are told that people began to ‘call on the name of the LORD’, and the LORD is described as appearing to Abraham in Genesis.  Therefore it seems slightly odd that Moses is asking for his name.

To cut out much of the discussion about why Moses wouldn’t know the name or might think Israel would ask him for God’s name (see the appendix at the bottom of this blog post for more details) Moses is either asking what God’s name is because he doesn’t know (either because as someone cut off from Israel he doesn’t know it, or because Israel have also forgotten it) or he is asking for an explanation of the the name Yahweh that he knows the sound of, but not the meaning.  Whichever explanation we follow, Moses question expects an answer of a name, or at least of a name and an explanation of that name’s meaning. Having had God answer his question “Who am I?” Moses has effectively moved on to “Who are you?” Instead of focusing on his own unsuitability he has moved on to questioning who this God is who is sending him.

God’s answer is again not exactly a straightforward answer to Moses’ question at any level.

14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, 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,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.

God’s answer breaks down into three sections. Firstly “I am who I am”, or more likely “I will be who I will be” – the Hebrew verb form here of the verb ‘to be’ is usually used of the future sense – so most would translate it “I will be who I will be.” This isn’t really an answer to Moses’ question – but the second and third parts of his answer will move towards answering that question.

On its own “I will be who I will be” could be taken as a refusal to answer Moses’ question. In a context in which Moses’ question is answered I think it emphasises that Moses cannot pin down God. God is the one who will be who he will be, no-one else can define this God, no-one can tell this God what he is like and what he should do. God is the one who gets to define God.

But there is more. The ‘I will be’ alludes back to God saying to Moses ‘I will be with you’. God is not simply the one who is, he is the one who is with Moses. However he is not simply the one who is with Moses, but because he is the one who will be who he will be, he is the one who is with Moses in the way in which he is with Moses.

In other words while God’s promise to be with Moses is sure and certain, the way in which he will carry out that promise is defined by God. Moses cannot control this God. Knowing this God’s name will not mean he has any control over how God will operate. God is utterly with Moses – and yet God is utterly free to be with Moses in whatever way God chooses to be with Moses.

The principle is the same for us – God is with us, and he is always with us – and yet that being with us is always done in a way that we do not control. He is in charge, not us. He is, as Mr Beaver puts it of Aslan, “not safe, but good”, and “not a tame lion”.

God’s speech to Moses continues – and if anything this is even stranger. Moses is to answer the Israelites question by saying “I will be has sent me to you”. The answer to the question “what is your name?” seems to be here “I will be”. That is an odd answer, but it makes more sense when you read the next verses. Moses is then to say “The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob has sent me…”

The LORD is the way in which modern English versions translate the word in the Hebrew for the name of God. Hebrew doesn’t have vowels in the main text – instead they were added as dots under the main text when Hebrew was spoken less to make sure words were pronounced right. When the vowels were added the word for God’s name was given the vowels that go with the consonants of the generic word for God (Elohim), or for the word for Lord/master (Adonai) . To this day Jews regard the name (Ha-shem) as too holy to be spoken. So we don’t know what the vowels should be, or how the word was pronounced. The best guess at the moment is that the word should be Yahweh – the consonants being YHWH.

These consonants are very like the word for “he is”. So these verses are giving a kind of word play on the verb ‘to be’ to explain what the name YHWH means. YHWH means the one who is, the one who will be who he will be, the one who defines himself, and the one who is with his people in the way that he chooses to be with his people. The one who makes promises to his people and keeps them. That is what the name of the LORD means.

That is what Moses is sent back to the Israelites with, that this God who has appeared to him is YHWH, the God who will be with them, the God who will be with his people and the God who has sent Moses to them. We should note here that Moses being sent to the Israelites is tied up with the name of God. Moses being sent to the Israelites shows them something new about God. YHWH is the God who not only comes down to save his people, but also the God who does that by sending Moses. YHWH’s salvation comes through YHWH’s spokesman and rescuer, Moses.

YHWH is the God who is with his people, not just in some abstract sense, but in the sense that he sends Moses, the messenger he has chosen to be with. For us YHWH comes in the person of Jesus, and leaves his Spirit with us, to live in us, so that he is always with us – and he puts us in company with other Christians, with other people who have the Spirit of YHWH in them – so that God’s presence with us comes in the presence of others also. And because YHWH’s presence comes to us through his Spirit and through other people we are not in control of that. We are placed at the mercy of YHWH, trusting that he will be with us as he chooses to be with us, for our good, and for his glory.

Or as one of my favourite quotes from my readings around the book of Exodus puts it:

The God whose name is ‘I will be’ is One who calls His servants to a life of faith, and who vindicates Himself and declares His nature in the event itself to the mind of the authorized interpreter of that event. He is empirically revealed. In particular, this is the message of the burning bush. Like all similar manifestations, the purpose behind the ‘flame of fire out of the midst of a bush’ was to declare the nature of God. And this is the revelation: that the God who addressed Himself to Moses is the living and indwelling God. We speak of the burning bush, but in point of fact the notable thing was that the bush did not burn. The vision is rather of the flame which needed no fuel to feed it because it contained all life within itself. So God is revealed: the One who is All-sufficiency in Himself. But such a God could be utterly remote in self-sufficient isolation; in that case He would not be the God who showed Himself ‘out of the midst of the bush’. This all-sufficient God takes up His abode in the humble, and lowly, and ordinary, and illuminates, but does not consume, them with His divine nature. Thus, He can appropriately say: ‘I will be with thee.’ – Alec Motyer – The Revelation of the Divine Name

And in the next instalment we see YHWH’s instructions to Moses and what they reveal about YHWH’s character and care for his people.

Appendix: The boring bit about why Moses might not know God’s name…

So why does Moses not know God’s name? A large amount of scholarly ink has been spilt over this one.  Some scholars over the last hundred and fifty years or so have suggested that there are as many as four different accounts of how Israel came into existence in the Old Testament, one of which thinks that Moses first learnt the name Yahweh at the burning bush, while another assumes that Moses would have known it all along. If you are especially alert you will realise that this creates another question as to why anyone would combine such different accounts into one story without smoothing over some of these issues.

Traditionally it has been suggested that Moses’ question is actually about the meaning of the name. By asking ‘what is his name’ he is imagining that Israel will be asking about what God’s name means, rather than what it is. The best explanation of this is found here: https://theologicalstudies.org.uk/article_revelation_motyer.html. This is possible, and although it isn’t the most obvious way of understanding the question it does fit with the answer Moses gets.

An alternative suggestion is that Exodus 3 is when Israel first knew God’s name, and that when Moses and those who followed him wrote down Israel’s history they wrote that name back into the Genesis stories, much as we might be able to see Jesus in certain of the Old Testament appearances of God. A good explanation of that can be found here: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/epn_6_wenham.html. That is certainly possible, although I’m not quite convinced.

A final suggestion is that either just Moses, or both Moses and Israel don’t actually know the name of Yahweh. In the first instance Moses is just ignorant because he’s never learnt it, but he knows Israel will expect him to know the name. In the second both Moses and Israel have forgotten God’s name – and the thing that gives this some degree of plausibility is that in Genesis the name of God is used less and less as the book goes on, and hardly figures at all in the Joseph story – and most of the uses are by the story teller, rather than reported speech of the characters.

On that reading it seems possible that this name, LORD, has dropped out of frequent use, and so Moses wants to know what the name he should use for God is, so that he can be an authentic spokesperson for this God.

Moses: Objection I

Today’s section starts the part of the story that I like a lot. So far in the story we’ve heard God declare that he has come down to rescue – and then we’ve heard how he’s going to send Moses to Pharaoh to rescue his people. I imagine that 3:10 came as a bit of a shock to Moses. Up until that point everything had been about what God is about to do, but at 3:10 there is a sudden shift as God sends Moses to do the job of going to the world’s most powerful ruler to demand that he liberate his slave workforce.

So it is perhaps not entirely surprising that Moses does not exactly respond with enthusiasm.

Exodus 3:11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Now, as we read this it is important not to jump to conclusions. This response could be going in two directions. It could be a statement of humility before accepting the task. It is normal in the Bible for people to respond to God’s call with some sort of statement of their unsuitability to do the job. So Gideon responds (in Judges 6) by saying ‘Who am I? I am from the least important family in the least important clan in the least important tribe…’ Or Jeremiah responds by saying ‘I am only a child’.

So Moses could be saying something like that – except for the fact that we get several more objections before he finally gives in, and for the fact that his response does not include any statement of his own humility. He doesn’t say ‘I am only a shepherd’, or even ‘Pharaoh wants to kill me’ – he simply says ‘Who am I to go to Pharaoh…’ – not so much a “why me?” as “why this task?”

It seems fairly clear as we go through Exodus 3-4 that Moses does not want to do this. And I think that we can understand that – after all we’ve said already that Pharaoh is the most powerful man in the world of his day, and Moses’ previous efforts in Egypt had not exactly gone well.

So I wonder how we expect Moses to be answered. Will God remind Moses of the skills he has in dealing with the desert – after all he has been a shepherd there for some time? Will he point out that as a Hebrew brought up in Pharaoh’s palace Moses is in a unique position to speak to both worlds? Here is God’s reply:

Exodus 3:12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you (plural) will worship God on this mountain.”

At first sight this isn’t very helpful to Moses. In answer to “Who am I?” he is simply told “I will be with you”. And then the sign that it is really God who has sent Moses is that the people (you plural) will worship on this mountain after Moses has rescued the people. In other words before he gets to see the sign fulfilled Moses has to obey – this isn’t like the fleece Gideon gets, where he sees something happen that confirms his faith before he takes action – no, for Moses, the sign will only happen after he has obeyed.

Some commentators think this is so odd that they either try to make the sign the burning bush (which isn’t made very clear if that is so), or they guess that in an older version of the story there was a sign, which got lost as the story was retold. That seems a bit desperate to me, especially as this sort of sign actually seems quite true to life.

Isn’t it often the way with God that the validation comes after an initial step of trust and obedience? Isn’t it the case that very often we have to first obey, and then see the confirmation come? It is also important to note here that when Moses has brought the Israelites to the mountain his job will only be half way done. So knowing that God has intended this all along, and seeing the first part of God’s promise fulfilled will build confidence that God is able to finish the job.

Which then brings us back to the most important part of God’s reply to Moses. “I will be with you”. The answer to Moses’ inadequacy is first of all nothing about Moses, and not even about anything God will do in Moses’ life. It is first of all about God, and the fact that he will be with Moses. The most fundamental reassurance Moses needs is that God will be with him. That the God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who makes and keeps his promises is with him in his task is the thing that Moses needs most to hear.

The same is true for us. Above all else, in whatever it is God calls us to do, we just need to hear these words from God, and let them sink deep in. They are the words I need right now. The words you need right now. “I will be with you”.

So God said to Moses, and so he says to us today. That is what we need – but it doesn’t always feel like enough, and we often want more reassurance, and have more questions that need dealing with. The good news is that God can deal with those too – as we’ll see in the next instalment…

Moses: Called to Rescue

Exodus 3:7-10 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

For the first time in the Moses story we hear God speaking about the situation of his people. Notice how the words God uses match the words we heard at the end of chapter 2. God has seen the misery of his people, and he hears their crying out because of their slave drivers, and he is concerned about (literally ‘he knows’) their suffering.

Notice how clearly he identifies the people as his, and how strong his understanding of their plight is. In addition he has determined to do something about their situation – he says ‘I have come down to rescue them’. God is stepping into act. He is going to bring them out from the hand of the Egyptians, and up into a good and spacious land.

We notice that it is a land which is already inhabited — and that generally makes us feel somewhat uneasy about the promise. What I say here is not a full answer to the questions we think of in connection with the conquest – there are good places to go to think that through, and maybe I’ll return to it at a later point. For now, in this context, we can remember Genesis 15 where God says Abraham’s descendants will need to wait ‘because the sin of the Amorites has not reached its full measure’.

One reason given in the Bible for the conquest is that it was in some sense also God’s judgement on the sin of the people in the land already. It is important to remember that Israel’s exile is described in the same terms as the Israelite conquest of the land. In other words God will raise up the Babylonians against Israel to do the same thing that Israel did to the nations before them.

So when we read this promise in Exodus we should remember that it is not given so that Israel can do what they like. Instead it is given so that Israel will be different. God is a holy God, and his knowledge of Israel gives them a huge responsibility – see for example:

Amos 3:1-2 “Hear this word, people of Israel, the word the Lord has spoken against you—against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt: You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.”

But back to Exodus, where the promise is a sign of how committed God is to the well being of his people, that he will overcome any obstacle to settle them in the land he has chosen for them. Having made the promise God reinforces the point that he has heard and seen the terrible situation of his people, and then comes the surprise in 3:10.

God clearly said in 3:8 that he had come down to rescue his people, but now he says to Moses “Go – I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt”. Moses here is being commissioned as God’s chosen rescuer of his people.

God, presumably, could simply speak and strike Pharaoh dead. He could rescue his people without Moses, and yet he chooses not too. For the purposes of rescuing his people he chooses to commission Moses to the task of rescuing. It is Moses who will stand before Pharaoh, it is Moses who will lead the people out. Moses is to be responsible for rescuing God’s people.

Yet it is still true that God has come down to rescue his people.  He has come down into the bush. He has appeared as a flame of fire. He is speaking to Moses, commissioning him. We learn something really important about God’s plans here. God does not bypass people. God does not achieve his purposes and plans without involving people. That’s not really a surprise when we look at the whole sweep of the Bible – ultimately when God has to do something that no-one else can do he comes down as a human being to do it as one of us in the person of Jesus.  God coming down to rescue involves God calling people, God taking our humanity and making it part of his plan of redemption.

When we think of how God works in the world today it is also no surprise. How do people become Christians? Well, on one level the answer is: God – by his Spirit convincing people of the truth of the gospel, and opening their hearts to believe. On another level the answer is: by people – by people living out changed lives that show others that Jesus is worth following, that there is something different about Christians – and by people speaking the gospel so that others hear the truth and are convinced. God doesn’t bypass our humanity – instead he delights in it, and loves to work with us in the midst of the stuff of everyday life for the good of his people and for his glory.

In almost everything God does he gives us the chance to be a part of it. He doesn’t do it alone, rather he involves us. That goes right back to creation, and his decision to make people to look after the earth and be in relationship with him. Moses’ commission was unique to Moses, and, as we’ll see does lots of pointing forward to a greater rescue to come, but we all have our part to play, and so like Moses we are all called by God to different tasks that play the part God has for us in his big story.

So as we go about our lives, we should all be attentive to the different tasks and people that God may be calling us to. We do that being alert to how God may be calling us, and those around us. We do that amazed that God’s way of involving us in his mission is by graciously calling us and equipping us – not using us as mere tools, but speaking to us and giving us dignity that we don’t deserve.

We’ll see in the next few sessions how Moses responds and see that his responses and God’s answers are a vital part of the call process, and I’m looking forward to processing my thoughts on those parts of the story. Tomorrow we’ll see how God doesn’t seem to like to answer questions directly, and why that is good news for Moses and for us…

Moses: The (non) Burning Bush

Exodus 3:1-6 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb,the mountain of God.  There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

Now we get to the point where Moses meets with God. It is some time later than the events of chapter 2 – Moses is now shepherding the flocks of his father in law, and to all intents and purposes has settled down in Midian. He is looking after the flocks when he arrives at Horeb, or Sinai (the two names are used for one place), the mountain of God. We don’t know if Moses already thought of Sinai as a special place, or if this description (Mountain of God) is that of the writer as he looks back on the events of the Exodus story.

It is at this mountain where the angel of the LORD, where ‘the LORD’ is the personal name for God (we’ll come on to the way God’s name is written, or not written in the Bible in a day or so) appears to Moses, in a flame of fire, in the middle of the bush. The angel of the LORD is a slightly mysterious figure who appears in various bible stories (several times to Abraham, to Gideon and Samson’s parents amongst others) – and who seems to be distinct from God, and yet his speaking can also be said to be God speaking. Sometimes the angel definitely has a human-like form (as one of the three visitors to Abraham for example), other times we are not told, and then here he appears ‘in’, or perhaps ‘as’ a flame of fire.

At this point it is important to note that Moses doesn’t realise that he is encountering a divine messenger, all he sees is the slightly puzzling sight of a bush that is clearly on fire, yet is not being burnt up. He does not yet know that the angel of the LORD is appearing to him as a flame of fire. But he is curious enough to go over to the bush and take a look.

It is when God sees Moses going over to take a look that he speaks to Moses. I find this fascinating. What if Moses had not gone to take a look? Was God using this non-burning bush as an attention getting device, and if so why not just speak, like he did to Abraham? Whatever the answer to those questions Moses does go over and God does speak to Moses from within the bush.

What is also interesting here is that we are told that the angel of the LORD (the word is the personal name for God) appeared to Moses in a flame, and then that ‘God’ (the generic title for God in the Old Testament) spoke to Moses out of the bush (why not just say that the angel of the LORD spoke to Moses?). It might be pushing things a little, but it is possible that this might be a subtle shift of perspective.

We have been looking at the scene with a wide angle, seeing what is going on, seeing Moses shepherding his flock, and then seeing the angel of the LORD appearing to Moses.

Now the camera angle shifts and we see through Moses’ eyes. He doesn’t know anything about the angel of the LORD – and we will see as we go on in the story, he may well not know the name of God. All he hears is a voice from the fire, the voice of a divine being speaking through the bush.

We don’t know how much of the stories of Genesis Moses was told as a child by his mother – and we do not know how much of that had stuck in Moses’ mind over the subsequent years. He may well have had very little knowledge of who this voice was addressing him from the bush.

So these first words Moses hears are vitally important. They set the scene for what Moses will learn of this God, and how he will relate to this God. God’s call to Moses begins with Moses’ name. God says ‘Moses, Moses”. Moses’ name is repeated twice – as when the boy Samuel hears God’s voice in the tabernacle for the first time, and God says ‘Samuel, Samuel’.

When God calls, he calls by name. And when he calls by name twice he has something important to say. And when he has something important to say it is done in the context of relationship. Moses’ name matters, Moses as a person matters, and so God calls him.

And Moses responds ‘Here I am’. This is the right response to God’s call ‘Here I am’ – what do you want? God does not then launch into a description of Moses’ mission, instead he begins by establishing the proper foundation of the relationship. ‘Do not come any closer. Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is holy ground – I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’

Later in the book of Exodus the whole nation of Israel will learn this lesson in a scene of intense drama: thunder, lightening, ground shaking. But for now Moses learns it in the quiet of personal encounter with the Holy One of Israel. Moses cannot come any closer, and he needs to take off his sandals. He is on holy ground, because he stands before the holy one.

Paul Simon has a line in one of his songs ‘You cannot walk with the holy, if you’re just a half way decent man’. I don’t know what he means by that line, but it captures a vital biblical truth. We only stand before the one who is holy if we are invited and called, and if we come on his terms.

And so Moses hides his face, because he is afraid to look on God – as he hears God speaking the names of his ancestors, perhaps those old stories come back into his mind. Moses will see much more of God before the story finishes. But what matters here is that this God is revealing himself to Moses as the holy God. A God of blazing fire.

Holiness is God’s intense purity that means sinful people cannot stand in his presence – which is why sandals that have the dirt of the desert must be removed. Exodus will show us how such a God can dwell with his people – and yet how dangerous such a God dwelling among his people is.

And so Moses stands and waits to hear what such a God will say. He will learn that the God who called his ancestors is still concerned for his people and his promise in Moses’ day.

As we watch Moses at the bush, we need to remember that our God is ‘a consuming fire’. We need to remember that the place where he shows up is holy ground, and we need to have a right attitude of humility before him. We need to know too that this God comes down to be with his people, and to rescue – for that is what God will say next to Moses. The Holy God is also the saving God who is with his people. We need both those things to be true, and the dynamic of how a holy God can rescue and dwell with a sinful people will be one of the key drivers of the story as it continues.

Moses: Man of God

I have been challenged to write something each day for Lent. For perhaps obvious reasons I’ve chosen Moses, and my intention is to cover something about Moses and his interactions with God every day over the next 40 or so days. Apart from anything else, the desert location of most of these interactions makes it seem like a good theme for Lent.

But in order to understand those interactions in detail there are a few things to think about first in terms of context and background, so in my pre lent post I’ll put this introduction up. The account of Moses begins for us in the book of Exodus, in which Moses plays a major role. It doesn’t take much reading of books about Exodus, at any level, before you find a difference of opinion about Moses.

For some Moses is the hero of the book – at popular level this tends to mean he is used as an example of good leadership that we are to follow. In scholarly works it means that the man Moses is the founder of the Israelite nation and religion. By contrast others declare that the only hero of the biblical story is God, and that Moses is merely a tool in God’s hands.

The reality, I think, lies somewhere between these two extremes. Yes God is the ultimate hero of the biblical story – but that still leaves a lot of room for human initiative and human character to play their part. Moses is not simply a tool, he is a person who is, we shall see, taken up into the divine decision making process, and whose intercession leads him to glimpse the heart of a gloriously gracious God.

As we look at the way in which Moses interacts with God we shall think first about what that interaction leads us to discover about God – and then about the implications of that for our own interaction with God. I hope that we will see afresh the glorious grace and mercy of our God of steadfast love – and glimpse anew the mystery of a God who shows us that grace and mercy in ever new and surprising ways.

As we begin that journey there are three important things to remember about how this book is written, three dimensions of reading the biblical story. First it is theology – that is to say it tells us about God and what he is up to in the world. Second it is history – that is to say it tells us about things that actually happened in real space-time (although, as the third dimension reveals, not always in the same way that we would tell of such events). Third it is story – it is told to us in an interesting and gripping way, not in the manner of a text book to teach about events, but in the manner of a novelist who wants us to see the world through different eyes. How these things interact is not always easy or straightforward – but is important to keep all three dimensions of the text as we read.

My final thing to point out as someone who has studied these things at an academic level is that I won’t (normally) be using footnotes – if you want to know where I got which bit of my ideas then ask – but these posts will be a mixture of ideas gleaned from elsewhere (and I’ll try to point you in the right direction to find out more at appropriate points) and my own interpretations.

Now to think about where the next post should begin…