A Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15
few back weeks back when I was winding up a series of sermons based in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, I made the observation that as a preacher I tend to be drawn to narrative. Not that it is unimportant to read and preach the epistles, but story catches our imaginations in a very particular way. Well, the preacher certainly has a story to work with tonight, in our reading from the book of Exodus. In many respects this is one of the most significant pieces of text in the whole of the Hebrew scriptures, for it not only recounts the calling of Moses, it also says some rather remarkable things about the nature and character of God.
The sentence with which the story opens probably sounded rather unremarkable as it was read aloud: “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 desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” Yet there are two things here on which to remark. Firstly, the great and transformational figure of Moses is working for his father-in-law as a shepherd. On the one hand, those of us who know the longer biblical narrative will be aware that shepherding is ultimately a very strong symbol—King David and Jesus each in their own way being understood as shepherd kings. Yet the shepherd’s work is ultimately hard and of low status, and that is the nature of Moses’ life at this point. Secondly, he is working for his father-in-law, who is described as a “priest of Midian.” Not a priest of Israel, for there is not yet an Israel. Jethro is a priest of the Midianite religion, and yet as the larger story unfolds it will become very clear that his counsel to Moses is of the utmost importance; the Midianite holy man will become one of the wise and holy ones in this new thing called Israel.
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Are you remembering the back-story to this? How it was that Moses has married into a Midianite family and is living deep in the wilderness of Sinai? Born to Hebrew slaves in an Egypt that had begun to fear that these Hebrews were becoming too populous, as an infant Moses had narrowly escaped being killed in a government sponsored program of infanticide. In a marvelous twist of events, he is actually raised in the Egyptian royal household as an adopted child of the Pharaoh’s daughter. Yet as an adult he comes to an awareness of his Hebrew roots, and in defending one of the Hebrew slaves Moses actually kills an Egyptian, and so is forced to flee for his life. Where better to hide than deep in the wilderness?
Years have passed by the time this experience with the burning bush takes place, meaning that Moses has pretty much settled into his life with the family of Jethro. He is married and has a child, and presumably life in Egypt is just a distant memory. Or so he thought. On that mountainside with his flock, Moses sees a bush blazing with fire, yet not consumed. “Let me turn and see this strange sight,” Moses says, yet as he draws close he is met by the presence of God. “Moses! Moses! Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” As told in the book of Genesis, some people had experienced and even conversed with God, but this is of a different order. As the Jewish commentator Everett Fox observes, “nowhere thus far does one find a biblical hero encountering God with such intensity and purity of vision.” Any wonder, then, that “Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God”?
But God continues to speak, and to essentially disregard Moses’ fear. And here I want to offer you Everett Fox’s translation of these verses:
I have seen, yes, seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt,
their cry have I heard in the face of their slave-drivers;
indeed, I have known their sufferings!
So I have come down
to rescue it from the hand of Egypt,
to bring it up from that land
to a land, goodly and spacious,
to a land flowing with milk and honey…
(Everett Fox, The Schocken Bible, Volume 1: The Five Books of Moses)
I have seen and heard, and “I have known their sufferings,” and I am about to set this people free from their misery and take them into a whole new land. That is the force of the first part of God’s word to Moses. The next part is where it gets really interesting. “So now Moses, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
Right. The first act in God’s liberation of this people is to send a shepherd—and one who happens to have a bit of a history back there in Egypt—to go and deal with the Pharaoh. “Who am I,” protests Moses, “that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And though Moses’ protest is really quite fair, God persists. “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 will worship God on this mountain.” This is the first of Moses’ five attempts to refuse the job, and in all but one of those God’s primary response is “I will be with you.” Oh, there is other reassurance given, and even some tactical advice and one very practical tool. And when Moses protests that he is not much of a public speaker, his more eloquent brother Aaron is even railroaded into the bargain.
But before all of that happens, Moses asks the question that really sits at the heart of this story. “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?” Notice that what Moses is concerned about here is not what he is going to say to Pharaoh, but rather what he is going to say to the Hebrew slaves. He has no established credibility with them, and maybe even a bit of a tarnished reputation as one who was raised in royal comfort. How could he possibly know anything about their pain, their plight, their story?
The answer God offers to Moses is both remarkable and remarkably elusive for the translator. The fact that the Hebrew name is elusive is itself significant. Unlike the other deities of the ancient near east, all of which come with very clear names and very reproducible images, this God will not be so easily harnessed. Both the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version render the name, “I am who I am,” and both offer “I will be what I will be” as a possible alternative translation. Following the tradition of the great Jewish scholars Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, in his translation Everett Fox offers a third option: “I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.” “Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel, ‘I-Will-Be-There sends me to you.’” This has a great deal of resonance with what God keeps saying to Moses each time he tries to deny this calling, namely “I will be with you.”
In the end, it is precisely that which enables Moses to push forward into this task that has been given him. He is still fearful and a bit liable to go weak at the knees, but it would appear that he has found himself able to trust the promise that God will be present with him.
Taken as a whole, what emerges in this story is something we would do well to bear in mind. Moses is not called because he is such a strong character or the obvious choice for the job; he’s called because God chooses to call him. He’s met there in the wilderness in the midst of his work-a-day life, and challenged to trust so profoundly and foundationally that he will walk straight back to the very land—the very palace in fact—that he had fled in fear. And the role he will play in the liberation of that enslaved people will be real, because the work of God is so very often carried out through the lives and choices of very real people. Very real, very flawed, and very much called.
And the name of his God—and ours—is “I will be there.” Like Moses, we need to trust that word.