This is one of the major passages in the Book of Exodus. Moses has grown up in Pharaoh’s house, but after killing an Egyptian for beating one of the Hebrews he fled the land (Exod 2:11-15). He has settled in the land of Midian and married Zipporah. A long time has passed, The Pharaoh who sought his life has died, and the conditions of Israel’s slavery have become even more oppressive. But God ‘looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them’ (2:15). That short verse, that look of God, makes all the difference and sets the course for the story to come.
As the story opens we find Moses going about his regular shepherding duties for his father-in-law (v. 1). There is little hint that all of life is about to change for him. He comes to a mountain. He, apparently, is blissfully ignorant of the significance of this mountain, but we are told it is Mt. Horeb, a name readers know well – ‘the mountain of God’. The angel of the Lord (another way of saying the Lord himself) appears in a burning bush, but again Moses seems not to understand and approaches to satisfy his curiosity (v. 3). There is an interesting mixture of an innocent lack of awareness on Moses’ part and the power of the divine presence. The contrast is made all the sharper when God speaks out of the bush. There is danger in this place; it is holy ground. Even God’s self-introduction to Moses (v. 6) is somewhat overwhelming compared to the simple ‘here I am’ from Moses.
This seemingly chance meeting introduces what is essentially a ‘commissioning narrative’ for Moses, in which God sends him to free the Israelites from their slavery, a task that turns out to be a life-long vocation. The story takes the shape of similar accounts: there is a charge to complete a task (vv. 7-10): some reticence shown by Moses (v. 11); assurance by God (v. 12a); and a sign to confirm the authenticity of the commission (v. 12b). Other similar episodes include Judg 6:11-18 and Jer 1:4-10. The general shape of such accounts makes it clear that the call or commission comes from God and despite any human weakness, reticence or incapacity, the divine presence and support is sufficient for the task. Moses turns out to be good at raising potential difficulties, for he lists a whole string of them from 3:13-4:17, some to do with who God is, some to do with his own deficiencies.
We noted above that God’s hearing the Israelites’ cry was enough to begin the long saga of the Exodus. That is underlined as God details the commission he has for Moses (vv. 7-10). This is a God who hears the cries and sees the distress of his people (vv. 7, 9) and then acts in response. The stress given to God’s name, at once building a bridge to the God known to the ancestors and at the same time sending fear through Moses, speaks boldly of majesty and power. And yet this God also hears the weeping of his people and sees their oppression and beatings at the hand of the Egyptians. Later the descendants of this same people will not be able to see or hear, nor understand and turn to this God to be healed (Isa 6:9-10). It is important, however, that God can see and hear, because that is all that matters in this paradigmatic drama of salvation. We might note in passing that in the story of the tower of Babel God had to come down from heaven to see the tower that the humans built (Gen 11:5). It seems that God’s sight and hearing are selective and prejudiced, and do not operate so well when human pride, self-aggrandisement, or hubris are on show. We note also that this hearing and seeing of God, and his subsequent deliverance of his people, all occurs before he gives them his law later at this same mountain. Those who think the God of the Old Testament is one of law and judgment simply do not understand this Testament that amply testifies that ‘grace’ and divine compassion began at creation.
Finally, in his first objection to the task, Moses seeks further information on the identity of this God who sends him. God’s answer is fulsome, giving Moses more divine names than he asked for (‘God of your ancestors’, ‘I am who I am’, ‘I am’, ‘Yahweh’ [or ‘the Lord’], ‘God of Abraham’ etc.). On the other hand, he is left just as vague about this God as he was at the start. There is, of course, the connection back to the God of the Genesis ancestors, but Moses already knew that name (v. 6). The ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I am what I am’ or ‘I will be who/what I will be’ remains a puzzle and has called forth many a speculative interpretation from scholars. A philosophical interpretation about divine being or divine freedom has often been pursued. On the other hand to see the name as something that develops out of an old divine name connected to the verb ‘to be’, long misunderstood and reinterpreted, is quite feasible. The Jewish scholar Martin Buber has suggested ‘Ehyeh (“I am”) who will certainly be’ and we might add in this story ‘with you’. That would make sense here. In any case, we see that Moses’ quest for a greater understanding of divine identity, leads only to further mystery (a point he will learn again later in Exod 33:12-23). On the other hand, what we do know as readers about this God is his compassion, his ability to see and hear and to respond to the neediest (and faintest?) of human cries.
There is more than enough grist for the preacher’s mill here: there is the interplay of divine power and mystery with human innocence; the nature of the divine call upon human life and the utter dependence upon God in that; there is the ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ of God as the source and foundation of our salvation; and the ‘grace’ of a God who hears and sees through the clamour of our world down to the pain and hurt of the least in order to raise them up and bring them to his mountain.
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