In contrast to the initial two chapters of Exodus we have covered up to this point, which spanned a long period of time, the pace of the narrative in this chapter this week slows down significantly. Here, God reveals what action he intends to take on behalf of the oppressed Israelites: Moses is commissioned as the one who will lead the people out of Egypt. Because of its importance, the encounter between God and Moses is recorded in considerable detail with much attention being focused on their conversation. Clearly, the entire event had a profound effect upon Moses.
Most references to this section of scripture refer to the event as “The Burning Bush”, but as will be illustrated, it might have been on fire, but nothing was burning, since the bush never did get consumed to ashes and char.
The Burning Bush
1Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8and 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 broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
13Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” 15God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘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, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. 16Go 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, 17and 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.” ’ 18And 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.’ 19But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. 20So 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. 21And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, 22but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.” – Exodus 3:1-22 ESV
Several elements of the meeting between God and Moses are noteworthy in this chapter.
First, Moses encounters God in a burning bush. Fire is one of those magical elements that can both draw us in and repel us away. It is inviting and terrifying at the same time. We can be either mezmerized by the flames or terrified by the flames. We can either be warmed by the fire or burned by the fire. Throughout the exodus story the divine presence of God is frequently symbolized by fire and smoke. The mystery that happens around fire and human beings is that if fire is simultaneously inviting and terrifying, then it should not surprise us that when God shoves into the forefront of the story of Exodus, he does so as a flame.
Even if it was not as dramatic as a burning bush, do you have a time when you encountered God’s presence in your own life?
Because of God’s awesome nature, he had to be approached with caution. Moses acknowledged God’s holiness by removing his sandals. The concept of divine holiness reappears in Exodus as a major theme. Having led his father-in-law’s flock through the desert of Horeb, Moses will later lead the Israelites to the same location, where they also will confront God’s holy presence revealed through fire.
Although the background details are noteworthy, the narrative focuses most attention on the ensuing dialogue between God and Moses. From the outset it was essential that Moses should know the identity of the one who spoke to him.
“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” – Exodus 3:6 ESV
God goes on to reveal to Moses what we already know, that he was passionately concerned about the suffering of his people in Egypt. Now God is read for action. Through Moses, he intended to rescue them from Egypt, a land of oppression, and bring them to Canaan, a land of opportunity. Moses’ response was hardly surprising.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” – Exodus 3:11 ESV
What qualifications had Moses for this task? How could a fugitive from Egypt possibly confront pharaoh? God’s response was direct:
I will be with you – Exodus 3:12 ESV
What have been some situations where God has called you out, and you hesitated because you did not think you were equipped or prepared?
Have there been times when God has called you out and you neglected the opportunity?
Have there been times when you thought God called you out, but it was not God?
God did not promise an instant miracle; Moses had to exercise trust first before seeing it fulfilled.
After Moses could not argue the point about his ability anymore, he turned the focus from himself to the Israelites. How would he convince the Israelites that God had sent him to them?
Moses’ request for God’s name is important because the Israelites believed that the name reflected an individual’s essence. In Genesis, different aspects of God’s nature are highlighted by the names used to designate him:
- El Elyon (God Most High; Gn. 14:18–20),
- El Roi (God who sees me; Gn. 16:13),
- El Shaddai (God Almighty; Gn. 17:1),
- El Olam (the Eternal God; Gn. 21:33).
Which names for God are you most familiar are drawn to? Why?
In this section God introduced himself by the personal name ‘Yahweh’, translated in most English versions as the LORD, in all caps. (Remember when your reading your bible and see LORD in caps you can exchange that in your mind with ‘Yahweh’) The Hebrew divine name ‘Yahweh’ is closely related to the phrase in verse 14, which may be translated in a variety of ways: I AM WHO I AM, ‘I will be who I will be’, ‘I will be what I was’. An abbreviated form of this phrase comes in the statement, ‘I AM has sent me to you’. Unlike previous names, ‘Yahweh’ does not limit God’s nature to any particular characteristic: he is what he is.
When we cannot define something, that also means we cannot limit or discredit that very thing.
A very interesting insight that was new to me and may not always be clear is that Moses went to the body of Israelites and then they went to pharaoh with him. Not to be confused that Moses did it all himself. He had two tasks.
- Convince pharaoh to release the workforce
- Convince the leaders of the Hebrews to team up with him and approach pharaoh.
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.’ – Exodus 3:18 ESV
Pharaoh’s reaction to this relatively minor demand would reveal his strong antagonism towards the Israelites. He would refuse to accommodate them, not because their request was excessive, but probably because he suspects that if he allows them to go they will leave for good.
Pharaoh would not change his mind unless a mighty hand compels him. The influence of God’s hand upon the Egyptians would be such that they would readily give of their possessions in order to see the Israelites leave Egypt. These gifts would compensate the Israelites for the suffering they had already endured. Literally, the people pharaoh was over was willing to give to the oppressed people because of their personal suffering in spite of pharaoh stubbornness.
In this chapter a very important concept for all Christians to grasp is the two dynamics of transcendence and immanence. These are principles that define Christianity and separate Christianity from other religions.
Transcendent means God is bigger. He is more then. He is above us. Immanent means God is with us, He is among us. This means that there is an all-powerful, mighty God who actually happens to be among us. When we say that God is above us, when we say God is transcendent, one of the things we mean by this is that, as we see in the scripture, God is self-defining. We can’t define God.
We live in a day and age when people believe it’s our right to define God. We want to make God in our own image. We want to believe that we get to define who God is. We hear people talk about this all the time. If we stop and listen to it for a second, it really is insane. People will say, “Well, I don’t think God would do that”. “Well, I’m spiritual, not religious”. or how about “Well, surely if there was a God, he would…” – how crazy are those statements. Like if some situation that ends up the way we expect then we will indicate that it must be God that is behind it. If things go awry, that cannot involve God, because the God I imagine would never do that. That is limiting and defining God. That is us making God a concept, not a reality, a concept we can bend to our image.
Have there been times when you have been guilty of those similar statements?
It seems easier to accept that God is more powerful than we can imagine and He can do miracles we never imagined, but what about when He is involved in hardship and tragedy?
Can you name a few times in the Bible or even in your own life when tragedy was unfolded and God was in the middle of it all?
In the closing of chapter 3 is the divine promise and plan that is reveal for the first time. We kind of skim over it, but we also know the rest of the story. If we read it in context and understand this is the initial direction given for one of the most historical moments in time.
Moses, you will go to pharaoh; You will tell him this, and he will not believe you unless he is compelled by a mighty hand. I will outstretch my mighty hand, and I will undo him. I will destroy Pharaoh, and you will plunder Egypt.”
Plunder is language of victory. Moses and the Israelites will overcome the, “I am,” of Pharaoh. See, there is a war about to break out between two “I am’s.” The “I am pharaoh” and “I am Who I am”.
“I am Pharaoh. I am the most powerful man on earth. I lead the most effective, efficient, brilliant nation that the world, to this point in history, has ever seen. I command armies and legions. We are technologically more advanced than anyone else on earth,” Vs, “I am who I am. I be who I be. And you will die, and Egypt will be destroyed, and Egypt will be plundered.” See, the promises of God can be trusted as true because of, “I am who I am.”
That is transcendence. Now what about immanence in this chapter?
7Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians… – Exodus 3:7-8a ESV
This declares that the all-powerful God above us, that cannot be defined or limited is not distant, but right here. He is among us. We need to fully remember that Christianity is transcendent (God it undefinable, all-powerful) and immanent, God is with us. Many times in our culture, we can easily believe in the idea that God is loving and with us and then we get disappointed or have frustration because we lose sight of our God, the transcendent one. This is also relevant when there is no concept of God’s transcendence, then there is no seriousness about sin. He may or may not know, and he definitely will not come down. That is not a good place to be in. If we wander we need to confess and repent and get back into the safe fold of His entire presence.
Alexander, T. D. (1994). Exodus. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 97). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ex 3:1–22). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.