By this stage in the Exodus narrative we’ve learnt of the desperate situation in which the Hebrews find themselves. Life in Egypt is tough as a bonded labourer.
Some history: It’s worth noting that the Hebrews are not, at this point in time, an organized nation. Tribal affinity existed within the Hebrew people in much the same way as it did amongst most people groups in that part of the world, but the people that Moses will go on to lead out of Egypt are not yet an organized socio-political group. The organized 12 tribe structure of the nation would come in to being later whilst the Hebrew people were in Canaan.
And so Moses call is not to lead a well defined community with a clear social and political structure and organization. Rather it is a call to pull together a loosely affiliated people, albeit with a common heritage and ancestry, into a people that would eventually become God’s agent and witness to the whole of his creation.
It’s quite easy to under-estimate Moses task. To give it a post-event gloss and picture a people only too willing to follow, with the organizational structures to support a mass exodus, with a high degree of unity and shared purpose. But this was unlikely to have been the case. Moses really did have a mountain to climb! (that’s a poor theological play on words / joke – see Ex19)
Moses encounters God – Theophany and call…
Read: Exodus 3:1-15
Theophany is a word we don’t use that often, and yet instances of theophany occur at regular intervals in the scriptures.
Theophany simply means the appearance of God, or to put it another way, divine disclosure to a human being. It’s God making himself known. Moses experience on Mount Horeb was a theophany.
We’ll go on to look at this in more detail in just a minute, but before we do it’s worthwhile noting what comes immediately after the theophany. God reveals himself to Moses, and then God calls Moses. Theophany and call. God reveals, and God calls.
In this sense we can say that what Moses experienced in the encounter at the burning bush is normative for all those who follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who reveals himself in Christ. Theophany makes Gods presence known, and the call is an opportunity to respond to that Presence.
As a group, if members are willing, share something of your experience of theophany and call. When did you first experience the presence of God? How did he show his presence to you? How did you respond to his presence?
This is your theophany and call – like Moses it probably marks the beginning of your deliberate walk of faith. We’ll now go on to explore Moses theophany and call. As we do so use the time to reflect on the beginnings of your own life of faith and ask God to encourage and speak to you as you do so.
Moses is about to experience the most momentous event of his life – an encounter with the presence of the living God – and yet he is presented as being absolutely oblivious to the possibility of such an encounter. Judging by the reference to his Father-in-law’s Job as a priest, which seems an un-necessary detail, he has had some preparation for such an encounter, but his concerns lay elsewhere. Rather than looking for God, Moses is pictured looking for food for the sheep in his care.
Were you looking for God when his revealed his presence to you or did it come as a surprise as it did to Moses? What does this say about God?
As Moses wanders around with the sheep he is confronted with a dramatic and unusual sight. A bush is on fire, but it’s not burning up. In the Old Testament there is often a very fluid use of terms to describe God as he reveals himself – in this passage alone we see the symbol (fire), the representative (the angel) and God himself. Although this might seem confusing, (we’re told that the messenger of God appears in the burning bush, but that Moses speaks to God in the burning bush), for the author no such problem existed as each is a different designation of the same reality – the presence of God. As an aside, fire is regularly the symbol of the divine presence in the Old Testament.
And so, Moses sees this remarkable sight and he does exactly what you or I might do – he approaches the bush to find out what is going on. From within the bush he hears the voice of God saying “do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place were you are standing is holy ground.”
The ways in which we approach God are often deeply conditioned by our church culture, our beliefs about God, and wider cultural forces too. If God is a fearsome Lord, we may approach with head bowed in fear. If God is a loving father then we might approach full of confidence and ease. If God is distant we might not approach at all, believing him to be unconcerned with us.
How would you describe your ‘approach’ to God? What does it mean to you to “stand on holy ground”?
The God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
This God who speaks from the burning bush goes on to further reveal himself to Moses. He says “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” At this point the true nature of the divine encounter is clear to Moses, evidenced in the way in which he responds to this information. On learning that this was no less than the God of the great Patriarchs, Moses hides his face in fear. Before he simply gazed at the bush in awe.
Something really important happens in this encounter, something that will have a deep and lasting impact on Israel and on all those who have followed the God of the bible since. God refers to himself as ‘the God’. Not ‘a God’, but ‘the God’. The one who met with Abraham and promised that from him would come a nation of people so numerous as the grains of sand on the shore. Moses was used to a pantheon of Gods, local and household deities, regional and tribal gods, but this revelation of the divine presence is nothing less than ‘the God’ the one who met with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is now meeting with Moses. God has history, and it is into this history that Moses now steps.
Sometimes it’s quite easy to think of our lives of faith as being isolated in the present, the present can be defined by a certain cultural age, or by reference to ourselves as living in a continual present. In one sense this is right and good. Our experience of the life of faith is lived out in the present, we’re quite naturally interested in what God is doing now, and what he might do in the future, we might sometimes think back to what God has done in our past. But it’s important to remember that our experience of God and what he is doing is but a tiny snapshot of a God who has quite a history! It’s important to remember, as Moses does at the burning bush, that we’re not the first generation of faithful disciples, and nor will we be the last. God has a history, and we as his people share in that history. Without understanding the history of our God, how he has revealed himself, what he has done in the past, we can’t ever hope to understand the reality that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. If we do not root ourselves as believers in the generations of those who have come before us, how do we expect to learn anything of God? If we don’t know what God has done then how will we understand what he is doing?
How often do you reflect on your life of faith as spanning a tiny stretch of God’s history? How connected to you feel to the generations of faithful people who have gone before you? How might this encourage your life of faith?
From encounter to call…
From the self-revelation of God to Moses flows the call of Moses. Call is something that as Christians we relate very easily to. After-all we are all called according to Gods good purpose. Depending on your theology you might say that only those who are called are saved and that is a certain and specific people, or you might say that all are called, but that only some respond. Either way, call stands at the heart of our understanding of the Christian life. God in Christ calls us to repentance and a changed direction of life. He calls us from darkness to light, from death to life. The pattern is the same, God calls, we respond.
In Moses encounter at Horeb we see this pattern too. God reveals himself, God calls, the individual responds. To use the classical puritan formulation, ‘the initiative belongs to God’.
There is a tendency to think of calling in highly individual terms. ‘God has called me to follow him.’ ‘God has called me to go to…’ ‘God has called me to do…’ whilst this is on one level true, calling understood simply as individual is a long way from the picture of calling in the bible. This tendency to see call as being first and foremost about the person who is called is ultimately damaging.
Moses is called, personally, yes, but not in isolation. Moses call is not first and foremost about him or designed to ensure that he feels valued and important in Gods plan. Moses call, like the call to all disciples is a call to serve, and a call to and for others.
Moses call is to play a part in the work that God himself will accomplish. Yahweh will come down to rescue the Hebrews – the full force of this is lost in the English translations of the bible, a literal translation says that God will ‘snatch’ his people from the Egyptians implying a certain level of force – and Moses’ call is to play a role in this divine action.
In this sense Moses call is a blue-print for the call of all Christians which is simply to be involved in the work that God is doing. To play a part in the action that God is taking. Behind this lies the assumption that God is always active, always working towards his final goal, the redemption of creation and the establishing of the kingdom reign of Christ.
Do you think of God as always active and always working towards his eventual goal? Do you understand your calling in light of this ongoing work of God?
Here’s a challenging question – do you understand your call as being primarily about you, or is it a call to and for God and others?
Looking for a way out…
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has made clear to Moses that he’s seen the plight of his people, and he’s called Moses to be the one to lead his people into a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ and a ‘good and spacious land’. It is Moses turn to respond.
At this point in the narrative Moses doesn’t cover himself in glory. We might expect, when faced with such a dramatic revelation of Gods presence, that Moses would be full of faith and boldness, eager to embrace the divine call that he has received. But he’s not.
What follows is a fascinating exchange between God and Moses, which is built around a play on the words ‘I Am’ – the revelation of the name of God as Yahweh. This is the first time in the scriptures that God reveals his name as Yahweh (I am) but a name that the God who calls continues to use throughout the scriptures.
Moses says “who am I…that I…”
God says “I will…it is I…”
The point is simple – who Moses is, is not the issue, it’s neither here nor there, what matters is who is with Moses!
Moses, his first question answered asks a second question. It is one thing for God to be with Moses, but Moses wants to know who God is. Not unreasonable in the circumstances. And so Moses responds “…what if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ ”
What Moses asks here, is not so much what God ought to be known as, but whether God can accomplish the things he is promising. And so God reveals his ‘name’ – but it’s not so much a name as an assertion of authority and an essential reality. ‘I am that I am’ says God. Meaning – continuing unfinished action – ‘I am being that I am being’ – not a conceptual or abstract being, but an active being – that God can only properly be referred to as ‘is’ or ‘The One Who Always Is’.
The revelation of the name of God as ‘The One Who Always Is’ was of massive significance for the Hebrews. Yahweh Is – however absent he may have seemed to be, however powerless he might have appeared, however inactive he was accused of being – Yahweh is – the continuing unfinished action of God is. He is active being and active presence.
For a people in slavery, about to embark on a journey that would establish and define a nation, this was what they needed to know. The response of faith demonstrated by the men, women, and children who left Egypt was built on this assertion of Gods being and presence.
And so the Exodus begins…
In closing, reflect as a group on the importance of the name of God revealed to Moses. What impact does this have on your life of faith?
As you respond to God, step out in faith, do you do so confident of the reality of God revealed in his answer to Moses? Is the ever present active reality of God the foundation of your life of faith?