Last Sunday we began our journey through the Exodus story looking at how the story would never have gotten off the ground had it not been for five courageous women who were willing to stand against Pharaoh’s death decree for male Hebrew children. When we left the story Moses was being raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, I presume in the Egyptian palace.
The next verse has skipped a bunch of years because it tells us Moses has grown up. It would be really nice to know a little bit more about those intervening years, just as it would with the life of Jesus, but we don’t have it. Anyway, prior to giving us the true burning bush story, Exodus now gives us three significant moments in the life of Moses and one significant moment in the life of God which help prepare the way for the burning bush.
In the first story, Moses goes out from the palace “to his people” and saw their forced labor. It was not a secret to him that he was not really one of Pharaoh’s family. He knew who he was. He saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of the Hebrew slaves. Moses looked all around and saw no one, then killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
In the second story, Moses goes out the next day and sees two Hebrews fighting. He stops them and asks one, “Why are you striking your fellow Hebrew?” The man replied icily, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” There are two things to note here. First, it is no secret after all that he killed the Egyptian. Secondly, Moses doesn’t enjoy a warm and fuzzy relationship with the other Hebrew people. I would imagine that they did not regard him as “one of them” any more than Pharaoh’s family regarded him as “one of them.”
When the information about what Moses had done came to Pharaoh, he sought to kill Moses, so Moses fled. He went to the land of Midian, and here we come to the third story. He is sitting by a well in Midian. Seven sisters come to draw water from the well and to water their flocks. Some shepherds came and drove them away from the well so they could have access to it. Moses came to the sisters’ defense and watered their flock for them. When they got home and told their father what had happened, he insisted that they go find him and bring him to their home. They do, and he ends up marrying one of the sisters. The identity issues of Moses continue to mount as he marries a Midianite and is adopted into her household. This is so much on his mind that when they have a son he names him Gershom, which means “an alien there,” because, he said, “ I have been an alien residing in a foreign land,” a truth with multiple layers.
The last event in preface to the burning bush story has to do with God. After a long time, the writer says, the king of Egypt died. The people of Israel groaned under their slavery and their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, remembered his covenant, looked upon the Israelites, and prepared to act on their behalf. The time was right.
So the stage is set for a dramatic event. Moses is out in the wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep. With that much time to think I expect he spent a lot of time every day dwelling on what had happened in Egypt and what continued to happen to his people there. He had made clear in the earlier events that he was a person who did not like oppression and injustice and was willing to get involved when need be. He was the right man in so many ways for the job God needed to have done. His whole life had prepared him for this job. So God went to work.
Off to one side Moses saw a bush which appeared to be on fire but was not being consumed by the flames. The narrator tells the reader that it is the angel of the Lord appearing to Moses in a flame of fire. Moses is very curious about it and decides to go investigate.
When he comes close God calls his name out of the bush. Moses replies, “Here I am,” the faithful response of Samuel and Isaiah and others called by God in the Old Testament. Then God identifies himself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Moses was afraid and hid his face.
Next God tells Moses that he has been considering the plight of the Israelites and he has decided to deliver them and bring them to a good land to live in, the land of Canaan. I can imagine Moses being euphoric at hearing these words about a situation which troubled him so deeply. But the euphoria ended quite suddenly when God said, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
At this Moses loses all his meekness and mildness and subservience. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” If anyone knew how Pharaoh worked and how mighty his army was and how little chance one man had of going and accomplishing this, it was Moses. I think about that iconic moment in the Lord of the Rings movies at the Council of Rivendell where the hobbit says he will take the ring and throw it into the fires of Mount Doom and Boromir rubs his forehead and said, “One does not just walk into Mordor…” and goes through a litany of horrors that one would experience just making it there.
Moses knew only an act of God could accomplish this. God knows this too and says: “I will be with you.” But God needed Moses as well. In the same way that God needed the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, the mother and sister of Moses, and the daughter of Pharaoh, in saving Moses and giving him a chance to play his role, God now needed Moses to do what only he could do.
Moses was not an easy sell. In fact, Moses is about as balky about answering God’s call as Pharaoh will soon be in answering Moses’ demand that the slaves be allowed freedom to go worship their God.
The first argument is, “What if I come to the Israelites and tell them you have sent me to them and they ask me what your name is?” Moses knows from previous experience that Pharaoh is not his only problem. He has no credibility with his own people, having grown up “an Egyptian” for all practical purposes, and not having shared in their suffering and labors. How will I be able to convince them to trust me?
God graciously gives his name to Moses. Yahweh, it is in Hebrew. It is a form of the verb “to be.” It speaks of being, of life, of the source. “I am who I am.” Tell them “I am” has sent you. This is my name forever.
This is of no small significance. In the Old Testament, names are of the utmost importance. A new name signifies a new nature. Knowing the name of something means to know its essence. Moses is given power when he is given the name of God. Frederick Buechner says that “from then on Moses could get in touch with God any time he wanted.” (Peculiar Treasures, p. 111)
I don’t know about you, but I am pretty hesitant about giving my name to a stranger. You never know what use that person might make of your name, whether he or she will call you every day or claim to be your close personal friend. The threat of identity theft these days is another caution in the back of your mind. We want to trust those we give our name to. It is an act of trust for God to entrust Moses with his name.
Terrence Fretheim adds, “Giving the name entails a certain kind of relationship; it opens up the possibility of, indeed admits a desire for, a certain intimacy in relationship… Naming also entails vulnerability. In becoming so available to the world, God is to some degree at the disposal of those who can name the name.” (Interpretation: Exodus, p. 65) Israel uses this trump card on God frequently in the future: come on, God, you don’t want to bring shame on your name by doing thus and such to your people…
I doubt the giving of the name fully resolved Moses’ doubts about establishing credibility with his own people, but he moved on to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. “What if I go to them and tell them that you have sent me and told me to tell them thus and such but they don’t believe me or listen to me and taunt me by saying, “The Lord did not appear to you.”?
God told him to throw his staff on the ground and it became a snake. He told him to pick it up and it became the staff again. He told him to put his hand in his cloak, and when he brought it out it was leprous. He told him to do it again and it came out restored. These were signs he could show Pharaoh as proof.
Next Moses took another tack: “Lord, I’m not a good public speaker and I am not very persuasive.” God told him that he is the one who gives people speech and he will go with him and be his mouth and teach him how to speak.
Out of excuses, Moses gets to the heart of it now: “O Lord, please send someone else.” God was angry at this and said, “How about your brother Aaron? What if I send him to speak for you?” And finally Moses accepted his calling and commissioning for service by God. Jim Newsome writes, “When faced with such a commission from such a Being, not even the trembling Moses could say no. Like many faithful people since, Moses’ instincts for comfort and safety are brushed aside by the terrible presence of the living God, a God whose call to service he could not bring himself to ignore.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, p. 463)
So at the end of the day, Moses explained what had happened to his father in law to the best of his ability, and he and Aaron departed for Egypt. We will continue the story next week. In this week’s story we see how a person who wants to live in the light pays attention to the things happening around him or her and gets involved in life. Where there is oppression and harm being done, we are called to take action. Where there is conflict, we are called to work for peace. Where injustice is being perpetrated, we are called to work for justice. And when God puts a sign along our path, we are called to pay attention.
As with Moses, I believe that God’s calls to us for action usually grow out of experiences we have had, and seldom out of the blue. In other words, the fact that Moses knew intimately the plight of the Hebrew people in Egypt was an essential element to his feeling called by God to do something about it. I think God seldom calls us to deal with something we know nothing about.
For instance, it is often when a person has a family member affected by cancer or diabetes or mental illness that we begin to feel called to work in that particular area. It is when we know a single mother with children who has become homeless in spite of her best efforts to keep afloat that we realize it is a real problem and feel called to help find a solution. It is frequently a person who has benefitted from a great deal of counseling to get through a divorce or growing up in a dysfunctional family who then feels called to become a counselor to share this gift with others. It is a Nelson Mandela who is called to have the courage to stand up to the might of the South African government and call for freedom. It is a Martin Luther King, Jr., who is called to called to stand up to the might of federal and local governments and years of entrenched racism to call for change.
Have you been keeping an eye out for the burning bushes in your life? Have you been making excuses to God about all the reasons why you really are not the person for the job? If Moses had just hung out in the palace playing video games and watching TV, he would never have gotten into all this. But he ventured out to see what was going on in the world. He went to the other side of the tracks to see how people lived there. After he opened his eyes, things were never the same again – for him, for the Israelites, for the Egyptians, for the world.
Our closing hymn today is entitled “The Summons.” As we sing it, imagine God speaking to you out of a burning bush as he did to Moses. “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown; will you let my name be known; will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey August 31, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church, Anderson