Commentary on Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17
The book of Exodus continues the story of Jacob/Israel in the land of Egypt and beyond.
Over an extensive period of time in Egypt, the people of Israel grow into a major community. But life does not go well for the Israelites over time and they are oppressed by the rulers of Egypt.
Exodus 2:23-25 summarizes their suffering situation and names their cries to God. God hears their cry, remembers the covenant/promise made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and takes special notice of their suffering situation. To use the comparable language of Exodus 3:7, “I know their suffering”; that is, God so enters into their suffering situation that God takes that suffering into the divine self and bears it there.
God then directs the divine energies toward a resolution of this situation; Exodus 3:1-7:7 specifies the nature of that divine move in remarkable detail. Note that a “quick fix” does not seem to be available, even for God. Indeed, much of this section in Exodus is an ongoing dialogue between God and Moses with regard to the best way to address this suffering situation.
Notably, God determines not to resolve this suffering issue by the divine self alone. Following a pattern set in God’s interdependent ways of creating the world (see my September 10 essay on Genesis 1-2), God chooses to work in and through that which is not God in moving toward a resolution of Israel’s suffering dilemma in Egypt. To save the people of Israel, God chooses not to act alone. Initially, God chooses to engage a human figure as an instrument of this action: God calls Moses (Exodus 3:1-4:17 is an extended call narrative).
God’s calling of Moses specifies that he will be sent to Pharaoh to “bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). This word stands in some tension with Exodus 3:8, where God is the subject of bringing Israel out of Egypt. So, neither God nor Moses act alone in bringing Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 14:31). God takes the initiative, but does not work alone; God works in and through Moses.
The dialogue between God and Moses that now follows is remarkable in its range of conversational interaction.
Strikingly, Moses does not immediately agree with God regarding the nature of this divine call. Indeed, over the course of the next few chapters, Moses raises sharp objections to God regarding this calling. One could name a total of eight objections on Moses’ part, ranging from issues of competence to knowledge to the nature of the situation and the kind of people (and God!) involved (see Exodus 3:11, 13; 4:1, 10, 13; 5:22-23; 6:12, 30).
These objections of Moses are remarkable in their repeated confrontation of God. One may be reminded of the numerous excuses we all give to God with respect to tasks to which we may be called.
Interestingly, God does not shut Moses up or ignore his concerns. Indeed, God responds to each of Moses’ eight objections in turn (3:12, 14-22; 4:2-9, 12, 14-16; 6:1-8, 13-27; 7:1-5). Those responses vary in content, but the most basic divine word is an assurance of God’s presence throughout Moses’ journey (but not absolute safety!).
This God-human dialogue is worthy of closer attention. Note that God invites Moses’ response rather than shutting him down; a genuine conversation between God and human follows. The oft-noted speech disability of Moses is striking in this context — an inarticulate human being holds his own in debate with God!
Moses’ concerns and questions find an openness in God and lead to fuller knowledge. God thus reveals the divine self, not simply at the divine initiative, but in interaction with a questioning human party. Simple passivity in the presence of God on Moses’ part would have diminished the range of further insight. God has so entered into relationship with Moses that God is not the only one who has something important to say.
Both God and Moses recognize that God is not demystified through further understanding. Indeed, the more one understands God, the more mysterious God becomes.
God’s way into the future is thus not dictated solely by the divine will and word. Indeed, God is not in total control of what is to follow. What people like Moses do and say in relationship counts regarding the shape that the future takes!
The second of Moses’ questions has to do with the identity of the divine name (Exodus 3:13). Moses’ question opens up a remarkable response from God (Exodus 3:14-15; NRSV): “I AM WHO I AM … I AM has sent me to you … the LORD (yhwh, perhaps pronounced Yahweh, from a verbal root meaning “to be”), the God of your ancestors … has sent me to you. This is my name forever.”
This conversation and the name of God revealed is one of the more puzzled over texts in the Hebrew Bible (see Exodus 6:2-3 on this development in the name of God). The most common translation of the name is the NRSV (noted above). I prefer this translation: “I will be who I am.” That is, God will be faithfully God for Moses; God will live up to the divine name. The translation “LORD” is another difficulty, given its masculinity. It is probably best to avoid the word LORD and follow the New Testament practice of using “God” as much as possible.
Moses’ objections to the call of God continue in Exodus 4:10-17, this time focused on Moses’ ineloquence and his perceived inability to do this task alone. God’s response is accepting of Moses’ disability; he does have a speech problem and God made a world (quite apart from sin) where such deformities are possibilities in the human condition. God is able to work with people who have such disabilities! Generally, God does not make people perfect before deciding to work in and through them.
In the end, it appears that Moses, in pleading for God to send someone else, is just not interested in doing this work — at least by himself. God, though angry (for the first time in the Hebrew Bible), acquiesces and moves to a plan B; God chooses Moses’ brother Aaron to accompany him in this responsibility. What people do and say gives shape to God’s way into the future.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of all people,
You remembered your children who were enslaved in Egypt, and by the power of your name you set them free. Remember us and free us from slavery to sin by the power of your name. Amen.
Here I am, Lord, Daniel L. Schutte