NL204: Moses and God's Name

The book of Genesis had ended with the story of God’s tireless efforts to preserve Joseph’s life, and through Joseph the life of all Israel.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

September 29, 2019

View Bible Text

Commentary on Exodus 1:8-14 [15—2:10]; 3:1-15

The book of Genesis had ended with the story of God’s tireless efforts to preserve Joseph’s life, and through Joseph the life of all Israel.

What a contrast with the first seven verses of Exodus! During the 400 years that these verses cover there is no explicit reference to the activity of God.

The background to Exodus 1:1-7 is found in Genesis 46:1-4, which sums up the story of God’s care for Israel in the past, and promises Israel need not fear going to Egypt because God will make them a great nation, be with them, and lead them out again. This is the story of the exodus in a nutshell.

The first words God spoke to the human couple comprised a five-fold blessing consisting of commands to:

  • be fruitful
  • multiply
  • fill the earth
  • subdue it, and
  • have dominion (Genesis 1:28).

Following the Flood, God’s initial response to humanity’s inability to deal with those commands, God blessed Noah, repeating the first three: “be fruitful … multiply … and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).

When humanity again proved unequal to the task God spoke to Abraham, this time promising to make Abraham fruitful (Genesis 17:5-9). The past tense verbs of Exodus 1:7 can be seen as the fulfillment of this promise in that it claims the descendants of Israel “were fruitful … had multiplied … so that the land was filled with them.” But before the remaining parts of the blessing, dealing with subjugation and dominion, can be fulfilled, God must act to liberate the people, the description of which is the task of these first chapters of Exodus.

The Israelites may have rejoiced in the blessing their numbers attested but the “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” grew increasingly suspicious of this growing minority in his land and implemented a three-fold plan for dealing with them:

  • First, he forced them to perform difficult manual labor as slaves, hoping they would be too exhausted to revolt or reproduce (Exodus 1:8-14). Ironically, verse 12 claims the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied.
  • When plan one failed, Pharaoh decided the only way to halt the rapid increase (and sign of God’s blessing) was to order the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill the male Hebrew children as soon as they are born (1:15-21). Once again, Pharaoh’s plan fails when the midwives obey God rather than Pharaoh and the Israelites continue to expand (verse 20).
  • Finally, in desperation, Pharaoh orders that every male Hebrew child be cast into the Nile (1:22). Yet a third time, the tables are turned on Pharaoh since this is precisely what Moses’ mother does with her son … but first she sets him in a “basket” (the same Hebrew word is used to identify the “ark” Noah built to save his family and all the animals from a watery grave in the Flood (Genesis 6:14).

This Moses will become the one God calls upon to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Just as his name means “drawn out” of the water of the Nile (Exodus 2:10), so he will draw God’s people through the waters of the Red Sea to freedom.

The story begins at Exodus 2:23-25. Eighty years have passed during which time Moses had grown up at the palace, observed the cruel treatment of his people, and fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian who was beating one of the slaves. Exodus 2:23-25 makes two important points:

  • Since Pharaoh has died it is now possible for Moses to return to Egypt, and
  • these verses summarize God’s basic activity: changing our sad songs into glad songs.

We read that Israel groaned and cried out for help, that is, they lamented their evil condition. We also read that God heard their groaning and remembered his promise to Abraham. The rest of the story will relate how God changed their laments into the glorious hymn of praise found in Exodus 15.

God’s first task is to convince Moses of the divine intention to respond to Israel’s lament. In what has become the parade example of a call narrative God confronts Moses with a burning bush that is not consumed (Exodus 3:1-6) and a long series of “I” statements depicting God’s concern:

  • I have seen their affliction … and heard their cry
  • I know their sufferings … and have come down to deliver them and bring them up.

It wasn’t until God’s last statement, “I will send you to Pharaoh,” that Moses began his own long series of objections to God’s plan. But God deals with each objection, reassuring Moses, and equipping him with the confidence he will need:

  • To his objection of inadequacy “Who am I?” (Exodus 3:11) God responds, “I will be with you.”
  • When Moses replied, “Well, then who are you?”(3:13) God responds, “ehyeh asher ehyeh” (“I am who I am,” or “I will be whom I will be,” or any of a dozen other suggestions.) However, since we can never know who someone is apart from relationship with them, I think God is actually saying, “That’s for me to know and you to find out!”
  • To the objection of incredibility, “they will not believe that you have called me,” (Exodus 4:1) God demonstrates three times an ability to effect miraculous change.
  • Finally, Moses objects that he does not speak well, but instead of a convincing, “Duh, me don’t talk too pretty,” the RSV brilliantly demonstrates that this is not the case with its wonderfully eloquent translation, “Oh my Lord, I am not eloquent, either heretofore or since thou hast spoken to thy servant; but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (4:10). Moses has just run out of excuses!

And God responds that God is the one who created mouths and speech and can surely overcome this feeble excuse—besides, Aaron can speak for Moses!


God of deliverance, you called Moses to be your hands, feet, and voice in a troubled world. Teach us how to work, walk, and speak your word in a troubled world. Amen.


Guide me ever, great Redeemer   ELW 618, H82 690, GG 65, NCH 18/19, UMH 127
Bless now, O God, the journey   ELW 306


I sing the mighty power of God, Robert Leaf