Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15
Who Sees the Burning Bush?
The burning bush scene in this chapter of Exodus is surely among the top ten best known biblical stories.
It has been immortalized in countless ways in culture. An entire generation of Americans grew up with Cecil B. DeMille’s rendition of it in the epic movie, “The Ten Commandments.” For a younger generation of viewers, the scene has been animated by Dreamworks’ “Prince of Egypt.” But neither of these movies can resist the urge to idealize the one who encounters that strange bush.
A Prophet and his Commission
Of course, this idealization of Moses is not without good reason. This passage provides readers with the first and finest example of the prophetic commissioning scene, the form of biblical literature that narrates God’s call to the prophets. It also shows us the calling of the first and best of all the Israelite prophets, the great leader of the Exodus. After Moses, the scene will be echoed and adapted many, many times — in the books of Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1), and Jonah (Jonah 1, 3), among others. It even appears in the New Testament story of the annunciation to Mary (Luke 1). Yet, the ironic reality is that the prophet par excellence in this scene is not the powerful, idealized leader remembered by the Priestly Writer in the second half of Exodus. Moses in this scene, which is the work of the Yahwist writer, is more like the hapless and confused person described by Jewel in the song “Standing Still”:
cutting through the darkest night are my two headlights
trying to keep it clear, but I’m losing it here to the twilight
there’s a dead-end to my left, there’s a burning bush to my right
you aren’t in sight, you aren’t in sight
Moses–The Lost Soul
Moses calls himself “an alien residing in a foreign land” (2:22). But he is a man who has never really been at home anywhere. Raised by his Hebrew mother, he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (2:9-10) and given an Egyptian name (see the discussion on Exodus 1:8-2:10). Although he tries to intervene to help his kinfolk, the Hebrews (2:11-13), he ends up murdering an Egyptian and being rejected by his own (2:14). He flees Egypt and the mess he had created there, only to be identified as an Egyptian by the women he meets at the well in Midian (2:19). From the adopted son of royalty, Moses is now shepherding flocks (a less than prestigious job!), working for his father-in-law.
God Meets Him Where He Is
This is the situation when God “comes down” (3:8). When we say that God meets us where we are, the implication is that we are not always where we should be, but that God adapts and accommodates us nonetheless. Moses is not necessarily where he should be, either, but the sight of the burning bush and God’s call will bring him out of obscurity and isolation (rescued yet again?!) and send Moses (and his family!) back to Egypt to lead the Israelite flock.
But even for God the task of getting Moses back on track is no simple matter. The typical commissioning scene involves the prophet’s objection to God’s commission. The objection highlights the prophet’s dependence upon God in undertaking sacred work and reveals an appropriate sense of humility. But Moses is not typical in any sense. Instead of one objection, Moses raises four (3:11,13; 4:1,10) before saying flat out, “O my Lord, please send someone else” (4:13)!
Who Am I?
It is interesting to note Moses’ first objection, which questions his own identity: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses is reluctant to take on the role that God asks of him, but really, who better than Moses? His dual identity seems to make him the perfect person to confront Pharaoh for the sake of the Hebrews. What is more, despite his reluctance and his own earlier misguided interventions, Moses is driven by a deep sense of justice — a desire to intervene for the victimized and the mistreated, wherever he sees injustice taking place (2:11, 13, 17).
Who Are You?
After turning from the question of his own identity, Moses turns to the question of God’s identity. “[When] they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?” Moses ponders in verse 13. God’s cryptic response is, “I am who I am” (ehyeh asher ehyeh, 3:14), an explanation of Yahweh, God’s personal name. The grammatical background of this name is notoriously slippery and subject to any number of translations, including “I will be what I will be.”1 On the one hand the deity is reserving the right to identify God’s self on God’s own terms — I can be whatever I can be. On the other hand, the name indicates that God is known through God’s actions for others.
Divine Action and Human Action — Past, Present, Future
In this (and every!) prophetic commissioning scene, God’s work is once again aligned and intertwined with human agency. Just as Moses saw the Egyptian beating a Hebrew (2:11), and Pharaoh’s daughter saw the child and heard him crying (2:6), so also has God seen the misery of the people and heard their cries (3:7) and has been moved to action. Indeed, such seeing, knowing, and acting for others is part of the very identity of God. And much as Moses’ identity emerges from his own past, so God’s actions in the present emerge from God’s past commitments to the ancestors (3:15).2 The God of the Exodus is one who remains faithful to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But unlike human commitments that can waiver and fade, God’s identity will be constant. God will be known in God’s future faithfulness to Moses and the people — “I will be with you,” God promises (3:12).
1J. Gerald Janzen, Exodus (Westminster Bible Commentary; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997), 34.
2 Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1991), 60-70.