Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15
Exodus 3:1-6: Coming Home–A Mountain, a Bush and the Call of Moses
After being chased out of Egypt and away from his Hebrew people, Moses is out shepherding sheep for his Midianite father-in-law. Out in the wilderness, Moses stumbles upon “the mountain of God” known as Mount Horeb (also known as Mount Sinai–Exodus 19:11). In the ancient world, mountaintops were the traditional dwelling places for the divine. There, at the mountain, Moses encounters an unquenchable burning bush. Fire is a common biblical symbol of God’s presence (Genesis 15:17; Exodus 14:24; 19:18; Leviticus 10:2; see also Acts 2:3). The fiery bush is an icon of the divine, a material or sacramental window into God’s presence that both reveals and hides. In part, the ever-burning shrub out in the wilderness signals God’s merciful accommodation. God comes down from the mountain of God to meet Moses in the bush. At the same time, the inextinguishable flame is a sign of God’s awesome and powerful holiness, a fiery holiness that is both dangerous and attractive, frightening and comforting, untamed but reassuring.
God instructs Moses to remove the sandals from his feet. The gesture is an ancient practice when entering a holy place of divine presence. It is a gesture that honors the holiness of this ground, this mountain and this God. Removing shoes as a show of reverence is a practice still in use in Islam and other religions.
However, removing his sandals has a second significance in light of Moses’ earlier self-declaration in Exodus 2:22: “I have been an alien (Hebrew ger) residing in a foreign land.” The Hebrews had rejected Moses as one of their own (Exodus 2:14). The Egyptian Pharaoh sought to kill him (Exodus 2:15). The Midianites see Moses as a foreigner, “an Egyptian” (Exodus 2:19). Moses is not fully “home” in any human community. Taking off one’s sandals is a gesture in many traditional cultures that is associated with entering not only a worship space but also a home. Thus, here at the foot of the mountain of God, Moses the “alien,” has at last found a true “home.” Moses finds his true home not with humans but with God, the God of his ancestors, “the God of Abraham…of Isaac…of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6).
Exodus 3:7-15: The Unfolding Name of God in Exodus
God calls Moses to go back to Pharaoh, lead the Israelites out of their miserable slavery in Egypt and travel to the promised land of Canaan (3:7-10). As in some other call stories in the Bible (Jeremiah 1:1-10), Moses resists the call and raises a number of objections to which God responds. Moses first pleads his own lack of skills and qualifications. Who am I? he asks. (3:11). God responds. None of that matters; “I will be with you” (3:12). The people will ask Moses, what is this God’s name? (3:13). God responds with a long explication of the divine name, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14). Perhaps a better translation of the name from the Hebrew (ehyeh asher ehyeh) is “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.”
This divine name is built on the Hebrew verb “to be” and is related to the divine name used frequently throughout the Old Testament, “Yahweh,” or YHWH (the transliterated Hebrew consonants without the vowels). In the Jewish tradition, this special name of God is considered so holy that it is not to be pronounced in prayer or worship (hence, the absence of vowels). The NRSV translation represents this special divine name with the circumlocution “the LORD.” This is the convention used by the ancient Greek and the Septuagint translation of the original Hebrew.
As with the burning bush, this special divine name serves both to reveal and to hide. The mysterious name invites us, as readers, to read on and discern how a series of God’s self-declarations of God’s own name (“I am the LORD/YHWH…”) at key points in the Exodus story explicate and fill out the character and identity of Israel’s God.
Thus, in Exodus 20:2-6, God expands the divine name at the beginning of the Ten Commandments by recalling God’s actions and character, “I am the LORD your God…who brought you out of the land of Egypt…I am a jealous God, punishing…but showing steadfast love.” In Exodus 29:46, God’s self-declaration of the name expands another step in the tabernacle cycle, revealing the core of God’s nature as a desire to be present with God’s people: “I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell with them.“
After the golden calf debacle that endangered the entire relationship between God and people, God reaches deep down and reveals another aspect of God’s inner name and character. The name “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE” from our text in Exodus 3:14 expands into God’s deeper character of mercy in Exodus 33:19: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.”
Finally, in Exodus 34:6-7, Moses experiences the most dramatic revelation of God’s name. In a repetition, but also inversion of God’s name in Exodus 20:2-6, God’s character is no longer first of all “jealous” and “punishing.” God’s name is, first of all, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” No longer is there a qualifier of God’s love of “those who love me and keep my commandments” (as in Exodus 20:6). Furthermore, God’s name in Exodus 34:6-7 includes for the first time in Exodus “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” There will admittedly continue to be consequences to disobedience (“yet by no means clearing the guilty”), but that aspect of God’s name and character will now be in a secondary place. Exodus 34 is God’s response to Israel’s primal sin against the first commandment in worshiping the golden calf in Exodus 32. Exodus 34:6-7 proclaims that God’s name first given in Exodus 3:14 as the enigmatic, “I WILL WHO I WILL BE,” unfolds at its deepest level primarily as “love, mercy and forgiveness.”