Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15
This first revelation of sacred space identifies as holy the soil itself, God’s good land alive with vegetation.
This soil is holy because it nourishes the life in which God becomes visible and from which God speaks. And it is declared holy at the moment when God’s human servant has turned and entered to see the miracle of God’s presence within a fire that blazes but does not consume the created life in which it burns.
Moses will lead God’s people back to this holy place. They will worship at this mountain (3:12). Here Moses will receive a plan for the tabernacle. And from this place the fire will travel with them into the wilderness, sanctifying their camp just as the divine fire now sanctifies the holy mountain.
But that is in the future. For now, in this moment, Moses is told to remove his shoes. Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling.1
It was from such soil that God shaped the first human (Genesis 2:7) and every animal (2:19) and caused to grow trees for food and the trees of life and knowledge (2:9). The soil was cursed on humans’ behalf (3:17) and after humans’ death would receive each human back again (3:19).
And in this first story, humans received their charge, that even after the curse, through long years away from home, they would serve the earth (3:23). This same earth would yield up offerings to God (4:3). It would also open its mouth to receive blood of the slain and give voice to the cry of injustice (4:10-11). This soil binds us to all creation and to every human. This soil forms and feeds us, receives and makes a claim upon us.
The articles with which we clothe our bodies always mean more than simple covering or protection.
Typically made of animal skin or plant fibers, sandals protected the sole of the foot but could also symbolize purity, property, social contracts, and social status. In New Kingdom Egypt, a pair of sandals could be purchased for the price of a sack of grain: though not strictly a luxury, footwear was nonetheless an investment. Sandals of higher status individuals were more artfully made, sometimes adorned with precious materials and other decoration. Sandals discovered in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amon bore the image of foreign captives upon the insole, proclaiming with the king’s every step Egyptian royal power over the peoples and nations his armies had subdued.2
Scripture tells us more about the meanings associated with sandals. Later in the book of Exodus, the Hebrews are instructed to prepare for their journey out of Egypt by eating the Passover meal with their staffs in hand and sandals upon their feet (Exodus 12:11). These preparations signified readiness for the journey ahead (cf. Deuteronomy 29:4; Joshua 9:5,13). The books of Deuteronomy and Ruth explain rites in which removing one’s sandal(s) — or having them removed by another — nullified previously binding legal and social ties (Deuteronomy 25:9-10; Ruth 4:7-8; cf. Amos 2:6, 8:6), creating the conditions for new claims, new relationships, and new responsibility.
What shoes does the preacher wear? For one preacher, worn soles and fraying straps may speak of humility and a long journey. For another, a platform heel adds the illusion of height and stability. One preacher rests within the space and protection of a wide toe box, while another lurches precariously atop stiletto heels. Shoes may be shined, tooled, stitched, or adorned to project success and authority. They may convey simplicity or beauty. They may be shoes for walking slow or running fast. They might feel comfortable or they might hurt. Whatever their meanings, uses, and effects, in this holy place God commands God’s servant to take them off.
When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands.
When you as a preacher remove your sandals, what claim will the sacred soil make upon you?3 Will you stand differently in the place where God has called you? This reading challenges you and your congregation to remove your sandals and feel between your toes the clay God uses to shape the future. God invites you to stand barefoot in an attitude of wonder as you witness God’s presence in the blazing fire that does not consume and hear the astonishing name of the God who is radically free.
As you find your footing in the holy soil, you and your congregation will know what it means to refuse complicity in practices of slavery and domination. God will empower you to challenge rulers and bring hope to the hopeless. Your beautiful feet will announce salvation (Isaiah 52:7) and lead the way to freedom.
1 For details of soil composition in the region of Sinai, see Raafat H. Abd EL-Wahab, Abd El-Monem M. Zayed,Abd El-Raouf A. Moustafa, Jeffery M. Klopatek, and Mohamed A. Helmy, “Landforms, Vegetation, and Soil Quality in South Sinai, Egypt,” Catrina 1 (2006), 127-38.
2 This paragraph draws on Fredrik Hagen, “New Kingdom Sandals: A Philological Perspective,” in André J. Veldmeijer, Tutankhamun’s Footwear: Studies of Ancient Egyptian Footwear, Norg, The Netherlands:DrukWare, 2010, 193-203.
3 My reflections on preaching in bare feet are inspired by the work of former student Courtney Bryant.