Exegetical Exercise (Exodus 3:1-12)

Moses sees the burning bush painting

“I need to turn aside to see this great sight – and to see why the bush isn’t burned up.”

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, July 2, is Exodus 3:1-12 – a portion of the text that’s often short-handed as “the call of Moses.” Here’s the text (in Inclusive Bible version), and my notes on it:

1/ Moses was leading the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock deep into the wilderness, Moses came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2/ The messenger of YHWH appeared to Moses in a blazing fire from the midst of a thornbush. Moses saw – “the bush is ablaze with fire, and yet it isn’t consumed!” Moses said, “Let me go over and look at this remarkable sight – and see why the bush doesn’t burn up!”
4/ When YHWH saw Moses coming to look more closely, God called out to him from the midst of the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
Moses answered, “I am here.”
5/ God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground!”
6/ “I am the God of your ancestors,” the voice continued, “the God of Sarah and Abraham, the God of Rebecca and Isaac, the God of Leah and Rachel and Jacob!”
Moses hid his face, afraid to look at the Holy One.
7/ Then YHWH said, “I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt; I have heard their cries under those who oppress them; I have felt their sufferings. 8/ Now I have come down to rescue them from the hand of Egypt, out of their place of suffering, and bring them to a place that is wide and fertile, a land flowing with milk and honey – the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9/ The cry of the children of Israel has reached me, and I have watched how the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10/ Now, go! I will send you to Pharaoh, to bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
11/ But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
12/ God answered, “I will be with you, and this is the sign by which you will know that it is I who have sent you: after you bring my people out of Egypt, you will all worship God at this very mountain.”

Notes:
Moses’ (“son of”; Hebrew, “one who draws out”) story begins in ch. 2 of Exodus, with his mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter conspiring to save him from the law that baby Hebrew boys had to be killed; then his own killing of an Egyptian overseer, and his flight to Midian; and his settling in with the household of Reuel/Jethro, priest of Midian, and marriage to Zipporah (Hebrew, “bird”), one of the family’s daughters. Now Moses is acting as a shepherd of Jethro’s flock – possibly significant: shepherds care for a flock, find them food and water and shelter, etc.; Moses is doing this in the wilderness; preparation for/foreshadowing of what he will be doing later in the story?

He leads the flock literally “beyond the wilderness” or possibly “west of the wilderness,” to the mountain – if Horeb is Sinai, and if Sinai is where it says (with question mark, indicating uncertainty) on the map in the Access Bible, then he’s something like 125 miles from Midian … is this typical for a shepherding trip? Or is this already extraordinary? Rashi comments that he was guarding the sheep against theft, by removing them from neighboring fields.

About the bush: it jumps out; in Hebrew the word for “thornbush” sounds like Sinai – maybe, this is a prelude theophany to the major theophany at Sinai?; the word repeats five times in three verses, so, it’s emphasized; Strong’s speculates it might be a blackberry bush [seriously? In the Arabian desert?], but evidently there is no clear consensus on the species of bush that’s named by this Hebrew noun; the bush is burning without being, literally, “eaten.” Surely there is some meaning in this image; why a bush? Why a bush on fire? Midrash suggests the bush symbolizes the Israelites – afflicted (it’s a thornbush) but not destroyed; with God (the fire). Other commentators link the bush to “tree of life” images, to the menorah and the lampstands in the Tabernacle (instructions for which are also given at Sinai), and the fire to God’s glory; Rashi interprets the bush as the sign that Moses’ mission will be successful: as the bush is fulfilling YHWH’s mission and not being harmed, so Moses will be able to fulfill the mission he’s given and not be harmed, because of the same divine agency.

I wonder if there is not something revealing about the character of YHWH in the image: that the fire (the presence of the divine?) doesn’t depend on the bush – so doesn’t consume it for fuel, because it doesn’t need fuel – and in fact, quite the opposite, paradoxically, imparts life.

About the sense of sight: This is emphasized, too: forms of “to see” repeat 6 times in the first four verses (if we include “appeared,” which is one form, and “this sight,” another form), and then pop up again strongly in the divine speech (“I have seen, yes seen, the affliction of my people,” “I have seen their oppression”). It’s imperative that Moses see the sight of the bush, to divert him from his routine; Moses comments [maybe in shades of comic book monologues] that he needs to turn aside to see this sight and to see why the bush doesn’t burn up; God watches to see that Moses has seen; is it because seeing precedes hearing? (it does, in this story, and also in chapter 2, when Pharaoh’s daughter sees the basket in the reeds, and then the baby, and then hears him cry); Moses’ seeing precedes hearing God’s voice; God’s seeing the people’s affliction precedes hearing their cries; first you see, then you hear? Usually in the Bible hearing = doing (“hear, O Israel, YHWH is our God …”), but maybe first you need to be interrupted, and interruption is provided by seeing something hitherto unnoticed? When Moses hides his face because he is afraid to behold God (Elohim), however, it’s a different verb altogether – a whole other kind of seeing.

Names figure prominently. Moses’ name recurs repeatedly (6 times); God’s Elohim name repeats 7 times, and God’s YHWH name a couple of times in addition, making it a nice case for the source critics. God calls Moses’ name twice to attract his notice, before warning him off coming closer and telling him to take off his sandals. God knows Moses’ name; Moses doesn’t know God’s name yet, but will in a couple of verses, and after that, no one will be able to pronounce it …

God outlines the reasons for taking up the mission: seeing the Israelites’ affliction/oppression, hearing their cries – the explanation is repeated twice, with different words, on either side of the announcement of the decision to bring the people out of Egypt and into a good and broad land, flowing with milk and honey. [A comment in the study Bible notes that “flowing with milk and honey” is literally “flowing with goat’s milk and date syrup” and is a euphemism for male and female sexual fluids, so it is a strong statement about the fertility of the land, at the very least.] A land that currently belongs to a bunch of other people … And then God appoints Moses to the task of going to Egypt, before Pharaoh, and bringing the children of Israel out.

Notice that there is something about this approach of God’s that shares the pattern of fund-raising letters: here’s the situation that needs to be addressed, urgently, vitally, you can see this injustice needs to be righted; so now, can you give us $100 to get the job done?

Moses objects – part of the pattern of a call narrative; Exodus Rabbah suggests that this has nothing to do with false modesty, but with Moses’ awareness that on other occasions of deliverance (Lot, Ishmael), God sent angels, and Moses knows he’s not an angel, and those were just one or a few people, while this is a whole big people. Moses’ response “Who am I?” might also indicate a sense of not having the right social standing, or of not having the right qualifications, or in some other way being easy to ignore or dismiss, based on what he knows about the Egyptians (not nothing, after all). So maybe it’s an indication of what he thinks is the social situation he would be facing.

God says “I’ll be with you.” And lets him know there’s a plan for the future. The mission isn’t at all in question, according to God. [We might think God should know …] So the issue of answering the call really boils down to Moses’ willingness to do the tasks that are required … the outcome is never really in question, at least not according to God, in this narrative.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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