Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Divine Disclosure in Exodus 3 and 4

Introduction

Exodus chapter three marks a distinct turn in the narrative; the first two chapters make it clear that without divine intervention, the Israelites are doomed, but the third asserts that God is “not indifferent…does not sleep or slumber,”[1] but sees his people’s suffering and will, in fact, do something.[2] This chapter recounts God’s self-revelation to Moses, commanding Moses to confront Pharaoh. Moses responds with five concerns, but God uses the opportunity to encourage Moses and assure Moses of his authority. This essay analyzes this divine disclosure by seeking an understanding of the symbolism inherent in the burning bush, God’s speech and Moses’ response. Having provided brief exegesis and theological reflection on God’s revelation is this passage, the essay shall discuss this passage’s role in the broader narrative of Exodus and the Pentateuch, assessing its purpose and similarities with other passages involving divine revelation.

Theophanic Experience

The theophany begins with God appearing to Moses in the burning bush. ‘Horeb, the mountain of God’ is elsewhere called Sinai,[3] and the Hebrew word for bush, sĕneh, alludes to Sinai.[4] However, because the location of this mountain is not clear, nor is it preserved elsewhere, geography is less important than theology in this passage.[5] A burning bush would not have been peculiar in a dry desert, but Moses was intrigued that it did not burn into ashes; something else was providing fuel for the fire. With the fire was a messenger (MT), or angel (LXX); Beach-Verhey insists they are one and the same, the purpose simply being to get Moses’ attention.[6] The fire is a “powerful expression of divine holiness,”[7] and the emphasis on holiness in this section anticipates the Israelite’s arrival in chapter 19.[8] This first part asserts God’s very presence with Moses and his holiness.

The fire is followed by God’s voice, which further asserts his presence.[9] When God speaks the bush becomes insignificant. He calls out to Moses with a double summons, to which Moses responds with “Here I am,” a response indicating readiness to serve. Immediately, the right relationship is established: sovereign and servant. What follows is not a normal dialogue, because Yahweh is intent on speaking and commanding, though he allows Moses to make some objections.[10] God links himself to the God of the Patriarchs, implying the personal relationship he has with his people. He doesn’t say he was, but that he is their God, connoting the eternal covenant; this is a God Moses can trust.[11] Having reviewed Israel’s need and Yahweh’s intention, Moses is called to be Yahweh’s agent of deliverance.[12]

It is not surprising Moses had doubts and resistances, “For he has been summoned to do a remarkably dangerous deed,”[13] and he responds with five concerns, which God, in his patience, listens to but does not allow these concerns to change his initial command.[14] The first concern has to do with who Moses is – who is he to confront Pharaoh? This response implies humility, but God sidesteps this issue by asserting that he will be with Moses. The fulfillment of God’s promises depend not on Moses, but on God’s powerful presence. “I will be with you,” the promise of future presence, is an affirmation of hope and foreshadows God’s name Yahweh, which derives from the Hebrew verb ‘to be.’[15] God’s presence is thus assured.

Secondly, Moses asks for God’s name. It was a dangerous mission, for both Moses and the Israelites, so Moses would need unambiguous proof to provide the people with. The Hebrew ‘name’ connotes character, thus Moses is asking if God actually has the capability to follow through. God’s response provides no name, but an assurance of authority and is, thus, an appropriate response.[16] God’s response in 3:14 has evoked much controversy and many different translations, but several things are common amongst interpreters: a) the name doesn’t actually give Moses any information and Yahweh remains as mysterious as he did before the question;[17]  b) God’s self-determination is asserted;[18] c) it is an elaboration on the tetragrammaton (YHWH), implying continuity;[19] and d) coupled with YHWH (3:15), the past, present and future are all linked together, combining what was promised with assurance of future fulfillment.[20] The essential point is that “God is who is, and that’s all there is to it.”[21] God then repeats what he has already told Moses, further elaborating by telling Moses to assemble the elders. God is again reassuring Moses of his authority and presence and that his own hand will work.[22]

Thirdly, Moses fears rejection from his own people. Despite God’s assurance that they will listen, Moses doubts, and this third question (4:1) is a “startling denial of an assertion God himself has made.”[23] Brueggemann notes that the sense of the Hebrew is, “they will not trust me.”[24] Hence, what Moses’ concern has to do with his own credibility. God’s response clearly indicates that it will not be by Moses’ authority, but by God’s that the people will listen.[25] God seeks to show that they will listen, by demonstrating three signs. The serpent was worshipped in Egyptian religion, and entailed Pharaoh’s divine royalty. The Nile was treated similarly, as the source of life. Hence, they both symbolize God’s ultimate authority over all else.[26] The leprosy is more difficult to interpret, but the likely explanation is that it symbolizes the slavery that has plagued Israel and how God’s redemptive action will free them.[27] Magic was a common element in Egyptian religion, representing the magician’s ability to control even the gods. These miracles that Moses was to perform would assert God’s authority and power, and that Yahweh is superior to the Egyptian gods.[28]

The fourth is Moses’ concern for his own speaking ability, this time sounding more like he’s finding excuses.[29] This could be referring to an actual speech impediment or due to his absence from Egypt and thus cannot adequately express himself in the Egyptian language.[30] Moses’ complaint seems to imply a complaint that God had made him wrong, or, at least, had not healed him yet; if God wanted him to go, God would heal him immediately.[31] God’s response suggests irritation, and that Moses’ response is not just invalid and irrelevant, but is irreverent.[32] God graciously responds, but does not comment on Moses’ ability, pointing instead to the fact that he has equipped Moses with what he needs and that “it did not matter how articulate Moses was because God had already told him exactly what to say;”[33] when Moses speaks, it will be God speaking.[34]

Lastly, Moses’ inner doubts are revealed. Even though God has provided everything Moses needs and has assured that it will God’s hand that fulfills the promises, Moses simply doesn’t want to go. He implores God to send someone else.[35] This is a stark contrast to Moses’ initial willingness to serve. Yahweh responds with anger, but concedes much of Moses’ point. Moses will be provided with not just divine help, but human help. Yahweh sends Aaron, Moses’ brother, the Levite, and the two will complement one another.[36] That Aaron is called a Levite sets him apart to be a symbol of Yahweh’s presence. Yahweh declares that he will be with their mouths. However, Aaron is in relationship with Moses as Moses is with Yahweh. God tells Moses what to say and Moses tells Aaron what to say; Moses’ authority (as derived from Yahweh) is retained. Yet the credit is God’s, not their own. His presence is again affirmed, and this time Moses is convinced.[37]

Broader Narrative

This call is unique in the Bible, the largest and most detailed of its kind. Its purpose in the narrative is to confirm, firstly, Moses’ credibility as leader and, secondly, Yahweh’s authority and power.[38] It is less about the person of Moses and more to do with God’s character. God’s self-revelation is the central point in this text.[39] Throughout the entire encounter, God did not allow the topic to get off track, continually returning to issue of Moses’ commission.[40] Aspects of this theophany are very similar to other accounts of God’s revelation. The language is similar to Genesis 22:11 and 46:1-5, with the double summons, the response“Here I am,” the divine self-revelation, God’s identification with the God of their fathers, and a proclamation of his presence.[41] In these other cases of God’s self disclosure, a call is issued; God reveals himself when something must be done. A similar response to God is Abraham and Sarah’s response to the promise of a child. As Moses responds with doubt, Abraham and Sarah respond to the promise by having Ishmael by Hagar, and laughed at the prospect of having their own son. Yet God proved his faithfulness to them as he proved his faithfulness to Moses. Furthermore, Exodus 5-6 contains similarities. When Pharaoh makes it harder for the Israelites, they complain to Moses, who complains to God. Yet again, as in chapter 3, God responds to Moses’ doubt with reassurance of his presence and authority.

Other similarities include the image of fire. Abraham encounters God in fire (Gen. 15:17),[42] and later Yahweh will lead the Israelites by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Fire is a visible indication of Yahweh’s presence, a theme prevalent in this text. Other visible symbols will eventually include the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle.[43] This theophany is further similar to the climax of Exodus (chapters 19-20, 24) and the use of Yahweh in these chapters and 33-34 again emphasize his presence.[44] Furthermore, “Lord” is used over 5000 times in the Old Testament.[45] God’s presence is again encouragingly asserted at the conclusion of Exodus.[46]

Conclusion

It should be clear that this passage in Exodus asserts God’s authority and power, marking a turning point in the narrative by commissioning and equipping Moses to confront Pharaoh; God is going to do something to heal the broken and suffering nation in slavery. The burning bush which grabs Moses’ attention leads Moses to an encounter with Yahweh, who asserts his sovereignty and authority. Moses has no say in this commissioning; the God who was and who is and who will be sends Moses, despite some objections, but ensures his presence and power. This passage, though the longest and most detailed call of the Bible, shares some similarities with other texts, and is a pivotal point in Yahweh’s relationship with Israel. God sends and equips, and by his power alone his plans will surely come to fruition.

Bibliography

Beach-Verhey, Kathy. “Exodus 3:1-12.” Interpretation 59, no. 2 (2005): 180-182.

Brueggemann, Walter. “The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, edited by Leander E. Keck, 1. Nashville, Tennessee: Abindgon Press, 1994.

Carroll, Robert P. “Strange Fire: Abstract of Presence Absent in the Text: Meditations on Exodus 3.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 61, no. 1 (1994): 39-58.

Coats, George W. Exodus 1-18. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.

Durham, John I. Exodus. Vol. 3 Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1987.

Gowan, Donald E. “Divine Presence.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 2. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2007.

Janzen, J. Gerald. “What’s in a Name? “Yahweh” in Exodus 3 and the Wider Biblical Context.” Interpretation 33, no. 3 (1979): 227-239.

Larsson, Goran. Bound for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999.

Pannell, Randall J. “I Would Be Who I Would Be! A Proposal for Reading Exodus 3:11-14.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 16, no. 2 (2006): 351-353.

Ryken, Philip Graham. Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005.

Smith, Mark S. The Pilgrimage Pattern in Exodus. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

Thompson, Thomas L. “How Yahweh Became God: Exodus 3 and 6 and the Heart of the Pentateuch.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 68, no. 1 (1995): 57-74.


[1] Goran Larsson, Bound for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999). 29.

[2] Ibid. 26. Also, Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009). 129; Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005). 84.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck(Nashville, Tennessee: Abindgon Press, 1994). 711. Also, Kathy Beach-Verhey, “Exodus 3:1-12,” Interpretation 59, no. 2 (2005). 181.

[4] Brueggemann. 711.

[5] John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 3 (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1987). 30.

[6] Beach-Verhey. 181. As Durham. 31; Ryken. 81. Cf. Dozeman. 125. The NIV captures this interpretation well. Carroll further argues that this being (fire/messenger) is a being entirely separate to Yahweh; who Moses encountered was not Yahweh, though the dialogue was obviously with Yahweh, (Robert P. Carroll, “Strange Fire: Abstract of Presence Absent in the Text: Meditations on Exodus 3,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 61, no. 1 (1994). 41-42.

[7] Larsson. 28. Cf. Ryken. 81.

[8] Mark S. Smith, The Pilgrimage Pattern in Exodus (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997). 193. Cf. Larsson. 27. Furthermore, it is important to note that God did not meet Moses where he was, but that he called Moses over to where he was, (Cf. Ryken. 80).

[9] Brueggemann. 712. Cf. Ryken. 83-84.

[10] Brueggemann. 711; Carroll. 43. Cf. Ryken. 91.

[11] Ryken. 85; George W. Coats, Exodus 1-18 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999). 36-37. Cf. Durham. 31; J. Gerald Janzen, “What’s in a Name? “Yahweh” in Exodus 3 and the Wider Biblical Context,” Interpretation 33, no. 3 (1979). 233-234; Larsson. 36.

[12] Durham. 32. Cf. Ryken. 90.

[13] Brueggemann. 713.

[14] Carroll. 45; Coats. 36; Larsson. 39.

[15] Brueggemann. 713; Larsson. 33-34; Donald E. Gowan, “Divine Presence,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld(Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2007). 147; Carroll. 45; Durham. 33. Cf. Ryken. 92-93.

[16] Brueggemann. 714; Durham. 38. Cf. Carroll. 47; Ryken. 95; Coats. 36.

[17] Brueggemann. 714; Carroll. 47; Dozeman. 94; Ryken. 96-97. Cf. Randall J. Pannell, “I Would Be Who I Would Be! A Proposal for Reading Exodus 3:11-14,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 16, no. 2 (2006). 351.

[18] Pannell. 353; Ryken. 97.

[19] Smith. 194; Coats. 37; Durham. 41 – “This God who is present, this God who Is, this Yahweh, is one and the same as the God of the fathers.”

[20] Larsson. 31; Ryken. 97, 103; Brueggemann. 714; Janzen. 234; Thomas L. Thompson, “How Yahweh Became God: Exodus 3 and 6 and the Heart of the Pentateuch,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 68, no. 1 (1995). 72.

[21] Ryken. 97.

[22] Brueggemann. 714-715; Janzen. 234. Cf. Ryken. 102.

[23] Durham. 43. Cf. Brueggemann. 715-716.

[24] Brueggemann. 715.

[25] Durham. 44, 46; Dozeman. 95; Ryken. 109-110.

[26] Durham. 45-46; Larsson. 36. Furthermore, the sign of the Nile water turning to blood “is presented here as a sign upon which Moses can depend if the first two signs do not convince Moses’ audience in Egypt,” (Durham. 45).

[27] Larsson. 36.

[28] Durham. 46; Larsson. 35-36; Ryken. 110-111.

[29] Brueggemann. 716. Cf. Durham. 49; Ryken. 113-114.

[30] Larsson. 37.

[31] Ibid. 37; Ryken. 115.

[32] Brueggemann. 716; Durham. 49; Ryken. 115.

[33] Ryken. 114.

[34] Brueggemann. 716.

[35] Ibid. 716; Larsson. 38. Cf. Ryken. 113-114, 120.

[36] Larsson. 38; Ryken. 120; Brueggemann. 716;

[37] Durham. 49-51; Brueggemann. 717.

[38] Larsson. 38; Ryken. 101; Coats. 41; Beach-Verhey. 180.

[39] Beach-Verhey. 180.

[40] Ryken. 119. Cf. Brueggemann. 711-712.

[41] Dozeman. 121.

[42] Larsson. 28.

[43] Cf. Gowan. 147.

[44] Durham. 30, 39.

[45] Ryken. 96.

[46] Gowan. 147.

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