Exodus chapter 3:2-8, 10-15
This passage in Exodus continues the story of Moses, who is now a shepherd who serves his father-in-law Jethro. Moses had left Egypt forty years earlier. Moses has not had an ordinary life for a Hebrew. As an infant Moses was set adrift in a reed basket in the Nile River by his mother in an attempt to save his life – all male Hebrew infants were to be drowned at birth by an order of the Pharaoh. Moses was rescued by the daughter of the Pharaoh and raised as her own child. Moses then lived a privileged life with the royal family until his murder of an Egyptian, who had been beating a Hebrew slave.
The only mention in the Bible of Moses’ relationship with his birth family or other Hebrews during these early years is that Moses was nursed by his birth mother at the request of the Pharaoh’s daughter. Once Moses was weaned, he was returned to his adoptive mother. There is no mention in the Bible of Moses further interaction with the Hebrews until he returned to Egypt to fulfill God’s mission.
Moses fled Egypt when his murder of the Egyptian is seen by Jewish witnesses and likely reported. Moses then settles in Midian where he marries one of the the daughters of Jethro, a Midianite priest. His wife is named Zipporah and she bears Moses a son. Even though the Pharaoh whom Moses knew had died, the Hebrews remained slaves to the new Pharaoh in the land of Egypt.
(A Bible dictionary tells us: “ to be holy is “to be set apart.” This applies to places where God is present, like the Temple and the Tabernacle, and to things and persons related to those holy places or to God Himself.”)
In Exodus chapter 3 we read, “and the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush...”. Moses has been tending the sheep of his father in law near Horeb (Sinai), the mountain of God, and his attention was caught by an unusual sight – a burning bush which is not consumed by the flames. Intrigued and curious why this might be so, Moses approaches the burning bush. A voice calls to him from the bush – “Moses, Moses” and then Moses responds: “here I am”. Moses is told by the angel’s voice that the place on which Moses is standing is holy ground, that he should take off his shoes.
Taking off one’s shoes in the presence of God or in a holy place suggests that one must be submissive and respectful to the One who is above all things, who has power over all things and all people, who deserves to be venerated and loved. In Church we genuflect or bow when we enter as we recognize the holiness of the worship place and of the Person who is present in the Tabernacle behind the altar.
God addresses Moses and tells the shepherd that the Person speaking to him is the same God who once spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, ancestors of Moses’ people. In fear and reverence for God, Moses hides his face for we read that “he was afraid to look on God.” It was believed at that time that gazing upon God would bring instant death.
God has spoken to Moses for He has an important task for Moses to accomplish – Moses must go back to Egypt and bring God’s people out of Egypt to the promised land. God tells Moses that “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry…I know their sufferings.” Moses is understandably confused and perplexed as he later wonders aloud how he is to accomplish this task. God comforts Moses by telling him that He, God Himself, will be with him as Moses goes about this work. The sign that God has sent Moses on this mission will be shown when Moses has accomplished the task – the Israelites will worship God on this very mountain of Horeb.
What God is asking of Moses is an unbelievably difficult task. For centuries the Hebrews have been enslaved by a powerful foreign nation. Moses must return to Egypt, where he is a wanted criminal and even rejected by the Israelites some years ago and free the enslaved people. At first Moses is given no directions as to how he is to accomplish what is asked of him, although God assures Moses that “I will be with you“. As the conversation continues, God provides more details about the help that He will provide to Moses.
Moses’ first response to God’s request is somewhat strange – Moses wants to know God’s name in case the Israelites ask him. God responds to Moses’ question and says that His name is – “I AM WHO I AM… this is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” God continues in this way: “Thus shall you say to the Israelites: “The Lord, the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever.” God is reminding Moses and the Israelites that He is making good on His covenant with the patriarchs, that the chosen people have not been forgotten. God then tells Moses how to begin this mission so that the Israelites are assured the God will lead them to the land once promised to Abraham and to freedom.
Knowing a person’s name was important in Biblical times as it denoted some control over that individual if his name was known. God’s response to Moses question does not give any power over Him as the name itself denotes God’s power. God cannot be controlled or owned by anyone as He just is. God is existence itself.
This story is similar to many which we read in the Bible – God calls someone for His purposes and doesn’t tell the person how exactly to accomplish the task which has been assigned to him. A person appears to be on his own, to come up with the means and methods to accomplish the task until the story unfolds further and the reader recognizes that God has been directing the action and assisting the person in his mission.
God places His trust in the person He has chosen. God’s choice of the person and the mission is not random. God sees the past, the present and the future. God created the person he has chosen, so God is aware of what the person has the ability to do.
Moses’ conversation continues with God. Moses tries to back out of the assignment citing his speech impediment, but God gives Moses help by choosing Moses’ brother Aaron to help him, to do the speaking for Moses.
The sign God presents to Moses is what I found most troubling at first. “You will know that you have done what I have asked you to do and that I have asked you to do it when you have accomplished it.” In other words you won’t know for sure that God has sent you on this difficult mission until you accomplish it.
As we continue reading we see all the signs of God’s presence along the journey which Moses undertook. There were plagues directed against the Egyptian gods, the Passover of the angel of death, the parting of the waters of the Red Sea, the manna in the desert, the water from the rock, the cloud and fire which accompanied the people and many other miracles.
How does this story relate to the mission which God has assigned to each of us? Our lifelong assignment from the time of our Baptism into our faith is to follow Christ, to carry the crosses in our life, to relate to the people and situations which God places in our lives, to share His message of love. We will not truly know that we have accomplished our mission until the mission is completed. We walk in the dark, using our reason and the gifts God has given to us. We trust that we have understood what our task is until we finally reach the end of our lives. We then hope to hear our Savior say to us, “well done, good and faithful servant“.
Like Moses we must trust that God is with us as we travel the path set before us. As we proceed in our assigned tasks, we are blessed with many “signs” of God’s presence as Moses was. Christ has left us the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, to serve as food for our journey. Christ left us His Holy Spirit to encourage and guide us along the way. By reading and studying the stories in the Bible we are encouraged and strengthened, for we see God’s work throughout salvation history which assures us that He is with us.