What would it be like to directly encounter God in person? This question bears much more reflection than we are typically inclined to give it. We live in a day and an age characterized by glibness and superficiality, and we are inclined to approach God with the same kind of casualness that we would approach our friends. But that is clearly not the picture we get in these chapters of Moses’s first encounter with God. There is mystery, unexpectedness, and even an element of fear present in this meeting. The LORD defies our categories and conventionalities; we respond to His agenda, not He to ours.
To say that Moses’s first encounter with the LORD was the turning point in his life is true, but fails to adequately capture the matter. God revealed Himself to Moses in a profound way because He intended for Moses to play a central role in the greatest redemptive act He had done in human history to that point. For Moses to carry the burdens he would have to carry, He needed to know that behind those things was a God whose awesomeness was unsurpassed. How did God reveal Himself?
As One working miraculous signs. Moses’s encounter was prompted by the sight of a bush that was on fire but not consumed. In a dry and arid environment, a bush that caught on fire would burn up quickly. Not in this case. That mystery is what prompted Moses to take a closer look. This image was not unique to this occasion. When the LORD made the covenant with Abraham, it was a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed through the severed carcasses to take on the obligations of the covenant (Gen. 15:17). After Moses’s encounter at the burning bush, the LORD would lead His people out of Egypt in the form of pillar of cloud and fire (Exod. 13:21, cf. 14:19-20 & 24, 24:15-18, 40:34-38, Num. 14:14). Both the cloud and the fire denote the presence of God without limiting Him to a particular form, but the latter points to His power; the former to His mysteriousness. This is not a God we approach lightly.
As One who is fundamentally divine. God first manifests Himself as an “Angel of the LORD” in 3:2, but that quickly shifts to referring to the LORD as God Himself. “Angel” simply means “messenger,” but it becomes quickly apparent that the messenger is none other than God Himself. This happens in multiple places in the Old Testament, where the narrative begins by talking about an “Angel of the LORD” only to shift suddenly and talk about God explicitly (Gen. 16:7-11; Gen. 22:11-15; Num. 22:22-35; Judges 6:11-22; Judges 13:21; 2 Sam. 24:16; 1 Kings 19:7; 2 Kings 1:3, 15; 1 Chron. 21:12-30; Isa. 37:36; Zech. 1:11-12, 3:1-6). With the clarity provided by the New Testament, we can see that this “Angel of the LORD” is no ordinary angel, but rather, is the pre-Incarnate Christ.
As One in covenantal relationship to His People. Three times in Exodus ch. 3 God identifies Himself as the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6, 15, 16). Indeed, it is because He covenantally bound to His people that He has heard their cries, is responding to their distress and will save them from their bondage so that they may have fellowship with Him in the land He promised to their forefathers.
And, lastly, as He is in Himself. Moses asks what he should tell the people when they ask for the name of God who is sending him. Curiously, God responds by saying, “I AM WHO I AM,” and then He connects that to His covenantal relationship with the people by using the name, the “LORD God” (3:15). In English Bibles, the name “LORD” (all capitals) represents the Hebrew “YHWH,” typically spelled Yahweh, and is related to the verb, “to be.” The LORD’s declaration here makes this the covenantal name of God; it is the proper name by which God’s people are to refer to Him.
This is not what we would expect of a name, but it is deeply profound. In connecting the name with the characterization that “I AM WHAT I AM,” God is giving His people several important revelations about Himself. For a people who had lived among polytheists for over 400 years, He is not just one God among many, nor even just their God; rather, He is THE God, the only God. This is vital for His people to know in the confrontation that He is moving toward with Pharaoh, who claimed to be divine. He is the self-existent God, and as such, He is eternal and unchangeable. Because this name is related to the verb “to be,” there is a variation on God’s name in the Book of Revelation that captures this notion succinctly: “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:4). There is nothing higher than Him. The 11th century bishop Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) once described God as that Being, greater than which cannot be conceived. Given all this, while God has made Himself known to His people, these attributes make He is nevertheless incomprehensible: we can know Him, but we can never exhaust our knowledge of Him. This is the God who was intent on dealing with the bondage and suffering of His people.
The LORD is doing more than just revealing things about Himself in this encounter with Moses; He is calling Moses to act as His agent, His Mediator for His people. How does Moses respond? The LORD that required that Moses approach Him as holy, as One worthy of reverence and awe (Exod. 3:5). Moses responds, rightly, by hiding his face. For a God who is higher than anything, He is not to be approached in a casual or flippant manner. He is worthy honor and respect. A point for us to reflect upon is whether we approach God with the awe, the honor, and the respect He deserves.
Moses then begins a dialogue with God, which showed that he failed to have the prompt, faithful obedience and covenantal love (hesed) that marked Abraham at his best. Moses raises two questions of God which are legitimate, but then makes three statements that increasingly show he really does not want to do what God is calling Him to do. With each of these, God nonetheless responds with concrete measures of assurance:
- “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (3:11). God promises to be with Him, and signals as confirmation of His presence that He would return him to the mountain they were at (3:12).
- “What shall I say to them when they ask what is God’s name?” (3:13). As already discussed, this is where God reveals Himself as the I AM, who is the same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (3:14-17).
- “But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The LORD has not appeared to you’” (4:1). God provides three miraculous signs to confirm His word to Moses: the serpent rod, the leperous hand, and turning water into blood (4:2-9).
- “O, my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to your servant; but I a slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10). God promises again to be with him and to give him the words to speak (4:11-12).
- “O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send” (4:13). Though Moses’s recalcitrance angers the LORD, the LORD nevertheless promises to have Moses’s brother Aaron be his spokesman. But He still commands Moses to lead (4:14-17).
Arguing with God is a dangerous thing, but God shows forbearance and mercy. This background, however, makes the contrast all the more stark a few verses later when we read, “And it came to pass on the way [to Egypt] at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought o kill him” (4:24). This is a curious statement: why would God want to do this? And why was the act of Moses’s wife, Zipporah, satisfactory in making God stop this effort to kill Moses? The text does not say why Moses had failed to do this, whether it was an oversight or carelessness, but in any event, God calls His people to covenantal faithfulness (hesed), that is, steadfast love. If Moses was going to be a Mediator for God’s people with Pharaoh, then he needed to identify himself fully with that people. Circumcision was the sign God had given to Abraham of citizenship in covenant community. Moreover, Moses would become Israel’s law-giver, and as such, needed to be obedient to the law himself. In the New Covenant, we see Jesus as Mediator fully identifying with His people in the Incarnation and being fully obedient to the Law, even unto death. What Moses foreshadowed; Christ fulfilled.
The task Moses was being called to was without any doubt a tall order. God wanted Moses to approach the most powerful ruler of the day with the request that he let hundreds of thousands of slaves go, and even told Moses beforehand that Pharaoh would not comply (3:19, 4:21-23), so that God could display His glory in the ensuing confrontation. This is a hard providence to accept, but accepting it requires trusting in the great God who stands behind His people and in the plan that He has formulated for their good. And, as will be seen, God came through on all His promises in a great and mighty way.