1 Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” – Exodus 3:1-12 ESV
Moses is living in the land of Midian, on the far side of the Gulf of Aqaba. He has married a daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian, and settled into his new life as a husband, father, and sheep herder. Moses has experienced a great deal of change since leaving Egypt. Long gone are the fine clothes and gourmet meals served in regal splendor in the Pharaoh’s palace. He was once a member of the royal family, but now he is a murderer and a fugitive from justice. He finds himself living on the lam in a distant land and relegated to the lowly role of a common shepherd. Safely ensconced hundreds of miles away from the scene of his crime, Moses is oblivious to all that is taking place back in Egypt. He has no way of knowing that, in his absence, the suffering of his fellow Hebrews has increased significantly. He may be living in relative peace and security, but they are not.
…the Israelites continued to groan under their burden of slavery. They cried out for help, and their cry rose up to God. – Exodus 2:23 NLT
It’s interesting to note that Moses, the author of the book of Exodus, penned these words long after the events took place. Somewhere between the exodus of the people from Egypt and their arrival in the land of Canaan, God inspired Moses to record all the events that led up to his calling as God’s deliverer. He is writing from a different vantage point which enables him to look back with clarity and see how the hand of God was orchestrating every phase of his life.
While he was living in Midian, he had no concept of the difficult circumstances under which his parents, siblings, and fellow Israelites were being forced to endure. In retrospect, he writes that they were suffering so greatly that they cried out for help. They were desperately praying for someone to deliver them from their pain and misery. And he states that “their cry rose up to God” (Exodus 2:23 NLT).
God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He looked down on the people of Israel and knew it was time to act. – Exodus 2:24-25 NLT
Moses was oblivious, but God was not. Moses was ignorant of their plight, but God was fully aware. Moses could not hear their cries, but God not only heard, but He decided to do something about it. It was time to act.
And what Moses didn’t realize at the time, was that he was going to play a major role in God’s unfolding drama of deliverance.
At the same time that God heard the cries of His people, He made a surprise visit to Moses. Unhindered by time or space, God was able to hear and act. But this does not mean that God was reacting to what He heard. He was responding as if He had just become aware of the Israelites’ plight. He had known all along that they would suffer, and He already had a plan and an appointed time in which He would act.
Centuries earlier, God had told broken the news to Abraham that his descendants would one day end up living in a foreign land as slaves.
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” – Genesis 15:13 ESV
This prophecy had a timeline attached to it, and the end date had come. Four hundred years had passed, which meant it was time to implement the second phase of His promise.
“But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” – Genesis 15:14 ESV
The persecution of the Israelites was about to end and the judgment of the Egyptians was about to begin. But before any of that could happen, God needed to notify the one He was going to use to bring it all about, and that happened to be Moses.
The scene for this divine encounter was a place called Mount Horeb, located in the southern region of the Sinai Peninsula. It lies opposite the land of Midian, on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba. The memory of that life-altering day has been seared into Moses’ brain. Writing in the third person, Moses vividly recalls exactly what he was doing when God showed up.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. – Exodus 3:1 ESV
His reference to Horeb as “the mountain of God” is a hint that the much older and wiser Moses is the one recording this story. The Moses shepherding sheep near the base of Horeb would have had no reason to see this particular mountain as holy or associated with Jehovah. It was just another mountain in the middle of the wilderness of Sinai. But Moses, the author, is hinting that this place is about to become a sacred spot in his life and that of the people of Israel, Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai would become the place where God revealed Himself to His chosen people, and it would begin with Moses.
Moses, the shepherd, suddenly stumbles upon a startling scene.
…the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. – Exodus 3:2 ESV
It seems that Moses saw the bush before he ever saw the angel of the Lord. He came upon this flame-engulfed shrub and noticed that it kept on burning as if fueled by some outside source. The brittle branches of the bush were not consumed by the heat of the fire, and Moses was forced to take a closer look. And as Moses stepped forward, God spoke up.
“Moses! Moses!…Do not come any closer…Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.” – Exodus 3:4-5 NLT
Moses was stunned to hear a voice emanating from the middle of the burning bush. It completely caught him off guard. And then he received a second and even more discomforting shock when the disembodied voice introduced itself.
“I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” – Exodus 3:6 NLT
And recalling that incredible moment, Moses records that he “covered his face because he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6 NLT). It can’t be ignored that Moses knew he was a murderer, and to find himself standing before the holy and wholly righteous God of his ancestors must have left him in paralyzing fear. He was in the presence of God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. He was under the gaze of the judge of the universe and he stood condemned before Him. But God was not there to condemn Moses; He was there to call him.
“I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own fertile and spacious land.” – Exodus 3:7-8 NLT
For the first time since leaving Egypt, Moses receives an update concerning the situation back home, and it came from the lips of God Himself. The Lord wanted Moses to know that things were not going well but that He already had a plan in place that would guarantee not only their deliverance but the inheritance of their own homeland. Moses would have been familiar with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He probably heard his birthmother tell of God’s covenant promises regarding the land of Canaan. Now, God was assuring this displaced Hebrew that those promises were about to be fulfilled.
And just in case Moses isn’t quite sure what “fertile and spacious land” God is talking about, the Lord provides clarification.
“It is a land flowing with milk and honey—the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live.” – Exodus 3:8 NLT
In other words, the descendants of Jacob, who had arrived in Egypt 400 years earlier, were about to return to Canaan. They were going home. But for that to happen, God was going to need a deliverer/leader who could act as His representative. And what Moses didn’t realize at the time was that he was God’s choice.
“Look! The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt.” – Exodus 3:9-10 NLT
This news must have hit Moses like a brick to the forehead. What in the world was God thinking? Why would Jehovah choose a convicted murderer and the disinherited adoptive son of Pharaoh to lead His people? When Moses left Egypt, he was disliked by Egyptians and Hebrews alike. Yet, here was God issuing Moses a summons to enter His service. This was not an invitation to be accepted, but a call to be obeyed.
But Moses responded to God’s call with a simple three-word statement: “Who am I?”
Moses knew exactly who he was. He was the son of Amram and Jochebed, two obscure Hebrews who had been forced to give up their son and watch him be raised by Egyptians. He was a well-read and sophisticated byproduct of the Egyptian educational system. He was a convicted murderer and a fugitive from justice. As far as he could tell, he broke every HR protocol for hiring effective leaders. He had no business standing before Pharaoh, especially with a bounty on his head. And he was the worst possible candidate for taking on the extraction of a disenfranchised and disheartened people group. But Moses was about to learn that arguing with God was both pointless and unproductive. His reluctance, disqualifying resume, and debilitating fear were irrelevant. God assured Moses:
“I will be with you. And this is your sign that I am the one who has sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God at this very mountain.” – Exodus 3:12 NLT
The problem had been revealed. The plan for its solution had been disclosed. And the person to implement it had been called. But Moses would prove to be a tough sell. “Who am I” had just had a personal encounter with the great “I am” and his life would never be the same.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.