Exodus begins with God’s people, the nation of Israel, becoming enslaved to a devilish king of Egypt. The narrator makes it clear that God sees, hears, and knows everything that is happening to his people, and that God has not forgotten his promises to make them a great nation. But in the opening narratives, God takes a back seat. He doesn’t do much as a character in the story…
Until you get to chapter 3.
Observation of Exodus 3:1-4:17
First, let me address why I’m tackling more than a single chapter. By portraying a single conversation, the passage compels us to ignore the (somewhat artificial) chapter division and to read Ex 3:1-4:17 as a single unit:
- Moses meets the God of his father in a flame of fire – 3:1-6
- The LORD reveals his plan to rescue his people through the hand of Moses – 3:7-10
- Moses objects to this plan, and God responds to each objection – 3:11-4:17
- Objection #1: Who am I? – 3:11-12
- Objection #2: Who shall I say sent me? – 3:13-22
- Objection #3: They won’t believe me – 4:1-9
- Objection #4: I am not eloquent – 4:10-12
- Objection #5: Please send someone else – 4:13-17
Repeated words in ESV: you/your (58 times), I (31x), God (28x), said (22x), Lord (18), Moses (15), out (14), hand (13), not (12)
- Since the passage is a long Q&A between Moses and God, we shouldn’t be surprised to see words like “you” and “I” so often. But they also highlight the nature of the conversation: This discussion isn’t about merely “what” will happen, but about what “you” and “I” will do about it.
- The repetition of “hand” is also striking. Whose hand will be mighty enough to care for these people (Ex 3:19)? Pharaoh’s (Ex 3:8)? God’s (Ex 3:20)? Or God’s hand as represented by Moses’ hand (Ex 4:2, 6, 17, etc.)?
Names and Titles:
- God’s name—the LORD, or Yahweh—takes center stage. He is I AM (Ex 3:14), the God of their fathers (Ex 3:15), who has seen (Ex 3:16) and promises to do something (Ex 3:17).
- Twice, the LORD repeats the list of 6 nations who must be dispossessed from the new land of promise (Ex 3:8, 17).
- Four times, God calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex 3:6, 15, 16; 4:5).
- Eight times, the people to be rescued are labeled the people/children of Israel (Ex 3:9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18)—connecting them to their forefather Jacob. And once—when Moses is to speak with the king of Egypt—they are labeled as Hebrews (Ex 3:18). This latter term likely connects their identity to their ancestor Eber, in whose days the nations were divided (Gen 10:24-25). Pharaoh wanted to build another Babel (Ex 1:10-11, 14; Gen 11:3-4); he’ll get it unexpectedly, when God splits nations apart once again.
Interpretation of Exodus 3:1-4:17
A few possible questions:
- Why does God appear in a burning bush?
- Why won’t God just save the people himself? Why is he so committed to doing it through Moses (Ex 3:10)?
- Why does Moses have so many objections?
- Why is it so important for Moses to have God’s name to give the people?
Answers (numbers correspond to the preceding questions):
- Twice, the text tells us the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. First, the narrator states it (Ex 3:2). Second, Moses mentions it out loud as the reason he turns aside from his shepherding (Ex 3:3). This visual image clearly matters, as it pictures the nature of God: He who burns but does not consume. He is dangerous, but not destructive. You should come close, but not too close. Later, the book will unpack this image—on this very mountain—as the consuming fire dwells in the cloud (Ex 19:18, 24:17-18). And God will more fully reveal his name to Moses as grace and truth (Ex 34:6-7). The image in chapter 3 gives us a beautiful word picture: the bush burns (truth), but is not consumed (grace). This is the nature of God’s glory. Not grace OR truth, but both grace AND truth.
- This is how God has chosen to do it. God says both “I have come down to deliver them” (Ex 3:8) and “I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people out of Egypt” (Ex 3:10). Moses clearly represents God to Pharaoh (Ex 3:10) and the people (Ex 4:16). And, by having this experience with this God on this mountain (an experience the people will share later in the book – see Ex 3:12), Moses is representing the people before God. In other words, God will save his people, but the only way to do it is through a mediator.
- Well, how would you feel if you had already tried to deliver these people once before? And they had utterly rejected your deliverance? And you had to flee Egypt as a result? And you’ve had 40 years to stew on all this (Acts 7:30)? And you’re very happy with your new life and your new family? And you’ve made peace with being a sojourner in a foreign land (Ex 2:22)? Notice, however, that God is very patient in answering all Moses’ objections…until Moses renders a flat refusal (Ex 4:13). Only then does God’s anger burn against Moses (Ex 4:14). These people are as good as dead to Moses; but this God is not God of the dead but of the living (Mark 12:24-27).
- Vast theological treatises explore the philosophical ramifications of God’s self-revelation in Ex 3:14-15. Those are all well and good, but we must not overlook the purpose of this revelation in the story’s context: Moses needs some way to verify his testimony. If he goes back to Egypt, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to these people who have already rejected him, and he speaks of a meeting with the God of their fathers on a remote mountaintop—they’ll want to verify he’s speaking about the right God. How will they know this is the same God who made those promises to their fathers? And God’s name, his self-existence, his eternality, etc.—all provide the required verification.
Train of thought:
- At the beginning, Moses is cheerfully keeping his father-in-laws flocks (Ex 3:1).
- At the end, he will request leave from these duties (Ex 4:18).
- This conversation on the mountain of God transforms Moses from being indifferent to the people’s plight to being committed to rescue them. He gets there as God lays out the plan and addresses each objection.
Main Point: God must deliver his people through the hand of a mediator, however hesitant he may be.
Connection to Christ: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). And though this true mediator wished for some other way, unlike Moses he never refused his calling (Mark 15:35-36).
My Application of Exodus 3:1-4:17
Now that I am in Christ, I, too, have a mediatorial role (James 5:19-20, Jude 23). Am I willing to embrace it? “I’m not eloquent” or “Evangelism isn’t my gift” simply won’t cut it. Unless I’m willing to risk the Lord’s burning anger at my refusal.
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