Moses and the Burning Bush, 1-22

Discussion starters – Exodus 3,4

  1. What do you think is the significance of the ‘flames of fire’ in chapter 3:2?  What biblical images and ideas does this conjure up?  How do you feel when you read that ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29)?
  2. Look at chapter 3:13-15.  In Old Testament times, a person’s ‘name’ represented his or her character.  What aspects of God’s character are revealed in this passage?  And in what ways does this revelation of God’s ‘name’ look forward to Christ?
  3. In chapter 3:11 Moses asks, “Who am I to…?”.  Then, in chapter 4:10-17 he complains that he feels unsuited to the task the Lord has given him to do.  What reasons or excuses might we come up with for not doing what we know God wants us to do?  And what might the Lord’s reply be to us?
  4. Chapters 3 and 4 describe a ‘theophany’ – an appearance of God.  The account is given in a form that is well-attested in Scripture and in other literature of the ancient Near East.


1 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” 

This introductory section provides some information not known to Moses at first, including the identity of Horeb (Sinai) as ‘the mountain of God’ (cf. Ex 18:5).

Moses was tending the flock – According to Stuart, this indicates Moses’ thorough identification with his own people, since shepherding was detestable to Egyptians, Gen 36:32–34; 37:1–6.  If he was ever to return to Egypt (says Stuart) it would be as an Israelite, not as an Egyptian.

This, observes Fretheim, ‘would not be the last time that God appeared to shepherds in a wilderness with an announcement of peace and goodwill.’

Jethro – Also called Reuel.  Evidently, he was known by more than one name, as with Esau/Edom, and Jacob/Israel.

Desert – Better, ‘wilderness’: this was evidently semiarable land, where flocks could graze.

Horeb – another name for Sinai.  The precise location is uncertain, but ‘the far side of the desert’ would be to the west of Midian, and in the general direction of Egypt.

The angel of the LORD appeared to him – Not ‘angel’ in the traditional sense, but ‘messenger’ in the form of fire (Bruckner).  The burning bush is a revelation of God, not (as some have thought) of the furnace of Israel’s affliction (NBD).

Who is ‘the angel of the Lord’

This passage, along with others (Gen. 16:7, 9, 11; 22:15; 31:11, 13; Num. 22:22–35; Judg. 2:1–5; 6:11–23; Zech. 3:1–6; 12:8) features the rather mysterious ‘angel/messenger of the Lord’.  It seems clear that he is closely related to, and yet distinct from, Yahweh himself.  This has led many to identify him as a preincarnate manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Enns thinks that it is best it regard the angel of the Lord as a foreshadowing of Christ.

This is the first time that ‘the Lord’ has been referred to as such in Exodus.

In flames of fire from within a bush – Fretheim regards this translation as correct.  Some other commentators, however, think that the phrase should be rendered, ‘in the form of flames of fire’.  The bush would have been a spiky acacia or similar.

Throughout the account of the exodus, the Lord repeatedly frequently appears in the form of fire and smoke, Ex. 13:21–22; 19:18; 24:17; 40:38; cf. Lv. 9:24; 10:2; Nu. 11:1–3; Dt. 9:3; 18:16.

According to Marc Zvi Brettler this story is ‘closer to figurative than reflective of some odd (or impossible) occurrence, such as the spontaneous combustion of a bush.’  He notes that in the Hebrew the usual word for ‘bush’ (si-ach) is not used, but rather sneh, which probably refers to the multicoloured Cassia obovata.  Brettler thinks that ‘this particular word was chosen for the story since the Hebrew word sneh is almost identical with sinai, as in Mount Sinai.  This is a classic case of prefiguration or hinting ahead, which is often used in the Bible.  In other words, this scene with the revelation of the divine name to Moses at the sneh/burning bush foreshadows the giving of the law to the Israelite community on Mount Sinai—which was also accompanied by a great fire that did not consume (see Exod 19:18).’  Although we would not wish to be dogmatic about the nature of the miracle (should we take it literally?  was is perhaps an illusion caused by the setting sun behind a bush with reddish leaves?) we think that ‘explanations’ such as that by Brettler come too close to attempts to explain it away.

Though the bush was on fire it did not burn up – Philo thought that the fire’s inability to consume the bush was an allegory of the Egyptians’ inability to consume the Israelites is not completely fanciful, bearing in mind Dan 3:1-30 and Isa 43:2.  But it is better to regard the flame as symbolic of God’s presence (Ex 13:21; 19:18; 24:17; cf. Gen. 15:17; Ezek. 1:27; 8:2), rather than of Egyptian aggression.  Enns suggests that the burning bush is indicative specifically of God’s power over (his own) creation, and as such foreshadows the plagues: ‘The God who is calling [Moses] is the God over creation. The natural phenomena do his bidding; all are under his control.’

“I will go over and see this strange sight” – And we too (says Enns) would like to take a closer look.  But we cannot, and much remains mysterious.

Sight leads to hearing

There are many references to ‘seeing’ in these verses.  At first, what Moses sees merely piques his curiosity.  But it draws him closer, and then he is in a position to hear God’s word.  This underscores an important function of miracles: it is precisely their unusual nature that arouses attention and directs the receptive ear to attend to the message of God.  This helps to explain why miracles are often referred to in Scripture (especially in John’s Gospel) as ‘signs’.

4 When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

This, suggests Enns, is what informed readers would have been waiting for: Moses has an audience with Yahweh.

“Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” – Cf. the call of Abraham, Gen 22:11, and Samuel, 1 Sam 3:10.

“Do not come any closer” – ‘If there is one terrible disease in the Church of Christ, it is that we do not see God as great as he is. We’re too familiar with him.’ (A.W. Tozer)

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” – Cf. Gen 3:24; Ex 19:18.  ‘This is a call to respect and reverence, in part (as the rabbis said) because of the dirt shoes carried into the sanctuary. Shoeless feet also symbolized poverty and humility before God and solidarity with the oppressed. Moses had entered the natural “temple” of worship.’ (Bruckner)

“I am the God of…the God of…” – Stuart says that no special significance should be attached to these repetitions.  We cannot know for certain how well-informed Moses was about the God of his fathers, or the degree to which the ‘revelation of the divine name’ (vv13-15) was new to him.  But, this encounter does seem to mark a new beginning in his understanding.

‘Here God is either informing Moses of what he has forgotten during his long exile from his people or is being told for the first time who God is. The former is more likely, since the reference to the patriarchs implies that Moses is aware, at least to a certain extent, of his Israelite heritage.’ (Enns)

Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God – cf. Ex 33:20.  It is difficult to say how much Moses knew about God at this point, although Fretheim thinks that his reaction ‘shows that [he] is familiar with the religious heritage of his ancestors (cf. Gen. 16:13, 32:30, Exod. 33:20).’

‘What begins as a curiosity in verse 3 turns into a source of fear and reverence. Moses is getting a crash course in holy etiquette.’ (Enns)

A ‘known entity’

From Moses’ point of view, this encounter with God had come ‘out of the blue’.  He had not sought it, and he had not prepared himself for it.  But on God’s side, Moses is ‘a known entity’ (Fretheim): chapter 2, notwithstanding its record of failings on Moses’ part, shows him to possess the very gifts that God can now use.

So it is with ourselves: we may, looking back, be able to discern how God was shaping and preparing us for work in his kingdom long before we responded to his call to love and serve him.

Holy ground

Moses is standing on holy ground because of God’s presence in it, and his purpose for it, not because any particular place is holy in and of itself.

The incarnation foreshadowed

Fretheim observes: ‘This is not an ecstatic vision into an otherworldly sphere; nor is it simply an “inward sight.” While it is unusual, what is seen is within the world. As with other theophanies, God uses nature as a vehicle for “clothing” that which is not natural. The natural does not stand over against the divine but serves as an instrument for the purposes of God, evoking both holiness, passion, and mystery (fire) and down-to-earthness (bush). The word comes “out of the bush,” from God and from within the world.’

We can go further than this, and say that when the Lord appears in the lowly form of a burning bush, he is foreshadowing the incarnation: ‘No-one has ever seen God, but God the Only and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known’ (Jn 1:18).

Stuart comments: ‘Later, [Moses’] being allowed to see God in part (Exod 24:1–2; 33:21–23) would constitute an extremely unusual privilege and credential. The fact that God eventually made himself visible in human form represents the highest earthly experience of seeing God (John 14:9), far surpassing even Moses’ unusual opportunity.’

7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

The essence of this passage is that the Lord is saying: “I have seen, I have heard, I have come to rescue…and you will be my instrument in doing so.”  There is, in fact, a six-fold use of the divine ‘I’, stress God’s sovereign initiative.

“I have indeed seen” carries the sense, according to Stuart, of watching carefully and closely.

“I am concerned about their suffering” – Lit. ‘I know their suffering’.

“I have come…so now, go” – So who is doing the rescuing – Yahweh, or Moses.  The answer is, of course, that Yahweh will deliver his people through Moses.  Moses will be the means by which God’s plan will be achieved.  This ambiguity occurs throughout Exodus, and is pinpointed in Ex 4:16, where Moses will be ‘as if he were God’ to Aaron.

“A land flowing with milk and honey” – ‘a country with lots of good pasturage for sheep and goats (so it flows with milk), unlike the Sinai wilderness, and a land with lots of date palms (so it flows with “honey”—not bee honey but date honey, a key source of sweetness in the Middle East).’ (Goldingay)

The suffering God

When the Lord says in v7 ‘I know their suffering’ (lit.), this is a knowledge that enters into their plight: he feels it deeply, as if it was his own.

But this is not a hand-wringing, helpless suffering.  It is a suffering that intensifies and focuses the divine effort.

All this anticipates the Suffering Servant, ‘a man of sufferings, and knowing grief’ (Isa 53:3, lit.), who was ‘pierced for our transgressions’, and ‘crushed for our iniquities’ (Isa 53:5).

The conversation of friends

In Ex 3:4-417, God speaks to Moses no less than thirteen times.  Moses responds (verbally or nonverbally) each time.  It is remarkable that Moses’ various questions and objections are dealt with so clearly and so graciously.  We need expect no less in our own communion with God.

Fretheim quotes Greenberg: ‘Those who are brought close to God retain their integrity even in moments of closest contact. They are not merely passive recipients, but active, even opposing respondents. There is true address and response, genuine give and take. The human partner has a say in shaping the direction and outcome of events.’

Saved to, as well as from

With much of the focus being on the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian oppression, we should not miss the reference in v8 to the Promised Land.  As Fretheim says: ‘God’s redemptive acts lead to a new creation, to that which is “good and broad,” filled with milk, honey, and other wonderful things, and capable of supporting all the people mentioned! God will not leave Israel in a halfway house, redeemed but left in a chaotic wilderness. Deliverance for God is finally not only from something, it is to something, enabling the people to move from redemption to creation.’

The oppressed must not oppress

The language of oppression returns in Ex 22:21-27.  Israel must remember her experience in Egypt, and ensure that aliens in her midst are not oppressed.  As God had compassion on Israel, so Israel must have compassion on others.  Just as God regarded the plight of oppressed Israel, so he will regard the plight of any whom Israel oppresses.

Why not sooner?

Stuart remarks that the Lord’s words here touch on a problem experienced by many believers down the ages: If God knows and cares, why did he not act more promptly?  Stuart points out that while Scripture offers some general answers to this question (see, for example, Rom 5:3; 8:17; Phil 1:29; 2 Thess 1:5; 1 Pet 1:6; 3:17; 4:19), the experience of Job reminds us that individuals and groups do not usually know why their suffering has endured so long.

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.

Enns remarks that whereas ‘one might think that Moses would skip with joy all the way from Mount Horeb to Egypt with the good news’, instead he raises no less that five objections.

Moses’ Objections

  1. Who am I? Ex 3:11
  2. What shall I say? Ex 3:13
  3. They will not believe me, Ex 4:1
  4. I am not eloquent, Ex 4:10
  5. Send Aaron, Ex 4:13
  6. Israel has not listened, Ex 6:12
  7. I have faltering lips, Ex 6:30

(Pickering, Subjects for Speakers and Students, adapted)

“Who am I…?” Although Stuart, Enns and others think that this is an expression of humility, rather than of self-doubt, Moses’ sense of inadequacy soon becomes apparent.  Quite reasonably, Moses thinks that rescue on this scale is a divine, rather than a human, prerogative (cf. Gen 46:3f).

“I will be with you” – Enns regards this as a clear play on the words of v14, given that ‘I am’ and ‘I will be’ are the same word in Hebrew.  In effect, when Moses says, ‘I’m not able to do it’, God’s reply is: ‘You’re quite right; but I am.’

“This will be the sign to you…” – The difficulty here is that the Israelites would not worship on mount Horeb until after the exodus.  According to Durham, the meaning is that the Israelites will experience God then as Moses is experiencing him now.

“Suppose…they ask me, ‘What is his name?'” – As Fretheim observes, Moses’ ‘Who am I?’ becomes a ‘Who are you?’  In a pervasively polytheistic world, it would be natural for the Israelites to ask, ‘Which God were you speaking to?’  The answer is that ‘Moses was not coming to them in the name of a new god but the true God of old, the God their own ancestors worshiped, and thus the God who should logically be their national deliverer.’ (Stuart)

Moses has objected that he doesn’t think he is up to the job.  Now he pleads that no-one else will think he can do it.  After all, if he is known at all to the Israelites, it is as an Egyptian, a murderer, and a fugitive (Enns).

“I am who I am” – Fretheim remarks that this verse (v14) is one of the most puzzled over in the entire Hebrew Bible.  This commentator thinks that the best translation of this difficult phrase is, ‘I will be who I am / I am who I will be’; in other words: ‘I will be God for you’.  In other words, ‘the force is not simply that God is or that God is present but that God will be faithfully God for them.’

Enns regards this as a near-refusal to dignify Moses’ question with an answer: “They know very well who I am.”

‘The Lord’ – The name ‘Yahweh’ had been known in previous generations (Gen 4:26; 9:26; 12:8; 26:25; Gen 28:16; Gen 30:27).  However, the revelation of the name at this point underlines the fact that he is not just one member of a pantheon, but the one true and living God, the self-existent One.  Moreover, we may assume that the Israelites may have lost vital components of their monotheistic faith and this now needed re-asserting.

‘The name should…be understood as referring to Yahweh’s being the creator and sustainer of all that exists and thus the Lord of both creation and history, all that is and all that is happening—a God active and present in historical affairs.’ (Stuart)

A new name?

Verses 13f are central to the so-called ‘documentary hypothesis’.  According to this theory, the Pentateuch as made up from a number of different sources, each coming from a different time in Israel’s history.  These two verses derive (it is said) from ‘E’, the ‘Elohist’ source.  According to that source, the name ‘Yahweh’ is revealed here for the first time.  The fact that ‘Yahweh’ occurs in many passages in Genesis is evidence that those passage come from another source, ‘J’.  Enns, however, thinks that the present passage does not purport to reveal the name of Yahweh, but rather to re-iterate it.  In fact, (says Enns) the ‘name’ that is revealed in this passage is not ‘Yahweh’ (v15), but ‘I am’ (v14).  Either way, the revelation of a new name would not have helped Moses.  Moreover, if we take the ‘name’ as not merely the tetragrammaton making up the word translated ‘Yahweh’, but the entire phrase (‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’) then we have a name that is emphatically not revealed here for the first time.  Then again, the name ‘Yahweh’ has already be used in verses 2,4 and 7 of this chapter: of course, source critics would assign those verses to ‘J’ as well, but they would then have to explain why the editorial process did not smooth out the inconsistency.  Then again, the phrase ‘this is my name forever’ (v15) suggests infinite extension not only into the future, but also into the past: the assumption, once again, is that ‘Yahweh’ is not a new name.  Finally, if the revelation of name ‘Yahweh’ was essential to authenticate Moses’ credentials in the eyes of the Israelites, then why is it not mentioned in his initial meeting with them (Ex 4:29-31)?

Enns concludes:-

It seems, then, that the purpose of Ex 3:14–15 is not to introduce a new name, but to underscore the precise identity of the God who is now addressing Moses. In fact, the force of this divine encounter is considerably lessened if Moses were hearing God’s name for the first time. Moses is not receiving a new bit of information. Rather, God is leaving no doubt in Moses’ mind who it is that is speaking with him. God is saying to him: “I am Yahweh, the ‘I AM,’ the God of the patriarchs. The one you have heard about is the one speaking with you now.”

16 “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob— appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’

18 “The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God.’ 19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.

“Let us take a three-day journey into the desert” – Enns considers it ‘possible’ that this was intended to be a ‘cunning’ response, like that of the midwives in Ex 1:19.  But he, along with many other commentators, thinks it probably that this seemingly modest request actually implied permanent departure from Egypt.  Such understatement is common enough in our own culture, as in “Do you have a moment?”  Moreover, a three-day journey was a standard expression for a major trip undertaken for a significant purpose.  Stuart agrees: ‘Pharaoh’s continuing resistance to the demands of Yahweh must be read in this light. He knew from the start that the Israelites were not merely asking for three days off from work; they were asking to migrate from Egypt. Thus his resistance: what they were asking for was the very sort of thing that could create the situation his predecessor feared, namely, an Israelite movement of separate national identity, dissociating itself from Egypt and heading out into Asiatic reaches where the Israelites might join with anti-Egyptian forces and become effective enemies of Pharaoh and his people.’

“All the wonders” – lit. ‘my miracles’.

21 “And I will make the Egyptians favourably disposed towards this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed.  22 Every woman is to ask her neighbour and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.”

“I will make the Egyptians favourably disposed towards this people” – whereas previously the Egyptians had been in dread of the Israelites, Ex 1:12 and were expected to collude in the mass destruction of their children (Ex 1:22).

“…any woman living in her house…” – suggesting that some Israelite women were household workers in the homes of Egyptians (cf. Gen 39:2; Prov 31:15).

“And so you will plunder the Egyptians” – a military expression, suggestive of a holy war (yet one in which the enemy is plundered peacefully).

All of this would, of course, help to ensure that the Israelites were well-provisioned for their long sojourn in the wilderness (cf. v18, and the comment there).

Moses’ call, and our own

Enns prompts reflection on how God calls us today, and how we respond to that call:-

‘Many Christians, particularly those who have come to a saving knowledge of the Lord in their adolescent and adult years, have testimonies that bear similarity to Moses’ call.   For example, we might think of the unexpected nature of our conversion: an invitation to an evangelistic meeting or a “chance” encounter with an old friend who first spoke with you about the Lord. Theologically speaking, many of us were minding our own business, so to speak, when God shined his light in our hearts, when the Lord took us from our mundane lives and placed us on a new, extraordinary path that we never really expected to take. Many Christians have had a Mount Horeb experience of sorts, not because they saw a burning bush or a miraculous sign, but because they were changed. Yet, from a Christological point of view, we can say that our call to Christ was accompanied by even greater signs than Moses’ call or anyone else’s. We who are living at the “end of the age” have the Spirit of Christ himself dwelling in us, and we see things that even the Old Testament prophets and angels longed to look at (1 Peter 1:10–12).’

Enns prompts us to think about how different things would have been had we not been called by God:- ‘We can all reflect on how different our lives would have been had the Lord not called us to where we are now. Most of can attest to how the Lord has put ministry opportunities in our paths. You move into a new neighborhood and you “happen” to meet some people who are young Christians or perhaps close to entering the kingdom. And there you are, called to minister to them. Perhaps someone new was hired at work who is particularly open to the gospel because of a personal problem. When we stop to think about it, we, like Moses, are being called continually to serve in a variety of capacities. We may not be called to be a great deliverer, sent to lead an entire people from bondage—Christ has done that already. But the Lord uses us where we are to do his work, and he makes sure the opportunities are there.’

Like Moses, we may doubt our call, or think that we are simply not up to the task.  ‘With each opportunity we accept, there are others where we resist, doubt, struggle, and even rebel. Most likely, we have all at one time or another felt embarrassed about witnessing to strangers, or, even worse, to friends, family members, classmates, or coworkers. Pastors in particular often feel weighed down by the responsibilities of their calling, perhaps to the point where they doubt the calling itself. Such doubt, as in Moses’ case, may arise from an appreciation for the great responsibilities they bear and a recognition of their own inability to fulfill their obligations.’  But when we step forward in obedience and faith, we will find, as Moses found, that the Lord is ‘with our mouths’.  For it is his work, and not our own, that we are doing, and it is his Spirit – the Spirit of Christ – who is with us.

On being called by a holy God: Moses is confronted by God’s holiness (Ex 3:5).  The proper response is not curiosity, but awe.  ‘It is the same holy God that confronts us today. Perhaps we do not fully appreciate how incredible it is that a holy God calls us into his service. But we should recapture the biblical model of true reverence and piety when in God’s presence…God is holy. As we reflect on him rather than ourselves, we approach our calling with a peace that passes all understanding. The holy God calls us into his kingdom and even allows us to participate in his kingdom work. In the end, the only proper response is worship.