The book of Exodus is one the most evocative in the Bible. It has miracles, conflict, dramatic escapes, and an emotionally powerful story of a oppressed, enslaved group of people (the Israelites or Hebrews) finally gaining their freedom and the hope of the ‘promised land’- a land that would be their own. There are two areas of interest to me that I want to focus on. First, I want to look at the burning bush incident which was essentially the calling of Moses to the position of leadership over the Israelite nation, and then in a future post I will offer some thoughts and observations on the purpose miracles in Exodus and the Bible as a whole.
Ever since I first read the account of Moses meeting God at the burning bush as a child one part in particular has intrigued me; and that is when God responds to the question posed by Moses in Exodus 3:13:
“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?” God said to Moses,” I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM sent me to you.'”
I remember being very perplexed at God’s reply. Wasn’t Moses asking a very reasonable question? Why does God reply with an evasive, almost snarky response that doesn’t seem to answer the question? Why couldn’t he just tell Moses his name instead of the unsettling reply of “I AM WHO I AM?” What does that even mean? God’s reply seems more like a riddle than an answer to what seems like a simple question. I try to imagine Moses returning to the Israelites, proclaiming that ‘I AM’ sent him to liberate them, and all I can imagine are puzzled looks and furrowed eyebrows. Who or what is ‘I AM’?
As I grew older and returned to this passage, I began to see in God’s response something deeper; something that was a beyond a name; at least what we as humans see in a name. This was more than a way of identifying one particular deity in contrast to the others; it was insight into the character of this deity. My Bible’s study notes (Zondervan NIV Study Bible edited by D. A. Carson) have this comment “…in ancient cultures, names conveyed essential information and were more than simply a means of identification.” God’s reply was telling Moses something about who he was; and it is probable that this is what Moses was really asking anyway. Earlier in the encounter God identifies himself when he states, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The fact that after hearing God identify himself in this fashion, Moses then asks a further question as to what God’s name is suggests he was looking for a deeper understanding of who this God was that he was now conversing with in the wilderness of Midian.
In order to get a glimpse at what may have been going on in Moses mind at this moment, it will be helpful to look back over Moses life. Born during a time when all Hebrew babies where supposed to be killed in the Nile, Moses was hidden by his mother in a basket and then discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter as it floated on the Nile. Reared, ironically, in the palace of the very man who wanted him dead, Moses would almost certainly have received the advantages of the training and education available to him as a member of Pharaoh’s household. (From the website factsanddetails.com: Educated Egyptians often learned to read at the age of four. The pharaohs went to the equivalent of exclusive private schools with the children of government officials, nobility and bureaucrats. The students learned to recognize and pronounce several hundred hieroglyphics, then they were taught arithmetic and finally writing. A writing kit consisted of reeds and a palette of solid inks. Papyrus, the material they wrote on, was made of the pressed fibrous material of a plant, and only the richest people in Egypt could afford it.) This educational experience would have given him a thorough understanding of the polytheistic Egyptian religion, which would have been contrasted with stories of the ‘God of Abraham’ that Moses likely would have heard from his fellow Hebrews. Recognizing this contrast of religious worldviews in Moses mind is important because we modern Christians to tend read our perspective back into the Bible, and we assume that Moses understood the God he was engaging the way we would. I do not think this is likely the case. Moses was questioning God because he was genuinely unsure of the identity of the God he was talking to. He would have had the entire Pantheon of Egyptian gods in his mind as well as stories he had heard of the God of his forebearers.
I am not sure what Moses knew about the ‘God of Abraham’, but I am assuming that he was familiar enough with his heritage to have known something about this God. When God identifies himself to Moses he seems to assume that Moses was familiar with “God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”; which indicates, to me at least, that Moses had heard stories relating to the God of his people. It is less certain whether or not Moses had any personal experience with God or what he really believed about this ‘God of your ancestors’. Given Moses willingness to murder an Egyptian who was beating a fellow Hebrew, I lean towards the conclusion that Moses did not have any sort of knowledge of the character of God; hence the question he submits to God during the burning bush encounter. I don’t know if it is fair to say that the burning bush was Moses’ conversion experience, but it may have been. It was at least the moment when God became real to him, and it set Moses on the path from being a fugitive murderer to becoming a vaunted ‘hero’ of faith.
The God Beyond Mythology
So what, exactly, did God mean when he identified himself as “I AM WHO I AM”? As I have looked at my Bible’s study notes and read some commentaries it seems that there are various ideas but scholars generally seem to view this response as an attempt to convey God’s sense of eternal self-existence and self-sufficiency; that here is the being that all other beings derive from. This would have have not only given Moses an idea of the character of the God he was speaking to, but also would provided a contrast with the more limited deities of the Egyptian pantheon. The burning bush incident intrigues me because we have a story of a man who has an encounter with a god that doesn’t fit into his preconceived worldview. He is genuinely trying to understand who this being is that he has encountered in the desert, and nothing in his prior experience has quite prepared him for what he experiences in that moment. It is this sense of of an unexpected encounter that makes this passage one that confirms my belief that Bible is genuinely communication from God; “The Word of God” or “divinely inspired”.
Let me try and explain further. Several years ago I read both the Iliad and Odyssey; the classics of Greek mythology written by the Greek poet, Homer. As I was reading them I noticed the world of Greek mythology was a closed world; a world where even the activity of the god’s was knowable, predictable, and understandable by the mortals in the stories. Even when the gods came to earth in disguise, their actions were understood and eventually identified as being the work of the gods. There is a passage in the Iliad where the goddess Minerva comes to earth disguised as the warrior Deiphobus to distract and lure the Trojan hero Hector to his demise. As Hector prepares to fight the Greek hero Achilles outside the walls of Troy, he asks for a spear from his friend Diephobus; “With a loud cry he called Deiphobus and asked him for one, but there was no man; then he saw the truth and said to himself, “Alas! the gods have lured me on to my destruction. I deemed that the hero Deiphobus was by my side, but he is within the walls, and Minerva has inveigled me…” The motivations and intentions of the gods were readily perceptible by a mortal man. There was ultimately nothing mysterious about the divine; nothing is located beyond the walls of the world the characters inhabit.
In contrast, something breaking in from beyond the walls of the world is precisely what I find in the burning bush encounter. Moses cannot say, “Well of course! That looks exactly like something Osiris would do!” Instead Moses, confronted with the inexplicable, humbly asks, “Who are you? What are you?”. As Moses examines his worldview, shaped both by his knowledge of Egyptian mythology and his Hebrew heritage, he finds his understanding inadequate to fully understand what he is experiencing in that moment. It is this element that helps to convince me that this piece of literature is more than the work of human hands.
As I ponder this passage, I realize that each one of us must also come to the place where we are face to face with a God who doesn’t fit our expectations or fit neatly into our preexisting worldview if we are to come to truly know God. It is at that moment when we realize we are not dealing with a figment of our imagination or something called up out of our own desires; but rather we are, if ever so briefly, in touch with the eternal reality entering into our time bound mortal existence. That may become our moment of salvation, or perhaps an unforgettable milestone of our faith journey. These moments are the bedrock of faith that helps us persevere through the difficult times of that journey when we feel lost and forsaken; times of tragedy, temptation, or the endless distractions that can so easily turn us off the path to God.
Homer is a legendary ancient Greek epic poet, traditionally said to be the creator of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer’s works form the groundwork of the Western Canon and are universally praised for their genius. Their formative influence in shaping many key aspects of Greek culture was recognized by the Greeks themselves, who considered him as their instructor.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was an English author whose turbulent upbringing would inspire one of his greatest works, The Way of All Flesh.