Exodus: Moses’ Encounter with God

Moses on Mount Sinai
by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (1824–1904)
Wikimedia Commons

“When the LORD saw that Moses had come over to see it, God called to him from the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ Moses answered, ‘Here I am!’” (Exodus 3:4).

God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai reveals how God enters into human history to call an individual to be the deliverer of his people. In previous studies on the life of Moses, we have seen how different people have been introduced as characters in the drama of redemption, but the main character in the drama of Israel’s exodus from Egypt is God.

God Remembers His People

The background for God’s revelation to Moses is the statement that describes the plight of the Hebrews in Egypt: “And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition” (Exodus 2:23–25).

These words about the plight of the suffering people in Egypt contain a very important truth that explains why God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai. The groaning of the oppressed people crying out to heaven was like the blood of the murdered brother (Genesis 4:10) crying out to God.

In their oppressive situation in Egypt, the people cried out to God just as the groaning of the unfortunate cries to God, “Let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power preserve those doomed to die” (Psalm 79:11).

The God of Israel is a God who listens to the voice of the oppressed, “I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me” (1 Samuel 9:16). The voice and the cry of the despised of the earth is a supplication that God always listens to. God heard the cry of his people and now he acts to deliver them from their oppressive situation.

God remembered his promise to Abraham. God does not forget his promises and God does not forget those people who are oppressed by society. God watches over his promises to fulfill them, “I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled” (Jeremiah 1:12).

The Hebrew word zākar, “to remember,” does not mean only to recall one’s own memory. The word brings in itself the idea of acting.

When God remembers something, it means that God is announcing that he is going to act and do something important, “ God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark” (Genesis 8:1).

“And God saw.” God’s act of seeing is a manifestation of his active purpose to act in human history.

“And God knew their condition.” The Hebrew word yāda‘, “to know,” indicates that God has a deep and personal relationship with his people. God promises to be with his people and to care for them. The way by which God enters into the history of Israel is through the mission of the liberator.

“And God knew.” The Hebrew does not say what God knew. The translations try to explain what God knew:

The NRSV: “God took notice of them.”
The KJV: “God had respect unto them.”
The BBE: God “gave them the knowledge of himself.”
The NLT: God “knew it was time to act.”

What did God know? According to Propp, “Presumably, his ancient obligation to Israel, the full extent of Egypt’s misdeeds, and that the time of recompense had come” (Propp 1999: 180).

After Moses killed the Egyptian and left Egypt because of Pharaoh’s threat, Moses came to Midian where he delivered the daughters of the priest of Midian from the shepherds who were driving them away from the well (Exodus 2:17).

The priest of Midian gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses to be his wife and Moses eventually came to live at his father-in-law’s house, working as a shepherd. As a shepherd, Moses took care of his father-in-law’s sheep.

There is a great symbolism in Moses’ work as a shepherd. God is Israel’s shepherd. When the psalmist prayed to God he said, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth” (Psalm 80:1).

Yahweh is the shepherd of Israel, but he also calls shepherds to care for his people. Moses was a shepherd of sheep, but now God was calling him to become a shepherd of a multitude of people. When David became king of Israel, Yahweh said to David, “you shall be shepherd of my people Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2).

Chapter 3 of the book of Exodus deals with the vocation of Moses. God calls many people to serve him, and when God calls, he calls people in a specific way. God calls each Christian for a specific work. All Christians receive spiritual gifts to do the work to which God calls them. God calls people to work for him, but each individual must personally respond to God’s call.

When God called Moses, Moses presented several reasons why he should not return to Egypt to deliver the people from their oppressive situation. Like Moses, we also present excuses for not hearing the voice of God and for not responding to the divine call. The study of the call of Moses will help us identify excuses we give for not serving God and for not responding to his call.

The Vision at Horeb

“Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up’” (Exodus 3:1–3).

Moses’ vision of God at Horeb occurred many years after Moses’ arrival in Midian. According to Acts 7:30, Moses spent forty years tending the sheep of Jethro, his father-in-law. The man who once was the prince of Egypt is now a shepherd working for the priest of Midian.

In Exodus 2:18 the name of Moses’ father-in-law is Reuel. Reuel was probably an honorary title Jethro held as a priest of Midian. Moses led Jethro’s flock through the desert. This means that he had led the sheep beyond the vegetation zone. Sheep herders often had to travel long distances to provide food and water for their animals. Water and enough food for the sheep was a commodity in the arid region of Midian, but there was plenty of water and food in the valleys between the mountains’ range.

The mountain where God revealed Himself to Moses in this text is called Horeb, the ‘mountain of God.’ Elsewhere in the Old Testament the name of the mount is Sinai (Exodus 19:1; Deuteronomy 19:1). Sometimes in the Bible a place had two names, one used in the south and the other in the north of Israel.

Mount Hermon, for example, is also called Sirion and Senir, “the Sidonians call Hermon Sirion, while the Amorites call it Senir” (Deuteronomy 3:9). Today Mount Sinai is traditionally associated with the Jebel Musa, the Mount of Moses. Horeb was God’s mountain because there God manifested himself to Moses and there Israel met God after leaving Egypt.

There, on that mountain, Moses had his first encounter with God. At Horeb, Moses met the one of whom he had heard of since his childhood. Hearing about God is good, but it is better to have a personal encounter with him. Moses’ personal experience with God changed his life.

God revealed Himself to Moses through “The Angel of Yahweh” (Exodus 3:2 NJB). The Angel of Yahweh is a personal and visible manifestation of God, but the angel’s manifestation to Moses is not to be identified with an Old Testament manifestation of Christ. This is not a Christophany.

The Angel is a messenger of Yahweh but is also Yahweh himself, “When Yahweh saw [Moses] going across to look, God called to him from the middle of the bush. ‘Moses, Moses!’ he said. ‘Here I am,’ he answered” (Exodus 3:4 NJB). As Meyers writes, “The angel in some sense is the same as God, because the angel is in the bush as is God” (Meyers 2005: 52). The manifestation of the angel highlights the fact that Yahweh himself intervenes in human history.

This same angel appeared to Abraham (Genesis 16:7) and to Gideon (Judges 6:11). To Moses the angel appears in a flame of fire, and the fire did not consume the bush. This strange event happened to get Moses’ attention.

Fire is related to many of the manifestations of God in the Old Testament. Fire is a symbol of God’s holiness and includes the idea of purification and separation from the ordinary. God’s appearance from the Bible is a blazing fire, “To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire” (Exodus 24:17 NIV).

Moses acknowledged that the event was somewhat strange because the bush was not being consumed by the fire. At that moment, Moses still did not know that he was in the presence of God. But Horeb was God’s residence, and Moses was in the presence of Yahweh who revealed himself to him in the bush (Deuteronomy 33:16).

Many people have sought an explanation for Moses’ vision; others have attempted to explain the elements of the vision. God can manifest himself using a natural phenomenon or God can manifest himself through a very exceptional event. For Moses the events of the burning bush were something very exceptional. The essential reality of the vision of the burning bush was the experience Moses had with God; it was his first encounter with the God of his ancestors. God revealed himself and spoke directly to Moses.

It is difficult for people today to analyze and define a religious experience. The Bible declares that God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. Although the revelation of God through the burning bush may defy explanation, the most important thing for people today is to recognize and accept that Moses had a divine revelation on Mount Sinai, a revelation that transformed his life and changed the events of history.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Meyers, Carol. Exodus. New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005.

Propp, William H. C. Exodus 1–18. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

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