Exodus 3: 1-15
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.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “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.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from 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 country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
Today we start a new series looking at some of the prophets that brought us God’s word throughout scripture. We are blessed as Gentile recipients of God’s grace to have the legacy of God’s work through both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. One does not take precedence over the other, but both show us God’s glory in their own way. Throughout the history of God’s people there have been those who God has raised to a particular purpose – the articulation of God’s desires for God’s people. The prophet’s voice was a tool of God to bring about change, to give warnings, and to ultimately to reveal the nature of God to the people of God.
When we open our Bibles, we are well aware that there are prophets talked about in their pages. If we were to grab a Jewish Tanakh, that would be even more obvious to us. The name of the Hebrew Scripture is an anagram, Tov for Torah, Nun for Nevi’im, and Kaf for Ketuvim. In other words, the teachings of Moses, the prophets, and the writings. Tanakh. The prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible include the three major prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as well as the twelve minor prophets – just like we would see in our Protestant Bibles. Yet, they also include the books of Samuel, Kings, Judges, and Joshua – things we usually call historical books.
As we hop across the pages of our Bibles over the next few weeks, we will visit much of the Hebrew scripture and even jump into the Greek scripture of the New Testament at the close of our series. For now, we look into the distant past of God’s revelation to see the first prophet called to proclaim God’s salvation to God’s people. Today we look at the life of Moses, and how he shows us the pattern of a prophet and the wonders of God’s all-encompassing love.
Before we jump into Moses particularly, I want to talk a little bit about what a prophet is meant to be. When you all hear prophet, I’m sure you have your initial ideas. What comes to mind? Fortunetellers giving a forecast of future events? Doomsday preachers speaking about God’s final victory over the evils of the earth? A sword cutting between the lies we tell ourselves and the truth? Of those options the last one is closest to what the role of a prophet was defined by in scripture. While there was a paid position within ancient royal courts called “prophet,” this role is different from what the biblical prophets achieved. The paid position might ask God specific questions, getting back specific answers. They would say when a good time was to go to war or to begin projects. These were closer to our usual view of prophets than any of the Major or Minor ones of scripture.
Rather than being employees of kings, the Biblical prophets were usually lay people called out from their normal lives into their role as a prophet. This was not always the case, sometimes a paid prophet would be called to the higher role of a capital P Prophetic Voice, but on the whole it was more common for people to be called to this ministry rather than following the usual chain of command. There was still the ability to learn from another prophet or succeed someone’s work – like what we see with Elijah passing his work to Elisha, but the model for the named prophets in scripture is that they are plucked up and set aside for a specific work. I speculate about this to a certain degree, but it explains best why the eponymous prophets were so different from their contemporaries.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish philosopher of religion, explains prophets as critics of the sins of their era. Specifically, the prophet calls the people to see the ways they hurt one another and how we all have a part to play. He puts it this way, “the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible… In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every [person,] crime would be infrequent rather than common.”
The prophets act as a wakeup call for us to get our act together. The Biblical Prophets especially are crying out to people on the verge of collapse from one source of evil or another. We talked last week about avoiding God’s promise of redemption by never falling in the first place. That is the sort of thing that the prophet was constantly doing. They stated the problem as it was now, the consequence of that problem if it was not fixed, and then finally the opportunity that would exist if the people changed their ways. The goal was always to see people change, like what Jonah did at Nineveh, but often the prophecy of disaster is the one the won out.
Back to the focus of today’s message, we look to the ministry of Moses. The people of God had been enslaved in Egypt for a long time. Despite the fortune of Joseph in the Egyptian Court, shifting political power resulted in the Hebrews being a convenient scapegoat for the problems of the kingdom. A pharaoh came into power, “who knew not Joseph,” and the people soon found themselves the victims of genocidal programs meant to limit their numbers and reduce them to slave laborers. The land of Goshen essentially became a prison, with the people being kept there as wheels in the machine of industry.
One of the survivors of an early attempt to cull the Hebrew people was the son of two members of the house of Levi. After his birth, his parents feared he would be killed, and so he was floated down a river. A member of the royal household pulled him out of the water and, realizing he was a Hebrew, took pity and decided to raise him. The boy’s sister was nearby and convinced the noblewoman to hire the boy’s mother as his nurse, and the boy, Moses, was raised in Pharaoh’s court and with the full knowledge of the ways of his people.
Moses’s time in the court saw him divided in whether he could live as a member of the nobility when his family and his people were suffering under the rule of that same royalty. When a group of Hebrew men were being abused, Moses killed the assailant. Rather than earning him a place of pride among his people, it made him look reckless. Moses had made it worse for his people, the idea that they were a dangerous minority would be solidified by his half-baked plan to make himself into a hero. Moses fled Egypt and settled on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba from Egypt. There, among the people of Midian, he made a life. He married into the people there and had children. He started a life as a shepherd and began to drift away from his time in Egypt, his identity as a Hebrew.
That was, until a bush caught fire one day. Burning as it was, it did not seem to be harmed in any way. The sight was enough for him to stop and look over at it. As soon as he did, he heard a voice calling his name. “Moses! Moses!” The source of the voice was unknown, but Moses was ready for whatever it had to say to him. “Here I am!” the call of so many prophets, set him walking toward that bush. The conversation that followed would change his life forever. Moses meets God, the God, and is told to go back to his people and proclaim the truth that they are soon to be free of their slave masters in Egypt.
The how of this is worked out as Moses goes through his ministry. He is not given a list of plagues that are going to appear in Egypt, nor does he even fully understand how long the trip from Egypt to Canaan is going to be. All he knows by the end of this conversation is that he is a prophet called to bring God’s word, and God’s law, to God’s people.
We can take a lot from Moses’s story, but I think that we can see in his call story a more direct vision of what prophets are hoping to achieve through their work. When God calls the prophets, it is not just God wants a better world – though God does. It is not just that God wants to see God’s people be holier than they were before – God certainly wants that. No, the work of the prophet is ultimately to bring God to God’s people and God’s people to God. The prophet acts as a bridge, showing the people the face of God through the face of the prophet. The prophet lays out God’s presence among the people. The prophet weeps, rages, laughs, and smiles as they show the world just what God is thinking. The prophet shows a light and a hope that God is never far away from us. Most of all, the prophet shows us that God is here to save us.
In this first meeting, God tells Moses that God has heard the cry of the Hebrews. Their many prayers have not been forgotten, the tears they cried are not ignored. God is hurt by the hurt they have suffered. In my darkest days, I want to know that God hears me. Praise God, I can hear it from God’s own lips as God speaks to Moses. Moses is chosen as the one to go forward, and though he gives many reasons as he makes his way to Egypt why he should not, God does not let up for a second. Moses is going to be the face of this liberation movement, and Moses is going to proclaim that the same God who loved Joseph, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham.
God could have just left it at that. But God keeps talking. You can call me, Ayah ahser ayah, “I am that I am.” Moses points out that this is not a name, it is a title. So, God finally goes one step further, God gives Moses a name so precious that it is not spoken even today in Jewish communities. You may know ministers who use it, its four letters long, but I do not. It is God’s actual name, and it is the thing we are asked not to take in vain. For this reason, I will use the name “Adonai,” or Lord, like our Bibles today do. Jews sometimes take it a step further, only saying HaShem, or “the Name.”
This revelation of God’s name seems small to us, but it meant a lot in the ancient worlds. Names hold power, and the ability to call on a deity was seen by the ability to say their name. A God without a name would become lost to time, and much like people there was an expectation that to be forgotten in this way would be tantamount to death. For the deity, revealing their name was an act of self-preservation, but also an act of vulnerability. When people knew your name, and called on you, you were expected to answer.
For God to give Moses the divine name was not an act of self-preservation. It was, however, a sign that God loved God’s people enough to open up another level of intimacy with them. It is one thing to sign a letter with someone’s title, another thing entirely to sign it with their name. God here makes it clear, in this moment and in all of Moses’s time on earth that to be a Hebrew, to be a person of God, is to be close to the one who called upon you. We speak with God name to name and face to face. God is not trying to keep a distance from us but is constantly knocking down obstacles and building highways for us to get from where we are to where God is. And for every step we take, God is running even faster toward us.
Moses would go on and lead his people from Egypt, he would lead them into battle and through hunger and thirst. He saw multiple rebellions, a very misshapen golden cow, and even two separate and very different incursions of quail into his camp. God was with Moses the whole time and even left Moses with a set of teachings to pass on to his people, to be recounted and memorized and lived. God gave Moses the Torah as the ultimate sign that God was always with God’s people, and that God was always pulling them closer. Moses died one day, and when he did, it was God who took him up and buried him, unwilling to let anyone else have the honor. Is there any clearer sign than this? The prophet brings God to us, and with their leadership we find God with us. – Amen.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Academic. 2007)