Moses lives through two-thirds (80 years) of his life in this passage. God takes him from a miraculous birth to a privileged upbringing to a decades-long lesson in humility and survival. Throughout this portion of his life – though it’s certainly not obvious to Moses – God prepares him to be the deliverer of Israel and a friend of God. The lesson for us is that God always works – even when there’s no evidence that He does – and He works in ways oftentimes totally at odds with what we think is a proper and logical course.
The first statement of verse 11 covers roughly 40 years of Moses’ life – Now it came about in those days, when Moses had grown up… That’s it – 40 years summarized (we know Moses’ age because of Stephen’s testimony before the Sanhedrin – Acts 7:23). What’s interesting about this is to remember who writes it – it’s Moses explaining the first 40 years of his own life. As the Holy Spirit-inspired author, he knows what’s important and what isn’t, and in this case his Egyptian upbringing doesn’t add anything to the story. The Jewish historian Josephus, however, claims that he actually was a military hero after leading Egypt to a great victory over Ethiopia at some point during these years. Imagine if that were true of one of us and we were writing the history of our life – would we leave something like that out?
Regardless of what we don’t know about Moses’ life in Egypt, what’s important for our story is that for some reason when he’s roughly 40 years old he decides to get up close and personal with his people’s suffering. Notice how the text describes it – he went out to his brethren (there’s no reason to think Moses doesn’t understand his ethnicity) and looked on their hard labors – it gives an interesting picture, doesn’t it? Has he not noticed this until now? He’s lived in Pharaoh’s household for 40 years and he just now notices his people’s hard labor? Perhaps it’s reading too much into the verse, but that’s the picture it gives, isn’t it?
Maybe the conclusion we’re to draw from verse 11 is that Moses reaches a point in his life where he decides he can no longer live as if he’s not a Hebrew. He goes out to be among the people and see their lives up close. It’s while he’s there that he witnesses an Egyptian beating an Israelite and decides to do something about it. He doesn’t just snap and act rashly; notice that he looks around before doing anything. It’s more that he simply decides to make sure the Egyptian never does this again. Where the beaten Israelite goes isn’t clear. Moses kills the Egyptian and buries him so apparently there’s no one around. If he has a military background this scene makes more sense. He knows how to take the Egyptian out and how to dispose of the body.
The next day his life changes forever. Thinking that his execution of the Egyptian is unnoticed, he decides to go among the people again. When he sees two Israelites fighting he rebukes them for fighting each other. The one Israelite’s response lets him know he’s in big trouble (and most likely scares him to his core) – “…are you intending to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” At this point he knows his deed will eventually get back to the wrong people and his time in Egypt is over.
Two things are ironic about the Israelite’s response to Moses in verse 14. The first is the rhetorical question he asks Moses before telling him that everyone knows what he did to the Egyptian – “Who made you a prince or a judge over us?” Moses could’ve responded, “No one yet, but wait 40 years and God will.” The second irony is that this is Moses’ first exposure to Israelite grumbling. He tries to do something nice for his people and the response he gets is accusation and complaint. It’s his introduction to what will typify the last 40 years of his life.
Just as Moses fears, Pharaoh hears about what he’s done and decides to kill him. It’s interesting again to consider Josephus’ claim that Moses is/was a military hero. If that’s true, perhaps Pharaoh becomes paranoid that Moses might lead his own people against the Egyptians and decides he has to be eliminated. Regardless of the reason, Moses has to run. He leaves Egypt and flees into Midian (an area east and south of Egypt in the modern day Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia).
[Interesting to consider: The Midianites are descendants of Abraham through his second wife Keturah (Gen 25:2), and it was Midianite traders who brought Joseph to Egypt (Gen 37:28). The story of Israel in Egypt has come full circle.]
Moses finds a well in Midian at which he runs into the seven daughters of the priest of Midian (called Reuel in these verses but later called Jethro). He defends the women from shepherds who try to drive them from the well (it’s worth looking up this scene in The Ten Commandments on YouTube – a very American-looking and acting group of man-crazy women watch Charlton Heston go Ninja on about five bad-guy shepherds – 50s cinema at its finest) and endears himself to their father. As a result – and the text makes it sound as if it takes about 20 minutes – the priest of Midian gives Moses his daughter Zipporah as a wife. Zipporah bears him a son Moses names Gershom (which means “a stranger there”) because “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”
Don’t miss the significance of what Moses names his son. He’s very aware of his situation. He’s just gone from the privileged life of Pharaoh’s house to being a nomad in the wilderness. Even more, he’s a man without a home or a people. He’s no longer an Egyptian, he’s not really a Hebrew and though he lives among them he’s not a Midianite. He’s a wanderer among wanderers. From a human perspective he’s fallen just about as far as someone can fall.
The author now gives us a quick “meanwhile” break. While Moses lives in Midian in the course of those many days, the king of Egypt dies (presumably the one who wanted to kill Moses) and the people of Israel cry out because of their bondage and the cry reaches God. God hears their groaning, remembers His covenant with the patriarchs, sees the sons of Israel and takes notice of them.
How the text describes God does not mean that God has been unaware until now. God doesn’t look down from on high and exclaim, “Wow – things are awful in Egypt! When did this happen?” If nothing else, we know that He blessed the midwives back in Chapter 2 when they stood up to Pharaoh, so it’s clear that He’s been attentive. What these verses mean is that God decides now is the time to act on His covenant promises. The slavery has served its purpose (Israel has become a great nation and is ready for a deliverance that will glorify God and typify the coming redemption) and it’s time to deliver His people. God has been present all along but now it’s time to show Himself. And note – if the slavery serves a purpose it means the people haven’t suffered for no reason. Nothing that ultimately glorifies God is in vain.
All that said, however, this does mean that God decides to act after four centuries (if we believe that Israel is in Egypt for 430 years). Just as we said in the last lesson – God doesn’t act on our time or according to our logic and expectations.
From 2:16 to 3:1 covers another 40 years of Moses’ life. Forty years in a few verses and Moses the author again decides that nothing happens important enough to record. During these years he apparently works for his father-in-law as a shepherd. For 40 years. Four decades working for his father-in-law in the wilderness (and notice the text says the flock belongs to Jethro – apparently Moses isn’t able to work any deals like Jacob did with Laban – after four decades he’s still an employee). Three things not to miss about this: One – he was raised in a culture that despised shepherds, considered them the lowest of the low (see Gen 46:34); two – when you have an occupation for 40 years you don’t describe it in terms of something you’re doing in between jobs. You don’t say, “Well, right now I’m a shepherd but that’s not really who I am; I’m just biding my time until I take over as leader of a great nation.” No, something you do for 40 years is who you are. There’s no reason to think that Moses assumes there’s something big on the horizon for him. Three – notice how God prepares him for his ultimate job (which Moses knows nothing about). He spends 40 years wandering around in the same wilderness he’ll someday spend another 40 years leading Israel around. Not only that, but this time has to have an enormous impact on his perspective. He goes from being – possibly – a military hero living in wealth and privilege to being an anonymous shepherd in the wilderness for four decades. He will someday be described as the most humble man on earth (Num 12:3 – he’ll write this about himself, which is somewhat ironic, but we have to remember he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), and it’s probably not too much of a stretch to assume these 40 years have something to do with that. All said and done, his life could easily be considered tragic at this point but God uses what man sees as defeat to prepare him for one of the greatest jobs in history.
It’s while he’s pasturing Jethro’s flock one day that he sees the burning bush. It’s a bush – nothing in the text about how large (Stephen says it’s a thorn bush – Acts 7:30) – that’s clearly on fire but isn’t consumed. It burns but apparently doesn’t lose branches or change shape or fall apart. Curious about it, Moses goes closer (which is obviously God’s plan).
As he approaches it, God speaks to him out of the bush. He tells Moses to remove his sandals because the place on which you are standing is holy ground. It’s notable that there’s no other place in the Bible described this way. God tells Moses to remove his sandals because apparently he’s in God’s house. Even when Jacob found that Bethel was the gateway to heaven and named it the house of God (Gen 28:11-19), he didn’t have to remove his sandals as Moses does. Sinai (Horeb) is a special place, apparently unlike any other on earth.
It’s important to remember Moses’ background at this point. He’s spent his entire life among polytheistic Egyptians and non-God-worshiping Midianites. He was in his birthparents’ house for the first few years of his life and he presumably knows the history of his people (we can assume he’ll understand who Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are when God refers to them), but it’s fair to assume he’s not overly familiar with the God of Israel. There’s a reason that God takes time to explain who He is and that Moses is careful to ask Him His name.
God introduces Himself in verse 6. He’s the God of Moses’ father (his birthfather – Moses presumably knows who this is – God identifies Himself with Moses’ father probably so Moses knows that He’s the God of Moses’ family, not just the God of the founders of the nation – He’s the God of all Israelites, including Moses) and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He’s the covenant God who is ready to fulfill His word to the patriarchs.
When God introduces Himself, Moses has the reaction that all men do when confronted by God – he hides his face in fear.
God goes on to explain that He’s heard the cries of the people of Israel and He wants to send Moses to Pharaoh to deliver them. Everything God says through verse 9 probably sounds great to Moses but he may wonder why God’s telling him. That becomes clear in verse 10. Notice the change in subject – it goes from “I will” to “You may.” This knocks Moses back – he’s not ready for this at all and he lodges his first protest to God – “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”
Think about this from Moses’ perspective. We’ve already established what his life is like and what it’s been like for the last four decades. Going back to Egypt – a place he last saw when his life was threatened and he had to flee in disgrace – to confront a king he doesn’t know and lead a people he really isn’t part of has to be so far outside of his expectations that he can’t comprehend it. He got up this morning as a shepherd who knew virtually nothing about God – now he’s going to go back and lead a whole nation under God’s direction?
God reassures him and tells him He will go with him and the proof will be that Moses will come back to this place and worship with all of Israel. “I’ll be with you and you will be successful.”
Moses continues to get his arms around what God wants him to do. His first worry – and it makes total sense that it is – is what will the Israelites say when he goes back? Is he supposed to just go back to Egypt and find the elders of Israel and tell them the God of their fathers has sent him to be their deliverer and they’re now to follow him? What’s going to make them listen to him and what if they don’t recognize the One who sent him?
God tells Moses His name so he can explain to the Israelites who sent him (perhaps Moses draws on his experience from his polytheistic past and assumes the Israelites will wonder which of their gods sent him?). God calls Himself I AM WHO I AM. He’s the ever-present eternal One. He has no future, no past, no potential. No beginning and no end. He simply IS. There is nowhere and no time that He isn’t. The name that comes out of I AM is Yahweh – the covenant-keeping God. As He said before, He’s the God of Abraham (with whom He made the covenant), Isaac (with whom He repeated/renewed the covenant), and Jacob (with whom He repeated/renewed the covenant).
This name isn’t new and the Israelites will likely know it – it’s used in numerous places in Genesis – but Moses probably doesn’t (God will later say that Israel will experience the name in a way the patriarchs didn’t – 6:2-9). Interestingly, nothing is in the text about the Israelites later questioning Moses’ credentials at all – this apparently is a worry he has for no reason since God will pave the way for him to be accepted.
God goes on to predict exactly what’s going to happen. The Israelites will accept Moses, Moses will go to Pharaoh and ask for the Israelites to be released, Pharaoh will refuse, God will strike Egypt, Pharaoh will back down and Moses will bring Israel out of Egypt after the people somehow plunder the Egyptians by simply asking for all their stuff (notice in verse 22 that women will ask for things from their neighbors and from the woman who lives in her house – this apparently refers to women who work as household servants).
God takes pains to explain to Moses how the mission He’s giving him will work and that he’s ultimately going to be successful, but Moses spends much of Chapter 4 protesting that he’s not the man. At this point in his life Moses has a much greater fear of man than of God.
Two things to consider about this text. First – and this is similar to the conclusions we drew about the last text – God works whether we know He’s working or not, and He works in ways that are sometimes very hard to fathom. Moses spends EIGHTY years preparing to lead Israel. And the second half of those 80 years doesn’t seem to be leading to anything at all. And yet think of the man God sends back. He’s familiar with the court of Pharaoh, he’s trained in Egyptian ways and customs and etiquette and beliefs. He knows how to survive in the wilderness. He’s humble and dependent on God. He’s a native Israelite who’s just had a personal confrontation with God. God has prepared him perfectly for what’s now in store.
And that leads us to the second point. Notice that it’s God doing the acting. Everything in this story is of God. Does Moses seek God in this passage? Does he aspire to lead Israel? Does he ask for God to intervene in his life? His only act is to check out a miraculous burning bush. God invades Moses’ life and turns him into a great leader (not in this text – that’s still to come – Moses’ fear of man shows that God has more work to do) who will become the friend of God (Ex 33:11). God does everything. Just as in redemption, it’s all of Him. We don’t believe without the Spirit, we have nothing to believe in without the Son’s work, and we have no chance of salvation without God deciding to act. The story of Moses shows that it’s always of God and for those of us whose lives have likewise been invaded, there’s no way to thank or praise Him enough.