Moses was keeping the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro the priest of Midian. He led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, which the Bible calls the mountain of God (Exodus 3:1). And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed (v.2).
At the Burning Bush
Critics of the Bible have tried to explain away the burning bush. There is a type of wilderness thorn whose leaves turn red once a year, and it must have been one of these which caught Moses’ eye. The snag with such a suggestion is that it does not fit the context. Moses fled from Egypt when he was 40 years old. He returned to deliver his people at the age of 80. The 40 years in between were spent as a shepherd in the Sinai Peninsula. Moses had led his animals annually round the meagre wilderness pastures until he must have known the area like the back of his hand. He would hardly have been deceived by such a familiar sight as a red-coloured bush. Something dramatic took place on that mountain slope that completely changed his life.
You might have expected Moses to be thrilled at such a message. In fact, he was extremely reluctant to go. “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice” he protested. “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent… please send someone else” (Exodus 4:1, 10, 13). One excuse after another came into his head as he tried to wriggle out of the job. And each time the angel insisted he would succeed in his task. He made him practise two staggering miracles he could call on to convince doubters. He even agreed to send Aaron his brother to act as his mouthpiece. Eventually Moses gave in and agreed to go.
Moses drew near to the flaming shrub, curious. When he was within earshot (and therefore quite close enough to appreciate that this was no ordinary botanical specimen), he heard the voice of the angel from within the fire. In measured tones he commanded Moses to go to Pharaoh and deliver his people from their slavery.
Why did he make such a fuss? Perhaps as we grow older, we can appreciate his wish to remain in obscurity. As a young man, he had been cruelly rejected by the Israelites when he thought they would welcome him as their saviour. Now, after 40 years, another generation would have come along—why should they treat him any differently? In any case, nearly half a century of solitude and the shepherd Iife had estranged him from the bright Iights and the civiIised bustle of Egypt. That amount of time saps the energies, dulls the ideals, and deflates the ambition. Once so keen to go, his faith needed rekindling by the word of the Lord. The fact that he did make his big comeback proves that we are never too old to start work for God. Perhaps Moses needed the sojourn in the wilderness before he was fit to go. Such a period of separation can help someone to see Iife in perspective. Having to depend daily on God strips you of your self-esteem. Abraham, Joshua, David, Paul the Apostle and other great Bible characters, were all trained by the rigours of the wilderness for their Iife’s work in God’s service. So, young person, if your plans do not seem to work out first time, do not despair. Trust in the Lord, and He will direct the circumstances of your Iife to bring you in His own good time to where He needs you to be.
The God of the Living
There is another interesting point in the episode of the burning bush. Moses asked what name he should use when he introduced God to His people in Egypt (Exodus 3:13). Most of them had stopped worshipping Him long ago. God identified himself: ‘God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘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’ (vs. 14–15).
Jesus refers to this incident (a fact recorded in three of the Gospels, so it must be important). He is showing his questioners that God will raise people from the dead.
This is what he said: ‘have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not God of the dead, but of the living’ (Mark 12:26–27). You may not immediately see the logic of this answer. Why should the fact that God called Himself the God of Abraham prove that Abraham will rise from the dead?
We need to realise that Jesus was debating with Sadducees. The Sadducees were a powerful Jewish sect who did not believe in any kind of afterlife. They held that we receive all we deserve in this Iife, and that is the end of us. So Jesus quoted a passage that said God was still prepared to be known as the God of Abraham, hundreds of years after his death. Abraham was not finished, in the mind of God. He had a reward in store for him, in the day of resurrection. Note that Jesus did not suggest that Abraham was already enjoying his reward. Jesus had no time for the idea of an immortal soul that finds its way to heaven at death. For him the gateway to the afterlife was the resurrection. ‘Your brother will rise again’ was the message with which he consoled grief-stricken Martha over the death of her brother (John 11:23). ‘Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’ (v. 25). ‘An hour is coming,’ he affirmed in another place, ‘when all who are in the tombs will hear [my] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement’ (John 5:28–29). So great was Abraham’s faith, he is promised his part in the resurrection to eternal Iife. Until then he sleeps quietly in a cave in Hebron, and the phrase ‘the God of Abraham’ travels round the world, often repeated when sincere people read the BibIe.
Moses now said goodbye to the family of Midianites who had taken him in, and returned to Egypt. It was a 250-mile journey, long enough to allow many doubts and fears to gnaw at his heart. However, he was greatly encouraged when his older brother Aaron came out to meet him. He recounted to Aaron all the words of the Lord (Exodus 4:28). Aaron had Iived amongst Israel in Egypt all this time, and was able to arrange a meeting to introduce Moses to the leaders of the 12 tribes.
After hearing what God had told Moses they were sceptical, until he showed them the two miracles God had given him to perform. He turned his shepherd’s staff into a writhing snake, and then transformed it back to a rod again. He put his hand inside his coat, pulled it out repulsive with leprosy, then returned it to health. This supernatural power convinced them. The meeting ended with a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving that God was going to do something about their plight (v. 31).
Next day, Moses entered Pharaoh’s palace and demanded an audience. We can imagine his feelings as he crossed the threshold of his former home and saw the changes that had taken place since he left. He would remember painfully the circumstances of his leaving Egypt, after his first unsuccessful attempt to set Israel free. He assumed this time things would be different. With sweet reasonableness, he began by asking permission for Israel to celebrate a three-day religious festival out in the wilderness (Exodus 5:3). It was not much to ask, after their years of hard labour. But Pharaoh was a miser, and the request made him angry. Instead of granting permission, he savagely increased the daily work quota for the Israelite slaves.
Moses heard the groaning of the people as they now struggled to meet impossible targets. They resented his interference, and soon told him so. As he saw his brave adventure crumbling around him, he must have felt that the dreadful fiasco 40 years ago was about to repeat itself. Bitterly, he fell on his knees and spoke to God: ‘Why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me?’ he complained (v. 22). He wished he had stayed in the desert. His worst fears were being realised.
Why does God so often make promises, and then leave them apparently unfulfilled?
It is an experience of many, perhaps most of His children. He stretches their faith to the uttermost, to see whether they will still believe when all goes wrong.
His delay can have other reasons, too. It gives space, sometimes, for people to repent. Peter reminds those who are growing impatient waiting for Christ’s return: ‘The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9). It is this grace that gives us opportunity to repent today. By the same token, the delay confirms in their wickedness those who refuse to repent.
In the case of Moses and Pharaoh, God was allowing Pharaoh to dig in his heels in order to ensure his spectacular and decisive downfall. In the words of the proverb, ‘He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing’ (Proverbs 29:1). Pharaoh was about to be broken.
David M Pearce