Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 3

In this chapter, Moses encounters a burning bush and God commands him to bring his people up from Egypt to the land of Canaan.

This chapter continues the short, but dense, introduction to the life of Moses.  Because of the big gap in Moses's earlier life, it raises more questions about his background with the LORD, because just like the last chapter, where I pondered how Moses knew he was Hebrew or got such a personal conviction about justice, in this chapter I ponder Moses's relationship with the LORD.

In particular, how did Moses come to know the LORD?  Just like Abraham, we are not told.  It is simply presupposed that Moses has a strong enough faith that God will speak to him and charge him to lead his people to freedom.  Like Abraham, we are shown his faith, but not how he got it.  However unlike Abraham, we actually see Moses object to God's command, and we see a lot of Moses's insecurities.  Over time, these insecurities will fade away a bit, but it gives Moses a certain humanity that one would not otherwise find in his character.

Contrary to God's declaration of his action in verses 7-9, Moses focuses on his own limitations with the question, "Who am I that you would send me?".  This is perhaps understandable given the context of God's sudden appearance to him and perhaps stunning command about freeing his people.  To wit, we do not actually know the nature of Moses's relationship with God at this point.  This is the first recorded interaction between the LORD and Moses, and possibly the first interaction in Moses's whole life, so while many commentators tend to chastise Moses for his self-absorption, I think his response is reasonable considering the circumstances of his multi-year exile in the desert.  From a more humorous perspective, we can imagine Moses listening to this long soliloquy by God, "I will free the people, I will smite the Egyptians, I will bring them up to Canaan!  Now Moses, you go."  And Moses is replying, "I was with you until that very last part about me going and talking to Pharaoh (you know, the guy who can kill me if he wants to)."

Moses was afraid to look at God.  This is a common response in the OT, and in many respects is normal behavior, but it's not what we saw with the patriarchs in Genesis, who generally faced God in a direct way.  Abraham served food to the LORD in Genesis 18 and regularly heard from the LORD in visions.  Jacob wrestled with the angel of the LORD, even though he later wondered at how he saw the face of God yet lived (Genesis 32).  We see here a combination of reverence, yet ultimately relatability, that God would eat food like a normal man, which makes him approachable to the patriarchs, much like God was approachable in Genesis 2 when he walked (like a man, with two legs) in the garden of Eden and spoke with Adam face to face.  Now, in the life of Moses, we see a shift away from the relatability and into the unrelatable raw power of God, as evinced by the burning bush that was not consumed (hardly a picture of relatability, like the human-shaped angels of Genesis 18).  As we will see, this pattern is abruptly altered back in the direction of relatability later in Exodus, but for now God chooses to manifest himself in the form of sovereign and divine power, for the purpose of freeing his people Israel, culminating in the plagues of Egypt and the death of the firstborn.  This is, doubtless, a story that emphasizes over and over the sovereign power of God not for the purpose of bringing death to Egypt, but for bringing freedom and redemption to his people who are held in slavery there.

Furthermore, this is the first supernatural manifestation of the LORD we have seen.  I told my readers to look at how God appears to the patriarchs, and in those cases he would generally either "speak" to them, "appear" to them or something similar.  We saw the LORD come in the form of a man to both Abraham and Jacob.  Now God is appearing "within" a burning bush, which is not consumed, and speaking from there.  While human appearances reveal the LORD as relatable, the appearance of fire reveals the LORD as zealous or passionate, in the context of "the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me; furthermore, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them."  So the LORD is manifesting himself as the divine protector of his people, in accordance with the covenant he made with Abraham and renewed with Isaac and Jacob.  In addition, "the bush that is not burned" is a symbol of what we see later, which is the fire of God dwelling inside men, but without consuming or killing them.  We see Daniel's three companions (in Daniel 3:19-27) thrown into a blazing furnace, yet they are not consumed either.  So the fire is also a reference to the Holy Spirit (see, for instance, Acts 2:3-4).

The divine name is established in this chapter, with its root in Hebrew "Hayah", meaning "to be".  This emphasizes God's uncreated timelessness and immortality.  It is certainly peculiar to hear Moses struggle with the identity of the LORD, when we have been reading the divine name referenced dozens of times in Genesis alone.  Some would even wonder if these earlier references are anachronisms, an insertion of the divine name into a text that did not originally have it, or given to speakers (like Abraham) who would not have known it.  It certainly appears on the surface of things that God is sharing the divine name with Moses as if this were the first time it had ever been shared with the Israelite people, and that Moses goes to introduce this God to his brethren when he is sent to them.  This is a question that I will address in Exodus 6, because that chapter contains a passage highly relevant to this discussion.  So if you want to see more on this topic, skip ahead to there (and then come back ;) ).

Disregarding the question of anachronisms, this passage is still very interesting because it implies the Israelite people do not know the LORD, and Moses has to teach them his identity.  This is very significant and is a precursor to much of the body of Exodus (and later, Deuteronomy).  This teaching role is often associated with the prophetic ministry, because so much of what Moses says is prophetically inspired by his hearing directly from the LORD.  It implies the general ignorance of the Israelite people, who do not even know the name of their patron deity and must be taught almost everything about their nascent faith.  These teachings form the bulk of the Law of Moses.  Finally, this pattern implies the coming leadership role for Moses and his impact in prophetically guiding the Israelites to follow the LORD.

Once again, if you compare this pattern to that of the patriarchs, there is a vast difference, as the patriarchs learned about the LORD by directly speaking to him.  But now for the vast population of Israel, they only learn about the LORD by having Moses tell them about their God.  This level of mediation gives Moses power in a direct sense, but it also shows the restructuring of the Hebrew faith into a more hierarchical pattern and the increasing distance between the average Israelite and the LORD.  What's ironic about this new hierarchy is the hesitancy of its erstwhile leader, Moses, yet later in Exodus we will see Moses come around to a firm and zealous desire to know the LORD more deeply.  It is this passion for God that is perhaps Moses's greatest qualification for leader of the Israelite people and unfortunately, it is the Israelite people's apathy that often qualifies them for being so distant from their God.  We will see more of this later.

On another topic, why did the LORD choose to deceive pharaoh, when he commands Moses to say that they will only go out to celebrate a festival to the LORD, when in truth they plan on departing Egypt entirely?  I honestly don't know.  Maybe if I think about it a lot I'll come up with something, but it's never felt particularly important to me, so I haven't studied it much.  There are other big theological questions raised by Exodus, so I tend to focus on those instead.  If anyone has any interesting thoughts on this, feel free to leave comments.

I will conclude with some minor notes:

Compare the angel of the LORD in verse 2 with God in verse 4.  Does this imply that the angel of the LORD is God?  That would mean that the word angel has to sometimes be interpreted broadly as more than just a "classic angel" in the sense of a spiritual being serving God.  The angel can sometimes be God, because perhaps God brings his own message.  I'm not sure, many people debate this point.  In fact, there's even a Wikipedia article for Angel of the Lord.

The command to "remove your sandals" brings Moses into direct contact with the holiness of the ground.  Cf. the purpose of shoes, to protect and separate from harsh conditions.  But since the ground is holy, Moses is supposed to come into contact with the ground and commune with the holiness thereof.  Shoes are to be worn to separate oneself from the sinfulness of the world, just like the Israelite people are later supposed to separate themselves from the idolatrous peoples of Canaan.

This chapter has the first instance of the phrase, "land of milk and honey".  I could offer a long digression on the word honey, but the short version is that for a long time historians didn't think honey was cultivated in Israel and that the word "honey" here is actually something like "date nectar".  Just a few years ago archaeologists discovered an apiary dating to around 900 BCE, indicating that honey was commercially cultivated in ancient Israel.  So the word "honey" is now somewhat disputed, with some scholars insisting that it is a non-honey sweetener, and other scholars insisting it is honey.  This is not terribly important, but it is kind of interesting.

The list of Canaanite tribes changes in some places in the bible, but this list of six tribes in verse 8 is the most common listing.  Compared to the list of seven in (Deuteronomy 7:1, Joshua 3:10, Joshua 24:11, etc), the tribe that disappears is the Girgashites, who were also listed in Genesis 15:21, a listing of 10 tribes.  This possibly implies changes in the power structure of the promised land over time, but it might also be inspired by literary purposes (i.e. the listings of 10 tribes and 7 tribes are used to poetically signify the full force of Canaanite opposition, while the listing of 6 tribes is used for the more prosaic set of actually notable or powerful tribes).

The "sign of God" in verse 12 is fulfilled when the people return to Horeb later in Exodus.  This happens, well, after the exodus.

The plundering of the Egyptians.  I'm not sure how much I can say about this.  To the best of my knowledge, there aren't any NT parallels, though this episode is mentioned several more times in the OT.

I think maybe the best I can say is that it is also meant to be counterlogical or ironic, for two reasons.  One, the Israelites actually produced a tremendous amount of wealth in Egypt through their slave labor, and they did not receive any reward for it.  Now they "plunder the Egyptians" and regain the wealth of their labor.  Second, the last thing you would expect from a fleeing nation of slaves is that they would somehow acquire all of the wealth of their former captors and leave rich, and not poor.  This actually plays a moderate to large role in what happens next for Israel, which is the construction of many of their religious relics and the Tent of Meeting (this happens later in Exodus).  Without the wealth of Egypt, they would not have had the materiel required to build all of these things.  So the produce of their slavery, in some respects, becomes the instrument of their corporate relationship with the LORD going forward.

1 comment:

Anna Tan said...

"But since the ground is holy, Moses is supposed to come into contact with the ground and commune with the holiness thereof. "

Hmmm... never thought of it that way before.