Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?" When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: "Moses! Moses!" He answered, "Here I am." And He said, "Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am," He said, "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.
And the LORD continued, "I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perissites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt."
But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" And He said, "I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain."
Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." He continued, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you.'"
-Exodus 3:1-14 (JPS)
This story is very rich and full of meaning, and is found in a number of different contexts. The first context which we ought to look at, as a way of setting the stage for the story, is its context within the Torah.
Genesis, the book of beginnings, begins with a focus on the relationship between God and creation, then shifts to the relationship between God and humanity, before finally shifting to a focus on the relationship between God and a particular collection of humans. It ends with ambiguity, as these humans, through the aid of Joseph, whose story we ought to look at sometime, find themselves in Egypt, with limitless potential.
On the one hand these people are now strangers in a strange land, having left their home because of a famine. On the other hand, this new land is, at least for now, a land of salvation. Because they have connections with the power structure of Egypt, they are a protected people. Because Egypt, through the work of Joseph, had prepared for the famine, there is more than enough food for them to eat.
So, in the context of their relationship with God they have been led from their home to this strange land, to live for a time as strangers. But they are protected strangers, and well fed strangers, saved from the slow starvation of famine.
The ending of Genesis is then full of hope and full of promise. It is not unambiguously good, as so much has been lost when home was abandoned. But it is certainly not bad, and it fails to anticipate the beginning of Exodus.
Exodus, a book of liberation and formation, begins by disillusioning us of the hope promised at the end of Genesis. The strangers are protected no longer. Rather they are enslaved. What began as a land of salvation from famine has become a land of oppression and exploitation.
It is within this context that we find another context for our story: the life of Moses. While Moses was born a stranger in the land of Egypt, subject to infanticide, his life was spared as he was taken in by the ruling household. He grew up a part of the power structure of enslavement and oppression. Rich and powerful, sure, but his wealth and his power came at a price: the oppression and enslavement of his biological brothers and sisters.
Unable or unwilling to cope with the existential conflict which must have followed from the knowledge that all of his advantages came at the expense of his own enslaved people, Moses became a criminal, a murderer. On the lam in the wilderness, Moses carves out a new life for himself, removed from the wealth, power, politics and economics of oppression in Egypt.
But as we enter into our story, Moses cannot escape his calling. He cannot escape the dichotomy between his family of birth and his adoptive family, nor can he escape the moral duty to use his priviledge to help break the chains of oppression. Moses ran to the wilderness, and in doing so ran from himself. But in his running, and in his wilderness, he ran right into what Marcus Borg calls a "thin place," a place where the line dividing the secular from the sacred is very thin indeed. And in his thin place, Moses has an encounter with the divine.
Moses drives his father-in-law's flock to Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, a sacred place, designated the mountain of God. Not only, then, is he psychologically in a thin place, but he is also geographically in a thin place, a sacred place which helps facilitate the divine-human encounter. In this convergence of thin places, in this spiritual and physical space, he sees a strange sight. A burning bush may not be all that unusual in a desert wilderness, with the hot sun baring down on the dry twigs, scorching the earth and its vegetation. But fire consumes, fire destroys, producing heat, smoke and ash. This strange bush in this sacred space, however, while ablaze, was not reduced to smoke, heat and ash. It burned, but was not consumed, calling for Moses' attention and capturing his imagination.
And just when things couldn't get any weirder, a voice rises out of the bush, cuts through the space between Moses and the bush, and echoes inside his head, calling his name. Moses! Moses! cries the bush, and perhaps Moses wonders whether he's hearing an external and audible sound or just some voice inside his head. Encounters with the divine are like this, frustrating our expectations and undercutting our understanding. Is it real? Did it happen? Did that bush really say my name?
The description in our story is absurd, but no less absurd than any other human attempt to describe an encounter with the sacred, the divine. When we try to render these moments into language we start to see how our language, so efficient at communicating our shared experiences, is totally unable to share these strange moments, which can't be intersubjectively verified. Rather than using rational language, then, we aim for story, for metaphor. Rather than saying how it was, we say how it felt. And, more often than not, when we reach the end of our story we say something like, "It wasn't really like that at all, but that's the best I can do."
This strange encounter, this divine-human encounter, in which Moses stands before the sacred, in a sacred place, hearing a sacred voice calling out his name, drove him to ask a couple of questions. These questions are existential questions, and they are the questions which we all ask in the face of such meaningful and meaning-filled encounters. They are questions which cut to the heart of being and becoming. They are universal questions, and related questions. They are:
1. Who am I? and
2. Who are You?
"Who am I?" Moses asks God. "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" Perhaps this question, coming from Moses, isn't an entirely honest question. Perhaps he isn't asking for information as much as he is begging to be let off the hook. After all, Moses is beginning to get a pretty good idea who God thinks that he is. This is because Moses asks the question "Who am I?" the question which burns in our souls every time we wake up in the morning and stare into the face in the mirror, wondering who it is that's staring back, after God calls him to a mission.
Before Moses asks God who he is, God already tells him. Moses is an answer to a prayer. A prayer that those praying it may not have even known was a prayer, the silent desperate cry of the oppressed and exploited. But God heard this silent prayer, this desperate, voiceless cry, and God is now responding. But God's response is Moses.
This is a heavy calling, a calling which forces Moses to turn inward and ask, "Who am I? Who am I, that I should be an answer to prayer, God's response to suffering, oppression, exploitation and enslavement?"
Moses is asking an existential question, and existential questions rarely have rational answers. God cannot answer Moses' question with some fixed definition. God cannot say, "You are..." and have anything that follows make sense or help out. And, even if God could, Moses couldn't understand the answer.
Instead of answering Moses' question the way it was asked, God skips past the question and answers the concern, with a promise and a calling. Moses asks "Who am I?" and God answers "I will be with you!" In doing so, God affirms Moses' concern, while also affirming and holding him to his calling. Moses' identity is then to be found in the context of a relationship with God, a relationship that carries with it a calling, a journey, a task.
As such, this question, "Who am I?" is connected to the second question, "Who are You?" As Moses' identity is found in the context of his encounter and relationship with, as well as calling by the divine, so too the existential question concerning human identity is answered non-rationally by the divine-human encounter. As we ask "Who am I?" we also ask "Who are You?" The answer to these two questions are, by virtue of our interconnected and interdependent nature, linked to each other. We are found in the context of our relationship with the divine, and with each other.
"Who are You?" Moses asks God, and God answers, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." This is not a name, but a mystery. It neither defines nor describes God, but it does help us to explore the mysterious nature of God. This phrase is often translated "I AM THAT I AM," a translation which is good insofar as it captures the perplexing mystery of the answer. To answer the question "Who are you?" with "I am that I am" doesn't answer the question at all. It barely even pushes it back a step. After all, if we didn't know that you are, we wouldn't ask what you are.
But the static English translation doesn't capture the full, rich meaning of the Hebrew. The Hebrew, I am told, is not static. It doesn't speak to being, but rather to becoming. As such, it could just as easily be translated "I will be what I will be," an answer which while as enigmatic as the static answer does not even attempt to fix God into a single position. Not only is God a mystery, but God is a constantly moving, constantly changing mystery. God is not an undefined but fixed point, but is rather an unfixed enigma.
But the Hebrew, I am told, is even richer than that. The Hebrew is not just an answer, but a promise which continues on the theme of the first promise made by God to Moses. When Moses asks "Who am I?" God answers "I will be with you." When Moses asks "Who are You?" God again answers, "I will be with you." This is because Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh not only conveys "I am what I am" and "I will be what I will be," but it also communicates "I will be where I will be." And, God assures Moses, where I will be is with you.
Names are very important throughout the Bible, and nowhere are they more important than in the Torah. Take Moses' name, for instance. The Hebrew is Mosheh, which comes from the Egyptian for "born of," and is, according to the Jewish Publication Society, associated with mashah, "draw out." His name, then, is not only that by which he is called, but it also points to a fundamental truth about him, the dichotomy between his birth and his adoption. Born into an enslaved, oppressed and marginalyzed group of strangers in Egypt, but "draw out" into the dominant household. He is empowered, and with that empowerment comes his eventual calling. His name is significant, and certainly not accidental.
Elsewhere in the Torah names also have great significance, as do changes in names. See for instance the move from Jacob to Israel, and the change in character that accompanied the change in name. In the New Testament we see a similar change in a character, from Saul (a Hebrew name) to Paul (a Greek form of that Hebrew name). This change anticipates Paul's new role as an apostle to the Gentiles.
While names can change, names serve as a kind of definition of the character, communicating some deep truth about the character; their fundamental identity. This is why, so often, when there is a fundamental shift in the nature or calling of a character (see also the shift from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah) there is an accompanying change in name. So, even when names are fluid, while a name is in place it, in a sense, limits the character to the definition given by the name. It fixes the character, providing boundaries and limits on who they are.
Even and especially when names in the Torah are not exactly names, they are significant. For instance, in the second creation story in Genesis we are introduced to the mythological first pair of humans, a man called Adam and a woman called Eve. The Hebrew word adam, however, is not a name, but rather a generic term often translated "man" or "mankind," or in more gender inclusive language, "humankind" (thanks again, Johanna!). This word is related to a Hebrew word for earth or soil, adamah, which is significant because this creation myth tells us that God made adam, "humankind," out of the dust of the adamah, "earth." It is also significant because, in having a character in a creation myth literally named "humankind," we can be certain that we are here dealing with the character as a literary device representing a type (much like the apostle Paul's typological use of the "old Adam" and the "new Adam"), rather than a historical person.
There are throughout the Torah names given to God. Some of these names, such as El Shaddai (traditionally rendered "God Almighty," but probably originally meant "God, the One of the Mountain," and is well known in Cannanite literature) are even given to God by God. But when Moses inquires about the name of God ("Who shall I say sent me?") God, as we have seen, gives a name which isn't a name. A name which is fluid instead of static, and is so enigmatic and mysterious as to provide us with no information about the bearer of the name.
In offering only a mystery, and the promise of the divine presence, to Moses' two great existential questions, God frustrates our expectations. That frustration, that refusal to come out and define the divine and human natures, drives us to ask the existential questions with Moses, in light of our own mysterious encounters with the divine.
Like Moses, each of us from time to time wonder who we are, and who the Other is. Like Moses we long to have a direct encounter with that holy Other, and to ask those great questions. But from the Moses story we know that the answers to these questions are lived rather than said. But, as we study the story deeper, we can begin to learn how to live out the answers to our questions, and to find ourselves in the context of a relationship with the mysterious divine. This relationship comes with both a promise and a calling, and the two together, lived out are the answer to our questions.
When Moses encountered God at that sacred site with the burning bush, God said to him, "I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians..." How is God going to do this? "Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharoah, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt."
God heard the cry of the suffering and the oppressed, those enslaved in Egypt, strangers far from home. And God decided to act. But while the Exodus story contains many "signs and wonders," many stories of miracles, plagues, and divine intervention; God principally chooses to act through Moses. Moses is God's answer to human suffering. Moses is God's answer to injustice and oppression.
In our own lives it is very easy for us, if we are honest, to identify people who desperately wish that God heard their silent screams. As Christians, people who identify with the mythos of the Exodus story, and who say that when we were enslaved and sorely oppressed, God broke us free from our bondage, we must understand that like Moses we who have escaped from our metaphoric Egypt are called to be God's answer to oppression and exploitation in our communities. Like Moses we who are privileged are called to see that much of our wealth was acquired by our participation in an unjust economic system. We who have advantages are called to see how those advantages have disadvantaged others. And, like Moses, we are called to face the worldly powers with the prophetic voice of our encounter with the divine, as God's answer to human suffering.
This calling, and the promise of the presence of God which comes with it, should not, however, make us morally arrogant. Rather, it should force us to ask, with Moses, "Who am I? Who am I, that You would send me?" Moses was not called by God because he was good. He wasn't particularly good. He grew up in Pharoah's house, oppressing and enslaving his biological family. When he couldn't live with the distance between the status of his birth (part of the enslaved community, marked for death) and his adoption (part of the enslaving community, doling out death), he lashed out in anger and killed a man.
In the same way, each of us have hands so stained that we need never look down on another just because we have a sense of divine calling. Our calling should instead drive us to look into our own nature, and finding it wanting, looking into the mysterious nature of God, which molds us, shapes us, and fills us with meaning. Then, in humility we should do our best to live up to our calling as part of God's answer to human suffering.
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