Exodus tells us virtually nothing about the period of Moses’ life between age forty (when he killed the Egyptian) to age eighty (when Moses met God at a burning bush); in fact, this time period comprises only twelve verses. Exodus 2:23-25 marks the author’s transition from Moses settling in Midian to God’s call for him to return to Egypt:
A long time passed, and the Egyptian king died. The Israelites were still groaning because of their hard work. They cried out, and their cry to be rescued from the hard work rose up to God. God heard their cry of grief, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked at the Israelites, and God understood.
I love this passage. It tells us that God “heard” the cries of the Israelites; God “remembered” his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God “looked” at the Israelites; and God “understood.” God then acted to get Moses’ attention, calling him to be God’s leader who would deliver the Israelites from bondage. Exodus 3 begins with these words:
Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. (Exodus 3:1)
On this particular day, when Moses was tending Jethro’s flock near Mount Horeb, he saw something most unusual—a bush that was burning but not being consumed—and a voice called out his name.
The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.” Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.”
In the Old Testament, the “Lord’s messenger” appears at some points to be a separate being (the word messenger is also translated as angel) while at other points this seems to be a way of referring to God’s direct appearance to an individual.
God’s appearance at Mount Horeb was in the form of flames in a bush. God often appeared in Scripture in the midst of flames. In Genesis 15:17 God appeared to Abraham as a “fiery flame.” Beginning in Exodus 13, God would lead the Israelites as a “pillar of fire” (NRSV). Later, when God appeared to the Israelites in Exodus 24:17, “The Lord’s glorious presence looked like a blazing fire on top of the mountain.” In Daniel 7:9, God sat on a throne ablaze with flames. In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples, the Spirit appeared as flames of fire. And Hebrews 12:28-29 (NIV) tells Christians to “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’”
Consider what God says next to Moses:
He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians. . . . So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
(Exodus 3:6-8, 10)
Notice how, having seen, heard, and known the pain of the Israelites, God responded. He did not send a legion of angels to liberate the Israelite slaves from Egypt. No, God showed up in a burning bush to an eighty-year-old shepherd! And not just any eighty-year-old shepherd. He found a shepherd who was fluent in the Egyptian language, who had been an insider when it came to Egyptian power and rule, and who knew philosophy, religion, law, governance, and leadership. He called an eighty-year-old shepherd who once had felt such indignation at the oppression of the Israelites that he killed a man to stop it. God didn’t send an angel; he sent a person. God said to Moses, “Get going! I’m sending you!” We’re not meant to miss this: God sometimes chooses, calls, and uses the most unlikely of people to do his work in the world.
This is such an important point that I want to make sure we get it. God’s usual way of working in the world to alleviate suffering, injustice, and pain is not to intervene miraculously, suspending the laws of nature, violating the principle of human freedom, or sending angels to make things right. No, God works through people. God sees, hears, and knows the suffering of others. God expects his people to do the same. And God’s response is to call us to step up as instruments of his aid.
Occasionally, we may have the kind of burning bush experience Moses had when we hear the audible voice of God or when events clearly reflect God’s call on our lives. But in my experience, God’s call most often comes in a whisper or through a feeling, nudge, or compulsion that I can’t shake. I hear the voice of God most often when I’m reading, praying, or discussing the faith with others or when I’m worshiping, singing, or listening to the Scriptures read aloud or preached.