4. Beating Around the Burning Bush (Exodus 3 and 4)
When I was considerably younger, my uncle arrived at a family picnic, riding a new Honda motorcycle. Unimpressive by today’s standards, at the time it was one of the most powerful bikes on the road. Proudly my uncle let several relatives ride it around the park, barely idling. Seeing that I was drooling over the bike, my uncle asked if I had ever ridden. With great confidence, I assured him that I had. On that Honda 305, my intention was not to idle around a few stumps as I took it up to the highway and pressed the limits a bit.
I had been truthful to the degree that I had ridden a motorcycle before, but not entirely honest about the extent of my experience. You see, I had ridden a Honda 50 (the smallest Honda bike) once around the service station where I worked. I was not adequately prepared for the ride on that Honda 305 (the biggest bike Honda then made).
Moses felt that he was adequately prepared for the task of delivering the Israelites from the oppression of the Egyptians, but Exodus 2 indicates that his efforts failed miserably. He was rejected and rebuked by his fellow-Israelite, and he was pursued by the Pharaoh who wanted to kill him. This led to a 40-year sojourn in the land of Midian, where Moses married, had two children, and tended the flocks of his father-in-law.
We would readily acknowledge that Moses was not ready for leadership at age 40, but we seem to think that those 40 years Moses spent in the wilderness with Jethro’s flocks must have equipped him to serve as Israel’s deliverer. I do not think this is the case. I believe that Moses was about as prepared to lead Israel at age 80 as I was ready to ride a Honda 305 after having ridden a Honda 50. The events of Exodus 3 and 4 bear out, I believe, that Moses’ preparation for leadership had barely begun. The man we find described in this portion of Scripture is hardly the model of leadership we would expect. Let us look carefully at this chapter, because I suspect we will find Moses a great deal like us. Let us learn the kind of men God chooses and uses as leaders and the process He used with Moses.
In our previous lesson, the focus was on the character of God, Israel’s “I AM.” The focus of our study in this lesson will be on the character of Moses, the man “I AM” sent to rescue Israel from Egypt.
Moses’ Marching Orders
In our last lesson we focused on the burning bush and the character of the God who revealed Himself in the bush—the “I AM.” The revelation of the character of God, particularly by His name, is the basis for the faith and obedience which God expects (indeed demands) of Moses. In verses 16-22 the task which Moses has been commissioned to accomplish is outlined, along with an outline of the events which will take place due to Moses’ ministry. Essentially, there are three general categories covered in these verses:
(1) Moses was commanded to assemble the elders of Israel to reassure them of God’s covenant promises, and to convey God’s plan for delivering His people from their bondage, and to bring them into the land of Canaan (Exod. 3:16-17). In effect, Moses was to repeat the words which God had spoken to him from the burning bush.
(2) Moses was told to go to Pharaoh with the elders of Israel and to request a three-day “leave” to worship God in the desert (Exod. 3:18-20). This request would be denied, and only by compulsion (the plagues) would the king of Egypt release the Israelites. It is important to observe that the resistance of Pharaoh was foretold, thus preparing Moses for the hard times ahead. The release from Egypt would not come quickly or easily, but it would come.
(3) Finally, God instructed Moses to “collect,” as it were, the wages the Israelites had earned in Egypt (Exod. 3:21-22). This was to be accomplished by asking the Egyptian women for articles of silver and gold and putting them on their children.
These commands summarized the task which God had given Moses and the response of the Egyptians to Moses’ request. Here, in a nutshell, is an outline of “things to come” for Egypt. These commands clarify the task which Moses has been given. They are all based upon the promise and the prophecy which God had previously given Abraham in Genesis 15:12-20. Moses now knew who God was, and the task He had given him to do. The real struggle here is between Moses and God, and whether he will do it. I thus have entitled the message, “Beating Around the Burning Bush.” Moses will learn, as we all must, that God’s commands are not to be refused.
The Five Points of Moses
As a friend and I discussed possible titles for this section, he suggested this one, which I like a lot: “While Israel gathered straw, Moses grasped at straws.” For those who are into theological inquiry and discussion, I am convinced that Moses was a “five pointer.” Here are the five points of Moses, as he seeks to prove that he is not the man for the task which God has given him. The essence of Moses’ argument is: “Here am I, send someone else!”
Moses responds to the commission of God five times. The first two responses we have dealt with previously, but we shall briefly review them so that we can view Moses’ response as a whole.
(1) Who am I? (Exod. 3:11). After prematurely and presumptuously asserting himself as a deliverer (Exod. 2:11-15), and being rebuffed by a fellow-Israelite (“Who made you ruler and judge over us?” Exod. 2:14), Moses was not so full of self-confidence. Moses, we are told in Scripture, was the “meekest man on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). To the degree that Moses’ question reveals true humility, it is legitimate. But in this instance, I fear that his humility is out of bounds. The issue here is not who Moses is, but whose he is. God has sent him, and it is God who will be with him. Moses’ authority is based upon his divine call and the divine presence with him as he goes (Exod. 3:12).
There is a great deal of discussion these days about self-esteem. While one’s self-concept has a great deal to do with how one feels about himself and how he (or she) may function in life, it is not the key to Christian growth or obedience. Why? Because the orientation is wrong. Self-esteem focuses one’s attention selfward. One can only be confident if one is confident about one’s self. God redirects Moses’ attention to Himself. The burning bush is a revelation of God to Moses, not an introspective analysis of Moses himself. No man, no matter how capable, is fit or able to adequately serve God. It is God who is infinite, eternal, and all-powerful. Thus, when Moses has a proper God-concept, he is able to serve. Let us learn from this text to focus our attention on the One whom we serve, rather than on ourselves.
(2) Who are you? (Exod. 3:13). If Moses’ authority is wrapped up in the God who has called and commissioned him, then it is surely worthwhile for him to inquire as to the nature and character of God. If it were not for the other three responses of Moses (the last two are protests, not inquiries), we might find this question altogether acceptable. My own inclination is that Moses already knew enough.
Knowing God is the highest calling of the Christian and a lifetime occupation (cf. Phil. 3:10). As such, one should always seek to know more of Him. But Moses does not seek this knowledge for himself; he seeks it because he fears that the Israelites will reject his authority. In other words, this is really a reflection of the same fears of Moses which were more openly admitted in the first question. God’s answer to the first question was not sufficient for Moses, so he asked it again, in different terms. Moses still expects to be rejected by the Israelites, as he was 40 years before.
I find many of us seek to avoid immediately acting on the commands of God, excusing this by our “lack of information, knowledge, or training.” How many people “want to think it over,” or “pray about it,” when in reality they are reluctant to obey God’s leading? How many have excused themselves because they have not gone to seminary or Bible college? Very often, these are merely a smoke-screen for unbelief. We are never ready when we act on our own, but we are always ready when God says, “Go!”
(3) What if they89 do not believe me or listen to me? (Exod. 4:1). Is this question not a bit shop worn? Moses is asking the same question of God for the third time. This time, it is even more inappropriate. No, I have not said it strongly enough. This time, the question is sinful. In the past, Moses doubted his calling; now he is doubting the Word of God, for the Lord has just told him, “The elders of Israel will listen to you” (Exod. 4:18). From the words which follow this assurance, we know that Moses was not only told that the leaders of Israel will accept his leadership, but that it will all work out, just as God has said. Moses therefore is guilty of unbelief, pure and simple.
I have been rather hard on Moses, and I believe that the text (which Moses wrote) is making his weakness and unbelief clear. As an inveterate coward, let me say a word or two in behalf of Moses. Have you ever had to face a group of skeptics and convince them that God sent you, based upon a conversation you had with a bush? I find it easy to understand why Moses feared that no one would believe his story. People don’t stand around talking to burning bushes. That this was unusual was an evidence of its significance. It is also something which is difficult to convince others is true.
God still graciously deals with the weakness of Moses here. In response to his question, God grants Moses the ability to perform three signs.90 The first two Moses performs on the spot, at God’s instruction, so as to assure him. The final sign (turning water from the Nile to blood) has to wait until the raw materials (Nile water) are available.
The specific meaning of each miracle91 is without common consensus among scholars. Overall, I believe that we can see several important contributions of these signs. First, for the Israelites these signs were visible evidence that God had appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Would they refuse to believe the account of the burning bush? Let them see a shepherd’s staff92 turned into a serpent, and then transformed once again to the staff. Let them see a hand turned leprous, and then restored. A burning bush is no harder to believe than these phenomena.
Second, for the Pharaoh and the Egyptians, these signs were evidence of the “finger of God” (cf. Exod. 8:19). Not only did they emphatically prove the existence of the God of the Hebrews, but they gave evidence of His superior power. More than this, these three signs were of a similar kind. At the word of Moses, a staff could become a serpent, leprosy could be inflicted, and water contaminated. In other words, Moses had the power to inflict injury and to destroy. Pharaoh had tried, in vain, to destroy Israel. Moses could easily destroy Egypt. The signs were all “plague-like,” and Pharaoh would do well to take heed. He had been warned, not only of the power of God, but also of the nature of the divine judgment which he could and would inflict on Egypt. Finally, since Moses had the power to reverse the adverse plague, Pharaoh was also instructed as to Moses’ power to restore, once a plague was brought to pass. The three signs were therefore very significant, both to the Israelites, and to the Pharaoh.
(4) But I am not eloquent! (Exod. 4:10; cf. 6:12,30)93. From here on, it is all down hill—fast. Moses is still hung up about his inability. Rather than acting on the basis of who the God is who commissioned him, Moses is now retreating on the pretext that he is not a gifted communicator. This is indeed a piece of false humility. Look at what Stephen has to say about Moses’ abilities: “When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:21-22, emphasis mine). Moses did not have a speech problem, as some might suppose. Neither was he ungifted in speech. According to Stephen, Moses was eloquent. Moses is not only doing a disservice to God (by refusing to believe Him and obey in faith), but to himself. Moses should not trust in his own abilities, but neither should he deny the abilities which God has given him.
The historian Josephus goes even farther than Stephen. Now, of course, Josephus did not write under inspiration. Worse yet, Josephus has been accused of exaggerating. But it is interesting to note that Josephus writes that Moses was a commander of the Egyptian army, attacking and defeating the Ethiopians who had humiliated Egypt.94 It is a glorious story—too much so to take too seriously. Nevertheless, it indicates that at least Josephus didn’t take Moses’ excuse seriously either.
The Lord’s response reveals His displeasure and has the tone of rebuke.95 Little wonder! Moses is talking to His creator. He is saying, in effect, “God, I can’t do what you ask because you did not make me well enough.” God reminds Moses that, as his Creator, He fashioned him precisely as He intended, and he was therefore fully able to carry out his commission. The problem of what to say is one that the Lord will handle in due time. He will teach him what to say (Exod. 4:12).96 While Moses is worrying about what he will say when he gets to Egypt, God is spurring him to get going. Moses is looking too far down the path. His immediate task is to get going.
(5) Please send somebody else (Exod. 4:13). Here is the bottom line. Moses does not want to go. It is not that he lacks the assurance or the authority; he simply lacks the courage to act. No reason is stated here as to why God should send someone else, because Moses is all out of excuses. And so Moses pleads with God for someone else to go.
God is longsuffering and patient, but now He is angry. I do not know precisely what physical manifestations evidenced the anger which Moses mentions in verse 14, but my own impression is that this must have scared Moses half to death. Can you imagine making God mad and then having to stand there faced with His anger? If Moses was afraid of the presence of God in the burning bush before (Exod. 4:6), one can hardly imagine the fear which Moses had at this point.
God’s anger was not only reflected in some visible way (did the burning bush suddenly flare up?), but it was evident in the answer which God gave to Moses (vv. 14-17). Aaron could speak fluently, so let him speak for Moses. As later events will indicate, the presence of Aaron was a burden for Moses and a stumbling block for others. Among other things, Aaron fashioned the “golden calf” and led Israel in false worship (Exod. 32:1-6). Aaron was, at best, a mixed blessing.
Moses’ Request to Return
Clutching his staff, Moses set out to ask Jethro’s permission to leave, along with his wife and two sons. It would seem that such permission was required (cf. Gen. 31, esp. vss. 26-30). Moses’ request was evasive, even deceptive: “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive” (Exod. 4:18).
Moses avoids telling Jethro of God’s appearance in the burning bush and of the commission he had been given. Can you imagine asking your father-in-law to release his loved ones to accompany a man who is going to take on Pharaoh and the entire nation of Egypt? And can you conceive of trying to convince Jethro that you were sure of this, based upon a conversation you had with a bush that burned, but did not burn up? No wonder Moses wished to avoid the real purpose of his return.
Avoiding the true (or the whole) purpose of his return was one thing, but Moses went beyond this. He told Jethro that he wanted to learn if any of his people were still alive. It is possible that Moses meant that he wanted to see if his mother and father were still alive. He certainly knew that the Israelites were living, for how could God send him to rescue a people who had been exterminated (which was, of course, Pharaoh’s intention)?
Verse 19 seems to serve as a kind of explanation for the reason which Moses had given Jethro for returning to Egypt: “Now the Lord had said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead’” (Exod. 4:19). Moses had no reason to fear, God assured him, for the Pharaoh who had sought to take his life was dead. But it almost seems as though Moses rearranged the facts God had given, so as to suggest that Moses needed to see if his own people were, in fact, alive and well. Did Moses inadvertently confuse the facts, or did he deceptively rearrange the facts so as to gain the permission of Jethro to take his family to Egypt? We do not know, but Zipporah and her two sons did return to her father’s house (cf. Exod. 18:2-6), perhaps after the incident in verses 24-26.97
Jethro, who seems to be a wise and gracious man, grants Moses’ request, wishing him well (v. 18). And so it was that Moses set out on his way back to Egypt, taking along his wife and two sons. Moses, we are told, took the “staff of God” in his hand (v. 20). How he must have studied that stick, which he had carried so long, and which now was an instrument of God.
Matters Between Fathers and Sons
One’s initial impression could be that these verses are inappropriate or out of place. Since we are not willing to say that the text has been rearranged, we can only conclude that these words from the Lord to Moses were spoken after Moses had departed from the house of Jethro, or they were spoken from the burning bush but recorded here for a specific purpose.98 I am inclined toward the latter because these words then provide the backdrop for the incident depicted in verses 24-26. One might, in fact, better grasp the thread of the argument of verses 21-26 by entitling the section, “between fathers and sons,” for there are three father-son relationships referred to here: (1) God as the Father of Israel, His firstborn son (vv. 22-23a); (2) Pharaoh and his firstborn son (v. 23b); and (3) Moses and his son (firstborn?—cf. fn. 17) (vv. 24-26).
God had instructed Moses to perform all the wonders he was empowered to do before Pharaoh. This was not in the hope of convincing or converting Pharaoh, however, for his heart would be hardened by God. We are also told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.99 Both statements are true and do not contradict each other.
Here, for the first time, the nation Israel is referred to as the firstborn100 son of God (Exod. 4:22-23). Because Pharaoh would not release Israel, God’s firstborn son, to worship Him in the desert, God would have Moses tell Pharaoh that He will kill his firstborn.
What is the significance here of this statement about Pharaoh’s firstborn son? It would seem that it is intended to serve as a backdrop for the strange, almost bizarre, incident described in verses 24-26.101 Here Moses, Zipporah, and their two sons are on their way to Egypt (v. 24) via Mt. Sinai it would appear (cf. 4:27). The Lord102 met Moses at their lodging place and seemed103 intent to kill him. This action on God’s part seems so unusual and so harsh that some have even suggested the “deity” was demonic.104 Moses’ life was spared by the quick action taken by his wife, Zipporah. She took a flint knife (cf. Josh. 5:2-3), circumcised her son,105 and touched Moses106 with the foreskin, with the rebuke, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” Because of her actions, God let Moses alone.
What does this action on Zipporah’s part mean, and what is the purpose of including this story in Exodus? Surely this is the kind of incident which Moses would not wish to become public, let alone become a part of holy Scripture. And remember, Moses wrote this book and could have omitted it. What then does this mean, and what are we to learn from it? I would suggest that this enigmatic event is the key to the entire chapter, explaining Moses’ deeply rooted resistance to obeying the call of God to return to Egypt to rescue the Israelites.
The “gospel,” if you would, of the Israelite was the covenant God had made with Abraham and reiterated to the patriarchs and now, through Moses, to the people of God, the Israelites. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant, an evidence of the parents’ faith in the promise of God to Abraham that through his seed blessings would come to Israel and to the whole world (cf. Gen. 12:1-3). As a testimony of the parents’ faith in God’s covenant promise, every male in Israel was to be circumcised:
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:9-14).
So there we have it. The basis of Israel’s preservation (as pictured by the bush that didn’t burn up) was the covenant made with Abraham by the eternal God who is, from now on (cf. Exod. 3:15) the “I AM.” The covenant was the “gospel,” the promise of blessing and salvation which every Israelite was called upon to believe and whose belief was symbolized by the circumcision of his sons and all the males in his household. Moses was to go to Egypt and tell the Israelites that God was about to fulfill His promises, based upon His covenant. And yet Moses had not yet circumcised his son.107 And if this son is his firstborn, he has had many years in which to do so.
If God takes the “hardness of Pharaoh’s heart” so seriously as to kill his firstborn son (Exod. 4:21-23), then He must likewise deal with the sin of Moses who by not circumcising his son has endangered him greatly. According to the word of the Lord recorded in Genesis 17, his son should have been “cut off from his people.” The holiness of God is clearly manifested in the near fatal illness of Moses. God does not look lightly on any sin.
Moses’ wife rightly perceived the problem and spared the life of her husband by her prompt action. The great man Moses was saved by his wife’s keen perception and decisive measures. Her rebuke was well-deserved, and Moses was man enough to record it for posterity. Would that we husbands had the integrity to be so honest.
For whatever reasons, Moses’ wife and children do not appear again in the account of Exodus until chapter 18. It may therefore be that Zipporah and the two sons returned to the home of Jethro at this time.108
By divine revelation God instructed Aaron to meet Moses in the wilderness (4:27). They met on the holy mountain of God. What a happy reunion that must have been. At least 40 years would seem to have passed since they had seen each other. Most of all, Moses had to share the most recent events of his life, especially his encounter with God at the burning bush, the commission he had been given to deliver Israel, and the part which Aaron was to play in it all. One can only surmise what Aaron’s response to this might have been.
Together Moses and Aaron went back to Egypt and met with the elders of the Israelites, telling them all that God had said to Moses and performing all the signs which God had given Moses (4:29-30). Both the elders of Israel and the people believed Moses and bowed down to worship the God of their fathers (4:31). This brief account of Israel’s belief and worship underscores the fact that all of Moses’ fears were unfounded.
The conclusion of chapter 4 serves as a divine commentary on the five-fold objection of Moses to the call of God. The last verses of the chapter, which report the belief of the people and their worship of God, inform us that Moses’ fears were unreal and unreasonable. All of his fears and all of his objections as reported in chapters 3 and 4 were groundless, based more on Moses’ fears than on reality.
Verses 24-26 then identify the underlying problem with Moses’ fears: unbelief. If one were to summarize the objections of Moses to his commission to return to Egypt, it would be this: “But God, they won’t believe me.” But Moses’ fears about Israel’s unbelief are rooted in his own unbelief. The basis for God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage is the Abrahamic Covenant. Consequently, God repeatedly identifies Himself as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (cf. 3:6,15,16,18; 4:5). The reason why Moses was not ready to return to Egypt is that he did not have sufficient faith in the covenant which God had made with his fathers. And since he did not have great faith in God’s covenant promises, he did not expect the Israelites to have it either. The evidence of Moses’ lack of faith is here, in his failure to circumcise his son as an evidence of his trust in God’s covenant promises.
In this text there are two separate threads pertaining to Moses which are intertwined. The first we might call his personal walk with God. The second we will call his public work for God. Moses’ objections all deal with God’s call and commission with reference to his public work. The essence of his protest is summed up in his last petition, “Please send someone else.” While God graciously answers each inquiry (points 1-3) and makes provision for his concerns (points 4 and 5), we never really get to the root of Moses’ problem until we come to verses 24-26.
We find that Moses’ problems with regard to his public work (returning to Egypt to rescue Israel) are all rooted in his private walk. His son is not circumcised. He cannot challenge men and women to step out in obedience, based upon their faith in God’s covenant promises when he has not yet even circumcised his son as an evidence of his faith. Thus, Moses’ problems in relationship to his public work are rooted in his personal walk. No wonder Paul wrote this to Timothy: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16, NASB).
Take note that Paul urged Timothy to take heed to himself (his personal walk) and then to his ministry (his public work). One’s personal spiritual life takes priority over one’s public ministry. When our personal walk is deficient, our public ministry will suffer as well. In the context of Paul’s exhortation in this passage, it is clear that Timothy needs to pay attention to his personal walk, as well as to his ministry. Moses’ problems are an illustration of what happens when one’s personal walk is defective. It is hard to call people to faith when one is deficient in this very area. It is difficult to challenge people to obey God when we are disobedient.
I am suggesting that one’s personal walk with God has priority over one’s public work for God. God became angry with Moses regarding his reticence toward his public work. The result of this anger was to be stuck with Aaron as an assistant. But when God became angry with Moses relative to his private walk, it nearly cost Moses his life. I would infer from this that the latter evil was greater than the former. Thus, one’s private walk is the highest priority for our lives.
This incident also suggests that the saints often fall because of their failures in the most elementary areas of the Christian life. Think of it. Moses had an extensive education in Egypt, and a post-graduate course at the burning bush, and yet with all this knowledge Moses failed to obey God in the simplest area of his life—to circumcise his son. In the failures which I have observed in the life of great Christian leaders (as well as in my own life), these have most often been failings in the simple disciplines of life, especially related to our personal faith and walk and to our family. Such was the case with Moses. The cure for the problem was not hidden, not deep, not profound. Zipporah knew what needed to be done by Moses and did it for him when he was stricken (to act in his behalf at any other time would have been wrong, in my opinion).
May I suggest that this passage and the principle of the priority of one’s personal walk has a great deal of relevance to Christians today. Very often I find the attention of Christians focused on the same areas which Moses raised in protest to God’s command. Allow me to characterize the complaints or objections of Moses, and then relate them to our day.
(1) Moses was introspective, looking at himself, rather than looking to the God who called him. The questions, “Who am I?” and “What if they don’t believe me?” are both self-oriented, rather than God-oriented. God’s answer was to direct Moses toward His character and toward His provisions for Moses’ ministry. Many of the excuses which many of us are using for failing to do what God has commanded us to do are of the same kind—they are self-oriented.
One of the catch concepts of Christianity (and, significantly, of the world) is that of one’s self-concept or self-image. We seem to find a “poor self-image” the basis for crime, improper behavior, marital failures, and who knows what all. Now I do not wish to be understood to say that “self-image” is all hogwash. Much of it is, but not all of it. I am not saying that we should never consider the area of self-concept. I am saying that it is, at best, a symptom, more than it is a cause. Moses, we might say, had a bad self-image, but God did not work to change his self-image. Instead, God focused Moses’ attention on Himself, by revealing Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the “I AM.” When Moses grasped the greatness of the God who called him, then his self-image began to revolve around God, not man. The greatness of Moses is to be found in the greatness of the One who called him and who sent him. God listened to Moses’ objections founded on his self-concept, but He corrected Moses by focusing his attention elsewhere.
(2) Moses was more interested in academics than he was with action. Moses wanted to know more about God, and thus the question regarding the name of the God who sent him. I know of many people who would rather study about ministry than to do it.
I know of many who want to study about God, as an excuse not to serve Him. Study is important, but it is not a substitute for service, especially when God calls us to serve. Many are the intellectual pursuits of those who are resistant to obey.
(3) Moses was more concerned with his method than with the message he was given. The protest, “But I have never been eloquent” (4:10) is not only a lie; it is a diversion. The method of presentation (while important) was not nearly as important as the message. God promised to provide Moses with both (4:12). Many seem to think that the reason people don’t witness is because they don’t know how and that teaching them a method will produce evangelism. As helpful as training in methods of evangelism can be, the real problem is with our motives, not with our methods. A newly married couple does not need a manual on making love, and the reason is that they have the motivation to learn. Moses’ problem was not a methodological one, but a motivational one—he didn’t want to go, as evidenced by his final plea, “Please send someone else.”
(4) Moses’ problem was not so much a fear of failure as it was a failure of faith. Moses problem, bottom line, was not to be found in the things Moses expressed in his objections but on those which God exposed in verses 24-26. Moses’ problem was fundamentally a lack of faith—unbelief. He did not take the Abrahamic Covenant seriously, personally, and thus he found the thought of basing a ministry on it frightening.
Although hard to admit, I believe that many, if not most, of our problems as Christians are rooted in unbelief. The reason we are so lax in witnessing is because we do not really believe the gospel as we should. We don’t believe our friends and relatives are facing a Christless eternity, in continual torment. We don’t really believe that apart from faith in Christ men are hopelessly lost. We don’t really believe that the things of this life are momentary, and that eternity will expose what is both lasting and enjoyable.
If the gospel is the bedrock foundation on which our personal walk and public work is based then we dare not become forgetful of it. This is why we as a church believe that the remembrance of the Lord’s death is necessary on a weekly basis. We therefore observe the Lord’s table every week, and in this way remind ourselves of what is essential and foundational to our faith and walk. Let us never cease to look to the cross of Calvary. You see, the gospel of the Old Testament saint was summed up in the covenant of God with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The gospel of the New Testament is summed up in the cross of Christ on Calvary and in the “new covenant in his blood” (Luke 22:20). Let us never lose sight of the bedrock of our faith and of the devastation of unbelief.
In conclusion let me suggest some secondary applications which come by inference from our text. With regard to leadership, it seems that many of the current conceptions of Christian leadership are challenged by the call of Moses in Exodus 3 and 4. Moses is sovereignly called to lead; he does not volunteer. In fact, Moses’ self-confidence and self-assertiveness are set aside before he is called to lead.
Not only is Moses sovereignly called, but he is prepared in a way quite different from what is proposed as normative today. Moses was not discipled, as we seem to think is required today. Moses learned most of his lessons in solitude and the rest in a secular (dare I say secular humanist) educational environment in Egypt. Moses is not trained so much by his successes as by his failures.
Moses is not called and commissioned because he is so spiritual, or so successful, or because he is “ready,” but because God is ready, and He will equip him to serve as he serves. There is more “on-the-job” training here than we might wish to admit.
The leaders whom we find portrayed in the Bible are not the giants we would like to find, but men whom God has used in spite of their weaknesses and failures. Surely we must admit that Moses, like Elijah, was a man of “like passions” (cf. James 5:17), a man who had the same fears and failures as we do. It is not the greatness of the man which is the key to his success, but the character of the God who calls and uses fallible men to do His will.
We expect our leaders to succeed and always to do the right thing. Nothing in the Scriptures gives us the right to expect such perfection, either in our leaders or in ourselves. Let us look upon our leaders as men who have fears and failings like ourselves, and who need our prayers, and our encouragement and exhortation as much as we need them.
In this brief glimpse of the life of Moses covering 80 years, let us recognize that that are two equally dangerous extremes with regard to leadership. The first is that of self-confident, self-assertiveness. Moses presumptuously set out to deliver his people and ended up running for his life. That is because he was neither called nor commissioned to lead at this point in his life. Many are those who would like to lead and who assert themselves as leaders, whom God has not commissioned to lead. Presumption in leadership is deadly.
Second, there is the danger of self-conscious passivity. This is what we see in Moses at the time when God did commission him to go to Egypt. Now Moses is full of all kinds of excuses why he is not the man for the job. There are many Christian men who seek to step away from leadership which God has thrust upon them. In the final analysis, it is because they do not trust God enough to believe that He can achieve His purposes through them.
Regardless of the ministry which God has given, let us do so with diligence, looking first to our own walk and then to our work, trusting and obeying the “I AM” who has called us and is forever with us.
89 One may wonder to whom the “they” of verse 1 refers. Is Moses doubting that the Israelites will believe God has appeared to him, or the Egyptians (especially the Pharaoh)? The context clearly indicates that the “they” refers to the Israelites. First, they would need to know that God had appeared to Moses, not Pharaoh. Pharaoh was simply to be told that “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us” (Exod. 3:18). Secondly, Exodus 4:5 specifies that the Hebrews will believe that “the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob— has appeared to you.”
90 It is absolutely incredible what some people are able to do with these miracles. Below are a few statements for you to consider: “The first sign was that Moses’ staff (which according to an Arabian saga was taken from paradise by Adam, but according to Moses’ own words was nothing more than an ordinary staff) was changed into a snake.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 59.
“The magical trick here performed is probably based on knowledge of an Egyptian snake-charmer’s trick.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 82.
“Moses is thus taught magic by the Lord of all wonders. The three he learns are transformation-miracles, in which one substance is changed into another. Moses himself performs two of the miracles immediately, perhaps to gain confidence, but the third can be carried out only in Egypt with the Nile water.” Ibid.
91 For example, Hannah writes: “Because snakes symbolized power and life to the Egyptians, God was declaring to Moses that he would be able to overcome the powers of Egypt.” John Hannah, “Exodus,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), p. 113.
92 “In verse 20 it is called God’s rod, as being used in signs, and in Exodus 7:9 it is used by Aaron.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 73.
“The Hebrew reads ... ‘I am not a man of words.’ Later in the verse he speaks of the fact that he was ‘slow of speech’ and ‘slow of tongue.’ The Hebrew literally reads ‘heavy in mouth and heavy in tongue’; that is, he was not fluent in speech.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 68.
95 “Compare Exodus 5:23 for a similar rebuke. Such an attitude to God is culpable, but very natural and common, not least among the saints of the Old Testament covenant (Jeremiah [Jer. 1:6], the psalmist and Job are noted instances). Like Peter’s failings, these lovable faults bring them very close to us, since we see ourselves only too clearly in them. I am slow of speech: lit. ‘heavy of mouth.’ This vividly expresses the frustration of the man who knows that he cannot speak (cf. Paul in 2 Cor. 10:10 for a similar rueful admission). We are never told that Moses’ self-estimate was incorrect. He is blamed for making excuses, not necessarily because the reasons given are untrue, but because they indicate lack of faith.” Cole, p. 75.
96 “The Hebrew word for ‘teach’ contains the same root as tora, ‘instruction,’ especially used in later times as a title for the Law of Moses. There may be a hint of the later meaning here.” Cole, p. 76.
98 You will notice that the NIV renders verse 19, “Now the Lord had said to Moses. …” The inference is that these words were spoken earlier, perhaps at the bush, but that they were recorded here for a reason. The reason is that we find out how Moses either misunderstood what God had told him or how he distorted it. God never suggested that “his own people” had died, but that “those who wanted to kill him” had died. When God’s words are placed in juxtaposition with those of Moses, Moses’ words do not conform to the truth. This revelation of God, placed where it was, informs us that Moses hedged concerning the truth.
99 “Three different Hebrew words are used to describe this condition attributed to Pharaoh. The first is the verb kabed which has the idea of ‘to be heavy, insensible, or dull,’ and is used in 7:14; 8:15,32; and 9:7,34. The next word used is qasah which conveys the sense of ‘being hard, severe, or fierce.’ In the Hifil stem it has the sense of ‘making difficult.’ There are two occurrences of this term, one in 7:3 and the other in 13:15. The final term used is hazaq which is one of the strongest terms employed, meaning ‘to be or grow firm, strong.’ In reference to its use in this context, it has the sense of ‘growing stout, rigid, or hard.’ Two things should be observed in connection with this problem. One is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and resisted the demands of God. This is clearly indicated in a number of the passages (cf. 7:13,14,22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,34-35; 13:15). … On the other hand, it is clearly stated that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (cf. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17). This act of God should be considered judicial and real.” Davis, pp. 69-70.
“Three different Hebrew verbs are used, but there is no essential difference in their meaning. Sometimes it is said that God hardens pharaoh’s heart, as here. Sometimes pharaoh is said to harden his own heart, as in Exodus 8:15. Sometimes the position is described neutrally, by saying that pharaoh’s heart was hardened, as in Exodus 7:13. Even to the Western scholar, it was a problem of theological interpretation, not one of history and fact. No one doubts that pharaoh was stubborn, that he had an iron will and purpose, that he found it impossible to change his pattern of thought and adjust to new ideas. These and more are all implied in the biblical ‘hard-hearted,’ which does not refer to emotion, as in English, but to mind, will, intelligence and response. Often ‘dull-witted’ would be a good translation.” Cole, p. 77.
“Another factor in God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is that it was a reversal of an Egyptian belief. Egyptians believed that when a person died his heart was weighed in the hall of judgment. If one’s heart was ‘heavy’ with sin, that person was judged. A stone beetle scarab was placed on the heart of a deceased person to suppress his natural tendency to confess sin which would subject himself to judgment. This ‘hardening of the heart’ by the scarab would result in salvation for the deceased. … For the Egyptians ‘hardening of the heart’ resulted in silence (absence of confession of sin) and therefore salvation. But God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart resulted in acknowledgment of sin and in judgment.” Hannah, pp. 114-115.
Lest we begin to feel a little puffed up about Pharaoh’s hard heart, let us recall that Israel is persistently described in Scripture as “stiff-necked.” Pharaoh was hard-hearted in not acknowledging the truth. Israel was stiff-necked in refusing to obey what they knew to be the truth.
100 “The mention of Israel as Jehovah’s ‘firstborn’ is significant in this larger context. The firstborn son was to the Egyptians not only special, but in many respects sacred. It is therefore most interesting that the people of God are regarded as firstborn in this passage (cf. Hos. 11:1).” Davis, p. 71.
“This is the first introduction of the ‘first-born’ theme in the book (cf. Gen. 22). Passover, unleavened bread, and the redemption of Israelite first-born are inextricably linked with the events of Exodus (cf. Ex. 11:4) for reappearance and therefore doubtless in Israel’s religious thought afterwards. The connection is very simple and patterned on the ‘lex talionis,’ a fundamental principle of Hebrew Law (Ex. 21:23). Israel, considered collectively, is God’s first-born, presumably as being His chosen people and as ‘first-fruits’ of all the peoples (Jer. 31:9; 2:3).” Cole, p. 78.
101 “This is the most obscure passage in the Book of Exodus. It has given rise to a number of different interpretations, none of which is wholly satisfactory. The obscurity arises in part from the extreme brevity of the account, and the indefiniteness of reference of several of the personal pronouns.” Hyatt, p. 86.
103 I have chosen the word “seemed” advisedly. There are a number of times in the Bible when the appearance was different than God’s intended outcome. God appeared to desire to destroy Israel and to make a new nation out of Moses, but this is something God would not do, based upon the argument of Moses that He could not do it without breaking His promise to Abraham and failing to accomplish His purposes (Exod. 32:7-14). In the New Testament, the resurrected Lord “acted as if he were going farther,” but He did not actually do so (Luke 24:28-29). So, in this passage in Exodus as well, I believe that God appeared to intend to put Moses to death, but he was the one who had been commissioned to deliver Israel. Thus, it only seemed that God would put him to death.
104 “It is a very ancient, primitive story that pictures a ‘demonic’ Yahweh. It is very probable that it has been borrowed by the Israelites from a pagan source, possibly Midianite, and imperfectly assimilated to Israelite theology. … The original story may have concerned a demon or deity of the boundary between Midianite territory and Egypt whom Moses failed properly to appease.” Hyatt, p. 87.
105 The text does not tell us which of the two (cf. Exod. 4:20; 18:3, 6) sons of Moses was circumcised. Gershom, the first-born could have been as old as 40, which makes the second son a possibility. This is the preference of Gispen, who writes, “Usually the son is understood to be Gershom, but since verse 20 speaks of sons, and the word circumcision is used in the plural in verse 26, I believe that we must think here of the younger son, Eliezer (18:4). Gershom then had already been circumcised, but Moses, under pressure from Zipporah, had neglected to circumcise his second son. That this happened at Zipporah’s instigation follows in my opinion from her action and from her words later.” Gispen, p. 63.
The emphasis on the firstborn in the preceding context (4:22-23) would tend to favor Gershom being the uncircumcised son. The name of the son is not that important in this text, however, which is precisely why the matter is not clarified in the text.
107 A number of interpreters seem to feel that Moses failed to circumcise his son due to Zipporah’s disdain for this practice. This view is reflected in the statement, “It is generally the view of commentators that these words were an expression of reproach and unhappiness. They reflect the fact that Zipporah performed the rite grudgingly, not from a desire to obey the God of Moses, but primarily out of practical necessity to save his life. Perhaps Moses had neglected this rite in order to accommodate the wishes of Zipporah. In any event, he was punished by God and was apparently desperately sick.” Davis, p. 71.
I find no evidence to indicate that Zipporah is the problem, and in this passage, she is the solution while Moses is the problem.
108 “Some exegetes assume that Moses sent Zipporah and the children back to Jethro after the circumcision of Eliezer, in order to establish agreement with 18:1ff.; this is probably correct.” Gispen, p. 65.