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Moses Is the Wrong Kind of Model in Exodus 3

We don’t have to confront Pharaoh, so let’s not make excuses for our calling.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Exodus 3

In this lesson, you want to set the historical and geographical stage for the Exodus. We also meet Moses, the Great I Am (in a burning bush), the problem with Pharaoh, Moses’ doubts, foreshadowing of Israel’s failure, and God’s persistent reassurance in the face of lots of excuses. Take your pick of emphases!

 I am sending you to Pharaoh so that you may lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt. (3:10)

[Editor's Note: I added this lesson to our website many years after initially writing it, so many years in fact that "AI-generated art" had become available through our web provider. I have used all of the "famous" renderings of the burning bush in previous resources, so I decided to use something totally original. I have never seen a burning bush quite like this one ...]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

This is a tricky lesson! You have way more to cover in the time you have, so you need to create a detailed lesson plan, deciding what you want to emphasize.

Eclipse Glasses (Seeing Something You’ve Never Seen Before). When I was in college, I did a little welding and had to use the massive face shield. It’s a bizarre experience if you haven’t done it—you can’t see a thing until you actually start the weld, which is unbelievably bright. Wearing the eclipse glasses reminded me a lot of that. I put them on and couldn’t see a thing. But then I looked at the sun and saw this perfect circle. During the eclipse, I saw the dark circle of the moon pass in front of it. What was amazing was that even at the bitter end when there was just a sliver of sun remaining, I couldn’t see anything but a blinding glow.

Bring up the number of optical tools we have for that kind of purpose: telescopes, microscopes, diving masks, infrared, etc. When you look through them, the world looks completely different! Now, God condescended to Moses in such a way that Moses could still use his normal eyes (the burning bush), but what Moses saw fundamentally changed his life. What have your “eyes of faith” revealed to you about the world we live in?

History and Geography! Yeah!! I’ve put a map at the bottom with some labels about where all of these funny-named people lived. But this topic can really help you understand these books. Mesopotamia is “the cradle of civilization”; the first and greatest empires were centered there. But Egypt developed alongside of them, isolated from them by the desert of Sinai. Mesopotamia had no natural barriers to protect the peoples from one another, and they had extremely unpredictable weather (from drought to flood without warning). Life was incredibly unstable out there. Egypt, on the other hand, had protection from invasion on all sides. And the Nile is one of the most predictable rivers in the world. This allowed Egypt to develop into one of the truly great ancient cultures (and also made it really prone to stagnation). Life was incredibly stable in Egypt. See: whereas the Mesopotamians had many warrior gods that they worshiped out of fear, the Egyptians had mighty gods they worshiped out of love. And in time, because ruling dynasties lasted for centuries, the Pharaoh became one of those gods. Many people (like Abraham) fled from the Near East to Egypt in times of drought. And any time there was a major movement of people, they went right through Canaan. Abraham lived around 2000 BC during the “Middle Kingdom” of Egypt. That was a long period of rebuilding until the Hyksos uprising (see inside) which took place while the Israelites were living in Egypt and almost certainly explains why life was made so harsh for them. There is a lot of scholarly debate about dates and names; don’t get hung up in that trap!

Setting and Date for Exodus

I addressed this back when we covered Joshua, but it’s helpful to review. Moses likely wrote both Exodus and Leviticus. People argue about when the Exodus took place (or if it’s just a legend) and what exactly happened during it. We know that the Israelites had “grown up” in Egypt after Joseph relocated his family there. They stayed in Egypt for 430 years, eventually being turned into slaves (see the sidebar about the Hyksos). The Israelites grew extremely numerous by the blessing of God (though they didn’t really know much about God), causing the Egyptians to try to come up with ways to thin them out. Moses ‘ mother saved him from infanticide by sneaking him into Pharaoh’s court, though he later fled into the wilderness (see the sidebar about Moses). Eventually, God answered the cries of the Israelites by recalling Moses from exile to lead the people out of Egypt (more on this in the next three weeks). When exactly did God call Moses? That gets into two more debates: who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus (save this for next week!), and when did the Exodus take place? There are two primary dates for the Exodus: an “early date” around 1450 BC and a “late date” around 1275 BC. 1 Kings 6:1 puts the Exodus 480 years before Solomon built the Temple, lining up with the “early date”. The problem historians have with the early date is threefold: (1) the name “Rameses” doesn’t really appear in Egyptian records until 1300 BC; (2) the Pharaoh of the early date, Amenhotep II, was about the most powerful of all pharaohs; (3) there’s not much evidence for a major military campaign in Canaan before 1300 BC. (Again, hold off on Pharaoh until next week.) As for the rest, there’s not enough to make me doubt a literal interpretation of 1 Kings 6:1 and hold an “early date” of the Exodus, although the circumstantial evidence certainly points toward the “late date”. Realize that the debate over the year of the Exodus doesn’t affect what happened during the Exodus. The debate has become a “thing” by virtue of the “early date” having become associated with conservative Christianity and the “late date” with liberal Christianity. But the date doesn’t really have anything to do with that—just how you interpret certain passages.

The Quarter in Review

There are so many major topics to address in this quarter, but I want to spread them out so as not to overwhelm any one particular week. Here’s my plan for when to address key issues (just so you know):

(1) Sept 3: Moses, burning bush

  (2) Sept 10: Pharaoh, plagues

(3) Sept 17: Passover  

   (4) Sept 24: Red Sea, Egyptian army

(5) Oct 1: Manna, size of Israel

   (6) Oct 8: Mount Sinai

(7) Oct 15: Ark, Tabernacle

   (8) Oct 22: Golden Calf, Ten Commandments

(9) Oct 29: Priesthood, purity

   (10) Nov 5: Offerings

(11) Nov 12: worship, unclean

   (12) Nov 19: Day of Atonement

(13) Nov 26: Covenant

It will please you to see that there are just 4 lessons in Leviticus. It’s really just hitting the high points. And they are also condensing the 20 chapters of laws in Exodus into just two lessons. Breathe easier!


The Purpose of Exodus/Leviticus

Using The Bible Project as our guide, we know why these two books are so important to the overall biblical story. The history of Israel is presented as a kind of microcosm of the history of humanity—enslaved (to sin) but unable to escape and unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary; given rules for right living but failing to keep them; approached time and again by God but rebuffing Him. Exodus shows us everything that’s wrong with humanity (even God’s chosen people). Leviticus shows us what it will take for humanity to be right with God (basically impossible). But this story is also presented in such a way that Jesus can later “recapitulate” it. Matthew in particular shows Jesus going through all of these situation but making the right choice each time. Jesus gives a new “Ten Commandments” (the Sermon on the Mount); Jesus “builds” a better Tabernacle; Jesus gives the full meaning for the Day of Atonement and the Passover. All of those things find their roots in Exodus and Leviticus.

What we “skip”. The lesson picks up in chapter 3 after quite a few important events have happened, but the Leader Guide gives a fine summary. Don’t assume that everyone knows the story! Give an overview, and include however many details you think necessary to help them understand what’s going on.


Part 1: The Approach (3:4-6) (make it 3:1-6)

Meanwhile, Moses was shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. Then the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire within a bush. As Moses looked, he saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed. So Moses thought, “I must go over and look at this remarkable sight. Why isn’t the bush burning up?” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses, Moses!” “Here I am,” he answered. “Do not come closer,” he said. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he continued, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

I think you should go all the way back to verse 1 in order to set the stage. Moses had fled to Midian, a region occupied by some of Abraham’s descendants (Gen 25:1-2). “Horeb” is another name for Mount Sinai (which we will talk about later in the quarter), but it’s important to set up this pivotal location. And then we have the inimitable appearance of the Angel of the Lord in the burning bush (see the next page), something that has captured imagination for centuries. Google “Moses and the burning bush” and you’ll see how every attempt we make clearly comes up short. And all of that to say—it was just to get Moses’ attention! :) When Moses approaches, God then speaks. “Take off your sandals” is a common demonstration of respect in the Near East; Muslims still do so before entering a mosque today. The action helped Moses see the holiness of God and his need to be humble in God’s presence. So….why don’t we take our shoes off in church today? Because we realize that our church buildings are not any more holy/sacred than anywhere else. They are set apart by purpose, not by presence. Christians are the temple of God by the Holy Spirit; everywhere we go is thus equally holy. That’s what we need to take away from this action.

And thus reenters Moses into a critical era in human history. Moses was in exile; he probably thought he would die there. According to Acts 7, Moses was 40 when he fled Egypt, and he was 80 now. Imagine his shock! Note that God took the initiative to protect Moses and introduce Himself. From the very beginning, Moses would associate God with holiness and ancestry. And most of Moses’ job would be to later teach the Israelites about God’s holiness and their big relationship. Importantly, this is not some new god that has appeared to Moses—it is the God of Moses’ history. God thus connects this appearance to Abraham’s promise. I have to wonder how much of that Moses really knew—my guess is that Jethro told him that bit of their joint history. So here are your three questions to ask your group: (1) How do you think Moses felt when he heard his name called from a burning bush? (2) Why do you think God chose this method? (3) If you had been Moses, how would you be feeling as you are talking to the bush? If you want to make the fun follow-up, ask this: how do you know when you’re in for a strange day? You can play into that by doing something strange to start the morning—set up in a different chair then usual. Put something strange on the walls. Do something different but don’t call attention to it; say that’s a bit how Moses felt—something was different, but he didn’t realize where it would lead.


Aside: The Hyksos

According to ancient Egyptian records, there was a period of time when the Nile delta region fell under the control of foreigners (“Hyksos”). Egypt regularly received visitors from the east (Near East/Asia, like Abraham) when drought and famine drove them to the delta where the Nile’s regular and dependable flood stage made the croplands extra fertile and productive. But unlike Abraham, many such groups stayed. Eventually, Egypt had a series of weak kings (the end of the Middle Kingdom), emboldening some of these foreign groups to declare their independence. After a time, one such rebel united the various foreign ethnicities to actually conquer the Nile delta region in 1786 BC. The Egyptians retreated and maintained a southern kingdom centered on Thebes until they gathered enough strength to reconquer their land in 1540 under Ahmose. Here’s the impact:

The “late date” of the Exodus possibly puts Joseph in Egypt around 1700 BC, right in the thick of the Hyksos rule. Some historians believe it makes more sense that Joseph would be elevated within a court of foreigners like him. But others say that Joseph was clearly of a different culture than the Egyptian rulers, which would lead to an “early date” of the Exodus (Joseph being in Egypt around 1850 BC). Either date would explain why the Egyptians eventually saw the Israelites as a threat and subjected them to slavery. The question then become how long were the Israelites slaves? 400 years (Gen 15:13)? 430 years (Ex 12:30)? Did those spans begin before the Israelites settled? There are more questions than we have space or time to deal with here.


Part 2: The Assignment (3:7-10)

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt, and have heard them crying out because of their oppressors. I know about their sufferings, and I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and to bring them from that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the territory of the Canaanites, Hethites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. So because the Israelites’ cry for help has come to me, and I have also seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them, therefore, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh so that you may lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Wow. No pressure. See the bottom for more on the geography. Here’s the traditional Jewish explanation for “milk and honey”: livestock only overflows with milk when it is particularly well-nourished. And “honey”, understood here to be fruit nectar, only overflows when trees are particularly well-watered. It is possible this refers to bee’s honey, knowing that bees were domesticated in Egypt during Moses’ day. But there’s limited evidence of them in Canaan.

This story is well-known. Here are some textual comments: “observed” emphasizes God’s attentiveness, and “known” has a connotations of intimacy. Together with “heard” means that God is completely aware of everything going on. Plus, God uses a rare verb tense that means “absolutely”. “Come down” is such a great image (and it’s where we get the idea of heaven being above us). The word “rescue” has a general sense, not just physical deliverance but including the spiritual overtones. And God includes the opposition, as well. It is not just that God will rescue the Israelites; He will also confront the Egyptians. To move through this section quickly, say that you will be talking about Pharaoh and the actual events of the Exodus in the weeks to come. Much still to cover today!


Aside: Theophany

I’ve brought this up many times over the years, but it never hurts to restate. “Theophany” refers to an appearance of God. It has to be done in some sort of “disguise” because as God says, no one can look at Him and live. Sometimes we have these amazing encounters like in a burning bush. The biggest ones in Exodus are the recurring appearances of the cloud and the flame (literally throughout the book—from the Red Sea to Sinai to the Tabernacle). There are many appearances of God in a vision or dream (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel chief among them).

But most often, the appearance of God is as “the Angel of the Lord” as it is in our passage (compounded with the burning bush—I guess something that would get Moses’ attention in a natural(?) way). Significant examples of this includes God appearing to Hagar (Gen 16:7-14), to Abraham (Gen 22:11-15), to Moses, to Balaam (Num 22:22-38), to all of Israel (Jud 2:1-3), to Gideon (Jud 6”11-23), and to Samson’s parents (Jud 13:3-22). There are many debates as to what this means, mostly to the effect of “How is an angel a decent disguise for God?” Or “Why would God need to disguise Himself as an angel? Why not just send an angel?” The one that I find interesting is that these appearances are actually of Jesus—God the Son. In that, I can see how Jesus would be taking the appearance He would have as a grown man. My only problem with that is it seems to create a confusion between Father and Son (and maybe not, considering the Jews had no idea such a distinction existed). All of that to say—verse 2 is one of the most profound verses in the entire Bible.


Part 3: The Authority (3:11-14)

But Moses asked God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He answered, “I will certainly be with you, and this will be the sign to you that I am the one who sent you: when you bring the people out of Egypt, you will all worship God at this mountain.” Then Moses asked God, “If I go 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 should I tell them?” God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”

Let’s be honest—Moses is pushing it. It possible to argue that the first question was a humble-brag, but the next section rules that out. The second might be true curiosity but seems more like a test. God gives direct (and patient) answers to both. The first demanded faith; the proof that God has the authority to tell Moses to do this great thing would not be had until after when they all returned to this spot. That’s clearly intentional and hearkens back to God’s exchanges with Abraham and Sarah (that Moses would learn about when he wrote Genesis). The second answer might be the most important words a human ear has ever heard: I Am Who I Am. The name given is “YHWH” (Hebrew has no vowels). People had long been calling God by this name (Gen 4:26), and the Jews would have known it from their stories of Abraham (Gen 12:8), and Moses might have learned it from Jethro. If this is a test from Moses to God, I can’t decide if that is bold and prudent or cheeky and foolish. The word God uses is actually a verb form meaning “I am”. The word YHWH (which when we supply the likely vowels becomes Yahweh) actually means “He is”. (Hebrew pronunciation gets confusing.) Use your study Bible or Bible dictionary for more information about the Divine Name (if you need it).

Ask your group: what do you think we can take away from God’s answers to Moses? What universal promises are there?


Part 4: The Assurance (4:13-16)

Moses said, “Please, Lord, send someone else.” Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses, and he said, “Isn’t Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, he is on his way now to meet you. He will rejoice when he sees you. You will speak with him and tell him what to say. I will help both you and him to speak and will teach you both what to do. He will speak to the people for you. He will serve as a mouth for you, and you will serve as God to him.”

So much to unpack here, so little time. Moses truly doubts himself—use that to encourage your group members! So, what about this “God’s anger” bit? Well, this exchange actually sets up the rest of the book. Israel did not trust God enough to take the Promised Land, so God punished them with 40 years of wandering. Moses did not trust God enough to lead Israel, so God removed the honor of being the sole leader (resulting in some awkward power struggles). This is a little tongue-in-cheek from God; God knows all of this already, but Moses has to be brought along slowly. These verses also clearly establish the hierarchy between Moses and Aaron, something Aaron will forget time and again. Moses is the one who speaks to God, not Aaron. Note that Aaron is not rejoicing to see Moses but rather to hear what God has appointed Moses to do. (Note: if you have time, take your group through the in-between verses in chapters 3&4.)

Wrap it all up with some obvious application questions: what is the implication of God calling Moses to do something in spite of his doubts? What kind of excuses did Moses give? What does it mean that Aaron was already on the way when God called to Moses? What holds you back from obeying God in His every call in your life? (You might have to point out that God doesn’t just call pastors and missionaries; every Christian is called in service of different kinds.)


Aside: Preaching Barefoot

I know of several preachers who make a point of removing their shoes before their preach. And then explain how holy it is to preach the Word of God. Sheesh. I guess I know what they think they’re trying to say, but they dangerously misrepresent the whole purpose of that exchange with Moses. Is preaching more holy than worshiping in song? In prayer? Is it more holy than sharing the gospel? Of course not. God was showing Moses the separation between sinful man and holy God—call it a preview of Leviticus. That’s all been taken care of for us in Jesus Christ, so creating an artificial barrier again is just modern sacramentalism. But it’s also just wrong. Did Moses take his shoes off to preach? To confront Pharaoh in the power of God? During the Passover? No all around. It was a symbol of a moment to teach a lesson. And that was that.


Closing Thoughts: The Tenants

Obviously, a place as fertile as the land of Canaan is going to be filled with people. None of these groups is able to form a lasting dynasty because of the instability of the region (being the main road between the great empires of the Near East and the great empire of Egypt). Don’t get hung up on the list of names in Ex 3:8; compare it with Gen 10:15-18, 13:7, 15:19-21, Num 13:29, Deut 7:1. “Hethite” is the ancient name of the people who became the Hittites (see Gen 10:15). Perizzite probably refers to the nomadic people of the region (see Gen 13:7). The name “Hivite” doesn’t occur outside of the Bible, leading some to wonder if this is the same as “Horite”. We know that “Jebusite” refers to the ancient people who controlled the region of Jerusalem.




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