First impressions are important. Whether or not we’re purposely trying to impress the people we meet, we know that a first encounter can set the tone for a relationship. When people are an important part of our lives, we usually remember the first time we met them – what they said, what they didn’t say, how they made us feel. This means, of course, that when we are going to meet people for the first time, we do what we can to make the right impression.
Exodus 3–4 is about a first meeting, not just between God and Moses, but between God and Israel, since Moses becomes the go-between for God and the Israelites. As we look at this chapter, we should think about how this first meeting affects the ongoing relationship between God and God’s people – not just the Israelites, but us, the people of God today.
Of course, many of us do not think of Exod 3 as God’s first encounter with people. After all, God is the main character of the entire book of Genesis! Since Genesis clearly takes place before Exodus, and since the Israelites are descended from the main characters of Genesis (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons), then how can anyone say that Exod 3 is about a “first” meeting?
The answer to this question is very important not just for understanding Exodus, but also for understanding the message of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. So before we get into Exod 3, we need to think about how Genesis fits into Exodus.
Our Bible of course begins with Gen 1–11. But it is very likely that neither the patriarchs nor the Israelites knew the contents of these chapters, as there was no Bible at the time of Exod 3–4. Tradition teaches that Moses wrote Gen 1–11, under God’s direction, while the Israelites were in the wilderness, after the exodus from Egypt had taken place. Yes, of course the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), knew God. But there is no reason to think that they knew about God’s history before Abraham.
And while Gen 12–50 says a lot about God’s relationship with the patriarchs, it says very little about God himself. There is nothing in these chapters to suggest that God is all powerful, or all loving, or perfectly good. In fact, Gen 12–50 doesn’t even teach that there is only one god!
Of course, most readers get the idea from Gen 12–50 that God is good, powerful, loving, and so on. But as far as the Israelites of Exod 3 would have known, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was just one more god in a world of many gods.
This why the Old Testament as a whole talks more about the exodus from Egypt than about the things God did with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Important passages like 1 Sam 12:6–8, 1 Kgs 8:9–21, Neh 9:9–12, Ps. 78:12–13, Jer 31:31–34, and many others remind the Israelites of the events of Exod 1–20. (The fact that the Old Testament repeatedly talks about the exodus is one of the reasons that the book of Exodus is so important.)
In my first post I wrote about the shape and the basic idea of Exodus. While we tend to read Exodus as a long history or story about “what happened,” its structure is more sophisticated. Exodus is actually a story intertwined with conversations between God and Moses. The basic idea of these conversations could be called “Introduction to God.” The conversations complement the action to help human readers develop a picture of who God is. This means that the best strategy for us as readers is to think about the conversations in light of the action that surrounds them.
Exodus 3 is the first chapter in which God appears. To this point, God has been in the background. We get the sense that God is affecting events, perhaps “whispering” to different women in Exod 1 and 2. (For a fun Bible study, try looking at all the different ways in which women preserve life in Exod 1:15–2:10!) But except for giving families to the midwives in Exod 1:20–21, we do not see God acting directly. This makes Exod 1–2 the prologue to God’s dramatic entry.
Prior to Exod 3 the Israelites had been worshiping God, but they knew of God only from stories that appear in Genesis 12–50 about their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And since these stories do not say a whole lot about God and his personality, the Israelites had very little to go on, resulting in only the faintest of relationships with God. So Exod 3 really is the story of God meeting his people for the first time.
How might we “introduce” God to people who do not know him? We might talk about his characteristics – God’s love, power, knowledge, justice, mercy, and so forth. Or we might talk about what God has done in the past – how he created the world and everything in it. But God does not get into any of that when he meets Moses. Instead, God talks about Israel’s immediate need.
God’s first speech comes in verses 6–10. God begins by identifying himself as the God that the Israelites had been worshiping from way back – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But then, even though Moses is meeting God for the first time, God does not talk about himself. Instead, God goes straight to Israel’s need. God acknowledges that the Israelites are suffering and need help; God is now appearing to Moses to give that help. The Israelites do not just happen to stumble upon God; they do not decide on their own that God is the best choice for them. Instead, God comes to them at a time of desperation.
By making his introduction in this way, God stresses a relationship based on human need. This helps the Israelites to understand that their relationship with God will always depend on their need, and on God providing grace to meet that need. Human need for God’s grace sets the pattern of the Old Testament: as long the Israelites remember that they must always depend on God’s grace, things are OK. But when they forget about their need for God, they get into trouble.
This is a crucial lesson for Christians! Like the Israelites we are continually tempted to forget God’s work and think instead that we have somehow “earned” God’s grace (as if it were possible to “earn” a freely given gift!) We like to think that we deserve God’s blessings, because we are or were good, or noble, or obedient, or whatever.
It’s an enchanting thought, but bad theology. The reality is that one cannot be a Christian unless one recognizes a desperate need for salvation from sin. And recognizing this need is not just a one-time thing. Our need for God is continual.
The way that God meets the Israelites (through Moses) in Exodus 3 is the way that God meets human beings today. We have a desperate need to be free from the slavery of sin. Just like Israel in the Old Testament, we are prone to forget our continual need for God’s grace. But if we remind ourselves as individuals and as groups of that time when we first met God, when God saved us from the effects of sin, then maybe we can keep in mind our continual needs for God’s grace, and so stay out of trouble.
I’ll write more about Exod 3–4 next time.