This is the third of three posts about Exodus 3 (and, here, Exodus 4). While I tend to avoid getting into ALL the details of the passages I write about, this introduction to the relationship between God and human beings is worth the extra thought.
My last two posts explain how Exodus 3 introduces ideas that get developed and repeated all through the Bible. First, when God meets human beings, he meets us at our point of need: the Israelites were slaves, and God appointed Moses to lead them out of slavery. Second, God shares his personal name, “Yahweh,” (translated “the Lord,” with small capital letters, in most English Bibles), to help human beings develop an intimate relationship with him. In the Bible, God is not just an all-powerful force; he wants to relate to us on a personal level.
We now move on to a message that is more unique to the story of Moses: the account of Moses trying to avoid his call. I expect that most readers will have preached or taught on this idea from Exodus 3 and 4: over and over again Moses raises objections to God’s plan; over and over again, God shoots these objections down. The end is almost comical: having run out of arguments not to return to Egypt, Moses says, “Please send someone else.” Of course, this doesn’t persuade God any more than any of Moses’s other objections did.
Exodus 3–4 teaches a great lesson about calling: when God tells us to do something, our best bet is to obey, since God will get his way sooner or later! But many readers do not quite get where Moses is coming from as he objects to God. When we read Exodus 3 in the light of Exodus 1 and 2, Moses’s reasons for objecting become a lot clearer.
I’ve written several times in previous posts that Moses and God are the main characters of Exodus, so that much of the genius of Exodus comes from God’s conversations with Moses, interspersed with the action. Yet Exodus does not start with Moses. Instead, it opens with a few success stories.
Read Exodus 1:8–2:10. Notice that no fewer than six women decide to defy Pharaoh’s command to kill Hebrew boys! All six triumph: the Hebrew boys survive, and none of the women suffer in any way. So, through 2:10, Exodus is a book of small victories: those who take risks and courageously do the right thing, win.
The first person in Exodus to break this pattern is: Moses. In Exodus 2:11 Moses, at this point a young man and a member of the upper classes of Egyptian society, goes out from his home and witnesses an injustice: an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Following in the steps of the women before him, Moses courageously takes a risk to make things better in his little corner of the universe. He assesses the situation, and when he determines that no one is looking, he acts to correct the injustice, killing the Egyptian oppressor, then hiding the body.
What is Moses thinking as he strikes the Egyptian? Does he imagine that he is starting a great rebellion, or does he think only that his fellow Hebrews will be happy with him? Or perhaps like many young men Moses is not thinking much at all, but is just reacting. What we know for sure, however, is that the situation ends up a disaster. Moses’s fellow Hebrews are not grateful, his act of homicide becomes known, and he has to flee Egypt to escape execution for murder. By 2:15 Moses is in every way a failure.
This disaster is nevertheless followed by a period of personal fulfillment and peace. In verse 17 Moses again tries to rectify an injustice: when shepherds drive the daughters of the “priest of Midian” away from a well, Moses comes to their aid, so that they can water their flocks. Unlike his killing of the Egyptian, this action earns Moses some recognition and reward: he goes to work for the women’s father, and marries one of his daughters. Moses is finally successful. His career in Egypt has ended ingloriously, and he has failed at leading a slave rebellion, but in 2:16–22 he shows that he’s pretty good at shepherd life. So in Exodus 3:1 we should understand that Moses seems to be exactly where he should be, managing his responsibilities as shepherd, husband, and father.
We need to keep this backstory in mind when we think about Moses’s objections to God’s call in 3:10–4:17. Moses has not forgotten his Egyptian failure. At this point in his life (according to Exodus 7:7 Moses is 80 years old!) he is past his prime, long beyond serving in any kind of leadership position, no longer young and full of energy. He also has a wife and sons (Exodus 4:20) to think about. If he could not succeed when he had youthful energy and a powerful title on his side, then how can he expect things to work now? So Moses raises all kinds of objections, hoping to be allowed to live out his life in peace, doing things that he is good at doing.
The story of Moses here is an important lesson for all of us in ministry. If I were counseling him in Exodus 3, I would be inclined to second his objections! I would want to say, “Moses, this calling is not for you. Let a younger man who has some positive experience and does not have family responsibilities take this on.” And, of course, my inclinations would be wrong.
Out of all of the people of the Old Testament, Moses arguably has the strongest connection to God (see Numb 12:6–8). This is despite the fact that Moses spends so much of Exodus 3–4 trying to get out of following God’s call! Is it possible that Moses’s unique relationship with God comes about precisely because he ends up with the courage to obey?
Much of Exodus is about Israel’s need for faith. If it seems like God asks a lot of Israel in Exodus, and asks a lot of us today, let’s keep in mind that at the end of the day Moses said “OK” when God asked an awful lot of him!