THE CALL OF MOSES
Exodus 3:1-4:31, Key Verse: 3:10
“So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
Today we are looking at the next great turning point in Moses’ life, when he heard God calling him and took the first steps in his life’s mission. We learn so much here about God: his holiness, the good things he wants to do for his people, and how he helps the people the chooses for his purpose. We can also learn a lot from Moses’ very human struggle to accept the mission God was giving him. We’ll see that when God’s time has come for someone to be used for a great purpose, nothing can stand against that work. I pray that today we can find ways to be strengthened, gaining a spiritual viewpoint on our life and calling. The message has four parts.
I. Moses meets God after many years (3:1-6)
As we saw in the previous passage, the circumstances of Moses’ birth, his being hidden by his parents for three months, placed in a basket in the Nile, and discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, all indicated that Moses was destined for an extraordinary life. We saw that when Moses grew up, he was filled with a sense of justice and desire to help his own people. However, we also saw how he totally failed in his first attempt to act on these impulses: his help was rejected by his own people, and he had to flee from Egypt for his life.
The next stage of Moses’ life began when he helped seven daughters of a Midianite named Jethro to water their flocks, fending off some aggressive shepherds. For doing this, Moses was welcomed into the household of Jethro, where he learned the life of a shepherd. It was a very humble life compared to being a prince in Egypt, but at that point Moses had no other options. In time, Moses married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah and had a son. Moses lived this way in the wilderness of Midian, tending Jethro’s flocks, for 40 years. Forty years far from civilization, forty years which included many long stretches of solitude with nothing but mute sheep for company. Forty years was plenty of time for all of Moses’ former ambitions to slowly fade away. Was he content with his life? Maybe. But maybe there was also some small spark of desire inside him to be a part of something greater.
Where Exodus Chapter 3 begins, Moses is doing what he always did, tending the flocks of Jethro. On this day, Moses happened to lead the flocks to a place called Horeb, which unbeknownst to Moses was the very place where God wanted to reveal himself to his people. But first, God wanted to meet Moses personally. Verse 2 says, “There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush.” When Moses saw this burning bush, he became very curious, because the bush kept burning but was never consumed. So he went to take a closer look. It’s interesting that God did not directly interrupt Moses but lured him first with this strange sight.
When the Lord saw that Moses had come over, he called out to him: “Moses! Moses!” How would you react if a burning bush started speaking to you and knew your name? The Bible only records Moses as simply saying, “Here I am.” It seems Moses is ready to listen to the bush; at least he didn’t run away. Next the bush gave Moses some special instructions: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
One Moses’ shoes are off, God can tell Moses to whom who he is speaking. In verse 6 God speaks from the bush: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Moses must have heard the stories of his ancestors, of how when one man, Abraham, followed a divine calling, he had now become the numerous people of the twelve tribes. Realizing who was speaking to him, Moses was overcome with holy fear and he hid his face. He was afraid to look at God! From this we can see that Moses has the basic fear of God in his heart.
In the brief first moments of this encounter, God has already taught so much about himself. Why do you think God appeared in the form of a burning bush? I think one reason is to show God’s power. Fire is one of the most dynamic and powerful phenomena of nature. Later, God will manifest himself to all Israel as a pillar of fire. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses will tell Israel, “The Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Dt 4:24). It’s also important that God did not appear in any specific bodily form. That’s to prevent idolatry, teaching that God is spirit and doesn’t have a form like that of creatures.
Lastly, God taught Moses his holiness. God is holy, and the place where he dwells is holy, which means set apart from the sin-corrupted world. Moses had to take his shoes off to know that this meeting with God was not a casual, everyday encounter. It’s only grace that allows us sinners to even approach a holy God. When we receive God’s calling, it’s so important for us to learn the character of God who is doing the calling, because that is what we rely on. Next we learn more about God’s nature through what he is planning to do.
II. God’s mission for Moses (3:7-22)
Notice that in this meeting, God does not say anything about Moses himself, whether he thinks Moses is good or bad. He doesn’t even bring up Moses’ past. But it’s implied that God has accepted Moses, because he gives him his mission. God quickly gets down to business, to what he wants to use Moses to do. In verse 7 the Lord says, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” Think what this teaches us about the heart of God! Sometimes when times are hard, we may feel like God is not paying much attention to affairs down here on earth. But here God assures Moses that he has both seen and heard everything that his people have been going through. He knows about their misery. Most of all, the Lord says he is concerned about it. God cares. In verse 9 God says, “And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.” The cry of God’s people reaches his ears, and he is concerned. That’s why Peter could write in 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
Of course, being concerned is of limited value if one doesn’t also do something about it. But we don’t have to doubt that God is going to do something when he is concerned; for God, compassion and action are inseparable. Verse 8 shows how clearly God had made up his mind. He says: “So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.” God is preparing a divine rescue mission for his people oppressed by slavery. God says he has “come down” to do this. The Exodus is actually a prefiguration of God’s salvation in Jesus. In the Exodus, God would not come down to quite the same extent he did when the word became flesh in Jesus. But the concept is there—God is not a passive God; God is intervening in human history to bring salvation.
God further shows his good will for his people, saying that after he rescues them from the Egyptians he will “bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.” God wouldn’t set his people free just to leave them in the desert. He was preparing a rich land for them to live in, where they could prosper. The phrase “land of milk and honey” is well-worn now, but to the people of Israel, it would be so meaningful, indicating a land of agricultural richness. Milk comes from cows, and cows require green pastureland to graze on. Honey is sweet, so it symbolizes that life could be sweet instead of bitter as it now was in their enslaved condition. Of course, God’s greatest blessings are not material, but God is starting with what his people can understand. God’s desire is not just to save people but to bless them indeed.
How was God going to bring these great things about? That’s our key verse, Chapter 3 verse 10: “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” God was planning to use Moses to do all this, sending him back to Egypt, the land he had fled from so many years before. Wow. How could Moses react to a job offer like this? We might imagine Moses saying, “It’s about time! I knew I was destined for great things. Let’s go!” But Moses was not like that, at least not anymore. Verse 11 shows how Moses did respond. “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’”
Actually, this is the best answer. “Who am I” means that Moses doesn’t see anything in himself that makes him qualified for a mission of this immensity. He doesn’t think he is anybody special. And so, God gave Moses an answer that didn’t have anything to do with Moses’ ability. In verse 12 God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” In some sense, it didn’t even matter who Moses was. The important part was that God would be with him. As we know, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Ro 8:31) God promised that the mission would succeed and that Moses would bring all the freed people of Israel back to this very mountain where he was talking with God.
But of course, in another sense, it mattered very much who Moses was, because God had been preparing Moses for this moment his whole life. We know Moses had some strong elements in his background, his education, and so on. But the most important preparations were the ones that made Moses humble—the “wilderness training” that led him to say, “Who am I?” When Moses was emptied of himself, he was ready to depend on God, and then God could use him. Now, forty years later, God was ready to begin fulfilling his hope for Moses’ life, and the fact that he had earlier been rejected by his own people made no difference at all.
Moses, however, was not yet sure of all this. There were still a lot of obstacles that he could see in the way. In verse 13 Moses said to God, “Suppose 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?’ Then what shall I tell them?” Moses knew that if he was going to be God’s representative, he had to be able to explain exactly on whose behalf he was speaking. He himself needed to know God better. Up to this point, in speaking to Moses God had not given himself a proper name, merely using the general term “God”, as in “the God of your father”.
In fact, it was God’s desire to reveal the profound realities of himself to his people. As the one true Almighty God, God could not have a name like any ordinary person, or even like the gods of other nations. A name is usually chosen to represent specific qualities of the thing named. But what kind of qualities could God have, who created everything else with all its qualities? Verse 14 says, “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God calls himself “I am” because the fundamental quality of the one true God is his existence. Unlike the existence of everything else, which is conditional based on God’s will and pleasure and potentially temporary, God’s existence is truly unconditional. The name I AM implies God’s eternity and absolute existence.
From this point, the proper name of God is printed as “Lord” in small capitals in our NIV Bible. This is how the Hebrew word “Yahweh” is translated, which as the footnote says, sounds like the Hebrew for “I am”. The Lord tells Moses that this is the name by which God’s people will call him from generation to generation. It is part of our faith as well—when we make the confession of faith “Jesus is Lord,” we are saying that Jesus has the same divine identity as the God who revealed himself as I AM through Moses.
To further reassure Moses, the Lord showed that he knew everything that was going to happen. Moses’ first step was to report this good news to the Elders of Israel. God promised that the elders would listen to Moses, at least at first. Then they were to go together to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and ask to take the Israelites on a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord. Did you notice that? Moses was not to ask Pharaoh to set the people free entirely, but to make a much more reasonable request for just a three-day journey. It’s like asking your boss for three days off work to attend the Bible conference. But God knew that Pharaoh would not consent to even this, and that Pharaoh’s heart would grow even more hardened. In this way, through an escalating series of confrontations, the Lord would show his people his almighty power through the wonders he would perform in judgment of Pharaoh, until he would be forced to let the people go completely. Witnessing this, the people of Israel could learn to put their trust in the Lord.
Finally, God tells Moses, “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. 22 Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” (3:21-22). This is significant, not only because it means the people of Israel would have some initial funds to support themselves with, but because it shows the character of how they would leave Egypt—they would leave not with the characteristic of escaping slaves but as a nation victorious in war, including the spoils. We can apply this to our salvation too. When Jesus rescues us from the devil’s grip, he makes us not just escapees but more than conquerors, and he gives spiritual gifts by which we can build up the church as a holy nation. Thank God that when he gives us a mission, he has already prepared everything for us to be victors in it.
III. Moses struggles with doubt (4:1-17)
Despite all the great promises God has given indicating the how and why of this rescue mission’s success, Moses still has misgivings in his heart, and he expresses them honestly to God. In Chapter 4 verse 1 Moses says, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?” Admittedly, it’s true that the claim that one has been spoken to by God might be viewed skeptically.
So God gave Moses three signs that he could demonstrate before his people: he could throw his staff on the ground, and it would turn into a snake and then back into a staff. He could put his hand inside his cloak and pull it out looking like it was covered in leprosy and then put it back in again and it would be healed. And he would be able to take some water from the Nile River and pour it on the ground and it would turn into blood. These were visible proofs that also demonstrated nature of God’s creation power.
These are great; however, at this point Moses reveals that he actually has something else bothering him. In Chapter 4 verse 10, Moses says to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” Moses understood that this mission would involve him speaking authoritatively to people in very high positions. We might compare it to having to convince Jeff Bezos to double the salary of all his warehouse workers. Moses thought he could not confront Pharaoh because he was self-conscious about being a poor speaker. Moses claims he has never been eloquent, which seems strange because we know he was highly educated in Egypt. But it’s true that even many smart and well-educated people struggle with public speaking. Maybe in Pharaoh University, Moses got straight A’s in all classes except for public speaking, getting a C minus in that. If you’ve ever seen the movie The King’s Speech, you know that King George VI of England, Queen Elizabeth’s father, had a severe stammer that made him terrified of public speaking. And he was the king! He really had to struggle to overcome it so he could speak and encourage his people during the dark days of World War II.
However, Moses is not thinking rightly here. God has already promised to be with Moses and provide him everything he needs, so we have to conclude that the attitude Moses is displaying here is not humility anymore, but the reluctance that comes from doubt in God’s ability. So the Lord rebukes Moses, saying, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” Even though God’s earlier indications of his almighty power seem to have been quickly forgotten by Moses, God graciously extends a promise of additional help specifically in regard to his speaking.
But maybe even the speech problem was not Moses’ real problem, because in verse 13 Moses finally just goes for broke and says, “Please send someone else.” In this we see Moses’ faith hitting its current limit. He could not summon the courage to believe that this mission would be a cross that he could bear. At this, it says the Lord’s anger burned against Moses; Moses was inexcusably slow to believe. But even then, God makes yet another concession, saying, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well… I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.”
I believe having his older brother going along with him was the best human help Moses could hope for. It’s funny that Moses asked the Lord to send someone else, and of course Moses was not let off the hook; but the Lord did send someone else with Moses. There is no shame in wanting someone else to co-work with. Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two, and many mission organizations have successfully emulated that model.
Thank God that he was so patient in helping build up Moses’ courage. The Lord helps us overcome every kind of shortcoming and doubt about the mission he gives us to do.
IV. The first steps of Moses’ mission (4:18-31)
Finally Moses decided to go. He got permission from his father-in-law Jethro, and then put his wife and sons on a donkey and started back to Egypt with the staff of God.
On the way, in one of the more difficult events in the Bible to understand, the Lord met Moses at a lodging place and was about to kill him. Why would God do this after having chosen Moses? We see that the issue was that Moses had failed to circumcise his son. Circumcision was the one unchangeable requirement God gave Abraham for his descendants to keep as God’s covenant people. Interestingly, it is Zipporah, Moses’ wife, who figures out what needs to be done and does it, saving their lives. Maybe the purpose of this is to show Moses that without God’s covenant of grace, even Moses isn’t exempt from the price of sin. We know that the freedom of the Israelites will ultimately only be obtained with blood. So Zipporah called Moses “a bridegroom of blood.”
After that, Moses had a happy reunion with Aaron, and they met with the elders of Israel, reporting everything the Lord had told Moses and showing them the signs. What was the response? Verse 31 says simply, “They believed. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” This is very significant because in a small way, Moses is already helping the nation of Israel be restored to worship God. Though difficult confrontations are ahead, God gave Moses some firstfruits of success in his mission. Moses indeed brought good news to his people.
Today we learned through Moses that God calls someone to a specific mission at just the right time, even though they may not feel they are ready. Let’s pray to keep our hope alive for God to continue to use us greatly, no matter how long it’s been since anything seemingly interesting has happened. Let’s pray to strengthen our faith in God’s provision and the victory he gives us. Our human limitations are no limitation. With the Lord’s help, we can even move beyond the level of Moses in this passage, who said, “Please send someone else.” We can move up to Isaiah-level, who said… “Here am I. Send me.”