Encountering God

A reflection on the call of Moses

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Moses is without equal in Jewish history. He is instrumental in saving the Hebrews from slavery and becomes the first and greatest of Israel’s prophets. Not unexpectedly, the Torah offers a profound insight into how he is called to serve God.

If the account of Moses’ first encounter with God in Exodus 3:1-15 offers the backstory needed to understand the role he plays in Israel’s history, it also outlines important principles about how God gets us to participate in his great plan of redemption.

The text begins with an allusion to Moses’ occupation as a shepherd at the employ of his father-in-law, Jethro. When God’s call comes to Moses, he is in the wilderness of Sinai, several weeks’ travel away from home, taking advantage of greener pastures for his flock.

Moses is not a man of great wealth nor is he socially prominent. But judging by his response to God, it’s safe to assume that Moses is content with his life and is not, at the age of 80, looking for a career change.

An encounter with God

But something extraordinary happens. Moses is about to have a supernatural encounter that will forever change his life.

“There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush” (Exod. 3:2).

God doesn’t just appear to Moses. There is first an allusion to the LORD’s messenger whose presence anticipates the imminent appearance of God himself. And then there is this mysterious bush that doesn’t burn up.

Initially, Moses does not realize the full significance of what he is witnessing. As a shepherd, he will have been familiar with this kind of bush, which would typically be a few feet in diameter at the most. That this bush would be burning in Moses’ vicinity will have immediately caught his attention.

But what triggers his curiosity is the bush itself, which keeps burning. It is the perfect “bait” to bring Moses to the place God wants him. This isn’t just a “strange” (Exod. 3:3) sight. It is “spectacular” (gadol).

Once Moses is near the bush, it is the LORD, Yahweh, who calls out to him: “Moses, Moses.” The repetition of the name is typically an indication of endearment. God does not wish to terrify Moses. That this was the case is confirmed by Moses’ prompt response: “Here I am.”

Now that the actors have been introduced, the stage is set for the crucial discussion that happens next. God sets the rules of the game. First, Moses is to remove his sandals, for the ground on which he stands is “holy.”

The ground is holy, set apart, or sacred only because Moses is in the presence of God. If something is said to be holy, it is only by association with God. Moses is told to remove his sandals as a sign of respect.

This is no gratuitous encounter between God and a man. God has an agenda. The Israelites are facing an existential threat. God not only wishes to deliver them from bondage but also intends to lead them into a land that will be theirs, a “land flowing with milk and honey” (v. 8).

God’s rescue plan

God has a rescue plan for his people, and Moses is going to play a critical role in its deployment: “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (v. 10).

What follows is a conversation, some might say a debate, between God and a reluctant Moses, who has no interest whatsoever in what God may have in mind for him. The sharp contrast between Moses and the enthusiastic Abraham (Gen 12:3) is stunning.

While Moses remains dutifully respectful, he doggedly refuses to be recruited by God. Moses’ unwillingness to take on God’s mandate comes to a head in Exodus 4:13, where Moses categorically rejects God’s proposal. But God will not take no for an answer: “Then the LORD’s anger burned against Moses” (v. 14). While God dutifully addresses every one of Moses’ objections, the option to walk away is not on the table.

Two reasons stand behind God’s intransigence. First, whether he acknowledges it or not, Moses is in God’s debt. God saved his life when he was an infant (Exod. 1) and allowed him to be raised by his own mother. Second, this is not about Moses or even about just rescuing the Hebrews.

Delivering the Hebrews is part of a more comprehensive master plan to save humanity. The Savior, the Son of God, no less, will be born of a Jewish woman, die for the sins of the world and rise from the dead. There is no plan B (Matt 26:39).

Moses did not have the option to refuse God’s call. The time has come for him to play his part. The question is not whether Moses will serve God but how and in what capacity that will happen.

This extraordinary story highlights several principles that we would do well to consider.

God’s call is strategic and opportunistic. Like Moses, most of those God calls into service are not wealthy and prominent people. Each person brings a unique set of skills and personality traits that God can use at critical points in his redemptive project (Eph. 2:10).

Can we not hear the thunderous echo of Mordecai’s words when he calls on Queen Esther to risk it all to save her people? “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14).

Once God saves us, he has a claim on our very lives. To be saved is to be ushered into a loving, dynamic and joyful relationship with the Creator of the universe. The moment we accept the gift of life, we become citizens of the kingdom of God. As such, we have privileges, responsibilities and obligations. To resist God’s call in our lives is to do so at our greatest peril.

To those God calls, he offers all the support required for the task at hand (John 14:26).

While we are not at liberty to deflect God’s claims upon our lives, the story of Moses’ encounter with God teaches that there is space for some legitimate pushback. Adam, Cain, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, Habakkuk and the psalmists offer notable examples of individuals who challenge God and live to tell the tale. God’s openness to dialogue with men and women reflects a unique and extraordinary feature of the Judeo-Christian faith.

God’s call is always a win-win proposition. God wins in that a precise part of his plan is carried out. Those who are called also win. They are given meaning, purpose and a reason to live that transcends the boundaries of human existence. As the magnificent Psalm 8 proclaims, they partake of God’s glory.

Answering God’s call in our lives doesn’t mean we understand everything. Like Moses, none of us ever see the whole picture. Sometimes we are given the grace of a small insight into the greater reality. Sometimes we are not.

What God asks of each one of us is to jump on the ice when invited to do so and to bring the best of who we are and what we have to the task at hand. The rest is up to God.

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