Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.Exodus 3:1-15
My sermon from the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 3, 2023) on Exodus 3:1:15
Robert Altar is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley and he published a complete translation of the Hebrew Bible in 2018. Translations made by one person can be a bit problematic since their conscious and unconscious biases often show up in the work. Yet they also have the opportunity to notice how different themes and ideas are engaged with by the different books within the Bible. Professor Altar, after translating the sections devoted to Moses’s story, noticed something specific that the Biblical authors were paying attention to. He wrote: “the general rule in Exodus, and again in Numbers when the story continues, is that what is of interest about the character of Moses is what bears on his qualities as a leader – his impassioned sense of justice, his easily ignited temper, his selfless compassion, his feelings of personal inadequacy. Alone among biblical characters, he is assigned an oddly generic epithet – the man Moses. There may be some theological motivate for this designation, in order to remind us of his plainly human status, to ward off any inclination to deify the founding leader of the Israelite people, but it also suggests more concretely that Moses as forger of the nation and prince of prophets is, after all, not an absolutely unique figure but a [person]… bringing to the soul-trying tasks of leadership both the moral and temperamental resources and the all-too-human weaknesses that many … may possess.” Moses was more than an almost superhuman figure living through a biblical story full of blockbuster special effects. Moses was also a person with gifts, abilities, and experiences that shaped who he was. After being rescued from genocide by the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Moses was raised as an Egyptian in the home of the the Pharoah’s daughter. He grew up, fully aware of his background and his current privilege. When he came upon an Egyptian brutalizing an Isrealite, Moses killed the Egyptian and then fled into the land of Midian located in the north-west corner of the Arabian Peninsula. While there, he made a new life for himself by marrying into the family of a local religious leader and took on the job of managing his father-in-law’s sheep. He lived there for the next forty years, never forgetting the complex identities that made up his story. One day, when the old grazing spots weren’t quite what they used to be, he led the sheep into someplace new where, on a mountain, a bush on fire refused to be burned up.
Now this moment in Moses’s story has, for centuries, sparked out imagination. Art depicting this scene usually has a large bush surrounded by different shadows, light, and color meant to inspire in us an overwhelming sense of God’s power and might. This is one of the many blockbuster special effects moments within Moses’s story so we imagined it had to be a bit over-the-top. Yet the details within this story invite us to imagine it in a slightly different way. The word we translate as bush is an ancient Hebrew word that is rarely used anywhere else in the text. In fact, it’s a word often applied to the plants that sort of fade into the background that we tend to not notice at all. God, the creator of the universe who will part the Red Sea, fill the Nile with blood, and cover Egypt with a bazillion frogs, chose to show up in a plant most of us wouldn’t even notice. Even a little fire wouldn’t get us to raise an eyebrow since we expect, and hope, for a God who does big things. And yet God appearing in the thing we often overlook also feels like the most God-like thing God can do. God’s work in this world can sometimes be over-the-top, making a splash that changes all our lives. But God is also deeply invested in the little things we do with each other that end up being the most important things after all. Forgiveness, mercy, an act of patience, a listening ear, and a little thing that says we care might not seem important on the outside but is vital for us to truly know we’re not alone. God, then, showing up in what we would first overlook feels a bit too on-the-nose when it comes to pointing out one of our very human character flaws. But if “not noticing” is part of who we are – what character trait did Moses have that made him do something different?
Long ago, a few rabbis noticed that our Bible doesn’t actually tell us when the bush started burning. It could have been lit up right as Moses looked at it or maybe it burned in the days, weeks, or months before he came near. We could, I think, stretch our spiritual imagination to wonder if this bush had been burning since the earth was made – a visible manifestation of the presence of God that everyone had the opportunity to see. Yet it took generations before someone walking by finally noticed it. That is, I think, one of the character traits that helped Moses be who God wanted him to be. Moses was deeply curious, able to notice what others didn’t. This curiosity was more than simply a willingness to ask questions; it enabled Moses to live in a state of constant wonder. The curiosity he held – a curiosity we all can truly have – is simply a trust that this moment isn’t the limit of what all our moments might be. Curiosity never forgets its history nor does it assume our story is the default story meant for all. Curiosity takes seriously our faults, our failures, and our relationships while embracing every single one of our joys. Curiosity knows we are not meant to be experts about everything, nor do we need to always have everything figured out. Instead, curiosity is a gift that opens us to the fullness of God. When we’re curious, words and phrases like “tell me more?” and “what do you mean?” and “your story is important for me to hear” fill the dozens of small interactions we have everyday with a sense of love and hope. Curiosity is always supposed to be a verb that shows how we, and others, are never alone. Being curious, asking questions, and knowing there’s always an opportunity for more is one of the most courageous things we can embrace since it trusts we aren’t finished growing into who God knows we can be.
I wonder, then, if noticing Moses’ curiosity can invite us to grow our own. When we take the entirety of his story seriously, we notice how Moses’ curiosity never let the status quo be the limit of what his story might be. His history, his experiences, and his journey with God helped open him to the God who was already around him. Moses was very aware of how his own struggles, character flaws, and imperfections might get in the way of all that God wanted him to do. Yet God knows that a life of faith is less about knowing everything and is all about trusting how we are already fully known. In our quest to be curious, the questions we ask shouldn’t be about trying to get the other person to agree with what we’ve already come up with. Rather they expand who we – and they – get to be. The gift of curiosity never lets us limit who God might be since God lived curiosity out loud by doing the very curious thing of living a very human story. It was this God of Moses who chose to grow, to experience change, to live, to die, and to rise while helping all of us notice what’s already around us. God embraced curiosity since curiosity trusts that there’s always more to come. And if God can be curious, then the least we can do is be as curious with ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our world, too.