The Promised God:
Identity, Becoming, and Vocation in Exodus 3-4
The call of Moses in the opening chapters of Exodus represents one of the most important points in the Judeo-Christian narrative. It may also represent a crucial point in the narrative of God. After Horeb, neither God nor God’s people will be the same. Moses certainly will not. But revealing a static identity is not the point of the text. Transforming identity is. The call of Moses places the identity of both God and God’s humans entirely in the promised future. Deliverance is promised. So is God. So also, despite his best efforts, is Moses. They all engage redemption as vocation. It is through their vocation that they will all ‘be who they will be,’ not immediately, but in God’s promised future.
The text begins with Moses in the overly appropriate vocation of shepherding. Jacob was a shepherd. So, for a time, was Joseph. The practice ties Moses in with the great figures of Genesis even as his genealogy in previous chapters ties him to the priesthood. Moses is already a symbolic man, poised to become the prophet of God that will shepherd the Hebrews out of Egypt. That he is not incurious means only that he is not entirely absorbed in his current occupation. He is perhaps, a man ready for something more: “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.” Moses is living perhaps in the wilderness of his own life, exiled far from his homeland and far from his people, the ones he once cared enough to kill for. Small wonder he left the sheep behind to “see why the bush is not burned up.”
Now the text is quite clear that the bush is not consumed because the bush itself is not on fire: “the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush” (italics mine); the angel and not the bush is burning. What the text only implies is a nearly perfect metaphor for consuming consciousness. Out of sympathy for his kinsfolk, Moses had killed an Egyptian – and then he ran away to live a comparatively comfortable if undistinguished life. His kinsfolk remained enslaved. One wonders if more than the bush was burning, and who on Horeb was miraculously unconsumed. One does not wish to make too much of this foray, but one might hazard that Moses’s vocation was perhaps glimpsed and then abandoned before he set foot on the mountain of God. Everyone remembers on Horeb.
When Moses does turn aside, the LORD calls him “Moses, Moses!” and Moses responds in the typical Hebrew fashion, “Here I am,” or “ready” – an identification which already presents itself as open and available, a possibility for future service. It is in response to this statement that God identifies God’s self as the God of the ancestral patriarchs, and thus, by implication, the God of the Abrahamic promise. It is only then that Moses realizes to whom he is speaking and knows to hide his face. And it is in response to Moses’s fear that God delivers the promise to deliver the Israelites. For all the attention given to God’s name, the dialogue between Moses and God actually covers quite a bit of ground before the issue even comes up. And the subjects first addressed between the two are God’s promised patriarchs and the promise of delivery from slavery. Promises come first.
Moses’ subsequent question is telling: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Identity is the question. It is questioned because of the size of the vocational calling. The answer is not a reminder of who Moses is but of what God promises: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign…when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” Moses will know the scope of his identity when the vocation is accomplished and the promise of God has been fulfilled. And he will only know it then. This is neither the first nor last puzzling response of God to human concerns. But it is a response that ties Moses’ identity to God’s promised work.
Moses’ response in kind is now unsurprising: “If…they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” Moses understandably insists that God not remain a silent partner in the deliverance of Israel. But Moses here misses the implication of what has happened so far: God like Moses will be known when the vocation of deliverance is done; in fact God will be known in worship, the proper affirmation of the identity of God and the right recognition of God’s work. Whatever the theological wanderings through the course of history have shown, God’s notable response best aligns itself in context as the alternative translation “I will be what I will be.” From the first breath of fire the entire conversation has pointed toward the future. The covenantal relationship of God to Israel points toward the future. Why should not the name of God point toward the future, too? In other words, God might well not give God’s name here because God simply does not have one yet. God is not overwhelmingly present here, nor is God unnecessarily coy.
Instead, God is promised. God has always been promised. God reaffirms this when God says again “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” because the litany follows the line of those who received the Abrahamic promise. The patriarchs never knew God by name but only knew God as promised; the callings of their lives reflected their relationships with the God who promised. Moses is to be no different. Nor will Israel be. This is precisely the point. God even says “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” Sinai has just become a sort of holy land, sanctified by God’s purposed call. Is this the moment in which Moses becomes a prophet?
It certainly sounds as if this is so: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them…and they will listen to your voice…however,…the king of Egypt will not let you go...So I will stretch out my hand and strike…I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that…you shall plunder the Egyptians.” That this speech is entirely about the future is by now a foregone conclusion. But that it includes such detail about the reactions of various peoples and the future actions of God indicates the precise and prophetic nature of God’s promise to Israel through Moses. God will speak and act through Moses despite the resistance of those who will not hear God’s promise; the promises of God are not always accepted by everyone. But the vocation of the prophet is to voice those promises nonetheless.
That Moses does not come to believe the promise based on the signs is also unsurprising; prophecy is never about the signs but only about the vocation of delivering the promises of God to the people. The transformation of the staff into the serpent and the healing of Moses’ leprous hand miss the point and fail to deliver confidence to the increasingly overwhelmed prophet. The belief of the people has never been the issue; the belief of Moses is. It is only when Moses gets to his own perceived incapacities that either God or Moses can begin to address the issue. The question is, again, one of identity: “I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” God’s resounding reply “Who gives speech to mortals?” is a reiteration not of Moses’s identity but of God’s as purposeful creator; God gives humans speech and promises that God will teach Moses what to say.
Then Moses denies the promises of God. He asks God to send someone else. He implies that God was mistaken about his identity, his vocation as the deliverer of the promises and people of God. By denying his appropriateness, he denies his very name, as the Hebrew etymology ‘Drawn out of the water’ alludes to the promised deliverance of Israel across the Red Sea. We should not wonder at God’s anger here, but we should marvel at God’s permissiveness toward Moses to include Aaron—though, perhaps, we should not pause too much. God has never chosen the vehicles of God’s promises for their submissiveness and piety. Moses is hardly the first man to talk back to God, and God has always proved pliant enough to accommodate human weakness. In fact, it is precisely through the flexibility of God and God’s chosen people that God’s promises are fulfilled. As Moses does step into his role of sole prophetic shepherd of the Israelites, the only inflexible character of the story is Pharaoh. The course of Israel’s deliverance, the shape of God’s promise, will wind like the Nile itself – and be every bit as unstoppable.
Yet the promise is indeed now more complicated. In Aaron, Moses will now have his own prophet, who will relay the words of God that Moses tells him. It is, of course, not the first time that God welcomes a vocational partner. But one must note that even the promises of God here must be subject to some alteration, however superficial, or there would be no purpose for the translation. This is not, one presumes, to be a children’s game of telephone. God is no dictator here but is a teacher of the mouths of both men. God becomes a collaborator in delivering God’s own promise. God steps into God’s vocation.
Moses now decides to go. He asks his father-in-law if he may go. He takes his wife and sons and staff to go, but the mistrust indicated in his question to Jethro “let me see…if they are still living,” may be the reason that God reiterates Moses’ mission and insists that it will fail, including now the promise to Pharaoh that his firstborn sons will die. But the promise is also perhaps implicit to Moses that “whoever curses you I will curse.” The note of the son ‘Israel is my firstborn ’ is not then incidental, as progeny formed part of the same threefold Abrahamic promise. God’s promised future builds on what God has worked before.
Why God should subsequently try to kill Moses is of course something of a mystery. Why God fails to do so is somewhat more explicit. Moses’ wife Zipporah, whom God did not invite but nonetheless presumably accepts, takes a “flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said ‘Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me…a bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” Though the precise ritual is uncertain, the tradition it references is clear: circumcision is identity. Circumcision marks the people chosen by God for God’s promises. God seals covenants in blood. God consequently leaves Moses alone. Whether God tries to kill Moses because of their earlier conversation or because of some reason outside the explicit text or simply in order to foreshadow later events, the result is unequivocal: like Jacob, Moses is marked and identified now in a way that he was not before. Moses is God’s prophet. Moses is ready to deliver God’s promise.
God now collaborates still further in the acquiescence: he brings Aaron to Moses. The brothers, separated for so long, kiss in greeting, and one might see some wisdom in what God has allowed. Aaron for his part does not hesitate nor require proof from God, but trusts his brother directly. He steps directly into his role apparently without a second thought. He believes the promise. He speaks all the words that Moses speaks to him and performs all of Moses’ signs. And then, despite all of Moses’ misgivings, the people believe, not because they have been delivered, but because they have been heard. And, preempting God’s promise, they worship God there in Egypt, not because the promise has been fulfilled, but precisely because it has begun. This is sufficient. God remembers who they are, and they remember God, and they celebrate. In the best of the times to come, this will be their vocation, their identity, in response to the fulfilled promises of God.