Westminster Theological Journal  30 (1967-68) 1-23.

      Copyright © 1966/67 by Westminster Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.

 

                            THE CALL OF MOSES

 

                                              Part II

 

 

                                  EDWARD J. YOUNG

 

 

IF THE burning bush is to be understood as a genuine

miracle, it is well to ask what its significance is. The miracles

of the Bible were designed to be signs and attestations of

God's plan of redemption.  In what sense, then, did the burning

bush point to God's redemptive activity?

     According to Acts 7:30 the events described in Exodus 3

took place forty years after Moses' flight into the land of

Midian.  Emphasis falls immediately upon Moses and the fact

that he was shepherding (the participle expresses continual

occupation) the flock of Jethro.  In the desert itself there was

apparently not enough vegetation for the flock, so Moses led

the flock beyond the desert.  This would imply that when he

had come to Horeb, he was no longer in the desert. Indeed, if

we are to identify the mountain with Jebel el-Musa or Jebel

es-Sufsafeh we can well understand why the plain Er-rahah

would have been sought after by a shepherd.  Even today

there is considerable water in this location.1

      To assume that the mountain was regarded as a sanctuary

even before the revelation to Moses is unwarranted.2 The

designation, "mountain of God", is merely used by anticipa-

 

     1 For a description cf. Franklin E. Hoskins: From the Nile to Nebo, Phila-

delphia, 1912, pp. 203, 204; Arthur Penrhyn Stanley: Sinai and Palestine,

New York, 1857, pp. 17-20; D. A. Randall: The Handwriting of God in

Egypt, Sinai and the Holy Land, Philadelphia, 1862, p. 310; L. Prevost:

Le Sinai hier. ..aujourd'hui, Paris, 1936, pp. 254 ff.; Heinz Skrobucha:

Sinai, translated by Geoffrey Hunt, London, 1966 gives an excellent

history of the peninsula; Beno Rothenberg: God's Wilderness, New York,

1961.

    2 Josephus, Antiquities, 2:12:1, strangely remarks, tou?to (i. e., Mt.

Sinai) d ] e]sti>n  u[yhlo<taton  tw?n  tau<t^ o]rw?n  kai>  pro>j  noma>j  a@riston, 

a]gaqh?j  fuome<nhj  po<aj  kai>  dia>  to>  do<can  e@xein e]ndiatri<bein  au]t&? 

to>n  qeo>n  ou]  katanemhqei<shj  pro<teron,  ou]  tolmw<ntwn  e]mbateu<ein 

ei]j  au]to>  tw?n  poime<nwn. 



2                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

tion, and there is no reason for supposing that Moses was

expecting a revelation or that he came to seek such.3  The

whole emphasis of verse one falls upon the ordinary, earthly

task of Moses.  He was a shepherd and he was concerned for

the welfare of his sheep.4  Inasmuch as there was water near

Horeb, that is where he brought his flock.  The Rabbis may not

have been wrong when they declared that God first tested

Moses in small things so that he might later be suited to

serve in greater tasks.5  He who could faithfully be a shepherd

in Midian could serve in the exalted position which God was

preparing for him in the divine economy.

     Why, however, is the mountain here named Horeb and not

Sinai?  The most likely answer is that Horeb and Sinai are

simply two different names of the same mountain, just as

Hermon and Sirion both designate Mt. Hermon (cf. Deuter-

onomy 3:9; Psalm 29:6).  Why this was so we do not know,

nor do we know why Horeb is sometimes used and sometimes

Sinai.  Conceivably one might fit into the rhythm of a verse

better than the other.  That the difference is due to euphonic

reasons, however, is merely conjecture.  Certainly it is not due

to the predilections of supposed authors of documents.  Nor

can the presence of these words serve as evidence of difference

in document.

     Exodus 3:1 is generally attributed to J, but inasmuch as its

final clause contains the word Horeb, the "critics" would excise

this clause and attribute it to E.  Thus, 3:1 is a composite,

3:1a, ba belonging to J and 3:1bb to E.  The last clause is

essential, however, to the narrative for it gives the locale

 

     3 George A. Barton: Semitic and Hamitic Origins, Philadelphia, 1934,

pp. 334, 335 holds that Moses was psychologically prepared for a message

from the god of the volcano.

     4 Dillmann: Die Bucher Exodus und Leviticus, Leipzig, 1880, p. 24,

quotes Burckhardt to the effect that with the approach of summer the

Bedouin of the peninsula leave the lower regions and move to the higher

districts where the pasture remains fresh for a longer time.

    5 Cf. the comments in The Soncino Edition of the Pentateuch and Haf-

torahs2, ed. J. H. Hertz, London, 1966, p. 213 (hereafter designated

Soncino).

     6 Acts 7:30 speaks of  e]n t^?  e]rh<m& tou?  o@rouj Sina?.  Inasmuch as Sinai

appears six times in Exodus 19 (generally attributed to E), Horeb can

hardly be regarded as a characteristic of E.



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                              3

 

where the revelation is to occur and it also points out the

destination that Moses had in mind in leading his flock

beyond the wilderness.

 

          THE ANGEL OF THE LORD IN THE BUSH

     Having given the locale for the revelation, the narrator now

relates the fact of the revelation itself.  This is mentioned

before there is any hint of a burning bush, for what is essential

for an understanding of all that follows is the fact that God

has been seen by Moses.  The One who appears to Moses is

the "angel of the Lord".  According to Jewish tradition this

figure is to be distinguished from God Himself, for he is merely

God's messenger and speaks in God's Name.7  The thought

and will behind the words are God's, but the actual words and

deeds are said to be those of the messenger himself.

As the text stands, however, it clearly identifies the Angel

with God.  The Angel appeared unto Moses in a flame of fire

from the midst of the bush, and God called to Moses from the

midst of the bush.  Furthermore, the manner in which the

LORD is introduced as one who sees that Moses had turned

aside suggests that the LORD and the Angel are one. How

is this to be explained?

     Martin Noth apparently looks with favor upon the explana-

tion given by Von Rad, who declares that the Angel is God

in human form, a form in which Yahweh appears.  This

result, however, has been achieved by means of intensive

inner revising of very old traditions.  These traditions told

about unique and spectacular divine appearances at definite

shrines and sites.  Later on men came to assume that it was an

Angel of Yahweh that thus appeared, and in this way they

broke down the naive immediate intimacy of God's relation-

ship.  They introduced this mediating figure, the Angel of the

Lord, and yet at the same time preserved the directness of

God's address to man and of His saving activity.  Von Rad

acknowledges that there are Christological "qualities" in this

figure and that it is a type or "shadow" of Jesus Christ.8

 

     7 E. g., Soncino, p. 213.

     8 Martin Noth: Exodus, Philadelphia, 1962. Van Rad writes (Das erste



4                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Is the "Angel", however, to be accounted for as the product

of theological reflection?  What would have led men to intro-

duce this mediating figure into old traditions which spoke of

an immediate appearance of God?  And what evidence is there

for such an assumption?  Is there really extant evidence to

support the idea that we have here the product of revision of

ancient traditions?  And if the introduction of the Angel into

the picture is merely the result of theological reflection, how,

possibly, can the Angel be a type of Jesus Christ?  If the Angel

actually did appear to Moses, as Scripture says he did, then

He can be a type of Christ; but if He is merely a shadowy

figure, the product of the human imagination, how can he

typify the Mediator par excellence?

     In the exegetical sphere Von Rad is correct as far as his

interpretation of the text is concerned, but he enters the realm

of fancy when he speaks of revising ancient traditions. The

Angel is a real Being, and He is to be identified with God.

Inasmuch as He is sent from the Lord, He is not God the

Father Himself but distinct from the Father.  If we would do

justice to the Scriptural data, we must insist therefore both

upon the distinguishableness of the Angel from the Father and

also upon the identity of essence with the Father.  Christian

theologians have rightly seen in this strange Figure a prein-

 

Buch Mose, Gottingen, 1953, pp. 163-164), "Der Engel des Herrn ist dann

also eine Erscheinungsform Jahwes.  Er ist Gott selbst in menschlicher

Gestalt.  Dieses merkwurdige Schillern zwischen einem gottlichen und

einem menschlichen Subjekt--die Alten haben geradezu von einer Zwei-

naturenlehre gesprochen!--ist das gewiss nicht ungewollte Ergebnis einer

offenbar intensiven inneren Verarbeitung sehr alten Uberlieferungen.  Es

handelt sich namlich in diesen Fallen um alte Orts- und Heiligtumsuber-

lieferungen, die in alterer Fassung einmal ganz direkt von hOchst sinnen-

falligen Gotteserscheinungen an bestimmten Orten berichtet haben.  Die

Spateren haben das dann so verstehen wollen, class nicht Jahwe, sondern

der Engel Jahwes erschienen ist.  So steht hinter der Einfuhrung des Engels

des Herrn in jene alten Kulttraditionen wohl schon eine ausgesprochene

theologische Reflexion.  Die naive Unmittelbarkeit des Gottesverhaltnisses

ist durch die Einfiihrung dieser Mittlergestalt einigermassen gebrochen,

ohne dass doch damit der Direktkeit der gottlichen Anrede und des gott-

lichen Heilshandelns an den Menschen etwas abgebrochen wurde.  Die

Gestalt des Engels des Herrn hat auffallige christologische Zuge.  Nach

Kap. 48, 16 wird er als der bezeichnet, der von allem Leid erlost.  Er ist

ein Typus, ein Schatten 'Jesu Christi'."



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                                       5

 

carnate appearance of the One who in the days of His flesh

could say, "And the Father who sent me has himself borne

witness of me" (John 5:37).9  This One is indeed a messenger

to bring to Moses the announcement of deliverance to come.

Calvin may be mentioned as representative of a common

interpretation of the significance of the miracle.  In the bush,

he holds, we see the humble and despised people surrounded

by the flames of oppression; yet in the midst is God who

prevents the flames from devouring the nation.10  Keil appeals

to Judges 9:15 to support the position that in contrast to the

more noble and lofty trees the thornbush aptly represents the

people of God in their humiliation.11  On this particular point

there seems to be fairly widespread agreement among

interpreters.

      Is it, however, correct to say that the fire stands for oppres-

sion?  According to Keil, appealing to 1 Corinthians 3:11 ff.,

the fire, considered as burning and consuming, figuratively

represents refining affliction and destroying punishment.13  It

must be noted, however, that the Angel of the Lord is said

to have appeared in a flame of fire.  The fire, therefore, it

would seem, is not the iron furnace of Egypt (Deuteronomy

4:20), but is rather to be understood as a symbol of the burning

zeal of God. Inasmuch as this fire burns the bush, it signifies

the pure holiness of God which comes in judgment and de-

vours whatever is impure.  Nevertheless, the fire, although it

burns, does not consume.  The sin of the people could call

 

      9 Cf., e. g., Geerhardus Vos: Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments,

Grand Rapids, 1948, pp. 85-89.

    10 Calvin: ". . . the ancient teachers of the Church have rightly under-

stood that the Eternal Son of God is so called in respect to his office as

Mediator, which he figuratively bore from the beginning, although he

really took it upon him only at his Incarnation". Harmony of the Four

Last Books of the Pentateuch, Grand Rapids, 1950, Vol. I, p. 61.

     11 Keil and Delitzsch: Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Grand

Rapids, 1949, Vol. I, p. 438.  It must be noted, however, that the word

dFAxA is used, not hnAs;.

     12 Th. Schmalenbach: Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, Gutersloh, 1892,

Vol. III, p. 374, "Das geringe, verachtete, unterdriickte Volk Gottes-

das ist der Dornbusch.  Sachlich sind, die zerschlagenen und niedrigen

Geistes sind, das Thorichte und Unedle gemeint, Jes. 57, 15; I Cor. 1,26-

29".

    13 Op. cit., p. 438.



6                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

forth the punitive wrath of God; but the fire does not con-

sume, for God has promised salvation to this very despised

and lowly slave people. In the midst of the Israelites, the

despised slaves of Egypt, dwells the holy LORD himself,

whose zeal would consume whatever is not pure yet who does

not devour, for His intentions are of grace toward His chosen

people.14  Thus, as so often in the Old Testament, judgment

and salvation are linked together and go hand in hand.

     That the Lord dwells in the midst of His people is a thought

which finds emphasis in the twice-mentioned phrase, "from

the midst of the bush".  It is this thought which prepares the

way for the revelation of God as the God of the fathers.  He

who had appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was at this

very moment, despite the lowly condition of the people, in

their midst.  Nor had He ever deserted them.  God had taken

up His abode in their midst and would never abandon them.

Even when He must bring judgment, He is in their midst.

They cannot find Him by turning to the gods of Egypt, but

must look for His presence among themselves.  Thus, the

miracle of the burning bush, among other things, both

strengthens Moses' faith in the presence of God with His

people and prepares him to understand that this God, who is

now in their midst, is the same God who spoke to the fathers.

 

                   THE RESPONSE OF MOSES

     To this wondrous sight of the burning bush Moses responds.

The words, "And Moses said", in verse three do not suggest

that Moses spoke the following words aloud, but merely indi-

cate that they were the thoughts which passed through his

mind.  Moses recognizes that what he sees is a "great sight",

and hence something out of the ordinary.  Had it been merely

the glistening of the berries of a bush in the sun or the campfire

of the shepherds, or anything of similar nature, Moses could

hardly have considered it a "a great sight".  It is noteworthy

also that the only reason for Moses' turning aside is that he

 

     14 Schmalenbach: op. cit., p. 374, "Das Gesicht von dem brennenden und

doch nicht verbrennenden Busche (2 Mos. 3, 1-8) stellt die grosse Wahr-

heit der Unzerstorbarkeit der Gnade Gottes gegen seine Gemeine inmitten

aller Trubsal dar".



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                                       7

 

is moved by curiosity.  He sees something unusual, which he

designates a "great sight", and he does not know what it is.

He turns aside from his regular course simply to discover the

explanation of the unusual phenomenon, the like of which he

has never before seen at the base of the mountain.

     It is this fact of Moses' curiosity which rules out once and

for all the idea that Moses, because of long meditation upon

the suffering of his people in Egypt, is in a frame of mind or

attitude in which he could readily believe that a voice was

speaking to him.  The late George A. Barton, for example,

maintained that as Moses was alone with the flock in the

desert he spent the time brooding upon the "acute problems

of life as he had experienced it".15  Among these thoughts were

considerations of the nature of the "desert god" that his

father-in-law, Jethro, served.  The mountain was volcanic, and

its smoke and flames expressed the wrath of the desert god,

Yahweh, whose presence was indicated by the smoke of the

volcano.16  The Kenites, who worshipped Yahweh, were vic-

torious in war, for they could make metal weapons, whereas

their enemies had weapons of flint, arrows and stones.  As

Moses drew near the mountain to obtain a better view of the

strange sight of a bush on fire, he seemed to hear a voice.

"This was a religious experience as genuinely real as that

which any prophet ever had, and its main elements shine out

still through the phraseology of later tradition.  That phrase-

ology assumes the results of historical processes which we now

know to have been later, but the religious emotional brooding

over the problems of himself and his people, and the sudden

conviction that this powerful god of the desert, in whose

territory he had himself found asylum, had sent him to rescue

his people, bears all the marks of psychological reality, and

alone accounts for the subsequent career of Moses".17

     What took place, according to Barton, was the psycho-

logical experience known as an "audition".  "In all parts of

 

    15 Op. cit., p. 334.

    16 Inasmuch as the Sinai peninsula is not volcanic, advocates of the

theory that the theophany was related to volcanic action usually seek to

locate the mountain in Midian, east of the peninsula.

    17 Op. cit., p. 335.  I have discussed the Kenite Hypothesis in "The God

of Horeb", The Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. X, 1938, pp. 10-29.



8                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

the world and in all religions men of a certain type of psychic

constitution, after seeking for the solution of a religious prob-

lem and brooding long over it, have found their problem

solved in a flash of insight so sudden and clear that they have

seemed to hear a voice uttering the words in which their

thought took shape".18

     One may well ask as he ponders Barton's explanation how it

is possible to know what type of psychic constitution Moses

possessed and what he was thinking as he tended his sheep in

the desert.  If we are to judge from some of the incidents

recorded in the Pentateuch, Moses was a man of decisive

action.19  What his particular "psychic" constitution was we

simply do not know.  Nor do we know what problems occupied

his thoughts as he wandered alone in the desert.

     Furthermore, there is not the slightest evidence that the

mountain of God was a volcano.  If, however, it had been a

volcano, Moses would have been so familiar with flames

shooting forth from it that he would not have supposed that

one such flame was a bush burning yet not consumed.  How

conceivably could a shooting flame seem like a bush on fire?

Possibly one who did not know the desert might come to such

a conclusion, although it is a situation difficult to understand;

but when a man had spent forty years in the desert, it is

asking too much of one's credulity to expect him to believe

that such a man might mistake a shooting flame of fire for a

burning bush.20

     It must further be noted that, even if Moses had been

pondering the sufferings of his people and even if he were in a

psychological frame of mind to receive a revelation or an

audition, that frame of mind would completely have been

shattered when he discovered that, after all, there was nothing

unsual with respect to the bush. Indeed, the very sight of

the bush which seemed to be burning without being consumed

might itself well have destroyed such a psychological frame or

condition of mind.  Instead, Moses' mind would have become

filled with curiosity as to the explanation of the strange

 

      18 Op. cit., p. 333.

      19 Cf., e. g., Exodus 2:11 ff.

      20 Cf. the comments in note 33, "The Call of Moses", The Westminster

Theological Journal, Vol. XXIX, No.2, May, 1967, pp. 132, 133.



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                                       9

 

phenomenon before him, In place of being deeply moved by

thoughts of the condition of the Israelites, his mind would

have become filled with thoughts as to why the bush was

burning and yet did not burn up.  And, indeed, if we allow the

Scripture any credence at all, it was precisely such thoughts

which did occupy his mind. "I shall now turn aside, that I

it may see this great sight, why the bush does not burn".  Curios-

ity filled Moses' mind, not thoughts of his people's need.  It

was not exactly the frame of mind suitable for the reception

of an "audition".

     More important and significant than any of the considera-

tions hitherto adduced is the fact that, if Dr. Barton's explana-

tion of the events at the burning bush is correct, not only

the work of Moses but the entire subsequent history of Israel

are founded, not upon a genuine revelation from God, but

upon Moses' mistaken conviction, that God had appeared to

him and charged him to deliver the people from Egypt.  If

God actually did appear to Moses, as Exodus relates, that is

one thing.  The entire subsequent history of Israel is then

filled with meaning and is capable of explanation.  If, on the

other hand, it is simply founded upon Moses' conviction that

God appeared to him and upon nothing more than that, the

picture is entirely different. It is one thing to say, to take

another example, that the Christian Church is founded upon

the belief of the apostles that Jesus Christ rose from the dead;

it is something entirely different to assert that the Christian

Church is founded upon the fact that Jesus Christ actually

did rise from the dead.

     This is the crux of the issue.  No matter how compelling the

conviction of Moses may have been, if it were not based upon

fact, the subsequent events would remain without adequate

explanation.  If the foundation of all that follows is simply the

conviction of Moses, then the history of Israel is founded upon

man and upon man alone.  Very different, however, is the

case if God did appear to Moses and the burning bush was a

miracle.  Then, and then alone, we may say that the sub-

sequent history of the nation of Israel is based upon a reve-

lation of God.  It is then the work of God and not of man.

     There remains, however, another objection which men raise

against accepting the text of Exodus as it stands.  We are

 


10                WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

told by recent writers that the ancient Israelites would not

have asked whether the burning bush was miraculous or

merely an unusual natural phenomenon.  They had no basis,

we are told, for making a distinction between what was

wonderful and yet ordinary and what, on the other hand,

was miraculous.21  All of God's works were wonderful, and the

modern distinction between the miraculous and the non-

miraculous was one which they did not make.  This is so,

we are told, even if the burning bush actually was a miracle.

In answer to this contention we need not stress the dis-

tinctive vocabulary which has to do with signs and wonders

and distinctive events.  The Hebrew words do indeed point

to certain events which were performed by God's power in

the external world, which in their appearance22 were contrary

to God's ordinary and even unusual providential working,

and which were clearly designed as signs and attestations of

the plan of redemption.  The signs and wonders, for example,

which God performed upon Pharaoh were miraculous events,

and could easily have been distinguished from even extra-

ordinary events of providence.

    With respect to the burning bush, we must insist that the

objection which we are now engaged in considering does not

hold. At first, it is true, the bush probably appeared to Moses

as a wonderful event of providence.  Were that not so, he

would not have turned aside to examine it.  Even from the

distance where he was he could discern that the bush was

burning yet did not burn up, and to discover the reason for

this was the cause of his turning aside.  At the least, he would

have considered this a wonderful event of providence.

     When the revelation was given to him, however, Moses

would have realized that the Lord was performing in the

burning bush a sign or wonder which was unique.  Were he

 

    21 This idea has recently appeared in the attractive study of James

Plastaras: The God of Exodus, Milwaukee, 1966, pp. 65, 66.

    22 I. e., as they appeared to man.  What Moses saw as he beheld the

burning bush, for example, was a phenomenon which appeared to be

contrary to the other phenomena with which he had experience.  In the

light of the definition of miracle which we have just given in the body of

the text, the reader will find it very profitable to make a careful study of

the usage of such words as tpeOm, tOx and tOxlAp;ni.



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                              11

 

to ponder the nature of the event, he would have been com-

pelled to conclude that God, the all powerful one, was causing

the bush to burn and yet not permitting it to be consumed.

And he would well have understood that this event was

designed by God to be an attestation of His plan of salvation.

For the Lord explicitly stated to Moses that He had remem-

bered His people and the covenant made with the fathers and

had come down to deliver them. Moses, therefore, irrespective

of the terminology he might have employed, would have

placed this event in an entirely different category from a

manifestation of St. Elmo's fire or anything of similar import.

A miracle is not merely an event that appears to be contrary

to what one ordinarily meets in life, but it is also an act

which Almighty God performs to attest His plan of redemp-

tion.  It behooves us to be cautious about asserting that the

Israelites would not have distinguished between the miraculous

and the merely wonderful.

     Not only does the miracle attest the present working of

God but it also points to the continuity of His working in His

determination to accomplish redemption. The revelation

which accompanies the miracle first looks back to the promises

made to the patriarchs, "I am the God of thy father" (Exodus

3:6a), and it also points to the future, "And I came down to

deliver it from the hand of Egypt" (Exodus 3:8a). This

particular miracle, therefore, was for the benefit of Moses

primarily, that through it he might become convinced that

the God who had spoken to his ancestors was in the midst of

His people and would be faithful to His promise to redeem

them.

 

                             THE GOD OF THY FATHER

     In this narrative emphasis falls upon the initiative of God.

Moses is not seeking a revelation, nor does he have any inten-

tion of drawing near to a "holy place" in the hope of meeting

God.  He is simply engaged in his ordinary daily business

when God approaches him.  This factor also is characteristic

in the performance of a miracle.  God comes to man to con-

vince man that He is man's Redeemer.  Hence, the address,

"Moses, Moses".  Perhaps there is some merit in the old



12                WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Jewish interpretation to the effect that the repetition of the

name was for the sake of encouraging Moses and indicating

affection toward him.  Both Abraham and Jacob had been

similarly addressed (cf. Genesis 22:11 and 46:2).23

     Some writers assume without argument that Moses came to

a holy place.  Thus, Noth remarks, "It is therefore probable

that here too we are dealing with an original local tradition

to which the 'holy ground' concerned was still known as such

at a later period" (p. 39).24  Plastaras at least seeks to give

some evidence for adopting this view.  He appeals to the

definiteness of the word "mountain" in the phrase "mountain

of God" (verse one) and to the use of the technical word

"holy place" (i. e., ma-qom) in verse five.25  This evidence, he

thinks, suggests that the place was already a sanctuary,

although Moses himself may not have been aware of that

fact.  With respect to the definiteness of the word "moun-

tain" we would simply remark that the word is used to

express the point of view of Moses, the writer of the Penta-

teuch.26  At the time when this passage was written down,

the events herein described had already occurred.  What

would be more natural than to speak of the mountain where

God had appeared to His people as "the mountain of God"?

To say the least it is questionable whether the word ma-qom

is here employed in a technical sense.  What other suitable

word for "place" appears in biblical Hebrew?  Whether it is

used technically or in a specialized sense in a given context,

only that context can decide.  In the present passage there is

nothing to indicate a specialized usage.  Rather, the addition

of the words "whereon thou standest" would seem to suggest

that the reference is merely to a particular spot.  If the word

"ma-qom" in itself denotes a sacred place, is it not redundant

to say, "the sacred place whereon thou standest is holy

ground"?  Would it not have been sufficient merely to tell

Moses that he was standing upon a ma-qom? The mere men-

 

     23 Cf. Soncino, p. 214.

     24 Op. cit., p. 39.

     25 Op. cit., p. 62.

     26 We have given evidence for holding that Moses was the writer of the

Pentateuch in Introduction to the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, 1954,

pp. 47-51.



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                              13

 

tion of the word itself should in that case have been sufficient

to have informed Moses that the place was sacred.

     The view that the term ma-qom is here technically employed

is based upon a particular understanding of the nature of the

narrative, namely, that it is an aetiological saga.  Originally,

argues Plastaras, the narrative was intended for those who

went to worship God at a particular sanctuary.27  But what

evidence is there that such was the case?  Rather than being

a narrative intended for those who went to worship God at a

particular sanctuary, the account as we have it in Exodus

before the hand of the "critic" has mutilated it relates an

event which happened once for all and which had reference to

Moses alone.  Its whole purpose was to reveal to Moses the

fact that the God of his father had not forsaken His people,

but dwelt in their midst, and that He would deliver them

from the affliction in which they found themselves.  This is

the profound "theological" significance of the narrative.28

There is not a word to indicate that this narrative seeks to

explain why a particular spot was regarded as holy by the

Israelites.  Indeed, there is no evidence that they later did

come to regard it as a sanctuary.  They did not endeavor to

preserve the sanctity of the spot by means of a shrine.  They

knew that God had appeared unto them upon the mountain,

and they regarded the mountain as the mountain of God;

but there is no warrant for saying that they considered the

place where God appeared to Moses sacred.  It is the presence

 

    27 Op. cit., p. 63.

    28 James Barr: Old and New in Interpretation, New York, 1966, p. 203

complains of fundamentalism that it has produced no really interesting

discussion of biblical interpretation.  Two questions arise.  First of all,

one may well wonder just how much "fundamentalist" exegetical literature

Barr has read.  All who believe in the infallibility of Scripture as a special

revelation of God belong in one camp as over against those who espouse

the principles of destructive criticism.  Are the studies of Augustine,

Luther, Calvin, Kuyper, Warfield, Machen, Murray, to name but a few,

uninteresting?  Secondly, who is to decide what is interesting and what is

not?  To the present writer, the revelation at the burning bush is not merely

interesting but profoundly rich in saving significance, whereas some of the

modern "scholarly" discussions are dry and wearisome.  Once one departs

from the view that the Bible is a revelation from God, his "theological"

interpretations in the deep sense cannot be very exciting, for they are

not true.



14                WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

of God which renders the place holy, and the putting off of

the shoes is intended as a recognition of that fact.  Removing

the sandals is a sign of reverence to God, whose presence

sanctifies the place of His appearance to Moses.

     According to modern negative criticism, verse 5 is attrib-

uted to J and verse 6 to E.  Yet how needless such a partition

is!  Verse 5 follows naturally from verse 4b.  Moses has re-

sponded to God's call, and now God warns him of the sacred-

ness of the place, thus preparing him for the revelation of the

identity of the One who speaks from the bush.  Very striking

and remarkable is the identification that God gives, "I am

the god of thy father".  It is the singular which stands out as

unusual.  Generally, this is interpreted in a collective sense,

as referring to the patriarchs as a group.  The Kittel Bible,

with its customary disregard of the significance of Masoretic

Hebrew, simply proposes an emendation to the plural.29

With such an expedient we cannot rest satisfied since it is

too facile a solution of the difficulty.  One possible explana-

tion of the singular is that it was deliberately employed to call

attention to the fact that God was the God of the patriarchs.

In patriarchal times this type of expression was employed

fairly frequently.  It was used, for example, in Genesis 31:5,

29, 42, 53, where we find such phrases as "the god of my

father", "the god of your father", and "the god of their

father". Cf. also Genesis 43:23; 50:17; 46:3.30  Recently

Professor Haran has called attention to this expression.

According to him it indicates the household god.31  We can

agree to the extent that there was something very intimate

about the phrase; it pointed to the god whom one's father

worshipped, and it would seem that this was a patriarchal

mode of designating God.  When, therefore, the Lord made

known to Moses that He was the God of Moses' father, He

    

     29 I. e., j~ytAboxE.

     30 I have discussed the significance of these phrases in "The God of the

Fathers", The Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. III, No. I, 1940,

pp. 25-40.  This article seeks to evaluate the views of the late Albrecht

Alt concerning patriarchal religion.

    31 Menahem Haran: "The Religion of the Patriarchs: An Attempt at a

Synthesis", Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute, Vol. IV, Leiden,

1965, pp. 30-55.



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                              15

 

immediately directed Moses' thought to the time of the

ancestors. To rule out all question of doubt the Lord immedi-

ately adds, "the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the

god of Jacob".  Thus Moses was reminded of the promises

made to the patriarchs individually.  The God of the patriarchs

was alive in the midst of His people, mindful of His promises

and ready to bring deliverance.

     In the history of redemption a pivotal point has been

reached.  The God of patriarchal promises is a God who has

the power to deliver His people from bondage.  He has control

over all of His creation, and this fact He manifests by His

appearance in the burning bush.  He is a God who can perform

wonders, a God of the miraculous.

     It would seem that God had appeared in some visible way

to Moses, for Moses responds to the revelation by hiding his

face, probably wrapping it in his mantle, as Elijah had done

(1 Kings 19:13), for he fears to look upon God.  In this action,

Moses gives expression to his own unworthiness and sinfulness,

for he realizes that he is in the presence of the holy God of his

people.  To look upon his God irreverently would result in

death.  He is convinced that the one who speaks from the bush

had earlier made Himself known to the patriarchs.  What,

however, about the people who are now in bondage in Egypt?

 

                             THE NAME OF GOD

     The narrative in Exodus is smooth and straightforward.

God charges Moses to deliver the people; Moses complains of

his unworthiness and receives the assurance that God will be

with him.  Yet, when Moses tells the people that the patri-

archal God has appeared unto him and they ask His name,

what shall he say unto them?  As is well understood today,

to the Semite the name had far deeper significance than is the

case in our occidental world.  With us the name is little more

than a vocable; to the Semite, however, it either signified the

character of a person or brought to mind something distinctive

about him.32  To ask for the name of God was to desire to

know the nature of God.

 

    32 Thus, Moses himself received his name because he was drawn out of



16       WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

     When therefore the Israelites in Egypt should ask as to the

name of the patriarchal God, they would want to know con-

cerning His nature.  A mere vocable would have been no

sufficient answer.  Was the God who made promises to the

patriarchs still with His people and was he able to deliver

them from their present bondage and to bring to fulfillment

the ancient promises?  We must keep these considerations in

mind when we seek to ascertain the meaning of the name

revealed to Moses.

     Two basic questions call for consideration.  In the first

place there is the question of the philological significance of

the word which we so often transliterate Yahweh.33  Were we

able to ascertain this precise philological significance, it would

doubtless be a great boon.  That, however, is a goal which

apparently has not yet been attained.  Nor is it really essential

for an understanding of the employment of the word in this

context.  We must then be guided primarily by usage, in

particular by the appearance of the word in this context.

In the second place we must seek to ascertain the theological

significance of the Name.  Why did God reveal this particular

Name to Moses at just this time?  How does this revelation

fit into the plan of redemption?

    There are of course a number of views to consider, and we

shall briefly mention some of them before proceeding to a

discussion of the matter.  According to J. Stellingwerff, the

late Professor B. Holwerda took the name as signifying "I am,

 

the water Uhytiywim;.  In this particular instance the significance may simply

appear in the assonance, there being no attempt made at etymology.  The

word may be Egyptian, but it may also be, as Kitchen suggests (The

New Bible Dictionary, London, 1962, p. 843), that the word represents an

assimilated Semitic word to the Egyptian.

     33 For recent philological discussions of the Tetragrammaton, cf. Barton,

op. cit., pp. 336-339; Wm. F. Albright: From the Stone Age to Christianity,

Garden City, 1957, pp.15-16, 259-263; Frank M. Cross, Jr.: "Yahweh and

the God of the Patriarchs", Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 55, 1962,

pp. 255-259; David Noel Freedmann: "The Name of the God of Moses",

Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 79, 1960, pp. 151-156; Gerhard von

Rad: Theologie des Alten Testaments, Vol. I, Munchen, 1958, pp. 20, 21.

Whatever may be said about the Tetragrammaton, I do not see how it

can be construed as a Qal imperfect.  If the a vowel is original, as it seems

to be (cf.  Ia<be and  h.yA), and the form is verbal, it must be Hiph'il.



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                              17

 

I the God who appears in action".34  Rashi interpreted, "I

will be what I will be", i. e., more and more God's unchanging

mercy and faithfulness will manifest themselves to His

people.35  Again, emphasis has fallen upon the thought ex-

pressed in Exodus 3:12, "Surely I shall be with thee", and the

Name has been taken to indicate that God will be present

with His people.  It has also been held that the phrase ex-

presses God's inscrutability.  "I am what I am".  Hence, it is

concluded that God's being is inscrutable and man cannot

penetrate it.  Geerhardus Vos calls attention to what he calls

the ontological view, which would render, "I, who am, (truly)

am", thus expressing the fact that God is pure being.36

In his interesting discussion of the theology of Exodus,

James Plastaras gives some consideration to the meaning of

the Name.  He feels that the translation I AM is likely to be

misleading inasmuch as there is no copula verb in Hebrew.

Hence, he maintains that the verb ha-yah was used in the

sense of being or becoming in an active or dynamic sense.

The word 'eh-yeh he would therefore translate "I am present

and ready to act".37  This presence was an act of grace and

not simply the immanent omnipresence of God.  The Name

designates God as present in power.  Plastaras renders it, "I

will be present (in a dynamic, active sense) wherever, when-

ever, and to whomever I will be present".38

     In similar vein Martin Noth asserts that the verb hyh does

not denote pure being but an "active being" and in this

instance an "active being" which makes its appearance in the

history of Israel.39  At this point a word of caution is in order.

We must remember that "activism" plays a great role in

much of modern theology and philosophy.  Karl Barth has

given great impetus to this conception by identifying God's

 

    34 J. Stellingwerff: Oorsprong en toekomst van de creatieve mens, Amster-

dam, 1966, p. 122. Holwerda's words are "Ik ben, ik de handelend optre-

dende God". The reference is from Dictaten, I, Aflevering 2, Kampen,

& 1961, a work which I have not been able to obtain.

     35 Cf. Soncino, p. 215.

     36 Vos, op. cit., pp. 132-134, gives a survey of some significant views.

     37 Op. cit., pp. 86-100.

     38 Op. cit., p. 98.

     39 Op. cit., p. 45.



18                WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

being with his act. "God is who he is", says Barth, "in his

act of revelation".40  This idea that God is to be identified

with his act is very prevalent today.

     Yet this activistic emphasis is certainly not biblical.  The

modern depreciation of metaphysics is not based upon Divine

revelation.  We cannot therefore be satisfied with the designa-

tion "active being" in distinction from "pure being".  The

God of whom Exodus speaks is not the god of modern theology

with its Kantian foundation, but the ever living and true,

Triune God of Holy Scripture.

     Anyone who studies the revelation given to Moses must

realize the difficulty involved in seeking to set forth the

precise significance of the Name.  At the same time there are

certain indications in the Scriptures themselves which will

help us arrive at an understanding.  The ancient versions

which rendered I am who I am have hit upon something sig-

nificant in the revelation, namely, the fact that the Name

does serve to express God's aseity.41

     With this conviction in mind we may again look at Exodus.

If we take the text seriously we are compelled to recognize

that the One to whom Moses speaks is a Being distinct from

Moses.  He is designated with the definite article, The God.

He is, in other words, the true God, the only God, the God

who exists.  To this God Moses speaks. Emphasis is placed

upon metaphysics.  The God with whom Moses converses

exists. He is.  And what Moses would know is the Name of

this God with whom he is speaking.

     Verse thirteen prepares for the later revelation of chapter

six, verse three, where God says to Moses that by His Name

Yahweh He was not known to the patriarchs. What He means

 

     40 Karl Barth:  Kirchliche Dogmatik, 11:1, p. 293. "Darum muss das

unsere erste und entscheidende Umschreibung des Satzes «Gott ist: sein:

«Gott ist, der er ist, in der Tat seiner Offenbarung». And again: "Aber

eben das Sein Gottes umschreiben wir, indem wir es als Gottes Wirklich-

keit bezeichnen, als Gottes Sein in der Tat, namlich in der Tat seiner

Offenbarung, in welcher das Sein Gottes seine Realitat bezeugt: nicht nur

seine Realitat fur uns--das freilich auch!--sondern zugleich und eben

so seine eigene, innere, eigentliche Realitat, hinter der und fiber der es

keine andere gibt".  How different this is from the biblical doctrine of God!

      41 Thus, the Vulgate, Dixit Deus ad Moysen:  EGO SUM QUI SUM.

Ait:  Sic dices filiis Israel:  QUI EST, misit me ad vos.



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                              19

 

was that in the character of yhwh He was not known to the

fathers.  Clearly the verse does not mean that the patriarchs

had not heard the vocable YHWH.  As Professor Kitchen

rightly says, "This major prop of the documentary theorists

is now definitely swept away, no matter how unwilling they

may be to recognize the fact".42  The purpose of the revelation

now given is to make known the significance of the Name

YHWH.

     With these thoughts in mind we may look again at the

third chapter of Exodus. In itself the phrase 'eh-yeh ‘aser

'eh-yeh may be translated, "I shall be who I shall be", as

Aquila and Theodotion do render it.43  From other considera-

tions, however, it would seem that in this context the future

is not intended, but rather the present.  This is also the force

of the word 'eh-yeh taken alone.

     In itself the verb ha-yah may express pure existence.  When

it is followed by the preposition Lamed, it is best rendered

into English, become.  This distinction, it would seem, is

rather consistently followed.  Thus, in Genesis 1:2 "the earth

WAS desolation and waste", does not refer to the earth be-

coming such but rather simply states a condition existing in

past time.  Here the idea of becoming is wholly missing.  The

same is true in the phrase, "And his wife looked from behind

him, and she was a pillar of salt" (Genesis 19:26).  The

Hebrew with its expression of instantaneousness is far stronger

of than the English.  On the other hand, when the preposition

is employed, the word is rightly translated "become".  In

Exodus 6:7, for example, we should render, "And I shall take

you to me for a people, and I shall be to you for God (i. e., I

shall become your God) and ye shall know that I am the

LORD your God who brings you out from under the burdens

as of Egypt".  The idea of activism, therefore, is not necessarily

inherent in the verb itself.

 

     42 Supplement to the Theological Students' Fellowship Bulletin, Summer,

1964, pp. ii, iii.  Cf. W. J. Martin: Stylistic Criteria and the Analysis of the

the Pentateuch, 1955; J. A. Motyer: The Revelation of the Divine Name, 1959,

pp. 11-17; and R. D. Wilson: "Critical Note on Exodus vi. 3", Princeton

Theological Review, Vol. 22, 1924, pp. 108-119.

     43  e@somai (o{j) e@somai. Cf. Fredericus Field: Origenis Hexaplorum Quae

Supersunt, Tomus I, Hildesheim, 1964, p. 85.



20                WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

     We may consequently render I am who I am as the Vulgate

has done.  The phrase expresses the aseity of God; it tells us

what His true nature is.  Despite the activism and dynamism

of modern theology, there is good warrant and evidence for

insisting that this concept I AM is present in the verbal form,

'eh-yeh.  This is not to say that the form in itself might not be

rendered I SHALL BE, but the interpretation which adhered

to the word from the first is one which expresses God's aseity.

Thus, the Greek has translated THE BEING ONE (o[  w@n).44

It is this concept which also underlies and forms the basis for

such expressions as "I am the LORD".  Indeed, the purpose of

Moses' ministry is that both the Israelites and the Egyptians

may know that "I am the LORD".  We meet this emphasis

again in the second part of Isaiah when the Lord says, for

example, "For I the LORD am your God", or "I am the

LORD thy God" (Isaiah 41:13).  The frequent assertion in

these chapters of Isaiah's prophecy that "I am the LORD"

clearly harks back to the revelation of the NAME given at

Sinai.  When we come to the New Testament, we find that

Jesus Christ went to the heart of the question with His asser-

tion:  "Before Abraham was I AM".45 Here the very essence

of the NAME is expressed.  'Eh-yeh is the BEING ONE, He

who IS.  And now we can see the significance of the sentence,

"I am who I am". God is the BEING ONE, and therefore

He is ever the same; inasmuch as He alone is eternal, forever

the same, He alone is the BEING ONE. Augustine has well

brought out the thought: "Quid est ego sum qui sum, nisi

aeternus sum.  Quid est ego sum qui sum, nisis mutari non

possum".46  Malachi evidently reflected upon this passage

in Exodus when he wrote, "For I the LORD do not change;

therefore you, a sons of Jacob, are not consumed".47

     To stress the fact that the aseity of God is present in this

remarkable word has been necessary.  It has particularly

 

     44 Codex B. e]gw< ei]mi  o[  w@n.

     45 In the Gospel of John particularly, our Lord seems to have dwelt upon

this passage. Cf. John 6:48, 51; 8:58; 10:9, 11; 11:25, etc.

     46 The passage is given in full in Hengstenberg: Dissertations on the

Genuineness of the Pentateuch, Vol. I, Edinburgh, MDCCCXLVII, p.

262.

     47 Malachi 3:6.



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                              21

 

been necessary in the light of the terrific power that the

theology of dynamism and activism have exerted upon the

interpretation of the Bible in recent days.  Against that

influence we do protest, for we feel that it is a baneful one.

Instead of allowing the Bible to speak for itself, it seeks to

compel the Bible to speak with its own voice.

      At the same time we realize full well that what we have

hitherto said does not do full justice to the revelation of the

NAME.  The whole context precludes the idea that the

'eh-yeh is an impersonal, hard, abstract substance, somewhat

like Aristotle's unmoved mover or the hard-rock Allah of the

Koran.  The concern of the people in asking after the Name of

God was to discover what relation this God sustained to

themselves.  Of what help would He be in this very present

time of trouble?  Unless the revelation concerns itself with the

question of the people and offers them a satisfying answer--

that is, not necessarily an answer that will satisfy them, but

an answer which in itself is satisfactory--it becomes a

mockery.  The people were not interested merely in a question

of metaphysics; they were interested above all in the practical

matter of how the One who claimed to be the God of the

Fathers could be of aid to them.

     In the light of this fact we must note that the revelation

expressed in the word 'eh-yeh and also in yah-weh makes

clear that the idea of pure, unchangeable being is no mere

abstract concept but is something quite practical.  In wondrous

grace God reveals His nature to man in so far as it determines

what God is for His people.  Thus in the Name the people

would have a pledge and earnest of the gracious deliverance

which God alone could bring and would bring to them.

The very fact that God speaks makes clear that He is no

mere impersonal force.  Rather, as this context compels one

to recognize, He is the living and true God.  In contrast to the

idols which had no life and could not move, Yahweh is the

eternal, living One.  He changes not, yet He is living and can

reveal Himself to His creation.  He will make known to Moses

and to the children of Israel what kind of God He is by means

of the deeds which He will perform in their midst and by means

of the words which He will speak unto them.  These words

and deeds are such that only one who in all His attributes and



22                WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

perfections is infinite, eternal and unchangeable can perform

them. In His revelation the I AM makes Himself known to

His people. Thus, He declares to the Israelites, "Ye shall

know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out

from under the burdens of the Egyptians" (Exodus 6:7b).

As a result of the revelation of power--a revelation accom-

panied by words--God's people would know that the One

who had delivered them was no mere idol, the creation of

men's hands, but the eternal, ever living one, the true Creator

of heaven and earth, who did with His creation according to

His will.  Such a God they would and should worship. Indeed,

this was to be the result of the revelation, “Ye shall worship

God upon this mountain" (Exodus 3:12).

     A further point remains to be noted.  God declares, "This

is My Name for ever, and this is My memorial unto all

generations".  By the use of the word NAME reference is had

to the objective revelation of the divine nature.  When God

wrought mighty wonders, there would be objectively dis-

played the divine majesty and glory of the ONE who IS.

Likewise the word MEMORIAL referred to the subjective

recognition of that divine nature upon the part of man.

Thus, when God displayed His power in redemption the

Israelites would recognize that the One whose glory was thus

displayed was the LORD, the eternal one, "who changeth

never".

     At this point, however, a minor problem arises.  That the

Israelites would know that Yahweh had delivered them is

easily understandable.  He had revealed Himself to them, both

in word and in deed, and we may not doubt that He Himself

would have made them willing and able to believe in Him.

What, however, shall we say about the Egyptians?  The

Israelites will know that Yahweh is their God, but the Egypt-

ians are said merely to know that Yahweh has brought judg-

ment upon them.  The Egyptians would have known that

the God of the Hebrews had brought judgment upon them

and that He was far more powerful than their own gods.  As

to the rich meaning of the NAME which Israel could know,

we may be sure that Egypt did not have such knowledge.

At the same time they would know that the One who spoke

to Moses was Yahweh.  Judgment is not without meaning,



                             THE CALL OF MOSES                              23

 

and when the final judgment falls, the wicked will acknowledge

that God is just.

     Thus at the burning bush God gave to Moses the revelation

of His NAME.  In His historical revelations He is absolutely

independent of His creation, the self-existent one, who mani-

fests in deeds of wonder the nature of His being expressed in

His Name.  Thus, in a certain sense, we may agree with

Holwerda's translation, "I am, I the God who appears in

action".  Yet, as quoted by Stellingwerff, this does not go far

enough.  At the burning bush there appeared to Moses One

who is eternal, who changeth not, who depends not upon His

creation, but in sovereign and supreme majesty, exists inde-

pendently of that creation.  He, the BEING ONE, is un-

changeable; yet He is the living and true God. In His revela-

tion of deliverance He displays the glory of His majesty, the

blessed truth that He alone is the I AM.

 

          Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Westminster Theological Seminary

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            Philadelphia,  PA   19118        

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Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu