31 October 2014

“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.’” (vv. 7-8)


Following straight on from yesterday's passage, God speaks with passion and compassion, declaring a heartfelt intention to get involved on the side of the Israelites. The repeated use of "I" highlights the personal commitment to end their suffering, in a chain of verbs ending with the emphatic "I have come down". God is no longer distant or disinterested, but present in person, active on their behalf. The reality of God's concern and support takes shape in the promise of land. Without land, individuals and people are dependent on the whims of others. A piece of land gives independence and security; to these enslaved wretches, land would - literally - have meant the earth. The promised land is "flowing with milk and honey", or perhaps 'grape syrup' - productive through animal husbandry and through agriculture. In fact, Israel is not ideally suited to farming, with poor soil and unreliable rainfall, but for the people it was the land of God's promise. And in words that echo ominously down the centuries, the land was already inhabited by others.

God commissions Moses (verse 10) as, later, the prophets would be called and commissioned (Isaiah 6:8-9). And Moses is very well aware that God's arrival carries acute personal and political consequences for himself. This God is by no means focused exclusively on the spiritual. Life is going to change for the Israelites, geographically, economically, politically; and Moses is the chosen agent of that change. It is Moses who will have to face Pharaoh on behalf of the people. No wonder he reacts to God with increasing anxiety about his capacity to achieve this, culminating in the heart-breaking honesty of Exodus 4:13 - "O my Lord, please send someone else".

God's comfort and reassurance comes through the revelation of the holy name. Conventionally translated "I am who I am" (v. 14), following an early Greek translation, the Hebrew words could also mean "I will be who I will be". And perhaps the name is intended to carry both meanings, unchanging present dependability balanced by a dynamic orientation towards the future. Certainly 'I am' would connote God's presence throughout Israel's history - as Jesus well knew when he used the phrase to describe himself (see, for example, Mark 14:62). The revelation of this new name goes alongside the name that reminds Israel of God's covenant relationship with their ancestors (verse 15), holding together Israel's past and future.

To Ponder

  • In a capitalist society, the possession of land tends to be an indicator of wealth. How would you go about explaining how and why the land matters here, to a non-Christian friend?
  • Have you ever felt, with Moses, "O my Lord, please send someone else"? What happened then?

Bible notes author: The Revd Caroline Wickens

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