Chapters 3 and 4 really belong together, but though often in these studies we will be covering fairly large passages, it seemed right to take a bit longer over this key encounter. God was for the most part off stage in the opening chapters, even though his behind the scenes ordering of events was hinted at. Here God steps clearly onto the centre of the stage.
There is no suggestion that Moses was seeking God here, the initiative was the Lord’s. Horeb is another name for Sinai, but it wouldn’t yet have association of being “the mountain of the God”. The strange sight of a burning, yet not burning, bush grabs Moses attention, but it is what he hears more than what he sees that has the greatest significance. God speaks to reveal things about himself that the sight alone did not clearly convey. Moses learns that God is a holy God, hence he’s told to remove his shoes and instinctively covers his face. He’s told that this God is not some new god, but rather the God of the patriarchs, the unchanging God, the covenant making God. And he is the compassionate, saving God who sees and hears and comes down to rescue.
Verse 10 was no doubt rather a surprise. Wonderful though it might have been to hear of God’s concern to act to save his people and fulfil his promises to Abraham, the calling of Moses to accomplish all this would have been rather a shock. Understandably he asks “Who am I?”. The last we had heard from Moses he had said “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land” (2:22), but where did he fit – he had been rejected by his own people and was wanted by Pharaoh’s police. Who was he to go to Pharaoh? And who was he to lead the Israelites out of Egypt?
God’s answer to Moses is not to assure him that he is the ideal man for the job, an Israelite yet brought up within Pharaoh’s court with all the privileges and education that entailed. Rather God says “I will be with you”. Moses doesn’t need a boost to his self-esteem, but rather an assurance of God’s presence with him, because it is that and not Moses’ gifts and qualifications that will be the guarantee of success.
The “sign” is a strange one – essentially, the proof that this is all of God will be when the Israelites (it is “you” plural) have been brought to Sinai. It’s as though God is saying “If you are not sure that I am sending you to do this, well watch this space, see what I do”. It’s an assurance Moses is not to be given before the event, but after the event and through the event.
It’s not just a name that Moses is asking for, for the name speaks of the character of the person: it is not just what they are called, but who they are. “I AM WHO I AM” is somewhat enigmatic but in part points to the fact that God is not defined in reference to something else, for he is self-defining, and uniquely self-existing. It is probably not intended as the answer quite to Moses’ question, rather it is a preparatory comment. His name is “I AM” or “the LORD” (which sounds very similar). The LORD was not a new name, only being revealed at this moment, for it has been used in Genesis (eg Gen.4:26), but the meaning and significance of the name is now being given. This God is the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but he was about to reveal definitively what he is like, what it means that he is the LORD, through this act of redemption (described in advance in verses 16-22). Such that, as Tim Chester comments, in years to come if you had asked the Israelites “who is the LORD?” they would answer by telling you a story, the story of the Exodus. Who God is is revealed especially through what he does. Or to put it another way, the character of God is revealed through the actions of God. That is why, throughout the Bible, we are encouraged to remember his saving works, for that is how God has particularly shown us what he is like.
Clearly this God is the unchanging, covenant keeping, gracious, sovereign God, who knows the end form the beginning.