The call of Moses in Exodus introduces the first non-sequitur into the progeny of the Covenant that God initiated with Abram i. That is, up until this point, God’s interaction with His people had been limited to a dialogue of ecclesia-based contractual promises, which were first communicated to Abram,ii then to Isaac, and finally to Jacob; by which a blessing of the covenant was conferred/transmitted upon the latter by the former,iii and after which was then affirmed by God in some form of divine manifestation.iv Also unique to this initial dialogue is that God wasn’t known on the basis of a personal relationship. Rather, He is known by whom He has made His Covenant promises to. That is, He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is not known as the God of Lot, Ishmael, and Esau.
While the descendants of Jacob migrated peacefully to Egypt, with the help of his son Joseph, it would be the fulfillment of God’s promise to multiply them which seemed to serve as the impetus of their hardship. They became so numerous that the Egyptians feared them, and, because of it, began to persecute them through slavery and infanticide. God’s calling of Moses was initiated after their groans and cries because of their forced slavery had risen up to Him. The text reads, “ . . . he heard their groaning and was mindful of his Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He saw the Israelites and knew . . .”v God sees injustice being waged against His people and is moved to provide a peaceful way out for them.
The call of Moses takes place in Exodus 3:11-14, where we read:
- “But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God answered: I will be with you; and this will be your sign that I have sent you. When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will serve God at this mountain. “But,” said Moses to God, “If I go 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 do I tell them?” God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”
Use of Convention and Type-Scenes
According to Robert Alter’s award-winning book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, “A coherent reading of any artwork, whatever the medium, requires some detailed awareness of the grid of conventions upon which, and against which, the individual work operates” (55). The argument here by Alter is that it is impossible to understand the Hebrew Bible without a presupposition of the Biblical author’s use of a genre and plot. Alter contends that the ancient Jewish authors had a distinct manner of writing that, while their contemporary audiences understood quite well, has been difficult for the hermeneutics of ‘the West’ to seamlessly comprehend.
This use of commonplace convention is not isolated to the Hebrew Biblical narrative alone according to Alter. On the contrary, his point is that the use of convention is a necessity in all artwork. In all, Alter’s method makes full use of the two Catholic senses of Scripture (i.e. literal and spiritual).
The Introduction of Moses; a Type of Joseph
While they may be considered to be brief and clumsy in comparison to modern character development in Western literature, the recognition of convention and type-scenes Old Testament Biblical narratives are essential to grasp their full depth, significance, and meaning.
In the instant case, Moses’ character seems to be built on the recent character of Joseph; perhaps so that the reader might find cause to associate him (a Levite) with the progeny Covenant. Similar to Joseph, Moses is forsaken by his kin, is reunited with them for sustenance, is taken into the household of Pharaoh, shows deference towards his people, and then goes to live in a foreign land.
Two other repetitive keyword/themes that are used to control and build Moses’ character development are the meaning of his name and his acquired vocation of ‘shepherding flock’ his father-in-law’s flock. Perhaps, again, the latter theme is used to tie Moses back to the wandering agrarian roots of the descendants of Abraham.
“When the child grew, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son and called him Moses; for she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.”vi After he murdered an Egyptian who he found striking one of his kinsmen, he fled to Midian where he encountered the seven daughters of the priest of Midian who came to a well to ‘draw water’ for their father’s ‘flock’. When the priest’s daughters were harassed, Moses got up and defended them and then drew water from the well himself to water their flock. Alter notes that the verb used to “to save” during Moses rescue of the seven girls was ‘hosia’, which gives a lexical clue of his future role of ‘moshia’, national redeemer (68).
Indeed, Moses would go onto shepherd his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert for forty years, before he would shepherd God’s people in the desert for another forty years after God drew them out of Egypt by parting the waters of the Sea of Reeds.vii
Further Development through Gilluy Shekinah (The Burning Bush)
In Jewish Theology there are two senses of revelation from God; (1) Gilluy Shekinah, which is a manifestation of God by some divinely initiated act through which man perceives the presence of God through some wondrous act of overawe; and (2) a manifestation of God’s will through oracular words, signs, statues, or laws.
In the Old Testament Hebrew narrative, both forms of revelation are used as tools to build drama and to move the story along through dialogue. In the call of Moses, the often used ‘angel of the Lord’ appears to him “in fire flaming out of a bush”viii while he was out tending the flock of his father-in-law. The ‘angel of the Lord’, which appeared to Hagar,ix and will appear again in 14:19 is a manifestation of God which, again, connects Moses to the progeny Covenant. God is not the God is Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, but He is with Moses; evidenced by these repeated types and scenes.
A couple very interesting keyword/theme repetitions take place at the onset of Moses’ calling. This first is that He whom the world drew out of water, “God called out to him from the bush,”x before God uses him to draw His people out of the water of the Sea of Reeds. This meeting of fire and water signifies that there is a purification that is about to take place, both for Moses and for the people that God is about to give him to shepherd.
The second is the place where the calling was made. Horeb is called here in Exodus 3:1 as “the mountain of God”. While this honorific designation of the mountain may have been a later reflection grafted onto it in response to the divine apparition Moses received there, it is important for the narrative to follow the Covenant pattern that was first prophesied by Abraham after he was tested. The patriarch said, “On the mountain the Lord will see.”xi Jacob also offered a sacrifice of God on a mountain.
If the author had left any doubt in his narration up this point about Moses’ relation in the progeny Covenant, it is definitively settled after God introduced Himself to Moses as ‘The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob;” to which Moses responded by hiding his face, out of fear of dying after seeing the face of God.xii
Further Development through Dialogue
(God Rebuffs Moses’ Request of His Name)
According to Alter, the way in which Biblical writers will often create a narrative event and report about it is by employing significant junctions that provide links between related events (79). It is the dialogue during these narrative events, which affords us the opportunity to learn more about characters and their mind (i.e. their way of reasoning).
Moses hiding his face from God isn’t the last time the narrative will make a link to Jacob’s event of wrestling with ‘an angel’ all night. It happened a second time when Moses said to God, “when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?’”xiii Just as Jacob was rebuffed with the non-answer answer, “Why should you want to know my name?”xiv Moses, too, at this pivotal point in salvation history, receives a non-answer answer rather than a name; the Lord responded, ““Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (I Am who Am / To Be / YHWH).xv Rather than His name, God revealed to Moses His essence and His logos.
The call of Moses has a great deal to say about the relationship between God and the Israelites. God continues to give His community evidence that He is trustworthy and will keep His word. At their lowest moment, God comes to them through someone whom He chooses and prepares for their great blessing. Not only that, He gives the power to call on Him by speaking the essence of His name.
For their part, the Biblical narrators, through their literary devices of type-scene, word/phrase/concept repetition, and dialogue, have seamlessly tied Moses into the Covenant that God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses reminds us of Joseph and he’s had some of the same experiences as Jacob. That he fits the mold of those who came before him assures us that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is his God as well.
- i Cf. Gen. 15.
iii Cf. Gen. 25:11 (on Isaac); Gen. 28:4 (on Jacob).
iv Cf. Gen 26:1:5 (to Isaac); Gen 28:10-15 (to Jacob).
v Exo. 2:24-25.
vi Exo. 2:10.
vii Acts 7:20-44.
viii Exo. 3:2.
ix Gen. 16:7.
x Exo. 3:4.
xi Gen. 22.2.
xii Cf. Gen. 32:31.
xiii Exo. 3:13.
xv Exo. 3:14.
- Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic, 1981. Kindle
Brown, Raymond E., Joseph Fitzmyer, and Roland Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990. Print.
Jurgens, William A. The Faith of the Early Fathers (Volume 1, 2 & 3). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1970. Print.
Senior, Donald, John Collins, and Mary Getty. The Catholic Study Bible. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.