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Shemot/Exodus 3:4 And the L-rd saw that Moshe had turned aside to see and G-d called to him from the midst of the thorn-bush
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While the previous verses tell us thatHaShem appeared to Moshe in the wilderness as a burning fire in the midst of a thorn-bush that wasn't being burned, and that Moshe was so surprised by the site of a burning bush that didn't get burned up, that he went over to take a closer look, this verse tells us what happened next and leads us into a discussion about the way that HaShem relates to us today in Messiah Yeshua.
First, though, we should observe that the major concern of the classical Jewish commentators is why two divine names - , the Tetragrammaton, the covenant name of G-d, prayed as Adonai and read as HaShem, and , the name usually translated 'G-d' - appear together in the verse and what that might mean. Ibn Ezra says that in this case, really is G-d, while refers to the angel or messenger of the L-rd mentioned at the start of the narrative: "An angel of the L-RD appeared to him ..." (Shemot 3:2, NJPS); HaShem commanded the angel to speak to Moshe. TheRashbam says that only an angel is present - that the text simply refers to the angel by the divine name, perhaps to emphasise that HaShem is involved. Don Abravanel is of a similar opinion: "HaShem is the First Cause; G-d is the angel."
Umberto Cassuto suggests that both names refer to HaShem, explaining that "The children of Israel, including hitherto even Moshe, forgot in the land of their exile the direct knowledge of YHVH, the G-d of their ancestors, and retained only a general and vague understanding of the concept of Elohim ... The Divine name changes in these verses in accordance with the following principles: whenever the L-rd is spoken of objectively, the name YHVH occurs; but when the reference is to what Moshe saw or heard or felt objectively, the name Elohim is used." 1Abraham ben Maimonides, who like his father holds to a rationalist point of view, plays the whole thing down: "The phrase 'out of the midst of the bush' symbolises that Moshe became aware of the Divine call through the bush which figuratively glowed like the glow of the Shekhinah."
RabbiBahya sees a three step process taking place so that Moshe saw in turn the fire, the angel and then the appearance or glory of G-d. First he saw the fire start and take hold of the thorn-bush, which was miraculously not consumed; then he saw the angel who was speaking to him from inside the fire and then, finally, he saw the Divine glory who would commission him to return to Egypt to act as His agent to oversee the release of Israel from slavery. Quoting the verse, "So let us know, let us press on to know the L-RD. His going forth is as certain as the dawn" (Hosea 6:3, NASB), Bahya writes: "Man must gradually train his intellectual powers to achieve the perception of the Divine, its light increasing as the dawn shines forth." As we get to know G-d better and spend more time in His presence and His word, we understand Him better and His light grows on us like the sun as it rises at dawn.
What the narrative clearly does tell us is that there were three stages to HaShem's revelation to Moshe. It started with the thorn-bush, hosting a fire but without being burned. This attracted Moshe's attention; thorn bushes or tumble-weeds have been known to spontaneously ignite in the heat of the desert - but that is exactly what they do: they ignite, combust and quickly burn away to a pile of ash. The fact that this one did not, caught Moshe's eye, piqued his interest and drew his attention away from the sheep. This is the second stage: first spoken by Moshe - "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?" (Shemot 3:3, NJPS) - then acted upon in our text so that HaShem could see: "the L-RD saw that he had turned aside to look". The third and last stage is that G-d called to Moshe from inside the bush.
The significance we may learn from this is that HaShem waited; He did not speak until He was sure that He had Moshe's full attention. Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz attempts to simplify this, ignoring the first stage in the process, to say that, "Man must take the first step in seeking G-d. He must initiate, i.e. begin, then G-d will meet him. Only when Moshe turned to observe and witness, did G-d call to him."2 While the last sentence is certainly true, I think that the three stage model is the way that HaShem communicates with man, with the initiative for the first stage resting entirely with G-d. Man is dependent on G-d for opening his eyes to the fact that there is more to life than the immediate physical here and now with its apparently unbreakable trajectory from birth to death. From the moment G-d first called out to Adam and Eve, "Where are you?" (B'resheet 3:9), through Job's cry that "Proud as a lion, you hunt me down" (Job 10:16, NJB), G-d is on mankind's case and is never prepared to give up. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "It is as if G-d were unwilling to be alone and He had chosen man to serve Him ... All of human history as described in the Bible may be summarised in one phrase: G-d is in search of man."3
At the beginning of the Jewish story, HaShem called Avraham; He initiated the relationship, calling Avram (as he was then) to "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you" (B'resheet 12:1, NJPS). Avraham responded by going forth as HaShem commanded; he answered by obeying the call. In many of the prophetic books, we find that "The word of the L-rd came to ...", calling the prophet into His service, whether they were shepherds, potters, farmers or intimates of the royal family. With the exception of Jonah, who ran in the opposite direction and needed a second talking-to, and Jeremiah who - like Moshe - tried to argue, they all responded by obeying G-d and speaking out His words, sometimes at significant risk to their lives. From there, relationship followed; the conversation had started.
Moving on to the stories of Yeshua, these begin with Zecharias and Miyram receiving - with differing degrees of belief and enthusiasm - G-d's initiative as He kicked the ball firmly back into play. Even Yeshua Himself was in some sense called - "Out of Egypt I called My son" (Matthew 2:15, ESV) - and we should notice that all his closest disciples, the twelve, were called by Him. We should note how they responded: "[Yeshua] said to them, 'Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.' Immediately they left their nets and followed Him" (Matthew 4:19-20, bible(ESV)) and "As Yeshua passed on from there, He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and He said to him, 'Follow Me.' And he rose and followed Him" (9:9, ESV). Those who responded found themselves being drawn into an intense three-year discipleship program beyond their wildest dreams; going on mission trips to heal the sick, cast out demons and proclaim the kingdom of G-d; and eventually taking the gospel to all the corners of the known world, fulfilling the prophets' vision of the islands and coastlands hearing and responding to the word of G-d.
So it won't surprise you to hear that this is exactly how it happens for us too. Those who know Yeshua can all share testimony of the way in which G-d pursued them, wooed them and took the initiative in bringing them into relationship with Himself. Not everyone has quite the testimony of a certain Jewish man called Sha'ul who was blinded on his horse while riding to Damascus! But see how the pattern played out: "As he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And He said, "I am Yeshua, whom you are persecuting." (Acts 9:3-5, ESV). First he sees the sign (the light) and falls to the ground to get his attention, then Yeshua speaks to him without identifying Himself, then Sha'ul replies and finally Yeshua reveals who He is. Exactly the same steps as Moshe at the bush, only he didn't have to fall over! From there, obedience and relationship that took Sha'ul all over the Roman empire sharing the good news about Yeshua.
You may notice too, how frequently Sha'ul's ministry followed the same pattern. At Philippi, for example, an otherwise unknown jail-keeper is given charge of two prisoners accused of disturbing the peace of the city. G-d, however, has designs on the jailer, so about midnight when all decent jailers and their families are tucked up in bed, the two prisoners are praying and singing hymns when there is "a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened" (Acts 16:26, ESV). When the poor jailer has woken up and Sha'ul knows that he is listening, he tells him that no-one has escaped, everyone is still there, so the jailer responds by asking "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" (v. 30, ESV). Isn't that what every evangelist longs to be asked?
We can and should expect the same pattern to be at work through us today. As we are going about our normal daily business, G-d will generate a sign or event. This may be something that we say or do, some behaviour that people have noticed or a simple act of kindness, or it may be something dramatic or miraculous. Either way, it gets people's attention. Then G-d speaks to that person (or people), most likely through us and finally they have to make a response. The initiative and the timing are not ours; we don't have to force the conversation - G-d takes care of that much more effectively than we can. We just have to follow the prompting of the Spirit to share the words G-d wants spoken and the rest is up to them. If they respond (really, to G-d) and want to accept His offer, then we get the privilege of explaining what to do and welcoming them into the kingdom. Baruch HaShem!
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 32.
2. - Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz is the translator, editor and commentator for the Artscroll edition of the Sforno's commentary on the Torah.
3. - Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), page 136.
Further Study: John 6:26-29; Acts 5:17-25 Romans 10:12-15
Application: Have you ever seen the three-stage process work out right in front of you and been involved in helping G-d to tie the knot? You need to let Him know that you'd be thrilled to be on His team next time He needs someone to help and then ask Him if it can be you today! Then relax and leave it up to Him; just be ready to speak His words when the moment comes. This is how the kingdom grows as the L-rd "adds to our number day by day those who are being saved" (Acts 2:47, paraphrase).
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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