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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 3

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-12

Horeb is another name for Sinai (Exodus 3:1). It probably indicates a range of mountains rather than a particular mountain peak. The writer called it "the mountain of God" because it was the place where God later gave the Mosaic Law to Israel. The traditional site of Mt. Sinai and the Horeb range is in the southern Sinai Peninsula. However some Scripture references cast this location into question (cf. Deuteronomy 33:2; Galatians 4:25). These references suggest that the site may have been somewhere on the east side of the Gulf of Aqabah. [Note: However, see Gordon Franz, "Mt. Sinai Is Not Jebel El-Lawz in Saudi Arabia," a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, 15 November 2001, Colorado Springs, Colo.]

Here the Angel of the Lord is clearly God (Yahweh, Exodus 3:2; cf. Exodus 3:4; Exodus 3:6-7). He was not an angelic messenger but God Himself.

A burning thorn-bush was and is not uncommon in the Sinai desert. [Note: Cassuto, p. 31.] These bushes sometimes burst into flame spontaneously. This bush was unusual, however, because even though it burned it did not burn up (Exodus 3:3). The monastery of St. Catherine is supposed to be on the exact site of the burning bush, according to ancient tradition. [Note: See Philip C. Johnson, "Exodus," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 54.]

Jewish and Christian interpreters have long seen the bush in this incident as a symbol of the nation of Israel ignoble in relation to other nations (cf. Judges 9:15). The fire probably symbolized the affliction of Egyptian bondage (cf. Deuteronomy 4:20). The Israelites suffered as a result of this hostility, but God did not allow them to suffer extinction as a people from it. Because Israel has frequently been in the furnace of affliction throughout history, though not consumed, Jews have identified the burning bush as a symbol of their race. This symbol often appears on the walls of synagogues or in other prominent places not only in modern Israel but also in settlements of Jews around the world. The fire also probably symbolized the presence of God dwelling among His people (cf. Genesis 15:17; Exodus 19:18; Exodus 40:38). God was with His people in their affliction (cf. Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:5; Daniel 3:25; Hebrews 13:5).

This was the first time God had revealed Himself to Moses, or anyone else as far as Scripture records, for over 430 years (Exodus 3:4). Later in history God broke another 400-year long period of prophetic silence when John the Baptist and Jesus appeared to lead an even more significant exodus.

The custom of removing one’s shoes out of respect is very old (Exodus 3:5). It was common at this time in the ancient world and is still common today. [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:437-40.] For example, when one enters a Moslem mosque he must remove his shoes.

"God begins his discourse with Moses by warning him not to come near to him because he is holy (Exodus 3:5). As we will later see, the idea of God’s holiness is a central theme in the remainder of the book. Indeed, the whole structure of Israel’s worship of God at the tabernacle is based on a view of God as the absolutely Holy One who has come to dwell in their midst. We should not lose sight of the fact, however, that at the same time that God warns Moses to stand at a distance, he also speaks to him ’face to face’ (cf. Numbers 12:8). The fact that God is a holy God should not be understood to mean that he is an impersonal force-God is holy yet intensely personal. This is a central theme in the narratives of the Sinai covenant that follow." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 245.]

God proceeded to explain the reason for His revelation (Exodus 3:7-10). The suffering of His people had touched His heart. He had heard their cries and seen their affliction. Now He purposed to deliver them. The compassion of God stands out in these verses.

"The anthropomorphisms (i.e., the descriptions of God’s actions and attributes in words usually associated with mankind) in Exodus 3:7-8 of God’s ’seeing,’ ’hearing,’ ’knowing’ (= ’be concerned about’), and ’coming down’ became graphic ways to describe divine realities for which no description existed except for partially analogous situations in the human realm. But these do not imply that God has corporeal and spatial limitations; rather, he is a living person who can and does follow the stream of human events and who can and does at times directly intervene in human affairs." [Note: Kaiser, p. 316.]

"Is there no discrepancy between these two announcements ["I have come down to deliver," Exodus 3:8, and "I will send you," Exodus 3:10]? If God has Himself come down to do the work of redemption, what need of Moses? Would not a word from those almighty lips be enough? Why summon a shepherd, a lonely and unbefriended man, a man who has already failed once, and from whom the passing years have stolen his manhood’s prime, to work out with painful elaboration, and through a series of bewildering disappointments, the purposed emancipation? But this is not an isolated case. Throughout the entire scheme of Divine government, we meet with the principle of mediation. God ever speaks to men, and works for them, through the instrumentality of men. Chosen agents are called into the inner circle, to catch the Divine thought and mirror the Divine character, and then sent back to their fellows, to cause them to partake." [Note: Meyer, p. 43.]

The description of Canaan as a land "flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17) is a common biblical one. It pictures an abundance of grass, fruit trees, and flowers where cows, goats, and bees thrive and where the best drink and food abound. The operative word in the description is "flowing." This is a picture of a land in contrast to Egypt, where sedentary farming was common. In Canaan the Israelites would experience a different form of life, namely, a pastoral lifestyle. Canaan depended on rainfall whereas Egypt did not; it depended on the Nile River. [Note: Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands, p. 49.]

"This formula was at first coined by the nomadic shepherds to denote a land blessed with pastures for cattle producing milk and with trees whose boughs afforded man, without the necessity for hard toil, food as nourishing and as sweet as bees’ honey. In the course of time the signification of the phrase was extended to include also land that yielded rich harvests as a result of human labour." [Note: Cassuto, p. 34.]

Often Moses listed seven tribes as possessing Canaan (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:1), but he also named six (Exodus 3:8), 10 (Genesis 15:19-21), and 12 (Genesis 10:15-18) as the inhabitants in various Scripture passages.

The Pharaoh to whom Moses referred here (Exodus 3:10) was very likely Amenhotep II who succeeded Thutmose III and ruled from 1450 to 1425 B.C. He ruled during the very zenith of Egypt’s power, prestige, and glory as a world government.

Moses had become genuinely humble during his years as a mere shepherd in Midian (Exodus 3:11). Earlier an Israelite had asked Moses, "Who made you a prince or a judge over us?" (Exodus 2:14). Now Moses asked the same thing of God: "Who am I that I should . . . bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?"

"Some time before he had offered himself of his own accord as a deliverer and judge; but now he had learned humility in the school of Midian, and was filled in consequence with distrust of his own power and fitness. The son of Pharaoh’s daughter had become a shepherd, and felt himself too weak to go to Pharaoh." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:440-41. See Frederick Holmgren, "Before the temple, the thornbush: an exposition of Exodus 2:11-3:12," The Reformed Journal 33:3 (March 1983):9-11; and Robert J. Voss, "Who Am I That I Should Go? Exodus 3:11 (Exodus 2:25-4:18)," Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 80:4 (Fall 1983):243-47.]

"In these verses [11-12], the presentation of the tetragrammaton is only introduced. Moses objected, . . . ’Who am I, . . . that I . . . that I . . . ?’ and God answers, . . . ’the point is I AM with you.’ Who Moses is is not the question; it is rather, who is with Moses?" [Note: Durham, p. 33.]

"As long as a man holds that he is easily able to do some great deed of heroism and faith, he is probably incompetent for it, but when he protests his inability, and puts away the earliest proposals, though made by the Almighty Himself, he gives the first unmistakable sign that he has been rightly designated." [Note: Meyer, p. 45.]

God gave Moses a sign to inspire his courage and confidence that God would make his mission a success (Exodus 3:12; cf. Genesis 37:5-11). This sign was evidently the burning bush. God also gave Moses a promise that he would return with the Israelites to the very mountain where he stood then. This promise required faith on Moses’ part, but it was also an encouragement to him. As surely as God had revealed Himself to Moses there once, He promised to bring Moses back to Horeb to worship Him a second time with the Israelites. The punctuation in the NASB may be misleading.

". . . the experience of Moses in Exodus 3:1-12 is an exact foreshadowing of the experience of Israel, first in Egypt, then in the deprivation of the wilderness, and finally at Sinai." [Note: Durham, p. 30.]

Verses 1-18

6. Moses’ call 3:1-4:18

Verses 13-22

Moses’ fear that the Israelite elders would not accept him is understandable (Exodus 3:13). God had not revealed Himself to His people for over 400 years. When Moses asked how he should answer the Israelites’ question, "What is His name?" he was asking how he could demonstrate to them that their God had sent him.

"According to the conception prevailing in the ancient East, the designation of an entity was to be equated, as it were, with its existence: whatever is without an appellation does not exist, but whatever has a denomination has existence." [Note: Cassuto, pp. 36-37.]

"The question contains both a request for information and an explanation of its significance. There are two aspects of the one question. Clearly the people want to know more about God’s intention. By requesting his name, they seek to learn his new relationship to them. Formerly he related to them as the God of the Fathers. What will he be to Israel now?" [Note: Childs, p. 75.]

"What Moses asks, then, has to do with whether God can accomplish what he is promising. What is there in his reputation (see Numbers 6:27; Deuteronomy 12:5; Deuteronomy 12:11; Deuteronomy 16:2-6; Psalms 8:1; Psalms 74:7; Amos 5:8; Amos 9:5-6; Jeremiah 33:2) that lends credibility to the claim in his call? How, suddenly, can he be expected to deal with a host of powerful Egyptian deities against whom, across so many years, he has apparently won no victory for his people?" [Note: Durham, p. 38.]

God’s name expressed His nature and actions (Exodus 3:14-15). The Israelites would ask for proof that the God of their fathers was with Moses. God explained the name by which He made Himself known to Abraham (Genesis 15:7).

"The repetition of the same word [I am] suggests the idea of uninterrupted continuance and boundless duration." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:442-43.]

Yet it means more than this.

"To the Hebrew ’to be’ does not just mean to exist as all other beings and things do as well-but to be active, to express oneself in active being, ’The God who acts.’ ’I am what in creative activity and everywhere I turn out to be,’ or ’I am (the God) that really acts.’" [Note: Sigmund Mowinckel, "The Name of the God of Moses," Hebrew Union College Annual 32 (1961):127.]

"I am that I am" means "God will reveal Himself in His actions through history." [Note: Charles Gianotti, "The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH," Bibliotheca Sacra 142:565 (January-March 1985):45.]

Other translations are, "I will be what I will be," "I am the existing One," and "I cause to be what comes to pass." [Note: Johnson, pp. 54-55.] One writer paraphrased God’s answer, "It is I who am with you." [Note: Cassuto, p. 38.] In other words, the one who had promised to be with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had sent Moses to them.

"The answer Moses receives is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a name. It is an assertion of authority, a confession of an essential reality, and thus an entirely appropriate response to the question Moses poses." [Note: Durham, p. 38.]

Moses had asked, "Who am I?" implying his complete inadequacy for his calling. God replied, "I am who I am!" implying His complete adequacy. The issue was not who Moses was but who God is. I believe God meant, I am the God of your forefathers who proved myself long ago as completely adequate for all their needs, so it really doesn’t matter who you are, Moses. Moses would learn the complete adequacy of God Himself in the events that followed. Later, Pharaoh would say, "Who is the LORD?" (Exodus 5:2), and God’s response was, "I am the LORD!" (Exodus 6:2; Exodus 6:6; Exodus 6:8). Pharaoh, too, then learned God’s complete adequacy. The real issue, then, was, and is, who God is.

This is the first reference to the elders of Israel (Exodus 3:16). [Note: See Leslie Hoppe, "Elders and Deuteronomy," Eglise et Theologie 14 (1983):259-72.] The elders were the leaders of the various groups of Israelites.

God told Moses to request Pharaoh’s permission for the Israelites to leave Egypt (Exodus 3:18).

"The sequel shows that there was no element of deceit in the request for ’a three days’ journey into the wilderness,’ i.e., right out of contact with the Egyptian frontier guards. Pharaoh knew perfectly well that this implied no return; indeed, since Israel was a tolerated alien people, he would have no claim on their return, once they had left his territory." [Note: H. L. Ellison, Exodus, p. 22.]

"Moses’ demand for complete freedom, though couched in polite words, is there from the start." [Note: R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentery, p. 72.]

The signs God proceeded to give Moses would demonstrate to the Israelites that their God was again actively working for them (Exodus 3:20; cf. Exodus 4:2-9). God told Moses that the Israelites would believe him (Exodus 3:18).

Probably there were several reasons the Israelites were to ask their Egyptian neighbors for jewelry and clothing (Exodus 3:22). By doing so, they would humiliate the Egyptians further. They would also obtain articles needed for the wilderness march and the construction of the tabernacle. Moreover they would receive partial payment for the labor the Egyptians had stolen from them during their years of slavery (cf. Deuteronomy 15:12-15).

The writer stated God’s sovereignty over Pharaoh in Exodus 3:14-22. God demonstrated it in the plagues that followed (chs. 5-11). [Note: See ibid., pp. 19-40, for an exposition of the character of God as revealed in Exodus.]

"With the name ’Yahweh’ revealed and explained and with the proof of this explanation illustrated, at least in prospect, Moses can have no further question about God’s authority. The narrative deals next with Moses’ own authority, and how that is to be made clear." [Note: Durham, p. 41.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/exodus-3.html. 2012.
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