Thursday, February 24, 2011

At the Burning Bush: Moses and the Gods of Egypt Part I

At the Burning Bush: Moses and the Gods of Egypt Part I
By Dr. Dave Johnson

This is the first in a series of blogs that deal with Moses and his confrontation with the gods of Egypt.  Again, comprehending the polytheistic and animistic religious context is critical to the background and understanding of our story.  As we did in the story of Abraham, we shall again see that God spoke powerfully and clearly to Moses, Pharaoh, and the peoples they served within their cultural context. But in order to better understand the impact of Moses’ confrontation with the gods of Egypt through the ten plagues we need to look first at Moses’ own encounter with God on Mount Horeb in the Sinai desert.

A brief sketch of Moses’ early years is given in Exodus 1-2.  Born a son of Abraham, a Levite by lineage, at a time when Pharaoh had ordered the practice of infanticide, a forerunner of the current abortion practices, Moses was set adrift by his mother in a basket in the Nile river where he was picked up and adopted by an Egyptian princess.  He was reared in the palace and given the best education in his day (Acts 7:22)—an education steeped in the idolatry and witchcraft that is part of polytheism.  After killing an Egyptian, he fled into the wilderness, where he married Zipporah and tended his father in law’s sheep for forty years.  Where and how Moses became aware of the God of his ancestors is a tale we are not told.  At the burning bush, God introduced himself.

A closer look at the burning bush episode reveals some interesting insights.  In Exodus 3:4, God calls Moses by name, and Moses answers, giving no hint of surprise that a voice was coming from the burning bush.  Messages from the otherworld were fairly common as the ancient Near Eastern religions were steeped in divination, and Moses may have assumed that something like that was happening to him.

 In 3:5, God tells Moses to take off his sandals.  To Moses, the ground surrounding the bush was nothing more than desert dirt and the unconsumed bush a heretofore unseen phenomenon that had aroused his curiosity.  God’s command to remove his sandals focused Moses’ attention immediately on this supernatural situation.  Removing one’s sandals when entering a holy place was a Near Eastern practice that preceded Moses and continues today in Islam, again demonstrating God’s willingness to communicate with man within familiar cultural norms.

In verse 6, the Lord introduces himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses’ forebears.  It is not difficult to understand Moses’ fear.  Standing in the presence of the Holy One of Israel must have filled him with dread.  In every other case in the Bible were God revealed himself to someone, the reaction was much the same.  But did Moses really know who God was at the time?  In verse 13, he asks for God’s name.  One writer suggested that this may mean that Moses thought he was one of the gods of the Egyptians, and he wanted to know which one (Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies: Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996, 13).  While this is by no means certain, the possibility cannot be easily dismissed given Moses upbringing in the palace—Pharaoh himself being regarded as descended from the sun-god.

God’s response in verses 14-15 is telling and is one case where the English language, nay, probably any human tongue, fails to carry the impact the impact of word meanings. Here, God reveals his personal name, spelled YHWH in the original Hebrew, and known in theology as the Tetragrammaton.  In time, orthodox Jews came to see the name as so holy that they would not say it, fearing that any usage of the name would violate the third commandment and bring God’s condemnation.  YHWH is normally spelled Yahweh, but the correct spelling is not exactly certain because vowels were not written in the original Hebrew.  Older English versions such as the KJV render it Jehovah, following the Latin tradition.  Modern translations such as the NKJV and NASB usually render it as LORD, placing it in all capital letters to separate it from other names for God that also call for the use of the English word lord.

In Moses’ day, names were given that described one’s character, and the names of God are no exception.  In short, YHWH means the one who is eternal, self-existent, all-powerful, and one who keeps his covenants. The idea of God keeping his covenant, as we shall see in a moment, is the focal point of God revealing it to Moses at this point in time.  The other attributes of God described in his name here also relate to his covenant keeping ability.  In order to keep his covenants, God has to be eternal.  If he were not, how could he keep a covenant made with Abraham more than four hundred years earlier?  The idea of being self-existent means that God needs nothing outside of himself to maintain his own existence.  If this were not so, how could he be eternal?  And if he were not all-powerful, how could he guarantee that he could keep his covenants?  That he did deliver Israel from Egypt is evidence that he is who he claimed to be.

Moses’ response is recorded in 4:1. He asked for evidence that YHWH had spoken to and was guiding him.  God’s reply in 4:2-9 again reveals his ability and willingness to communicate within the worldview of humans.  While the animistic worldview of the Egyptians and, to some extent, the Israelites, will be explained more fully in the next blog, the role of supernatural power must be noted here.  Gaining and maintaining supernatural power was and is the name of the game to the animist.  This is quite foreign to the rationalistic thinking that predominates Western cultures.  To demonstrate proof of his existence and concern for his people, God did not use rational arguments and evidence because these were not valued by the people.  Evidence of his power, however, would certainly get their attention and give Moses a hearing with them.             

In the first sign, God displayed his power over nature by turning Moses’ rod into a snake.  Much of the animistic religion of the Egyptians revolved around the worship of animals, and God was teaching Moses who the master of the universe really was.  In the second, turning Moses temporarily into a leper, God revealed his power to curse and restore human beings, a slightly different type of miracle.  God would do a similar thing in the ten plagues by smiting the Egyptians with boils and killing the firstborn of every household.

Verse 10 suggests that Moses got the point and had no more questions about God’s power.  He moved on to another in his litany of excuses but eventually went to Egypt. The Israelites believed Moses, at least initially, but Pharaoh was a bit harder to convince, and the stage was set for the greatest power confrontation recorded in the Old Testament.

What lessons might be learned from Moses’ encounter with God?  First, God revealed himself.  It’s the only way that he can be known.  Second, he is both willing to and capable of keeping his promises.  If he could keep his promise to Abraham by brining his descendents back to the promised land, he can keep his promises to us.  Third, he is all powerful and perfectly capable of setting his people free. Fourth, his motivation was his love for his people.  But in order to accomplish his goal, God had to deal with Pharaoh.  And to that story, we turn next.

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Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson 

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