The hot, burning sands likely shimmer in the heat. The nomadic shepherd is wandering far from his beginning place, searching diligently for adequate grass and available water for his sheep and goats. These flocks and herds are his livelihood. They are the sustenance on which his family and their kin depend for survival. For a nomad, flocks of sheep and herds of goats are the measures of life. Large herds, growing and surviving in the heat and cold of the desert-like land we now call the Middle East, are all that stand between the shepherd’s family and utter deprivation.

He has traveled far. Even after four decades of this life, it is never easy to find the best pasture. And he also must remember his immediate family in the search for pasture, water, and safety. It is likely that his travels include his tents, his wife and children, and what other few possessions are necessary to nomadic life. This is security. This is stability. This is home. He has need of nothing more.

It is different this day, though. In the shimmering heat, something startles him, and he turns his head. If there is one thing a shepherd fears, it is fire. Dry grass, brush, and trees can ignite easily and spread quickly in the hot, dry conditions. Dry lightning is an uncontrollable peril. Fire is a mortal threat.

But this day, only a single bush is burning. A bright flame—intense, lasting—and the bush is not being consumed. The fire is not spread- ing. It is not normal! The shepherd—Moses, he is called—turns aside to look at this strange sight. As he approaches the flaming bush, a voice speaks. It might be as frightening to hear the voice as to see the flame. And the words spoken are terrifying: “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (portions of Exodus 3:5–6).

We should not wonder that Moses hides his face. This is a moment of encounter with the Divine—filled with mystery, uncertainty, and terror. Suddenly, Moses is hearing a voice from the past. For more than four hundred years his family of origin, the Hebrew people, have lived in Egypt. They came initially as honored guests, the family of a trusted leader among the Egyptian people. They came with an identity as the people of Jacob, who was the father of Joseph—second in command to Pharaoh, king of Egypt. He and his family were followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But God had not forgotten them. God heard their cries, experienced their agony, and made preparations for their deliverance.

Over time, their place of honor as welcome guests came into question among the native Egyptians as the rapid growth of the outsiders made the Egyptians increasingly uneasy. The guests eventually became slaves, and the slavery became bitter and oppressive. Destructive edicts requiring extreme measures were issued to limit the further growth of the people of Israel. Male babies were to be killed. The midwives were to become executioners. The Hebrew people cried out to their God, pleading for deliverance, desperate for some kind of response. It no doubt seemed obvious to them that the gods of the Egyptians were stronger than the God of the Hebrews. There was no help. The situation only worsened. Their God, it seemed, had either been bested by the gods of Egypt, or had forgotten them.

But God had not forgotten them. God heard their cries, experienced their agony, and made preparations for their deliverance.

Moses seems an unlikely candidate for the mission to which God is calling him. Born a Hebrew during the period when all the male babies were being executed, Moses was rescued by the Egyptian princess and raised in Pharaoh’s palace. As such, he was not at home anywhere in Egypt—especially after he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for abusing
a Hebrew slave. This incident finally forced him to flee to the wilder- ness. He ended up in Midian, where he discovered the family of a priest. Here, among descendants of Esau—the other of Isaac’s sons—Moses found a place, a home, and a family. He was no longer a stranger in a foreign land.

Now, four decades later, the welfare of the herds and flocks is the purpose around which this shepherd and his people organize their lives. Seeking pasture, water, and safety for the flocks and herds means wandering around vast territories with his family, their tents, and their few belongings. But it is life, and it is normal, and it is often necessary to travel long distances over a period of weeks and months. Having traveled many miles across valleys and through mountain ranges, Moses has, by chance and circumstance, arrived on the slopes of Mount Horeb. That mountain will later hold major significance in the story of God, Moses, and Israel. At this time, however, it is merely the latest place he has come in search of adequate pasture, water, and security for his animals and his family. In the normal routine of caring for these responsibilities, Moses is confronted by the burning bush.

Moses knows God. The people of his birth cry out to this God of their ancestors for deliverance. And Moses has at last found a home among others who know the God of Abraham and Isaac. But Moses has never heard God speak as this God is speaking now. It is stunning. He throws aside his sandals. His body trembles with fear. He covers his face.

The voice speaks: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (3:7). God has not been distant. God is not ignoring their cries. The implication is that God has actually experienced their suffering. God is not removed from them. God feels their agony, knows their misery. And the time has come for God to act for their deliverance.

It should not be lost on us that Moses is at the extreme limit of his understanding in this moment. He is overwhelmed, and what he hears is nothing short of terrifying. And it is only natural that Moses seeks to understand what he is hearing as well as to know who is speaking.

God says to Moses, “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (v. 10).

The exchange between Moses and God is stunning, when we really get into the magnitude of what God is doing and saying to this stammering shepherd. We can easily understand Moses’s response to this encounter when he cries out in fear, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (v. 11).

There is a profound significance that is sometimes overlooked in reading this exchange between God and Moses. Each speaker makes a point to identify himself. Moses cries out, “Who am I that I should go?”

The response of God is, “I will be with you” (v. 12, emphasis added).

Still afraid and uncertain, Moses asks, “What if the Israelites ask me your name? What do I tell them?” (see v. 13). That is not an unexpected question. The Israelites have been slaves in Egypt now for four centuries. The local gods seem obviously dominant, and the pharaoh claims to be of divine descent. What could the God of the Israelites do under these circumstances?

Here, God declares the name by which God will be known to the Israelites from that time forward: “‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’ God also said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites, “The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation’” (vv. 14–15).

This is the God who is. It would not be enough to say of God that God was or will be. This is the God who always is. This is not conceptual being, or being in the abstract. This is active being, present always and everywhere, dynamic and personal being.

This is said by some to be the most theological passage in all of Scripture. The significance of the passage in Exodus 3 is not so much the declaration of the name of God. It is the revelation and assertion of the authority of God. In the very declaration of the name, the authority of the LORD is established.

The LORD: That name is found throughout English translations of the Old Testament, spelled in all capital letters, signifying the utterly holy name by which the Israelites will forever after address or speak of their God. The name is held in such reverence that they hardly dare to speak it aloud. Other descriptive names will be uttered, but that name is held in special reverence.

In Hebrew, the name is Yahweh. It has a unique sound that almost should be breathed rather than spoken. And the name, in sound, is drawn from the verb “am” expressed repeatedly, insistently—God declaring the power and authority that only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the Creator of all things—is capable of exercising. The name is given in such a form that every time an Israelite sees the name, thinks the name, or dares to utter the name, it is almost as if he or she is hearing it again: I AM!

This is the God who is. It would not be enough to say of God that God was or will be. This is the God who always is. This is not conceptual being, or being in the abstract. This is active being, present always and everywhere, dynamic and personal being.

Yahweh is not just a name. That name is a declaration! Wherever you are in your journey of life, whatever you face in that journey, God is. And that is enough.



This is an excerpt from Jesse Middendorf’s latest book: I Am: The Startling Claim of Jesus.