Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
October 25, 2009
MOSES AND THE GOD OF EXODUS
Texts: Exodus 3:1-8A, 13-15; 33:17-23
The poet Rilke stood before the ancient sculpture of the torso of Apollo. He wrote a poem about the experience, the last line: “You must change your life.” The story of Moses has the power to do the same.
Part One: Moses, the Historical Figure
Around 1275 BCE at the height of the reign of Ramsees II, a Hebrew bearing the Egyptian name Mosheh, or Moses, fomented an insurrection among the labor camps of the northeastern delta of the Nile and led a group of slaves out of Egypt across the flat marches of the Isthmus of Suez in the vicinity of the Bitter Lakes, across the Sea of Reeds, which has been traditionally identified as the Red Sea.
In the name of “the God of their fathers,” and given a new name at an encounter at a burning bush Moses led the people out of slavery, across the wilderness, delivered to them the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai and brought them after forty years to the edge of Canaan where he died before he could lead them in.1
Part Two: His Birth
God prepared a way for Moses before Moses left his mother’s womb. It began like this: A new king arose in Egypt “who knew not Joseph” (1:8). It’s an old and familiar story of historical amnesia. Paranoid about the growing ranks of Hebrew slaves, he ordered the midwives of Egypt to strangle all Hebrew baby boys at birth. His plans, however, were foiled. Here is what the story tells:
There’s a thrilling story of courage! Poet Celia Gilbert in her poem “The Midwives” writes:
Low huts, groans muffled,
babes slide to waiting arms...
but the mothers,
at hand –
sweet new bodies,
every one redeemer.
We are given the names of two, Shiphrah and Puah. When called in and interrogated for their act of civil disobedience, they said: “The Hebrew women are strong, and deliver their babies so fast that the babies are here before we can get there.” They just zip out! Makes you smile and stirs you. The faithfulness of a nurse-midwife is greater than all the Pharaohs of the world.
Who would you name as Shiphrah and Puah figures? Rosa Parks, who sat down so her people could stand up. Harriet Tubmann, a freed slave who helped deliver slaves along the Underground Railroad. She was called Moses. Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader who led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic Convention. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” she would sing ‘til all were singing.
Everywhere I go,
I’m going to let it shine;
Everywhere I go,
I’m going to let it shine;
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
When the Pharaoh discovered he’d been tricked he ordered all Hebrew baby boys thrown into the Nile and drowned. Evil always overreaches.
Here’s where Moses’ birth happened. His mother wove a basket, waterproofed it with pitch and made a little “ark” – that’s the Hebrew word – for Moses. She hid him in the little ark among the bulrushes at the Nile. One day Pharaoh’s daughter just happened to be bathing near by, heard the baby cry, discovered him, and her heart was captured. Then Moses’ sister, who was watching over him, came up and said she knew a good woman to nurse the child! So she ran and got Moses’ mother, who became the wet nurse for her son adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter.
Part Three: Compassion, Anger and Murder
Moses grew up a prince. He was raised in royal privilege, given the best education, the best of everything. But God’s spirit intervened in his life. One day Moses went out and saw the suffering of his people. And seeing them he was moved to help. It is the divine drama we’ve seen all through history: people of privilege, seeing the plight of others and moved by compassion, give their lives to help them: St. Francis, the Buddha, Dorothy Day. It is the story of our church: a people of privilege, who become more than a people of privilege and reshape their lives as a life for others.
Jewish tradition says that Moses first tried to act within the system to change it. Then one day he saw an Egyptian overlord savagely beating a Hebrew slave. His compassion turned to uncontrollable rage, and he fell upon the Egyptian and murdered him. With a death sentence hanging over him he fled to the Arabian desert, to Midian, where he met a priest named Jethro, married his daughter, and became a shepherd.
Part Four: the Call
One day while tending sheep he spied a burning bush. He lingered long enough to observe that while it burned it was not consumed. He could have just walked on by. But he noticed, then “turned aside” to look. And turning aside he met the sacred.
How often do we miss the burning bush God has placed along our way? We hurry on, preoccupied by the ten thousand things; we do not turn aside to look, to pause and ponder and wonder.
Moses heard a voice: “Moses,” the voice said, calling him by name, “take off your shoes. This is holy ground.” Have you ever felt something so holy that you wanted to take off your shoes?
Then the voice said, “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I have seen the affliction of my people and have heard their cry.” Then God added, “I will send you to Pharaoh to deliver my people.” So is revealed the character of God: always on the side of the oppressed, the dispossessed, the least of these, as Howard Thurman put it, those with their backs against the wall. The question is which side the church is on, we are on.
Moses mounted every objection he could to God’s call.
“Who am I to go up against Pharaoh?”
“I will be with you,” God said.
“I’m not eloquent. I stutter, I’m slow of mouth and tongue!”
“Who made the mouth, but I?” God returned.
Martin Buber wrote: “It is laid upon the stammering to bring the voice of Heaven to Earth.”1
Objection after objection. Finally, Moses agreed. A rabbinic story comments: “It took seven days for Moses to say yes. Six days to make the world. Seven days to change a man’s mind.”
Moses asked God to give him God’s holy name so to help him persuade the Hebrew people. Then God gave to Moses the Holy Name which to this day will not be pronounced by Jewish people, so holy it is to them. We put God’s name on bumper stickers, clothes, political placards. Jews will not even say it.
God revealed the name in three stages. My name is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, God said, which means something like I AM WHO I AM or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.
“Tell them Ehyeh, I AM, has sent you,” God said. Then the Holy Name itself was given: YHWH. We pronounce it Yahweh. Jewish people substitute the word Adonai.
It is an elusive name, full of mystery. It has defied easy translation. We guess: I AM WHO I AM, I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE, I CAUSE TO BE WHAT I CAUSE TO BE. We can’t pin it down because we can’t pin God down. It is a form of the verb to be. God is Being itself.
In English translations of the Hebrew scriptures, every time the name Yahweh is used the English text says THE LORD, all in small caps. Think about it. We’ve taken a name which is a verb, turned it into a noun, then into a male authority-figure noun. The best translation of Yahweh I know is by liturgical theologian Gail Ramshaw. “The Living One” And maybe we should follow the Jews in another way: when they print the word God they leave out the vowel “o” – G - d , to preserve the holiness.
Why did God give to Moses such a mysterious, elusive name? Old Testament professor, Toni Craven, has a beautiful answer. When God gave the Holy Name to Moses, God was saying in effect, My name is Yahweh, and if you follow me I’ll teach you what this means. The knowing is in the following, the day by day, year by year following. It is a personal knowing, and then only in part. Why spend this much time on the Name? Because people today assume so much about God, and have so little reverence before the Mystery. We should stammer when we say God’s name.
Part Five: Exodus
The next part of the story unfolds in feverish pace. Moses goes to Pharaoh and says, “Let My People Go!” Pharaoh refuses, then after a series of ghastly plagues, relents. Then as the Hebrew people leave he changes his mind again and sends his army after them.
When the Hebrew people reach the edge of the Sea of Reeds they see the Egyptian army coming after them. A strong wind blows the tidewaters back; the people scurry across. When the heavily armored Egyptians try to cross in their war chariots and horses, they get stuck in the mud. When the waters come back they drown. It is not the first time or last that the weapons we build to protect us end up destroying us.
Miriam, Moses’ sister, takes up a tambourine and lifts a song of thanks and praise to God:
Sing to Yahweh
For God has triumphed gloriously
Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.
We pause and shudder, even at our joy at the liberation of the Hebrew people.
Did God “smite” the Egyptians with plague and death? It is impossible for me to believe this. Did the evil and injustice of the people ensnare them in their own deadly traps? Perhaps. We’ve seen this happen. We seek in history some meaningful sense of things, of good winning and evil losing, but we must not make judgments too soon or too easily.
Part Six: Wilderness and Torah
Moses led the people through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. It took forty years. Sometimes we lose our way. We thought we were on the right track, but now we find ourselves in some wilderness, and the Promised Land seems impossibly far away. But we set our hearts on hope and keep on. We may not get a pillar of cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night. A wisp of a cloud, a firefly at dusk, a faint echo of a voice. But we go on, and an unseen Hand guides and keeps us. Then a wrong path opens back up to the right one, to our joy and astonishment.
It was no easy journey for the Hebrew people. “God of our weary years. God of our silent tears.” Faced with their first misery, the people longed to go back to Egypt: At least we had three squares and a bed there! Freedom at first did not feel like freedom. We have to grow into the freedom God gives.
And leadership was not easy. They murmured and grumbled against Moses. At one point he cried, “What am I to do with this ungrateful people? One more incident and they will stone me.” Eli Wiesel comments: “Who knows? Perhaps God’s decision not to let him enter the Promised Land was meant as a reward rather than as punishment.”2
When he went up the mountain to get the Ten Commandments, he was gone much longer than expected. When he came down the mountain he could not believe what he saw: They were dancing around a golden calf. And led by his brother, Aaron! It is easier to worship a god we can see, touch and feel than the unseen God, and whose representative is gone for God knows how long. It goes to show, as Buechner says in a really bad pun, that for most people a god in the hand is worth two in a bush.
Moses grew so angry that he threw down the tablets with the Ten Commandments and broke them into a thousand pieces. Moses had anger management issues.
How did Moses keep on through all this? Once he asked God for a little reassurance, a sign. Let me see your Face, he asked, your Glory. God said, I cannot let you see my Face, my Glory. You would not survive. But I will let my Goodness (my tovha) pass by. And God hid Moses in a cleft in a rock and covered his face with His hand, so that when God passed by, what Moses saw was only the backside of God, the trailing glory of God’s goodness.
In the next chapter Moses went back up the mountain, got another set of the Ten Commandments; but added to them is this description of God, verse 34:6, which along with the Shema is the most beloved and most quoted of all the verses in the Jewish Bible, their John 3:16:
a God merciful and gracious
slow to anger
abounding in steadfast love
Here is the essence of God:
merciful and gracious
slow to anger
abounding in steadfast love
It’s the God Jesus experienced when he called God Abba.
Not a God who smites Egyptians, a God of holy war, crusade and jihad.
Not a God of Shock and Awe, but a God of
Mercy and grace,
slow to anger,
abounding in steadfast love and
It is this glimpse of God that got us here today, or hope of such a God. It’s how the Psalmist ended Psalm 23:
Goodness and mercy shall follow
me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the
house of the Lord forever.
Part Seven: The Death of Moses
For reasons we cannot fully understand Moses led the people to the edge of the Promised Land but was not allowed to lead them in. He walked up Mt. Nebo into a cloud, disappeared and died. Listen to how Jewish tradition describes his death:
When he reached the top of the mountain, he halted. You have one more minute, God warned him so as not to deprive him of his right to death. And Moses lay down. And God said: Close your eyes. And Moses closed his eyes. And God said: Fold your arms across your chest. And Moses folded his arms across his chest. Then, silently, God kissed his lips. And the soul of Moses found shelter in God’s breath and was swept away into eternity.3
As Scripture says, “Moses died ...by the mouth of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 34:5).
So we are born and live and die, by the mouth of Yahweh, by God’s breath, in the Eternity of God, right here and the life to come.
I ended this sermon in my study singing to myself the last stanza of the Scottish psalm setting of Psalm 23. Would you sing it as the end of the sermon? It is hymn 14. Would you turn there, listen to the piano play it through one time, meditating on the words of the last stanza, then sing the end to this sermon with me?
1 Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), p. 59.
2 Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God (New York: Random House, 1976), p. 199.
3 Ibid., p. 204.