Exodus 3: God Prepares Moses

By Mary Jane Chaignot

As some scholars continue to struggle with a correct translation of God’s name, others focus on its impact on Moses. He had asked God a direct question. When he goes to the elders and tells them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God has responded by saying, “Tell them, I AM has sent me to you.” God continues, “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.’”

Apparently, Moses is satisfied with this response, and the presumption is that this will also satisfy the Israelites’ question. Yet, most scholars believe that “I AM” is a new name for God. Later in Exodus (6:2-3), God will explain to Moses that He appeared to the patriarchs as El Shaddai (God Almighty), but He did not make Himself known as “I AM.” Clearly, this is something new, and it suggests a new relationship between God and His people.

It will no longer be the case that God is just God to them. A new name means that God will be present with them in a new way. He will be faithfully with them, through thick and thin, the good times and the bad. They will be able to count on him. The threefold response also serves a purpose. First, God gives His name to Moses; then He adds that He is the one sending Moses; then He adds that He is the God of their fathers. Each one augments the connection between God and His people. God continues, “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.” “Forever” means this will never change. Going forward, God’s relation to His people is immutable and reliable.

Then God reiterates virtually the same plan he has already voiced, breaking it down into factual steps. First, Moses is to assemble the elders and explain everything to them. Moses will not be acting alone in his dealings with Pharaoh. He will be recruiting the “elders” to help. Readers will hear about “the elders” at various points throughout this scenario. Scholars presume these are the older family or clan members whose rich life experiences have afforded them a leadership role among the tribes.

The message to them repeats what God has already said to Moses. He is instructed to say, “The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said, ‘I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’” God knows their situation in Egypt. They are miserable; they are afflicted. He sees them. God is promising to “bring them up” from a hopeless place (Egypt) to a “land flowing with milk and honey.” God has already said all of this to Moses. Now, through Moses, he is saying it to the tribes. It is important that they know: God has decided; He will bring them up out of Egypt. This promise will revitalize the people. This is a great message of hope for them. And God assures Moses, they “will listen to you.” Surely, this provides a great moment of encouragement for Moses as well.

But God doesn’t stop here. Step number two is laid out as God continues to foretell upcoming events. After explaining to the Israelites about his mission and getting their cooperation, Moses is to take them with him to the king of Egypt. Once there, they will say, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God.”

It should come as no surprise that this could be highly problematic for Pharaoh. Indeed, God tells Moses that Pharaoh will “resist.” But let’s begin with the phrase, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews.” Egyptians, literally, worship hundreds of gods throughout their country. It would not be out of the ordinary for the Israelites to have their own God. If anything, the singular name might have raised some issues, but no real concerns. Pharaoh will understand Him to be their national God, one that is grossly inferior to their many gods.

It is interesting that the elders should say that God has met with them. Clearly, this is an example of Moses’ authority, in that God speaks to them through Moses. Then there is the request to take time off. Ancient documents reveal that laborers could be given time off for worship. In other words, it could be considered a legitimate request. Going off for a three-day religious celebration would be something Pharaoh could understand. Essentially, they are asking Pharaoh for a religious holiday.

On the other hand, Pharaoh could see this request as a complete ruse. A three-day journey would take them beyond the reach of the guards. Asking for worship time could be nothing more than a cover for the Israelites’ attempt to escape. It is also unclear whether going into the wilderness for a three-day journey means journeying for three days in one direction. Then, one might assume it would require another three days for them to return. Or, Pharaoh might resist because he is simply not inclined to do anything nice for the Israelites.

God foretells all this and adds that Pharaoh will resist “unless a mighty hand compels him.” He promises to be present with them: “I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.” The word for “strike” is the same one used when Moses struck down the Egyptian abusing an Israelite – the reason for him leaving Egypt in the first place. And “wonders” prefigures all the events that will be outside the realm of reality.

Lastly, God says, “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” Some scholars insist these articles will be needed for the construction of the Temple. But most agree that the implications go much deeper.

After demonstrations of God’s “mighty hand,” the Egyptians might be offering payment to get them to leave. Others see this as payment for their years of service. The idea that the Egyptians will be “favorably disposed” to give these articles when asked is offset by the last comment about “plundering” them. Typically, the victors of war, i.e. the men, do the plundering; here, it will be done by the women without any bloodshed. To convey how completely the roles will be reversed, God says the booty will be carried away by the children. This is all in accordance with God’s promises to Abraham where He states that “they shall come out with great possessions” (see Genesis 15:14).

Following God’s soliloquy, Moses is now ready to start his mission. He knows that the elders will back him and that Pharaoh will resist until God’s wonders appear. After that, Pharaoh will let them go, and they will not leave empty-handed. God’s plan and His ability to make that plan happen are clear, absolutely clear.