This week we begin the book of Exodus and the Torah portion, Sh’mot (שְׁמוֹת ), which means ‘names’. This is the 2nd word in the Biblical Hebrew text which begins: וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת <- (v’eh-leh sh’mot) – translated as, “and these are the names”. Sh’mot (“names”) is also the Hebrew name of the book of Exodus.  Chapter’s 1-2 let us know that hundreds of years (430 of them) have passed since the closing events of Genesis 50. Also, we are introduced to Moses and his younger years.  When Moses kills the Egyptian in ch. 2, he forever leaves his life of grandeur in Egypt (as Pharaoh’s daughter’s son) and flees to the land of Midian to become a humble shepherd. Here he lives for 40 years.

Where God Spoke to Moses

A few years ago, I took a class on Bible geography with Dr. Jonathan Lipnick of eTeacher and He taught us a very important observation, “The physical setting of the Bible plays a major role the theology of the Bible.  To understand the God of the Hebrew Bible, you must understand the place (ie, Israel!) where He has that relationship with His people. The Bible would not be the book we know if it were situated anywhere else.”

Exodus 3:1-2 gives us the geographical setting for the passage under consideration: “Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”  Notice I highlighted the phrase, “backside of the desert”. The Hebrew word translated as ‘desert’ is מִּדְבָּר (mid-bar) and means exactly that – ‘desert’. If you have ever visited Israel and gone to my favorite places – the Judean Wilderness or the Negev, then that is the mid-bar. (Although Moses is not in Israel at this time, but in Midian.)

The desert is in general a still and quiet place.  I love the desert and love to visit desert places.  Many prophets received revelations from God while in the desert (among them, Moses, David and the apostle Paul).  It is not that God is more real in the desert than in other places, because God is everywhere present.  It is just that we are so easily distracted from knowing God due to the many distractions of life.  In the desert, we detach from the noisiness of everyday life that demand our attention and can focus on God.  It is then that God can speak to our heart. I think it is most important that Moses was not just in the desert, but in “the backside of the desert” when God gave Him this revelation. God wanted Moses in a place where He had his undivided attention before He revealed to him His most important name!

What God Spoke to Moses

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was the Chief Rabbi of the UK from 2001 – 2013, wrote that Moses asked God two questions at the ‘burning bush’: Who am I? and Who are you?  God’s answer to the second question is worth close examination. In Exodus 3:14, God tells Moses, 

אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה – transliterated as Eh-he-yeh asher eh-he-yeh. The word that is repeated twice, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה (eh-he-yeh) is the future tense form of the verb ‘be’ – (ie, “I will be”). So literally the phrase is, “I will be what I will be.”  In the AV this phrase is translated as, “I AM THAT I AM”. However, the reader must remember that in Hebrew, the verb ‘be’ does not have a present tense form – only future and past. Therefore there is no way to say, ‘I am’ or ‘he is’ or ‘we are’.  You can say ‘I was’ or ‘he will be’.  Also, there are NO CAPITAL letters in Hebrew so all capitalization in English translations is added by the translators. Capitalization does not exist in the original Hebrew text.

The following concept is very important. The root of the verb that is repeated twice in the Hebrew text, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה, is היה (Strong’s #1961) – the verb ‘to be’. Now, look how similar the Hebrew letters are for the verb ‘be’ (היה) to the letters in God’s covenantal name – יְהוָֹה (also known as the tetragramaton – a Latin phrase meaning “the four letters”). The Hebrew word for the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’ is basically derived from God’s name!  Thus etymologically, we see that all existence is derived from God! God does not officially introduce the name יְהוָֹה to Moses until Exodus 6:3, although Moses has used it many times already in Exodus and in Genesis (remember that he wrote these books). 

Rabbi Sacks reminds us that God really never answered Moses’ first question as to why He had chosen him.  However God did assure Moses of success.  Rabbi Sacks explains God’s viewpoint this way, “You [Moses] will succeed because I am not asking you to do it alone. I am not really asking you to do it at all. I will be doing it for you. I want you to be My representative, My mouthpiece, My emissary and My voice.”  He goes on to say, “In the Tanakh as a whole, the people who turn out to be the most worthy are the ones who deny they are worthy at all. … The heroes of the Bible are not figures from Greek or any other kind of mythology. They are not people possessed of a sense of destiny, determined from an early age to achieve fame. They were people who doubted their own abilities. There were times when they felt like giving up. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah reached points of such despair that they prayed to die. They became heroes against their will. There was work to be done – God told them so – and they did it. It is almost as if a sense of smallness is a sign of greatness.” To this great insight, I simply say, ‘amen’.

There are so many great applications from this passage that just “fall out” if we are faithful to study out the details of history, culture, geography and language.  The inductive method of Bible study will always give the best grasp of the Bible truths.

There are many qualities of the desert that God can create in our life regardless of where we live geographically, and one of them is that of ‘limited resources’. God often puts His servants into ‘desert situations’ regardless of where they are living to teach them the same principles that He taught Moses, and the children of Israel and David and Paul. So if we find ourselves in a desert of God’s making, let us not fret, but rather rejoice that God is wanting to speak to us and give us a deeper view of Himself and so He is sending us to the school of the desert.