SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moses Goes from the Sideline to the Frontline
Posted by gvillecw
Last week, we started to look at a long section (2:23-4:17) of the story commonly referred to as “the call of Moses.” In 2:23-3:10, there are several things we want to note which give context to the overall passage. The first is that a long time has passed following Moses’ murder of the Egyptian, subsequent flight from Egypt and his “settling down” in the land of Midian. He has gotten married, had a child, and become part of the family business (“tending the flock” in verse 3:1). In short, what the story tells us is that Moses is long past the distress of seeing his “kinsfolk” oppressed by the Egyptians which led to his killing the Egyptian and the confusion over witnessing the behavior of his fellow Hebrews, both to each other and toward him. He has forgotten, or suppressed, or chosen to leave behind that situation and that part of his history.
We are also told that, back in Egypt, the Pharaoh, under whom Moses’ presumably lived and who sought Moses’ death, has died and been replaced by another Pharaoh. But despite the change in administrations, the basic reality in Egypt has not changed for the Hebrews. Their slavery and oppression continues.
Finally, we have this remarkable encounter around a bush, which, “though on fire, was not consumed.” From the burning bush, Moses is addressed by God, who says that “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers” and proposes to send Moses to Pharaoh to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.”
In 3:11, we hear Moses’ reply to this mission from God, and the reply is evidence of both Moses’ reluctance to accept God’s invitation and also his concern about his acceptance by the Israelites. The question for us is: Why is Moses reluctant? What has changed that has made him less than enthused to be part of the liberation of “his kinsfolk,” as he named them back in 2:11? The roots of Moses’ reluctance lie in his earlier killing of the Egyptian then witnessing his own people’s brutality toward one another and their distrust, or at least suspicion, of him. The consequence of those events was an identity crisis for Moses. Born a Hebrew but raised in the palace of Pharaoh as part of his family, Moses found that despite his self-identification as “Hebrew,” he shared little in common with those of his people who had lived under the jackboot of Egyptian authority. Indeed, it could even be said that Moses’ own lifestyle up to this point had been built on the oppression of the Hebrews for the benefit of the Egyptian royal family. And despite his attempt to provide some remedy or relief from Egyptian brutality (i.e. killing the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew), he is aghast when he comes the next day and witnesses the brutality of one oppressed Hebrew against another oppressed Hebrew, and is confused by his “fellow” Hebrew’s questions of him and accusation that Moses might be thinking of killing him “as you killed the Egyptian.” The overall result of this encounter is that even though Moses has destroyed the protection he enjoyed as part of the Egyptian royal family, he has also recognized the distance between himself and the other Hebrews, a distance which he chooses not to try and overcome. Overwhelmed by his actions, by what he has learned about the society in which he lives, by the threat to his life, and by a crisis of identity, Moses chose to flee the situation, to leave it in the dust. So, God’s invitation to enter back into that situation must not strike Moses as particularly appealing, especially since he has now set up and built for himself a fairly good life here in Midian.
But what becomes clear in the conversation between Moses and God throughout this section is that there is one major difference between then and now. The major shift is that Moses will go to the Israelites not on his own behalf, but rather on the behalf of God. What hasn’t changed is the oppression of the Israelites; that continues in all its brutality and inhumanity. And while Moses’ first attempt to do something about that failed, this next attempt will not be rooted in Moses’ partial understanding of the situation, the fleeting passion of witnessing the brutality first-hand, nor the ideals of Moses’ youth; rather this attempt is rooted in God’s enduring love for and mercy toward those who suffer oppression.
Furthermore, Moses’ crisis of identity will be resolved as well. In this section, we see Moses no longer referring to the Israelites as “my kinsmen,” “my kinsfolk,” etc. Rather, we hear the distance he has cultivated between himself and them. Now he speaks of them as “the Israelites.” But God asserts Moses’ identity as an Israelite. God commissions Moses to go to them, to tell them what God has stated. But to assure that Moses is heard, God gives him what amounts to good advice that many an adept organizer would recognize. Yes, God send Moses to the Israelites, but in verse 3:16 God specifies that Moses is to “assemble the elders of the Israelites” and share with them God’s concern. By convincing the leaders of this oppressed people—those who others respect and look to for advice and guidance—Moses will have greater legitimacy in the eyes of the people. And again, God states that it will be Moses AND the elders of Israel who will go before the Pharaoh to negotiate, not Moses alone. The people who were reluctant to claim or recognize him as one of them before, he will now lead. A struggle he had fled from because of his own limited understanding and abilities, he will now embrace—indeed, lead. God is calling Moses out of his comfortable, but inauthentic, life on the sideline to an uncomfortable, but deeply authentic and necessary life, on the frontline.