Wednesday of week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Exod 3:1-6, 9-12

Yesterday we left Moses lying low in Midian, a fugitive from the law.

One day, as he was seated by a well, the seven daughters of a priest of Midian came to draw water for the sheep’s drinking troughs. When the girls were driven away by some shepherds, Moses came to their defence and even watered their flock for them.

When they got home, they explained to their father, Reuel, how an ‘Egyptian’ came to their assistance and even drew the water for their flock. (It is interesting that the daughters referred to Moses as an ‘Egyptian’ and not as a Hebrew.) The father immediately told them to bring Moses to the house and share their hospitality. Moses ended up staying with them and Reuel gave his daughter, Zipporah, in marriage to him. (Another example of a marriage resulting from an encounter at a well.)

Moses and Zipporah then had a son who was named Gershom, because Moses had said: “I am a stranger in a foreign land.” The name is explained as if it came from the Hebrew word ger, ‘stranger’ joined to the Hebrew word sham, ‘there’.

In the meantime, the Pharaoh died but the sufferings of the Hebrews continued and, as they cried out to God for help, he remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And so we are led into the beginning of the Exodus story and of its protagonist, Moses.

Today’s reading begins by telling us that one day, as Moses was looking after the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro, he came to the mountain of God, Horeb. Jethro is another name for Reuel and in Judges he is called Hobab. Horeb is called the ‘mountain of God’ because of the divine apparitions which took place there, such as on this occasion and when the Israelites were there after they had left Egypt.

Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to him from the flames of a bush which was on fire. It is God himself who has become visible to human eyes. The visual form under which God appeared and spoke to humans is referred to indifferently in some Old Testament texts either as ‘God’s angel’ or as ‘God himself’. Moses was surprised that, although on fire, the bush was not burning away. He was drawn to take a closer look at this strange phenomenon.

As Moses approached the bush, God called out from the centre of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” To which Moses replied: “Here I am.” Moses is told not to come any nearer and to remove his shoes because he is on holy ground. The voice then identifies itself: “I am the God of your father. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

Moses immediately hid his face because he knew he could not look face to face at God. The appearance of God caused fear and death, since it was believed that no one could see God and live.

We remember how Jacob, on the occasion of his wrestling with a strange man, later realised it had been God himself. Later, he exclaimed: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared” (Gen 32:30).

In the Gospel, Jesus will also use the term “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” in contesting the Sadducees’ denial of life after death. “Have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob’? He is the God of the living, not of the dead.” Of course, it may be that the term, when used at the time of the Exodus, was used to distinguish the God in whom the Hebrews believed from the gods of other neighbouring peoples. The concept of One God of the whole Universe was yet to develop. By the time of the Gospel, such a universal God was accepted by the Hebrews.

In verses omitted from our reading, God assures Moses that he is fully aware of the sufferings of his people in Egypt and of their treatment by Egyptian slave drivers. He will now come to their rescue and “lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey”.

The first step in this operation will be for Moses to go to the Pharaoh and to lead his people out of Egypt. Moses hears this assignment with great alarm; after all, although he grew up in the royal palace, he is now a man on the run because of a murder he committed. As a fugitive from the Pharaoh, he could hardly hope to carry out a mission to him. In addition, he must have remembered that on one occasion when he tried to intervene in a quarrel between two Hebrews, they challenged his authority.

But God guarantees his support and his protection: “I will be with you.” And there will be accompanying testimony to prove the validity of Moses’mission, “proof that it is I who have sent you”. “When you bring my people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this very mountain.” Right now, in Egypt that seemed a very remote possibility for the Hebrews.

Let us today ask ourselves what mission we have been given by God as our contribution to building the Kingdom. And, if, like Moses, we are only too conscious of our shortcomings, let us remember that one of the greatest prophets of Israel was a man who had committed murder, even if that murder was in defence of fellow-Hebrews. God, unlike society, does not look at our past but at our present and future potential.

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