In devising an alternate story line, I assumed that it was not inevitable that Moses would view the burning bush as a manifestation of God’s presence. He could have just walked on by. Why did Moses “turn aside”? Of course, we do not know the answer to the question and will likely never know for sure. But perhaps we can squeeze some critical insight out of our imaginations.
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)
Moses knew that he was Jewish, and that all the slaves in his country were “his own people.” He apparently felt so badly about the fact that his people were enslaved that he killed an Egyptian. Besides murder, Moses committed treason. This much we know. Beyond this, we must conjecture.
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Why did Moses kill an Egyptian? Did he have an inkling, at the age of 40, that he should/would have some role to play in freeing his people? I wonder what Moses thought when he heard the story of Joseph, whose strategic placement in a leadership position in Egypt proved to be the means by which God saved the nation of Israel from famine? “It can’t be coincidence that I was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter,” he said to himself one day. Surely God would not stand by forever, while His people suffered under Pharaoh’s heel. Did Moses wonder, because of his position in Pharaoh’s house, if he was the savior that God had designated to free his people? Was the Egyptian murder an initial manifestation of what Moses believed was his calling in life? I will leave it to your imagination to think about what would have happened had Moses led a successful coup against the Egyptian government and its army.
God could never be the author of evil, but He is wise and powerful enough to use evil for His own good purposes, to turn it on its head. When Moses fled to Midian, his dream of saving Israel vanished. I do not doubt that he spent forty years dealing with anger and shame, believing that by virtue of his having been caught murdering an Egyptian he had foiled, single-handedly, God’s plans for the redemption of Israel. He knew all too well that his people were back in Egypt, being whipped and beaten. Moses surely came to the conclusion that if anything were going to be done, it would be entirely up to God. Moses was on trajectory to shepherd sheep for the rest of his life. “God will have to save His own people.“
Moses defines a broken man. He was humbled by failure and impotence. That is why the bush burned that fateful day: Moses was ready.
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Is it not interesting how many of the great men of the Bible lived in some sort of wilderness for extended periods? Moses: 40 years. David: pursued by Saul through the back-country for who-knows-how-long. Paul: 3 years. Even Jesus: 40 days. (Henri Nouwen’s discussion of the “Desert Fathers” in “The Way of the Heart” is an interesting read on this topic. Very worthwhile.) I have even lived through what amounts to a decades-long wilderness experience for me. Oh, sure, during that time I lived in a nice house and had a wonderful family and great friends, and sufficient fill of the niceties that American affluence can offer. But inside? — barren wilderness.
The story of Moses informs me that the wilderness produces broken people, but people who are ready. Ready for what? Ready for an encounter with God, Himself. No fluff. No traditions. No settling for a reasonable facsimile or a stand-in. It is God or nothing. When God showed up in the bush, Moses turned aside. We do not know if Moses was looking for God. I suspect that he wasn’t. Regardless, we know for a fact that God was looking for him. Why now? God could have provoked Moses to free His people while he was in a leadership position in Egypt, having power and influence. It seems that would have been the ideal opportunity. Why after forty years, was God looking for Moses? because, finally, he was broken.
I do not expect that an angel will appear to me in a burning bush. On the other hand, the story of Moses also tells me that “I AM” is a God who will appear, but that I may not recognize Him when He does. Moses turned aside to see a fire, not God. As it turned out, God was in the fire. I recognize now that God was in the first Elder Board meeting in June of 2007, one year before I resigned. I also understand that God spoke to me, not because I was a great and learned leader of the church, but because I wasn’t. My heart broke that night and that was the equivalent of Moses’ “turning aside.”