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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Exodus 3

Exodus is an accurate historical record of the founding of the nation of Israel. Whatever questions may arise from such a view derive either from man's ignorance of the entire historical period when these events occurred, or from misunderstanding the Sacred Text. This account is the only historical record of what happened.

The Biblical account up to here has been brief, having an account of those things alone that were considered absolutely necessary to be related, but with this chapter there begins an account of many minute details, enumerated with all the care and precision of an eye-witness. The catastrophic deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage has a significance and importance, which in their immediate and ultimate consequences, "stand alone in the world's history."[1] This chapter is the record of a truly great moment for Moses, for Israel, and for all mankind - "one of the truly significant watersheds of history."[2]

The fullness of time indeed had come. The wickedness of the Canaanites had run its course, and the time for the sword of judgment to fall upon them had arrived. Israel had become mighty, prepared, and disciplined through hardship, and as Jamieson noted:

"The period of Israel's sojourn and affliction in Egypt had been predicted (Genesis 15:13), and it was during the last year of the term that had still to run that the Lord appeared in the burning bush."[3]

Verse 1

"Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the back of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb."

"Jethro his father-in-law ..." This is surprising in view of the fact that Reuel appeared in Exodus 2:18, both as the "priest of Midian," and as "father-in-law" of Moses. However, forty years had intervened, and Jethro, probably the son of Reuel, had inherited the office, as was the custom. This would have meant that Jethro was brother-in-law to Moses, the same word in Hebrew meant either. "The word here rendered father-in-law is used of almost any relation by marriage."[4] The phenomenal blindness that causes men to find evidence of contradictory sources in a passage like this is equaled only by that of those who are deceived by such false allegations. How true to life this narrative really is. How many things are changed when one revisits a site familiar to him forty years earlier!

"Keeping the flock ..." This humble occupation had been followed by Moses for forty years, and it shows how submissive and humble Moses was in the long discipline imposed upon him by the Lord. "He led the flock ..." The foolish and superstitious notion that Moses was led by the sheep to the sacred mountain evaporates in this statement that Moses led the sheep!

"To the back of the wilderness ..." This means to the west or northwest of the area. "Among the Hebrews the east is before a man, the west behind him, and the south and the north on the right and left hand."[5]

"And came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb ..." The "mountain of God" could be nothing other than Sinai. Moses was writing perhaps near the end of his life, and the whole nation of Israel would have understood this as a reference to the mountain where the Law was given. Thus, its being called the "mountain of God" here was proleptic. Note that it is identified with Horeb. "Horeb ..." "This name is not restricted to one single mountain, but applies to the central group of mountains in the southern part of the (Arabian) peninsula."[6]

Nevertheless, there was also a peak called Horeb, and, in the O.T., "Horeb and Sinai are used as equivalent terms."[7] We shall not bother with all the conflicting opinions with regard to the location of Sinai. The tradition is eighteen centuries old that places the location at, "Jebul Musa (Mount of Moses)." The monastery of St. Catherine is at the foot of it.[8] We fully agree with Fields who knew of no reason why this old tradition should be set aside.[9]

Verses 2-3

"And the angel of Jehovah 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. And Moses said, I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt."

"The angel of Jehovah ..." As the context proves, "The Angel of Jehovah is not a created angel but Jehovah himself in his act of self-revelation."[10] This is merely another name for God, of which there are many in the Bible. Although this verse does not indicate it, there is reason to believe that the Angel of Jehovah should be identified with our Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Godhead; he is also called the Angel of the Covenant.[11]

"Flame of fire out of the midst of a bush ..." It is necessary to point out that this was an actual, objective event. It was not some kind of "vision" on Moses part, nor his mistaken thought that some kind of bush in full bloom was actually on fire. Men who do not believe the Bible have many fanciful perversions of what is written here. No, it happened, exactly as related here. Rylaarsdam called it a "vision."[12] Ellison said, "It was the spontaneous ignition of some dry thorn bush."[13] Ellison also added that such an example of spontaneous combustion "was nothing unusual," for which wisdom (?) we are thankful; because it makes it absolutely unnecessary to contradict anything that such a writer says!

To this point, Moses had never seen any kind of supernatural event in his entire life of about eighty years. His conclusion, therefore, was that it was some unusual natural phenomenon that he had encountered. Therefore, he turned aside to investigate it. Wonder of wonders! Although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed. Such a contradiction of all that could have been expected required further investigation, so Moses went nearer.

Verses 4-5

"And when Jehovah saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."

"God called to him ..." This makes it necessary to view the Angel of Jehovah (Exodus 3:2) as none other than God Himself.

"Moses, Moses ..." Such double use of a man's name always implied very unusual urgency and importance. It was the case with Samuel (1 Samuel 3:10), and with Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:4).

"Put off thy shoes ..." The holiness of that location was not due to the location there of some ancient shrine. If so, Moses would already have known all about it; he had lived in the vicinity for forty years. It was God's presence only that endowed the vicinity with holiness and required Moses to take off his shoes.

"And when Jehovah saw ... God called ..." Rawlinson has an important comment on the use of two different names for God in this same sentence:

"This collocation of words is fatal to the entire Elohistic and Jehovistic theories. No one can suppose that two different writers wrote the two clauses, nor that if the same term was originally used in both, that any reviser would have altered one without altering both."[14]

We shall pay less and less attention to the alleged sources of Genesis, and the endless, tedious postulations about "doublets" and "documents," which never existed. All of that was thoroughly discussed in the commentary on Genesis. The greatest O.T. analyst of this century said:

"It is true and is acknowledged that the advocates of this hypothesis (that of various sources in such documents as "E," "J," "P," etc.) have far more difficulties to overcome in Exodus than in Genesis, in which latter book, too, there are insufficient grounds for accepting this view."[15]

In such a passage as this, such things as the infinite holiness of the Eternal, the sin and unworthiness of mortal men to approach him, unless invited or commanded, and the condescension of the Father who stoops to make any kind of revelation to His creatures are easily visible.

Verse 6

"Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God."

Of the greatest importance is the names God applied to Himself in this message out of the burning bush. Highlighting the designations is that of His identification as "The God of Abraham ... Isaac ... and Jacob." These names of the great patriarchs are again repeated by God Himself in Exodus 3:15. (We shall return to this in our discussion there.) Jesus Christ himself made the great argument for immortality to rest upon this single verse, indeed upon a single verb in it, and even the tense of that verb! "I AM" was said by our Savior to prove that there is a resurrection, that the departed saints are indeed not dead in the final sense, for "God IS the God of the living!" (Matthew 22:32).

Verses 7-8

"And Jehovah said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their task-masters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of the land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey, and unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.

God's "coming down" to deliver His people and other such expressions in which the emotions and actions of men are ascribed to God are called anthropomorphisms, of which there are almost countless examples in the Bible."

"Unto the place of the Canaanite ..." The Jews found it very difficult to remember that it was the sensual wickedness of the Canaanites that caused God to dispossess them and give their land to the Jews, with the definite understanding that if the Jews followed wickedness as had the Canaanites that the same fate awaited Israel.

"The first movement of God toward Moses was to outline in words what God proposed to do."[16]

The "Canaanites" mentioned here are sometimes called the "seven nations." All of them were settled in Canaan (Palestine) centuries before Israel.

  1. The word "Canaanite" applied to all of these related groups, and also to one of the specific divisions. They were in Canaan 1900 years B.C.

  2. The Hittites came much later during the era of 1800-1450 B.C. (Genesis 23:10).

  3. The Amorites were the most numerous of these nations, having been in the area from 2300 B.C. (Numbers 21:26).

  4. The Perizzites are not identifiable.

  5. The Hivites dwelt around Shechem, Gibeon, and the region about 5 miles northwest of Jerusalem (Joshua 9:3-7; 11:19; Genesis 34:2). They were in Canaan by 2000 B.C.

  6. The Jebusites occupied Jerusalem (Judges 1:21; 2 Samuel 5:6; Joshua 15:63).

  7. The Girgashites (Joshua 24:11; Deuteronomy 7:1) are obscure.[17]

"Land flowing with milk and honey ..." This was a metaphor widely used in antiquity with the meaning of a land rich in natural resources, with plenty of water and abundance of fruit trees.

Verses 9-11

"And now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: moreover I have seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them. Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt. And Moses said unto God, Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?"

God here flatly proposed to Moses that Moses himself should lead the people up out of Egypt, and Moses' first reaction to it was negative. He who forty years previously had been anxious and ready to take up a sword and deliver his brethren, at this point in time was filled with a deep feeling of inadequacy.

These verses, along with Exodus 3:12, constitute the commissioning of the Deliverer. And, after some doubt, hesitation, and excuse-making, Moses accepted it, eventually discharging the full obligation magnificently! The source-splitters and meddlers with the Sacred Text have attempted to postulate their version of a "contradiction," affirming that the real commissioning of Moses actually took place, not in Midian, but in Egypt, according to Exodus 6:10-13. The answer to this lies in the fact that the latter mention of the commission is nothing more than a renewal of the commission already given. Just as God renewed the covenant with Abraham, he found it necessary here to renew the charge to Moses. Haley has this:

"Moses' failure to persuade Pharaoh to a dismissing of the Israelites, as well as the sudden revulsion of their part, from buoyant hope to unseemly dejection, rendered it absolutely necessary that Moses' wavering faith should be strengthened by a solemn renewal of his commission."[18]

"Who am I that I should go unto Pharaoh ...?" This is the first of a series of excuses offered by Moses in his resistance to full acceptance of God's commission of deliverance by the hand of Moses. Note:

"Who am I, that I should go?" (Exodus 3:11).

"What shall I say when they ask, `What is his (God's) name?'" (Exodus 3:13).

"They will not believe" (Exodus 4:1).

"I am not eloquent" (Exodus 4:10).

"Send someone else" (Exodus 4:13).

God effectively refuted all of Moses' objections and set him forward on the road to Egypt to do the work to which God called him.

Verse 12

"And he said, Certainly, I will be with thee; and this shall be the token unto thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain."

"Certainly I will be with thee ..." This was the factor that caused Moses to be willing to go. He would know, as did the apostle Paul long afterward, that, "I can do all things through him that strengtheneth me," and that, "If God be for us, who can be against us?"

Verses 13-15


"And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of lsrael, I AM hath sent me unto you. And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, Jehovah, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations."

This student has long been familiar with the preposterous claims relative to the great TETRAGRAMMATON supposed to have been given in Exodus 3:14, but we find no evidence whatever of any such thing. Whatever happened here, God simply did not honor Moses' request for God's personal name. The middle verse here, (Exodus 3:14), which the translators of the Septuagint (LXX) misunderstood as the great new name is actually nothing of the kind. The great memorial name which was to be forever is not even mentioned in Exodus 3:14, but it is given in Exodus 3:15. Here it is. We have altered the punctuation to make the meaning clearer:








What then is the great memorial name? The one which is forever and ever? Answer: It is simply this: JEHOVAH; THE GOD OF ABRAHAM; AND THE GOD OF ISAAC; AND THE GOD OF JACOB. This is the name repeated twice in this passage; and when the Son of God referred to this passage, he quoted it verbatim:

Have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM; AND THE GOD OF ISAAC; AND THE GOD OF JACOB (Matthew 22:32).

In the light of the Saviour's emphasis upon this place, it is absolutely imperative that we reject a lot of the nonsense that has been written about the great TETRAGRAMMATON! Since the great memorial name forever is in Exodus 3:15, what should we make of Exodus 3:13? Whatever we make of it, there is not any new name in it. If that verse has the great memorial name, then nobody knows what it is for the last 2,000 years! Here are examples of the way the passage has been translated:

And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say ... I AM hath sent me unto you. (ASV)


"I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE." (Tyndale Bible)

"I AM WHO AM." (the Douay Version)

"I AM THE BEING." (the Septuagint (LXX))

"I AM BECAUSE I AM." (ASV's margin)



From these examples, it is clear enough that people simply do not know how to translate this place. With that in mind, observe this: Scholars have decided that the name is YAHWEH (JEHOVAH), making Exodus 3:13 to be "an analysis of YHWH,"[19] and offering the conclusion that Jehovah is the alleged new name. That cannot be correct, because as Moller said, "Genesis represents Jehovah as having been in use from the earliest times.[20] Furthermore, even Moses' mother, Jochebed, bore a name with the meaning "Yahweh is glory."[21] The difficulties of this passage are very great, and we shall content ourselves with giving two different interpretations, either one of which might be either partially are completely correct:

  1. That of F. C. Cook: He viewed Exodus 3:15 as corresponding to Exodus 3:14 exactly; "The name, therefore, which Moses was commissioned to use, was at once new and old; old in its connection with previous revelations, new in its full interpretation."[22] It would appear that this was exactly the application Jesus made of the passage in Matthew 22:32.

  2. That founded upon a different view of the connection between these three verses. "What we have in Exodus 3:14 is a parenthetical statement, or interpretation, that analyzes the name YHWH ... It is possible to read Exodus 3:15 as the immediate continuation of Exodus 3:13."[23] This view also has much to commend it. If correct, then this analysis, offered by Ellison, is legitimate: "Exodus 3:14 is an affirmation of God's inscrutability, into whose being man cannot penetrate, and possibly including a rebuke to Moses for asking this question!"[24]

Whatever God said to Moses here, he went right on using the same old names for God, without any change whatever. The only new thing to come out of the passage was that pointed out by the Christ (Matthew 22:32) who made God's "I AM" here to be an affirmation of His eternal being, containing also a promise of the resurrection of the dead!

Rawlinson thought that the purpose of Moses' question was to procure the individual, specific, personal name for God, in the sense that Dagon was the god of the Philistines, or that Molech was a god of the old Canaanites. If that was indeed what Moses wanted, he certainly never received it.

"More has been written in the past two centuries on this section than upon any other comparable portion of Exodus."[25] and along with Exodus 6:2ff, it has been made the starting point for all kinds of reconstructions regarding religion, and for breeding all kinds of new ideas about the sources of Genesis! We have seen enough here to cast the gravest doubts upon all such irresponsible postulations.

Verses 16-18

"Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, JEHOVAH THE GOD OF YOUR FATHERS; THE GOD OF ABRAHAM; AND OF ISAAC; AND OF JACOB; HATH APPEARED UNTO ME; SAYING, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt: and I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, unto a land flowing with milk and honey. And they shall hearken to thy voice: and thou shalt come, thou and the elders of Israel, unto the king of Egypt, and ye shall say unto him, Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews, hath met with us: and and now let us go, we pray thee, three days journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to Jehovah our God."

One may only smile at such a contradiction as that alleged by Peake, who complained that here Moses was instructed to communicate through "the elders," whereas in Exodus 3:15, it was to be "with the people at large"![26] Of course, there would have been absolutely no other way that Moses could have contacted the people at large, except through the Jewish institution of the eldership, visible here in the Bible for the very first time. It should be remembered that the Israelites were now a nation of some 2,000,000 people, with a potential standing army of over 600,000 men! As Dummelow expressed it:

"In the Pentateuch, when the people of Israel are addressed, it is frequently the elders who are meant. They are the usual medium of communication between Moses and the people, and act as representatives of the latter."[27]

Note again the prominence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the name that Moses is instructed to use.

Some scholars who hold themselves as capable of passing judgment upon the actions of God Himself are inclined to be very critical of this passage, because, according to them, God instructed Moses to request permission for a journey of three days, merely to deceive Pharaoh, having no intention whatever of confining their departure to a mere distance of three days journey. It is far more commendable to study the text with a view of thinking God's thoughts after Him, that we might know the truth. Dummelow has an excellent explanation of why this first request of Pharaoh involved a mere three days' journey:

"There was no intention to deceive Pharaoh in this request. Had Pharaoh been willing to grant the people entire release, this would have been asked at first. But God, knowing that Pharaoh would not let them go, enjoined Moses to make only this moderate request, so as to emphasize the obstinancy of the king."[28]

Keil was most surely correct in his judgment that, If Pharaoh had rendered obedience to God in the smaller request regarding the journey of three days, God would have given him strength to be faithful in the greater. Thus, it was an act of mercy toward Pharaoh, that God did not request of him all at once the total of what would surely be required eventually.[29]

Verses 19-20

"And I know that the king of Egypt will not give you leave to go, no, not by a mighty hand, And I will put forth my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof and after that he will let you go."

In this passage, God briefed Moses regarding the ultimate success of the whole mission. Such knowledge was necessary for Moses who would, therefore, as a result, know EXACTLY what would happen at each step of the long and difficult confrontation with Pharaoh. God left no doubt whatever about the final outcome. "After that he will let you go." Indeed, he did!

This verse is actually a partial explanation of God's promise in Exodus 3:12 that he would "be with" Moses. It appeared here that he would perform mighty wonders against the whole land of Egypt, but he did not elaborate concerning what type of wonders would be done. That remained obscure for the moment.

"No, not by a mighty hand ..." As it stands, the meaning of this is not exactly clear. The Septuagint (LXX), slightly changing the text, renders it thus: "Unless I lay My hand heavily upon him." Dummelow also said that it could possibly mean, "In spite of the fact that I will lay My hand heavily upon him."[30]

Verses 21-22

"And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty: but every woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall despoil the Egyptians."

Here again we encounter the indignation of the supermoralists who blame the God of heaven and earth with deceit and inmorality based upon what we find here. Evil men love to find fault with God. The Hebrews had been worked without wages, or at least any adequate wages, for a century or more. Now that they would be leaving forever, it was appropriate that they should have requested gifts of those whom they were leaving. Unfortunately, the word "borrow" crept into the translation in some versions, but that is simply an error. There was never any promise of repaying any of what was given. Both the Israelites and the Egyptians understood that perfectly. Keil has this:

"Under the circumstances, no Egyptian could have cherished the thought that the Israelites were only borrowing the jewels asked of them, and that they would return them after the festival. What they gave under the circumstances they could only have given without the slightest prospect of restoration."[31]

This loading of the Israelites with treasures on the occasion of their departure was prophesied by God Himself in a promise made to Abraham (Genesis 15:24) where it was related that they would go out of the land of their sojournings "with great substance." Here the same meaning is stated in, "Ye shall despoil the Egyptians." In the history of the world, there was never another coup exactly like this one! The very uniqueness of Exodus is an unqualified marvel.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.