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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged

Exodus 3

Verse 1

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.

Now Moses kept the flock. This employment he had entered on in furtherance of his matrimonial views (see the note at Exodus 2:21); but it is probable he was continuing his services now on other terms, like Jacob during the latter years of his stay with Laban (Genesis 30:28).

Led the flock to the back side of the desert - i:e., on the west of the desert (Gesenius); and assuming Jethro's headquarters to have been at Dahab, the route by which Moses led his flock must have been west through the wide valley called by the Arabs Wady-es-Zugherah (Robinson), which conducted into the interior of the wilderness. The traditional spot is in Wady Shuweib, or Jethro's valley, on the north of Jebel Musa, where the convent of Catherine now stands. Of course, Jebel Musa must be "the mount of God." Lepsius ('Letters, Appendix B') and Ritter ('Erkunde der Sinai-Habbinsel.' etc., 14:, 733-735) contend for Serbal, so called as 'the center of an ancient worship,' (see the note at Exodus 19:1-25.)

Mountain of God - so named either, according to Hebrew idiom, from its great height, as 'great mountains,' Hebrew, 'mountains of God' (Psalms 36:6), "goodly cedars," Hebrew, 'cedars of God' (Psalms 80:10); or, as some think, from its being the old abode of 'the glory;' or, finally, by prolepsis, from its being the theater of transactions most memorable in the history of the true religion (Lepsius).

To Horeb - rather, Horeb-ward; i:e., dry, desert; it was the general name for the mountainous district in which Sinai is situated, and of which it is a part. (See the note at Exodus 19:1-25.) It was used to designate the region comprehending that immense range of lofty, desolate, and barren hills, at the base of which, however, there are not only many patches of verdure to be seen, but almost all the valleys, or wadys, as they are called, show a thin coating of vegetation, which toward the south becomes more luxuriant. The Arab shepherds seldom take their flocks to a greater distance than one day's journey from their camp. Moses must have gone at least two days' journey; and although he seems to have been only following his pastoral course, that region, from its numerous springs in the clefts of the rocks, being the chief resort of the tribes during the summer heats, the providence of God led him there for an important purpose.

Verses 2-3

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.

The Angel of the Lord appeared. It is common in the Scriptures to represent the elements and operations of nature, as winds, fires, earthquakes, pestilence-everything enlisted in executing the divine will-as the 'angels' or messengers of God. But in such cases God himself is considered as really, though invisibly, present. Here the preternatural fire maybe primarily meant by the expression. "Angel of the Lord" (Whately, 'Good and Bad Angels,' p. 16); but it is clear that under this symbol the Divine Being was present, whose name is given, Exodus 3:4; Exodus 3:6, and elsewhere called "the Angel of the Lord," "the Angel of God" (Genesis 7:7; Genesis 7:9; Genesis 7:11; Genesis 21:17-18; Genesis 22:12-13; Genesis 31:11); "the Angel of the covenant" (Malachi 3:1). A critical examination of the language fully determines this point: for it is not 'an angel,' but "the Angel of the Lord," who appeared-the use of this title identifying Him with the Divine Revealer of the past. It is important to observe that an advance is here made in the progressive revelation of the Diving Being. In the patriarchal age He manifested Himself as a MYSTERIOUS MAN, who ruled over the world, assuming that form and character to impress the minds of his chosen servants with a sense of his personal existence. These Theophanies were afterward discontinued, and God at this stage began to appear in symbols.

In ... the midst of a bush, [ hacªneh (H5572)] - the acacia gummifera, or acacia Seyel, the al Sunt of the Arabs. The wild acacia, or thorn, with which that desert abounds, attains a considerable height. Its wood is very hard, and generally dry and brittle; so much so, that at certain seasons, a spark might kindle a district, far and wide, into a blaze. A fire, therefore, being in the midst of such a desert bush, was 'a great sight.' The Arabs now carry on an extensive traffic in the peninsula by carrying this wood to Cairo and Suez for charcoal. 'And as this probably has been done in a great degree by the monks of Catherine's Convent, it may account for the fact, that whereas in the valley of the western and eastern clusters of the Sinaitic mountains this tree abounds more or less, yet in the central cluster itself, to which modern tradition certainly, and geographical considerations probably, point as the mountain of the burning 'thorn,' there is not now a single acacia to be seen' (Stanley's 'Sinai and Palestine').

It is generally supposed to have been emblematic of the Israelites condition in Egypt-oppressed by a grinding servitude and a bloody persecution; and yet, in spite of the cruel policy that was bent on annihilating them, they continued as numerous and thriving as ever. The reason was, 'God was in the midst of them.' Kurtz, following Hoffmann, considers it a symbol, not of the past, nor of the existing state of Israel, but of the future-namely, of the dispensation which was then about to commence. Israel was represented by the bush; God in his holy character in the flame in the midst; and it should only be by a constant miracle of grace that, in their state of sinfulness, presenting fuel for this flame to seize upon, they were not consumed. [ 'ukaal (H398), in the pual form, signifies not - "was not consumed," as if part of it had been burnt, but 'did not suffer at all from the effects of the fire.']

Verse 4

And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.

When the Lord saw that he turned. The manifestations which God anciently made of Himself were always accompanied by clear, unmistakeable signs that the communications were really from heaven. This certain evidence was given to Moses. He saw a fire, but no human agent to kindle it; he heard a voice, but no human lips from which it came; he saw no living Being, but One was in the bush, in the heat of the flames, who knew him, and addressed him by name. Who could this be but a Divine Being?

Verse 5

And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

Put off thy shoes. The direction was in conformity with a usage which was well known to Moses; because the Egyptian priests observed it in their temples, and which is observed in all eastern countries, where the people take off their shoes, or sandals, as we do our hats. But the eastern idea is not precisely the same as the western. With us, the removal of the hat is an expression of reverence for the place we enter, or rather of Him who is worshipped there. With them, the removal of the shoes is a confession of personal defilement, and conscious unworthiness to stand in the presence of unspotted holiness.

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.

I am the God of thy father. The reverential awe of Moses must have been relieved by the Divine Speaker (see the note at Matthew 22:32), announcing himself in his covenant character, and by the welcome intelligence communicated. Moreover, the time, as well as all the circumstances of this miraculous appearance, were such as to give him an illustrious display of God's faithfulness to His promises. The period of Israel's sojourn and afflition in Egypt had been predicted (Genesis 15:13), and it was during the last year of the term which had still to run that the Lord appeared in the burning bush.

Verses 7-22

And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;

I have surely seen the affliction of my people ... literally, seeing I have seen. The verb has here the sense of looking with the watchful eye and sympathetic feeling of love.

And have heard their cry - a vehement cry throughout the land of their dispersion; a cry of oppressed anguish against the oppressor; a cry of pain, resentment, and helpless despondency. Thus the servitude of the Israelites themselves, as well as the cruel destruction of their male children, which followed the accession of the new dynasty in Egypt, effected the subjective preparation of that people for the exodus, by awakening in the general bosom intense longings for release.

Verse 8. I am come down to deliver them (see the note at Genesis 11:5; Genesis 11:7; Genesis 18:21).

And to bring them ... unto a good land and a large - i:e., broad, compared with the narrow belt of land in Egypt.

A land flowing with milk and honey - i:e., a region of extraordinary productiveness, abounding in all things necessary for the support and comfort of life. "Milk" (see the note at Genesis 49:12); "honey" [ dªbaash (H1706)] - various articles are often denoted by this term; but it evidently refers here to natural honey, which, by universal testimony, has always abounded in this land, even the most remote and uninhabited parts of the country being stocked with bees, which deposit their treasure of sweetness in the crevices of the rocks, and in hollow trees (cf. Deuteronomy 32:13; 1 Samuel 14:25-27; Isaiah 7:15; Matthew 3:4).

Unto the place of the Canaanites. "The Canaanites" sometimes stand for the whole aborigines of the country. In this passage the word is used to designate a particular tribe in ancient Canaan (cf. Exodus 13:5; Genesis 15:21; Joshua 3:10). There was a fortified place in the same parallel as Tyre, and afterward within the territory of Asher (Joshua 19:28), called [ Qaanaah (H7071)] Kanah; and it is possible that, notwithstanding the difference in spelling, this city, with its surrounding district, gave name to the people. (See further on this and the other Hamite tribes here mentioned, Genesis 10:15-17; Genesis 15:11-21.)

Verse 10. Come now therefore, and I will send thee. Considering the patriotic views that had formerly animated the Breast of Moses, we might have anticipated that no mission could have been more welcome to his heart than to be employed in the national emancipation of Israel. But he evinced great reluctance to it, and stated a variety of objections, all of which were successively met and removed; and the happy issue of his labours was minutely described.

Verse 11. Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh? ... Formerly he had volunteered his services as a patriotic defender of his countrymen. But he had acted from impetuosity of temper, and without any authorized misson. Having learned humility in the school of adversity, he had been led to distrust his own qualifications; and, especially considering his obscure condition as a shepherd, he felt himself too insignificant to wait upon Pharaoh.

Verse 12. Certainly I will be with thee. This promise was fulfilled not only by the divine presence and aid being given to Moses in a remarkable manner, during all the preliminary negotiations with Pharaoh, but until his extraordinary legation was accomplished.

Ye shall serve God upon this mountain, [Septuagint, latreusate too Theoo en too orei toutoo] - meaning not merely by sacrifice, although sacrifices entered very largely into the sacred observances of the Hebrews, but by the erection of the tabernacle, and the regular institution in that edifice, of the ordinances of religious worship (Exodus 24:1-18; Exodus 34:1-35, and subsequent chapters). But how could this, which was an event as yet future, be a "token" or sign to Moses to stimulate him to enter upon the mission to Egypt? The relevancy of the term [ 'owt (H226)] sign, in application to some future event, the simple pre-intimation of which was designed to induce to present action, appears from the fact that the word is thus applied in several passages of Scripture (cf. 1 Samuel 2:34; Jeremiah 44:29-30). In both these cases it is employed precisely as in the passage before us, with reference to what was afterward to take place. And assuredly the evidence of his divine mission afforded by the fulfillment of this prediction must have contributed in no ordinary degree to support and encourage the mind of Moses amid the prolonged sojourn and the harassing vicissitudes of the wilderness.

Verse 13. What is his name? what shall I say unto them? The pagans generally gave names to their gods, and the Egyptians in particular plumed themselves on the invention of appropriate names to the various idols they worshipped. The name was significant of the character or attributes of the deity; and, therefore, a desire to know the name by which the Divine Being meant Himself to be distinguished was not only natural in an ambassador about to be employed in negotiating in His name with his countrymen who had become to a great extent assimilated to the sentiments, the manners, and even the idolatry of the Egyptians (Exodus 3:22; 1 Chronicles 4:21; Ezekiel 20:1), but necessary, after the communications that were so frequently made to the patriarchs had long ceased, that he might understand whether God now intended to reveal Himself in a new manner, or in different relations to His people.

Verse 14. I AM THAT I AM, [ 'ehªyeh (H1961) 'ªsher (H834) 'ehªyeh (H1961)]. God here proclaims his name to Moses by an expansion of the title Yahweh, or Jahve (see the note at Genesis 27:29: also Gesenius). Different opinions are entertained as to the precise idea it was designed to express: some, as Hengstenberg ('Authenticity of the Pentateuch,' 1:, p. 254), considering it denotes the personality, the self-existence, and immutability of the Divine Being; and so the Septuagint translates it as: Egoo eimi ho oon, I am the existing One. The Vulgate has: Ego sum gui sum, which has been evidently followed by our translators (Revelation 1:8). Others interpret it, 'He who will be'-meaning the Being who was in the fullness of time to appear in the form of humanity as the promised Messiah; while a third class of writers take it rather to refer to God's manifestation of Himself to His Church-its use in this special form being designed to rouse attention to its deep significance.

That this is the import of the name-namely, as describing the revealed relations of God to man-appears, in their view, confirmed by the circumstance that, when the Lord pronounced it from the bush, he proceeded to declare Himself to be "the Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob." In two remarkable occasions in the historical development of those revealed relations, Yahweh (the Lord) is identified with 'Elohiym (H430) (God) - namely, in the covenant made with man (Genesis 2:1-25), and in the covenant here about to be entered into with Israel. Those different views of the ideas involved in the name may be very well combined; because it was doubtless with a design to impress the Israelites with a sense of the unity both of His essence and of His love to the Church that God so frequently designed Himself from the relation that He bore to their fathers. He was pleased to take such names in succession, as if He meant to inform them that, notwithstanding the lapse of time and the changes of persons, He is still the same. As on the occasion before us He used this language in the present time, especially in connection with the wonderful name "I am," while it proves the unchangeableness of His love to the patriarchs, as still existing in a separate state, it proclaims also the same unchangeable love to all their spiritual seed.

Verse 16. Go, and gather the elders of Israel together. While in Egypt, the Israelites remained a separate class-a regularly organized body-who even during the period of servitude were governed by rulers of their own, the heads of tribes and families. It is the former that are here referred to, called [ zªqeeniym (H2205)], old men, elders; equivalent to the shiekhs of Arab tribes. These were recognized as the public representatives of the people, to whom Moses was instructed, in the first instance, to communicate the intelligence of his divine mission to deliver his countrymen from bondage, and in conjunction with whom he was to appear before Pharaoh.

Verse 18. Let us go, we beseech thee, three days' journey into the wilderness ... It may seem strange that God should instruct Moses to make such a request for a temporary absence, when the real design was a total withdrawal from the country. But God was pleased to put it on that ground at first, in order that by the king's refusal of so small and so reasonable a request, the unyielding, tyrannical character of the Egyptian monarch might be the more strikingly displayed. Since the worship of the Israelites consisted, according to the rites of their forefathers, in sacrificing sheep and oxen, which were deemed sacred in the eyes of the Egyptians, they could not celebrate any religious festival without giving offence to that people, and therefore must of necessity have crossed the border into the Arabian wilderness, which would have been a "three days' journey." It was not unusual for parties from Egypt to hold festivals in the wilderness, across the border; and Dr. Robinson ('Biblical Researches') mentions a mountain at Sarabet-el-Khadin, the summit of which consisted of an extensive table-land, where were the ruins of a temple, bearing hieroglyphic inscriptions, religious symbols, and priests offering sacrifice-all conveying the impression that anciently that place had been the scene of sacred pilgrimage from Egypt.

Verse 19-22. The king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand. Here, for encouraging the faith of Moses, some additional details are given of the incidents that should mark his mission in Egypt. The protracted struggle with the reigning despot, the terrible prodigies that should subdue his pride, and wring from him a reluctant consent to the departure of the Israelites; the friendly and domestic contact of the Israelites and Egyptians, and the bestowment by the latter of certain small articles in gold, silver, and apparel, which would be indispensable necessaries for a distant journey-all these were pre- intimated to him by his Divine Employer so distinctly, that were the future changed into the past tense, the passage might serve as an epitomized history of what actually occurred (see the note at Exodus 12:36).

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Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Exodus 3". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". 1871-8.