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Commentary on Exodus 2:23-25; 3:10-15; 4:10-17

Karla Suomala
September is the launching pad of congregational life -- Sunday school, regular worship
times, choir, council meetings, confirmation, Bible studies, etc., etc.
It is also the time when we wonder, again, How are we going to bring them in? To reach them? To
educate, to support, to challenge and tell Gods people the good news? Every year at this time, we
hope that maybe this will be the year! It is our perpetual quest for the Holy Grail of Ministry -engaged, involved, spirit-led, and grace-filled congregations.
If youve grasped this Holy Grail, you can stop reading.
In this ongoing quest, we order books and try out new curricula. Whether its the Animate: Bible
series featured on the Augsburg Fortress website, which promises to reinvigorate and deepen
understanding of the Bible, or books with titles such as, The Mission Table: Renewing
Congregation and Community, we are looking for new ideas, insights and approaches to life and
learning in the church. Maybe this year, we think, well discover the secret to creating the heavenly
congregation on earth.
In our search for the Holy Grail of Ministry, we quickly dismiss materials that offer easy answers,
instead searching for those that push us to frame the right questions. Asking questions -- of
ourselves, each other, our texts and traditions -- is often more important in the life of faith and
renewal than supplying answers.
But good Christians dont ask questions!
In their evaluation of todays passage from Exodus, commentators provide an almost universally
negative assessment of Moses response to Gods demand that he bring the Israelites up out of
slavery.Scholars, clergy, and laity have described Moses as cowardly, conniving, wily,
confused, and frightened. They have also pointed out how he avoids, challenges, defies,
opposes, resists, delays, doubts, evades, dodges, and ducks Gods will and command. One of my
kids Bible storybooks sums up the situation by saying that when God asked Moses to go down to
Egypt, Moses argued, fretted and protested. Not so unlike a child, the author implies.
Underlying all of these comments is the age-old sense in Christian tradition that when God talks, the
model servant listens, without question, without doubt, without hesitation.

So, in todays reading from Exodus, we are confronted with a dilemma. What makes for good
theology -- asking questions -- seems to make for bad piety. In the life of faith, questions and the
act of questioning are contrasted unfavorably with believing, trusting, obeying, and submitting.
Good Christians dont question, says much of our tradition. But according to our texts, questions are
at the heart of our faith.
So what do we do with Moses and all his inappropriate questions?
Moses, God and lots of questions
Lets try to imagine that we didnt have any preconceptions about Moses conversation partner -the voice from within the burning bush. Lets further imagine that we are overhearing their
conversation as if we dont know how things will turn out. In short, lets imagine ourselves in Moses
place.
Tending his flocks in the wilderness, a burning bush attracts Moses attention. The bush isnt
consumed, though; it just keeps burning. Moses asks his first question: Why isnt this bush burning
up? It is his curiosity and his question based on close observation that bring him into the encounter
with God in the first place. What if he hadnt asked?
It is then that a voice calls out to him (from the bush) and commands that Moses come no closer,
that he take his shoes off, and that he go down to Egypt to rescue the suffering Israelites. There is
no indication in the text that Moses has had any contact with this God before or that he is even
aware of this Gods existence. Yet a voice comes out of a bush, telling Moses to go to Egypt to
rescue a few hundred thousand slaves and to lead them back through the desert toward freedom.
Even if the voice sounded like Morgan Freeman, wouldnt a few questions be in order?
What if Moses had said, Sure, no problem, and then headed south? Would that have served him
better in the long run given the immensity -- the absurdity, actually -- of the task?
It is the questions that Moses begins to ask in this situation that allow him (and us) to place the
mission in some sort of context, to think a little about what the assignment would require, were he to
take it on.
Who am I to rescue the Israelites? he asks. What do you see in me, God, that makes you so sure
that I can accomplish this task? Or are you desperate and just dont have anyone else to send?
Interestingly, God doesnt answer the question directly, saying instead that God will be with Moses - suggesting that God may not have anyone else. Is it possible that God might need Moses more
than Moses needs God at this moment?

Moses, thinking into the future, then poses some hypothetical questions of God. What if they want
to know who, exactly, sent me? On whose authority am I acting? He needs to be clear on the
credentials of the missions backer. Moses cant just run down to Egypt and say that he is working
for a talking bush. Gods answer to this question is one of the most debated passages in the
Hebrew Bible -- I am who I am (YHWH). Or maybe its I am what I shall be. Or perhaps I am the
one who is. We still arent precisely sure what the name means, but Moses seems to come away
with the sense that any language humans use for God is limited. Gods self-revelation of this
particular name only points to the fact that no single word or name can contain Gods presence.
But, if Moses hadnt asked the question, he would never have known.
What if they dont believe me? Moses then asks. If he himself is having trouble believing what he
is being asked to do, why would all of those Israelites believe him, risking death to follow him?
Moses understands that hes going to have a tough audience, and for good reason. In response,
God gives him some powerful signs to help persuade the Israelites (more proof), including a stick
that turns into a snake. These are resources Moses wouldnt have had without the question.
Finally, Moses gets more personal, and his question is implied. How am I going to accomplish all
that you ask, Lord, since Im not a good speaker? This has often been dismissed as a last ditch
effort on Moses part, but if we put the best possible construction on his words, Moses is being
realistic. Knowing that this job is going to require the rhetorical abilities of someone much more
skilled than him, Moses is asking how he alone will accomplish what the Lord has in mind. God
concedes and agrees to send Aaron, yet another important part of making the mission a success.
What if Moses had never asked?
While Moses certainly gains some knowledge and acquires some important resources as the result
of his questions, is there more to it? Asking questions -- of our texts, of God, of each other -- is
critical to developing a relationship. At the outset, Moses didnt know who God was, but by the end
of the exchange, he is on his way to knowing more about who he is and about who God is.