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Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15

Anathea Portier-Young
This first revelation of sacred space identifies as holy the soil itself, Gods good land alive
with vegetation.
This soil is holy because it nourishes the life in which God becomes visible and from which God
speaks. And it is declared holy at the moment when Gods human servant has turned and entered
to see the miracle of Gods presence within a fire that blazes but does not consume the created life
in which it burns.
Moses will lead Gods people back to this holy place. They will worship at this mountain (3:12). Here
Moses will receive a plan for the tabernacle. And from this place the fire will travel with them into the
wilderness, sanctifying their camp just as the divine fire now sanctifies the holy mountain.
But that is in the future. For now, in this moment, Moses is told to remove his shoes. Draw away the
covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your
bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig
in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life,
its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and
calling.1
It was from such soil that God shaped the first human (Genesis 2:7) and every animal (2:19) and
caused to grow trees for food and the trees of life and knowledge (2:9). The soil was cursed on
humans behalf (3:17) and after humans death would receive each human back again (3:19).
And in this first story, humans received their charge, that even after the curse, through long years
away from home, they would serve the earth (3:23). This same earth would yield up offerings to
God (4:3). It would also open its mouth to receive blood of the slain and give voice to the cry of
injustice (4:10-11). This soil binds us to all creation and to every human. This soil forms and feeds
us, receives and makes a claim upon us.
The articles with which we clothe our bodies always mean more than simple covering or protection.
Typically made of animal skin or plant fibers, sandals protected the sole of the foot but could also
symbolize purity, property, social contracts, and social status. In New Kingdom Egypt, a pair of
sandals could be purchased for the price of a sack of grain: though not strictly a luxury, footwear
was nonetheless an investment. Sandals of higher status individuals were more artfully made,
sometimes adorned with precious materials and other decoration. Sandals discovered in the tomb

of Tut-ankh-Amon bore the image of foreign captives upon the insole, proclaiming with the kings
every step Egyptian royal power over the peoples and nations his armies had subdued.2
Scripture tells us more about the meanings associated with sandals. Later in the book of Exodus,
the Hebrews are instructed to prepare for their journey out of Egypt by eating the Passover meal
with their staffs in hand and sandals upon their feet (Exodus 12:11). These preparations signified
readiness for the journey ahead (cf. Deuteronomy 29:4; Joshua 9:5,13). The books of Deuteronomy
and Ruth explain rites in which removing ones sandal(s) -- or having them removed by another -nullified previously binding legal and social ties (Deuteronomy 25:9-10; Ruth 4:7-8; cf. Amos 2:6,
8:6), creating the conditions for new claims, new relationships, and new responsibility.
What shoes does the preacher wear? For one preacher, worn soles and fraying straps may speak
of humility and a long journey. For another, a platform heel adds the illusion of height and stability.
One preacher rests within the space and protection of a wide toe box, while another lurches
precariously atop stiletto heels. Shoes may be shined, tooled, stitched, or adorned to project
success and authority. They may convey simplicity or beauty. They may be shoes for walking slow
or running fast. They might feel comfortable or they might hurt. Whatever their meanings, uses, and
effects, in this holy place God commands Gods servant to take them off.
When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journeys end, at the true goal of every
journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon
him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he
will know where he stands.
When you as a preacher remove your sandals, what claim will the sacred soil make upon you? 3 Will
you stand differently in the place where God has called you? This reading challenges you and your
congregation to remove your sandals and feel between your toes the clay God uses to shape the
future. God invites you to stand barefoot in an attitude of wonder as you witness Gods presence in
the blazing fire that does not consume and hear the astonishing name of the God who is radically
free.
As you find your footing in the holy soil, you and your congregation will know what it means to
refuse complicity in practices of slavery and domination. God will empower you to challenge rulers
and bring hope to the hopeless. Your beautiful feet will announce salvation (Isaiah 52:7) and lead
the way to freedom.

Notes:

For details of soil composition in the region of Sinai, see Raafat H. Abd EL-Wahab, Abd El-Monem

M. Zayed,Abd El-Raouf A. Moustafa, Jeffery M. Klopatek, and Mohamed A. Helmy, Landforms,


Vegetation, and Soil Quality in South Sinai, Egypt, Catrina 1 (2006), 127-38.
2

This paragraph draws on Fredrik Hagen, New Kingdom Sandals: A Philological Perspective, in

Andr J. Veldmeijer, Tutankhamuns Footwear: Studies of Ancient Egyptian Footwear, Norg, The
Netherlands:DrukWare, 2010, 193-203.
3

My reflections on preaching in bare feet are inspired by the work of former student Courtney

Bryant.