Armor-piercing Moments

Moses grew up in a world of contrasts. Raised by his Hebrew mother, he had been given an Egyptian name. He was the child of slaves, but as the adopted son of the Princess Royal, he lived a life of privilege in the big house. One day he went out to his people, the story continues in the book of Exodus, leaving us wondering if he knew that they were his people, his kinsfolk, or if that was only the storyteller’s knowledge. Moses hadn’t lived among his folk for so many years, and formative years at that, you can’t help but wonder if he thought of himself as a Hebrew or an Egyptian, as a grandson of Pharao or a brother of those groaning under slavery.

One day he went out to his people, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew[1]  – now I don’t imagine that to be an unusual scene, do you? The whole system of slavery was built on violence, I would think that abusive language and physical abuse were pretty common and quite visible – unless, of course, you lived your life in the sheltered world behind the palace walls. One day Moses went out and he saw what he may not have seen before or perhaps he had forgotten, and the injustice he witnessed stirred his soul. He couldn’t just walk away from the scene as though it had nothing to do with him. This moment demanded a response of him.

The Jewish scholar and author, Martin Buber, wrote in 1947,

Each of us is encased in an armour whose task is to ward off signs. Signs happen to us without respite, living means being addressed, we would need only to present ourselves and to perceive. But the risk is too dangerous for us, … and from generation to generation we perfect the defense apparatus. All our knowledge assures us, “Be calm, everything happens as it must happen, but nothing is directed at you, you are not meant; it is just ‘the world’, you can experience it as you like, but whatever you make of it in yourself proceeds from you alone, nothing is required of you, you are not addressed, all is quiet.”

Each of us is encased in an armour which we soon, out of familiarity, no longer notice. There are only moments which penetrate it and stir the soul to sensibility.[2]

This was such a moment. Moses couldn’t just walk away as though everything happened as it must happen. He looked around, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.[3] His passion against injustice urged him to act, and the only response he knew was more violence.

The next day he went out again, and he saw two Hebrews fighting. “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” he said to the one who was in the wrong, and the man replied, “Who made you a judge over us? Are you going to kill me too?” Certainly not, but now Moses knew that there had been at least one witness the day before, and he was afraid. It was just a matter of time before Pharao would hear of it and seek to kill him. And so Moses fled and settled in the land of Midian. He met and married Zipporah, one of Jethro’s seven daughters, and she bore a son whom he named Gershom.[4] The boy’s name, meaning “a stranger there,” spoke of Moses’s lack of a home; he didn’t know where he belonged; he didn’t know what to tell his own son about his people.

You could say Moses had a good life in Midian. He had a wife and a child, he had decent work, but for him all that didn’t add up to being at home. He was an alien residing in a foreign land and he didn’t even know where home was. I bet he enjoyed being out in the field with the sheep where nobody asked him where he was from. And out there, beyond the wilderness, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God, where he saw the blazing bush.

This is a place where I trust Zora Neale Hurston’s imagination over Cecil B. DeMille’s any day.[5] She wrote,

Moses could not believe his eyes, but neither could he shut them on the sight. Because the bush was burning brightly but its leaves did not twist and crumple in the heat and they did not fall as ashes beneath charred limbs as they should have done. It just burned and Moses, awed though he was, could no more help coming closer to try and see the why of the burning bush than he could quit growing old. Both things were bound up in his birth. Moses drew near the bush.

“Moses,” spoke a great voice which Moses did not know, “take off your shoes.” [6]

Don’t think of this as a place far away. Think of it as another moment that demanded a response. Remember what Buber wrote,

Signs happen to us without respite, living means being addressed, we would need only to present ourselves and to perceive.

Have you lived through moments when, trembling with awe you wanted to take your shoes off? I have; they are the moments when suddenly the everyday becomes translucent and you see life as the miracle it truly is. The least you can do is take off your shoes so nothing touches the ground but your bare feet. It is as though the moment has been prepared just for you to arrive and notice and abide.

When I was little, we had a small rug, no bigger than one foot wide and perhaps three-and-a-half feet long, stretching along the wall right behind the front door. When we came home, we would stand on the entrance mat, untie our shoes, and then place them on that small rug. You could tell who was home just by looking at the shoes that were lined up behind the door. I know my mom taught us to take off our shoes at the door, because she didn’t want us to carry in all that dirt and dust from outside. But there was something else going on. Every time I walked in, when I paused to untie my shoes, there was a brief moment of recognition: I’m at home now. This is where I belong.

When Moses bent to untie his sandals, he certainly did it with deep reverence and vulnerability, but I also like to think that perhaps for the first time in a long time he knew how it feels to be at home. I like to think that when he heard the great voice calling him by name he was no longer an alien residing in a foreign land. He felt like one who belonged.

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

There was a better land than the land of oppression and bondage. The violence and injustice Moses had seen with his own eyes had not gone unnoticed in heaven. The God who knew and called Moses by name, had observed everything, had seen and heard and declared, “I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”

That was good and most welcome news, but there was another word: “Moses, I want you to go down to Egypt.”

“Into Egypt? Egypt is no place for me to go. They have my face on every most-wanted poster.”

“I said Egypt, Moses. I want you to go down and tell that Pharao to let my people go.”

“Me? Pharao? Who am I to tell Pharaoh what to do? He won’t pay me no attention, I know he won’t.”

“Go on down there. I will be with you.”

Moses, the child of Hebrew slaves who grew up in a palace of privilege; Moses, the man driven by a deep sense of justice but unable to control his anger; Moses, the refugee who longed for home; Moses suddenly felt the weight of God’s claim on his life.

“Well, if I go, what do I tell your people? I don’t even know your name. Who do I tell them sent me?”[7]

“I am who I am.”

That response sounds more like a riddle than a name, doesn’t it?

“I will be what I will be.”

Volumes have been written about these three words in Hebrew and the four letters of the name that hasn’t been spoken in many hundreds of years. But even if we knew how to pronounce the name, it wouldn’t add much to what we know of God. Why? Because who God is is forever tied to what God has promised and done. God’s name is embedded in the stories of God’s people. God is one who hears the cry of the oppressed and does not forget. God is one who sees the injustice in the land of bondage and is moved to action. God is one who suffers in the sufferings of others and acts for their deliverance. God said to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And now I will be your God. I will go with you.” Moses didn’t learn God’s name by the blazing bush where God summoned him. That was the beginning. That was but a first taste of home for the sojourner who didn’t know where he belonged. Moses learned God’s name over a lifetime of listening for God’s voice and call.

The name of God is forever tied to the liberation of God’s people from the land of bondage, and thus our God is the God of Moses and Aaron, of Miriam and Joshua. The name of God is forever tied to the prophets who spoke with urgency and courage in times of crisis, and thus our God is the God of Hosea and Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah. The name of God is forever tied to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and thus our God is the God of Mary Magdalene and Paul, of Peter and James and Lydia. Our God is the God of Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King.

To know the God of our ancestors, we recall the stories of the witnesses to whose names the name of God is forever tied, and then we go. Like all of them before us, we go – with a little courage and still with fear, but we go – toward the good and broad land, toward the future where all of God’s children and indeed all of God’s creatures are at home. We go to live as witnesses – always listening for God’s voice and call and responding with faith.


[1] Exodus 2:11

[2] Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2004, p. 12

[3] Exodus 2:12

[4] Exodus 2:13-22

[5] The Ten Commandments

[6] Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, p. 125

[7] With thanks to Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, p. 126