To know yourself addressed

Moses at the burning bush. The scene has captured the imagination of artists for generations. It has been painted, sculpted, and dramatized. It has been animated in Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt and rendered in 1950s-epic style in Cecil DeMilles Ten Commandments.

The other day, I caught a glimpse of a facebook debate, triggered by the question, “When there’s a movie based on a book, should you read the book before or after you watch the movie?” Well, I thought, what happened to watching the movie instead of reading the book? Countless high school students made it through English class that way, didn’t they? And when we’re talking about Moses, how about sticking with reading, and not just once, but repeatedly? Your imagination will thank you, because it’s really hard to unsee some renderings of biblical stories that have invaded your mind.

Moses was the child of slaves, but he lived a life of privilege in the palace. His parents were Hebrews, but he was given an Egyptian name. The daughter of Pharao adopted him, and because his big sister was kind and smart, his mother was hired to nurse him. One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people, it says in chapter two of the book. I wonder if he knew that they were his people, his kinsfolk; he had lived in the palace 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 son of Pharaoh's daughter or a brother of those groaning under the whips of their taskmasters.

One day he went out to his people and saw their forced labor and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew that was probably not an unusual scene, was it?  The whole system was built on violence, and degrading language and physical abuse must have been common and quite visible – but the fact that injustice is visible doesn’t always mean it is seen. Martin Buber wrote,

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 defence 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’… 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.[1]

Sometimes events happen that get through to us and wake us, and we know ourselves directly addressed. Big events like Sandy Hook, Charleston, Charlottesville, and Harvey that stir the souls of millions, and much smaller ones that may involve only a handful of people at home, at school, or at the grocery store. A voice says, “You! Say something — do something.”

For Moses, this was such a moment. He couldn’t just walk away as though everything happened as it must happen. He couldn’t wait for someone else to do something. He quickly looked around, and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian. He decided for the victim and against the abuser and acted.

But there had been at least one witness, as he discovered the next day, and he was afraid. It was just a matter of time before Pharaoh would find out and have him killed. And so Moses fled and settled in the land of Midian.

One day he sat by a well, when the daughters of Jethro, all seven of them, came to draw water for their father’s flock. Other shepherds pushed them away, but Moses saw what was happening and got up and came to their defense. Clearly he did not tolerate bullies. The daughters told Jethro about the Egyptian who stepped in to help them, and before long, Moses married one of them, named Zipporah, and she bore him a son whom he named Gershom.[2] The boy’s name, meaning “a stranger there,” spoke of Moses’s lack of a home; he didn’t know where he belonged. He had a good life in Midian, but he had no roots there, and he couldn’t say where his roots were. I imagine he didn’t mind spending days in the wilderness, keeping Jethro’s sheep, although it was a very different life from what he knew as the adopted son of royalty; at least the sheep didn’t ask him where he was from.

It was out there, beyond the wilderness, at Horeb, that he saw the blazing bush. Zora Neale Hurston described the scene as she saw it,

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.” [3]

Moses was told to remove the sandals from his feet. To let his bare feet touch and sink in this holy ground. To let the skin of his feet be covered with the soil in which the blazing bush was rooted. To stand there, really stand there, firmly grounded, in God’s presence.

When I was little, we had this rug, right behind the front door. It wasn’t big, just a small runner, perhaps a foot wide and three-and-a-half feet long. When any of us came home, we would stand on the entrance mat, untie our shoes, and then place them on that small rug, tips pointing to the wall. It was my mom who insisted that we take off our shoes, because she did all of the cleaning. But there was something else going on, something she probably hadn’t thought of when she established the house rule. When you came in, you could tell who was home by looking at the shoes that were lined up behind the door. And every time I walked in, when I bent to untie my shoes, there was this flash of awareness: I’m at home now. This is where I belong.

I like to think that when Moses heard the great voice calling him by name he was no longer an alien residing in a foreign land; that when he bent to untie his sandals, he did it not only with deep reverence, but also with a new sense of belonging. “I am the God of your father,” the voice declared, “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.”

The violence Moses had seen, the injustice he had witnessed had not gone unnoticed in heaven. God had heard, God had seen, God knew the suffering, suffered the suffering of God’s people in Egypt. “I have come down to deliver them,” God said.

Moses was driven by a deep sense of justice a desire to intervene for the victimized and the mistreated, wherever he saw injustice taking place, and now he knew this desire was holy, that his heart was beating in sync with the very heart of God.

“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.” Good. Very good. Very promising. But God was not done speaking to Moses. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” This is what happens when you realize that your heart is beating in sync with the heart of God. You become part of what God is doing.

“Come, I will send you,” God said to Moses.

And Moses objected, “Who am I that I should go to Pharao?”

“I will be with you,” God promised.

“Well, if I go, what do I tell your people? Who do I tell them sent me?”

“I am who I am,” God responded.

“But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me? … I have never been eloquent … I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” Moses said, naming every reason for not going he could think of, before begging, “O my Lord, please send someone else!”[4]

This is what happens when you realize that your heart is beating in sync with the heart of God. You become part of what God is doing – and there is no “someone else” to do your part for you. Generations after Moses, the prophet Isaiah said,

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. … The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene (Isaiah 59:14-16).

God is not calling you to do Moses’ part. God is not calling you to do Mary’s or anyone else’s part. Only yours. Sometimes events happen that get through to you and wake you, and you know yourself directly addressed. A voice says, “You! Say something — do something.” Reading the Scriptures – no movie will do this for you – reading the Scriptures, you will become familiar with the voice that addressed and sent Moses and the prophets, the same voice that called and sent the disciples, and you will learn to trust the One who speaks with that voice, and you will step out in faith.


[1] Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, 12.

[2] Ex 2:13-22

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

[4] Ex 4:1,10,13

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