Exodus means departure. And that is what, at first sight, the book is about: The departure of the people of Israel from Egypt and their journey through the desert to the promised land. In the Hebrew scripture however the book is called Names and not departure. Titles are funny things. They tend to guide us in what we understand the meaning of a book to be. Unless they dont make any sense at all of course.
Names. Perhaps not a very appealing or imaginative title at first sound. But as meaningful as Exodus at closer inspection. Because this book is about names. Two names: The name of Moses and the name of God. The figure of Moses, larger than life, gets filled in in this book, his character coloured in with stories and detail about who he was, how his life journey develops and how he became to mean so much to his people. And very much the same happens with God: the book fills us in about him as much as about Moses. Step by step, all through the book, we discover as much about God as about Moses.
It is today they meet each other for the first time.
In the desert.
So far we have not heard about God. Weve heard about Moses and the difficult situation of his people. Moses weve been told was born in a time of terrible hardship for his people where a mighty pharaoh tries to keep his anxiety about an ethnic minority under control by killing any boy babies that are born as well as working their parents to death through slavery. Moses escapes his fate, through the ingenuity of his mother and the courage of his sister and receives a good education in the bargain at the palace of the oppressor.
After he has grown up we hear Moses has his heart in the right place, we hear that he remembers his people and stands up for them. He becomes a freedom fighter.
Unfortunately for him he also has a nasty and not so easy to control temper: On one occasion where he seeks to support a fellow Israelite against the oppressor he commits murder, and has to flee for his own safety. From a political activist Moses becomes an asylum seeker who seeks refuge in the desert. There again he proves his heart is in the right place. His first action in the desert is to help a group of shepherdesses stand up against their bullies and is so introduced into the household of Sippora and Jethro, his future wife and father in law. Moses settles in the desert and becomes a shepherd, making a living by tending the sheep of his father in law. Something that would probably have helped him to bring that terrible temper under control. Shepherding is a very tedious job and sheep not the most intelligent of species. Moses would have needed to develop a lot of patience in the desert, and a lot of ingenuity to get his job done.
By now the ears of experienced bible readers must be pricking up: difficulty at birth or straight after, an irresistible inclination to stand up for the rights of the poor and oppressed, a time out in the desert, and the shepherding of sheep are all indications, anywhere in scripture that a leader is being born. Moses, David, Elijah, and eventually Jesus, they all fit the same mould, they all fit the same profile: they are shepherds, they spend some time in the desert to get to know themselves and to get to know God and learn some skills that will stand them in good stead later on, and they all stand up for the rights of the oppressed, even where it means considerable hardship and trouble for themselves. Moses probably the mould they have all been modelled on. His story probably written down some time before David became King and before most of the other books of the bible were written.
We dont know what, if anything, is historical about Moses and the stories in Exodus, or the book of Names. Scholars think that different stories from different groups were clustered around the figure of Moses as those different groups started growing into a nation, seeking to establish identity and trying to figure out where they had come from and how they had ended up where they were now. Developing their thoughts and belief in God while they were at it, trying to figure what the mysterious force was that had brought them together and held them together and somehow brought them here, in the land of milk and honey where others lived too, who served other gods that seemed at odds with their own understanding of who God was and what he was about.
Our God is a liberator they said, he stands up for the oppressed. He stays close, he listens and he hears his people cry, he has travelled with us, nurtured us, helped us, cared for us, every step of the way. This God is awesome. You cant put a finger on him, he is hard to describe and to give him a name really escapes us. A couple of syllables, the image of fire, or a cloud and the deep sense that he has led us, from wherever we came from to this place. That is really about as far as we get.
And they project it all onto Moses, their own experience of God, their own story with God, as well as the experience and story of those whove gone before them.
Helper, liberator, presence, something, somebody, fire, cloud, dont know what, but something, actively involved in our life and our history.
In the todays story they tell how their greatest leader ever who started out as a baby in a basket, a murderer who has to flee and seek asylum, a shepherd minding his father in laws business in the desert who gets called by God. Suddenly and unexpectedly. Who would expect God to speak from a burning bush?
And telling us how their experience is that God appears in unexpected places, asking unlikely people for help, calling to ministry and leadership who are hardly suited to the job: a murderer, a refugee, a shepherd. Telling us of the experience that the fire of Gods presence will suddenly flare up where we least expect it, authorising people to do thing they would never have expected themselves to do.
Moses comes up with 5 reasons why he cannot answer Gods call, and yet he somehow finds himself in Egypt not much later, standing up to Pharaoh and his might to lead his people out of slavery.
Throughout history this has happened to people time and time again. Somehow theyve been called, often when they least expected it. Unlikely people, like you and me, who are often, at first sight not at all suitable or equipped for the task God calls them to. And yet through them and by them miracles start to happen. Because somehow they answer to that call and allow their lives to be led and shaped by it.
We will hear a lot more about Moses, and his journey with God. A journey he has begun today by stuttering the name of the one he encounters in the desert: I am who I am, I was who I was, I will be who I will be, I am, Ill be and I have been who has called him to work with him and lead his people out of slavery.
And we will hear a lot about God. As God calls Moses to work with him, stay with him and journey with him through thick and thin through the most unlikely places. Amen.