Sometimes God breaks into our ordinary lives in extraordinary ways to capture our attention and deliver important messages. That's what happened when the prophet Moses was at work one day tending his flock of sheep outside. Suddenly, Moses saw a bush that was on fire, yet not consumed by the flames. When Moses moved closer to take a better look, he found himself communicating with God, appearing in the form of the Angel of the Lord. Here's what happened:
The Bible and the Torah begin the story in Exodus 3:1-4: "Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, 'I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.'
When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, 'Moses! Moses!'
And Moses said, 'Here I am.'"
The burning bush powerfully captured Moses' attention because "it was a physical miracle that communicated spiritual truth" writes Philip Graham Ryken in his book Exodus: Saved for God's Glory: "This miraculous sign pointed to God’s power by revealing his control over creation. Who else but God has the power to make a bush burn without being consumed? It also pointed to God’s glory by giving a glimpse of the brightness of his splendor. ... The miraculous sign pointed as well to God’s eternity and self-sufficiency. Like the burning bush, God never runs out of fuel. His glory never dims; his beauty never fades. He always keeps burning bright. This is because God does not get his energy from anyone or anything outside himself."
Standing on Holy Ground
The story continues in Exodus 3:5-6, where the Angel of the Lord reveals his identity to Moses: "'Do not come any closer,' God said. 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.' Then he said, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God."
In Exodus: Saved for God's Glory, Ryken comments: "It is not surprising that there was something divine about the bush, for the Bible says that was none other than the 'angel of the LORD' (Exodus 3:2). ... Here the angel of the Lord is so closely identified with God that the burning bush is generally considered a theophany. In other words, it was a God-appearance, a visible manifestation of an invisible God. For a few brief moments in time and space, the bush was the temple of the living God, the place of his presence on Earth. Since the time of the early church, Christians have wondered whether perhaps this was a revelation of God’s pre-incarnate Son, who brings God’s saving message to humanity. Whether or not Christ was in the bush, one thing was certain: Moses was in the presence of God."
God's Rescue Plan
Next, God tells Moses that he has seen the Hebrew people's suffering in slavery while living in Egypt, and he cares about what they've been going through. God announces a plan to rescue the Hebrew people and work through Moses to lead them to freedom in a land that he promises to give them (which has come to be called "the Promised Land").
The Bible and the Torah record in Exodus 3:7-12: "The LORD said, 'I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey -- the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.'"
"But Moses said to God, 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'
And God said, 'I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain."
This dialogue between Moses and the Angel of the Lord shows people how much God cares about them, writes Stuart Tyner in his book Searching for the God of Grace: Before Our Hopes, Before Our Fears, Before Religion: "The angel of the Lord is none other than God himself! And here’s what we learn ... We learn that God initiates contact with us ... Sometimes God appears to us physically. Sometimes that physical appearing is calculated to attract our attention. ('I will go over and see this strange sight -- why, the bush does not burn up.') We learn that God’s appearance makes the places of our lives holy because He is there. We learn that we stand properly before this holy God when there is nothing between us. ('Take off your sandals.') When we pay attention, we find out that God knows our names. ('Moses! Moses!'). He sees His people. He hears us. He’s concerned about us. It is God who rescues us. It is God who takes us to the Promised Land. ... The angel of the Lord also teaches us that it’s OK to ask God questions and that God answers."
The Great 'I Am'
The story continues in Exodus 3: 13-15 with Moses asking the Angel of the Lord for his name and receiving an unusual reply: "Moses said to God, 'Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
God also said to Moses, 'Say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers -- the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob -- has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation."
In his book The Light of the World, Leonard E. Rook comments: "The One who spoke to Moses declared Himself to the be the Eternal One, uncaused and independent. Only the Creator of all things can call Himself the 'I AM' in the absolute sense. When we speak of God, we say 'He is.' All other creatures in God’s creation are in a position of obligation to Him for their existence."
Many Bible scholars think that the Angel of the Lord is God's Son, Jesus Christ, appearing in angelic form prior to his incarnation later in history. One of the connections to Jesus is the angel's answer here that his name is "I AM" and Jesus' reply in John 8:58 to Jewish people asking about his identity: "before Abraham was born, I AM!".
A Better Future to Come
Moses' encounter with the burning bush ends with the Angel of the Lord describing the details of what will happen in the future when Moses leads the Hebrew people out of slavery to freedom -- details that all became historic reality when the time came.