Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.III.
(1) Moses kept the flock.—The natural occupation of one who had thrown in his lot with the Midianites.
Jethro, his father-in-law.—Rather, his relation by marriage. The word is one of very wide use, corresponding with the Latin affinis. It is even applied to a husband, as in Exodus 4:25. The supposition that it means “father-in-law” has led to the identification of Jethro with Reuel, which is very unlikely. He was more probably Reuel’s son, and Moses’s brother-in-law. His father having died, he had succeeded to his father’s position, and was at once priest and sheikh of the tribe.
To the backside of the desert.—Heb., behind the desert—i.e., to the fertile tract which lay behind the sandy plain stretching from the Sinaitic range to the shore of the Elanitic gulf.
Even Horeb.—Rather, towards Horeb, or Horeb way. Horeb seems to have been the name of the entire mountain region; Sinai of the group or mass known now as Jebel Musa.
And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.(2) The angel of the Lord.—Heb., an angel of Jehovah. In Exodus 3:4 the angel is called both “Jehovah and “Elohim,” whence it is concluded, with reason, that it was the Second Person of the Trinity who appeared to Moses.
Out of the midst of a bush.—Literally, out of the midst of the acacia. As the seneh, or acacia, is very common in the Sinaitic region, we can scarcely suppose that a special tree, growing alone, is intended. Probably the article is one of reference, and the meaning is, “the bush of which you have all heard.” (Comp. John 3:24.)
And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.(3) I will now turn aside.—A minute touch, in dicating that Moses is the writer. He remembers that the bush did not grow on the track which he was pursuing, but lay off it, and that he had to “turn aside,” in order to make his inspection.
This great sight.—The phenomenon was strange and unusual—worthy of note, whatever might be the cause.
And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.(4) When the Lord saw . . . God called.—Heb., When Jehovah saw, Elohim called. The German theory of two authors of Exodus, one Jehovistic and the other Elohistic, is completely refuted by this passage; for it is impossible to ascribe one clause of a sentence to one author, and the next to another. If originally the same term had been used in both places, a reviser would not have altered one without altering both.
And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.(5) Put off thy shoes.—Rather, thy sandals. It is doubtful whether shoes were known at this early date. They would certainly not have been worn in Midian. Egyptians before the time of Moses, and Orientals generally, in ancient (as in modern) times, removed their sandals (or their shoes) from their feet on entering any place to which respect was due, as a temple, a palace, and even the private house of a great man. It is worthy of notice that God Himself orders this mark of respect to be shown to the place which His Presence has hallowed. On the reverence due to holy places, see the Note on Genesis 28:16-17.
Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.(6) The God of thy father.—It is generally agreed that “father” is put collectively here for “forefathers.” (Comp. Genesis 31:42.) Hence St. Stephen, quoting the passage, renders it, “I am the God of thy fathers” (Acts 7:32).
The God of Abraham.—Primarily, no doubt, the meaning was, the God who was worshipped by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but the form of the expression, “the God of Abraham,” &c., indicated the continued existence of the patriarchs after death, since He can only be the God of existent, and not of nonexistent things. (See Matthew 22:32.)
Moses hid his face, with the same feeling which made Jacob exclaim, “How dreadful is this place” (Genesis 28:17). Though nothing was to be seen but an appearance as of material fire, the knowledge that God was there rendered the fire awful.
And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;(7) The Lord said.—Heb., Jehovah said. The “God” of Exodus 3:6 is “Jehovah” here, and again “God” in Exodus 3:11. (See the Note on Exodus 3:4.)
I have surely seen.—Heb., seeing I have seen. It is not so much certainty as continued looking that is implied. (Comp. Exodus 2:25.)
And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.(8) I am come down.—By condescension to human infirmity, which conceives of all things under the limitations of time and space, God is spoken of as dwelling ordinarily in heaven, or “the heaven of heavens,” whence sometimes He “comes down” to manifest Himself to men. That this was not understood literally, even by the Jews, appears from such passages as 1Kings 8:27; Psalm 137:7-9; Proverbs 15:3, &c.
A good land and a large.—The land promised to Abraham (Genesis 15:18) well deserves this description. Besides Philistia, and Palestine on both sides of the Jordan, it included almost the whole of Syria from Galilee on the south, to Amanus, Taurus, and the Euphrates on the north and north-east. This tract of country is 450 miles long, and from sixty to a hundred and twenty miles broad. Its area is not much less than 50,000 square miles. Although some parts are unproductive, it is, on the whole, a region of great fertility, quite capable of forming the seat of a powerful empire.
A land flowing with milk and honey.—This expression, here used for the first time, was already, it is probable, a proverbial one, denoting generally, richness and fertility. (See Numbers 13:27.)
And Moses said unto God, Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?(11) Who am I, that I should go?—The men most fit for great missions are apt to deem themselves unfit. When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, his reply was, “O Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a child” ( Jeremiah 1:6). St. Ambrose fought hard to escape being made Archbishop of Milan. Augustine was loth to undertake the mission to England. Anselm was with difficulty persuaded to accept the headship of our Church in the evil days of Rufus. The first impression of a fit man selected for a high post generally is, “Who am I?” In Moses’s case, though there were some manifest grounds of fitness—e.g., his Egyptian training and learning, his familiarity with the court. his knowledge of both nations and both languages—yet, on the other hand, there were certain very marked (apparent) disqualifications. Forty years of exile, and of a shepherd’s life had at once unfitted him for dealing with a court, and made him a stranger to his brethren. Want of eloquence seemed to be a fatal defect in one who must work mainly by persuasion. Even his age (eighty) might well have seemed to him unsuitable.
And he said, Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.(12) Certainly I will be with thee.—Heb., since I will be with thee. An answer addressed not to the thing said, but to the thing meant. Moses meant to urge that he was unfit for the mission. God’s reply is, “Not unfit, since I will be with thee.” I will supply all thy defects, make good all thy shortcomings. “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?(13) What is his name?—In Egypt, and wherever polytheism prevailed, every god had, as a matter of course, a name. Among the Israelites hitherto God had been known only by titles, as El or Elohim, “the Lofty One; “Shaddai,” the Powerful; “Jahveh, or Jehovah, “the Existent.” These titles were used with some perception of their meaning; no one of them had as yet passed into a proper name. Moses, imagining that the people might have become so far Egyptianised as to be no longer content with this state of things, asks God by what name he shall speak of Him to them. Who shall he say has appeared to him?
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.(14) I AM THAT I AM.—It is generally assumed that this is given to Moses as the full name of God. But perhaps it is rather a deep and mysterious statement of His nature. “I am that which I am.” My nature, i.e., cannot be declared in words, cannot be conceived of by human thought. I exist in such sort that my whole inscrutable nature is implied in my existence. I exist, as nothing else does—necessarily, eternally, really. If I am to give myself a name expressive of my nature, so far as language can be, let me be called “I AM.”
Tell them I AM hath sent me unto you.—I AM, assumed as a name, implies (1) an existence different from all other existence. “I am, and there is none beside me” (Isaiah 45:6); (2) an existence out of time, with which time has nothing to do (John 8:58); (3), an existence that is real, all other being shadowy; (4) an independent and unconditioned existence, from which all other is derived, and on which it is dependent.
And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.(15) The Lord God of your fathers.—Heb., Jehovah, God of your fathers. The “I AM” of the preceding verse (‘ehyeh) is modified here into Jahveh, or Jehovah, by a substitution of the third person for the first. The meaning of the name remains the same.
This is my name for ever.—Jehovah is the pre. dominant name of God throughout the rest of the Old Testament. (On the meaning of the name see Note on Genesis 2:4.) Rendered by the LXX. κύριος, [“Lord”] the name appears under that form everywhere throughout the Authorised Version printed in capitals. It does not occur in the New Testament, since “Lord” takes its place. An equivalent of the name occurs, however, frequently in the Revelation of St. John, where God appears as “He which is, and which was, and which is to come” (Revelation 1:4; Revelation 1:8; Revelation 4:8; Revelation 11:17; Revelation 16:5). Necessary, self-sustained, independent, eternal existence, must always be of his essence.
My memorial—i.e., the designation by which I shall be remembered.
Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt:(16) The elders of Israel.—Not so much the old men generally, as the rulers—those who bore authority over the rest—men of considerable age, no doubt, for the most part. Rosenmüller reasonably concludes from this direction that the Hebrews, even during the oppression, enjoyed some kind of internal organisation and native government (Schol, in Exod. p. 58).
I have surely visited.—Heb., Visiting, I have visited. (Comp. Genesis 1:24.)
And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.(17) I have said.—See Exodus 3:8. Perhaps there is also a reference to the promise made to Abraham (Gen.XV. 14).
And they shall hearken to thy voice: and thou shalt come, thou and the elders of Israel, unto the king of Egypt, and ye shall say unto him, The LORD God of the Hebrews hath met with us: and now let us go, we beseech thee, three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.(18) They shall hearken.—The pronoun “they” refers to “the elders” of Exodus 3:16. For the fulfilment of the promise, see Exodus 4:29-31. The elders appear to have been persuaded easily, and at once.
Thou and the elders.—We are not told in Exodus 5 that the elders did present themselves before Pharaoh; but it is possible that they may have done so. Or Moses and Aaron, who spoke in their name, and by their authority, may have been regarded as sufficiently representing them.
The Lord God of the Hebrews hath met with us.—Heb., Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews. Pharaoh would readily comprehend this statement. He would quite understand that the Hebrews, being of a different race from the Egyptians, had a God of their own, and that this God would from time to time give intimations to them of His will. Such intimations were supposed to be given to the Egyptian kings occasionally by their gods.
Three days’ journey.—The necessity for withdrawing to so great a distance arose from that remarkable peculiarity in the Egyptian religion, the worship of animals. Cows, or at any rate, white cows, were sacred throughout the whole of Egypt, and to kill them was regarded as a crime of the deepest dye. Sheep were sacred to the inhabitants of one nome or canton, goats to those of another (Herod. ii. 42). Unless the Hebrews retired to a place where there were no Egyptians, they would be unable to perform their sacred rites without danger of disturbance, and even bloodshed. (See below, Exodus 8:26.)
The wilderness.—“The wilderness” to those who dwelt in Goshen was the broad sandy and rocky tract which intervened between Egypt and Palestine—the modern El-Tih—a desert reckoned at three days’ journey across (Herod. iii. 5). It is “a vast limestone plateau of irregular surface, projecting wedge-fashion into the peninsula of Sinai, just as Sinai itself projects into the Red Sea. It terminates in a long cliff or encampment, steep and abrupt on the south-western side, gradually falling away towards the south-east.”—(Our Work in Palestine, p. 275.)
That we may sacrifice.—It is idle to speculate whether, if Pharaoh had granted the request, the Israelites would have returned to Egypt after sacrificing. God knew that he would not grant it.
And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand.(19) I am sure.—Heb., I know, which is more suitable, since it is God who speaks, and to Him the future is known with as absolute a certainty as the past.
No, not by a mighty hand.—Rather, not even under a mighty hand (ne quidem valida manu castigatus, Rosenmüller). Pharaoh, even when chastised by My mighty hand, will not voluntarily permit of your departure (see Exodus 14:5-23).
And I will stretch out my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof: and after that he will let you go.(20) I will stretch out my hand.—Hands are stretched out to help and save. God promises here more than He had promised before (Exodus 3:12). He shows how He will “be with” Moses. He will lend him miraculous aid, performing in his behalf “all his wonders,” and with them “smiting the Egyptians.”
But every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.(22) Every woman shall borrow.—Rather, shall ask (αἰτήσει, LXX.; postulabit, Vulg.). That there was really no pretence of “borrowing,” appears from Exodus 12:33-36, where we find that the “jewels” were not asked for until the very moment of departure, when the Israelites were being “thrust forth,” and the people were urgent on them to be gone, certainly neither expecting nor wishing to see them again. Asking for presents is a common practice in the East, and persons who were quitting their homes to set out on a long journey through a strange country would have abundant excuse, if any had been needed, for soliciting aid from their rich neighbours.
Of her neighbour.—Egyptians were mingled with the Israelites in Goshen, as we see by Exodus 2:3.
Of her that sojourneth in her house.—Rosenmüller supposes that Egyptians who rented houses which belonged to the Hebrews are intended; but the expression used is more suitable to lodgers or visitors, (Comp. Job 19:15.)
Upon your sons.—The Egyptian men of the Rameside period wore gold and silver ornaments almost as freely as the women. Their ornaments included armlets, bracelets, anklets, and collars.
Ye shall spoil, i.e., It shall be as if ye had conquered the Egyptians, and spoiled them. Compare the promise made to Abraham (Genesis 15, 14); and for the fulfilment, see below (Exodus 12:35-36).