“Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:10-12 ESV).
This was the call of Moses by God to lead the Israelite nation out of their captivity in Egypt. So demanding and at times so frustrating would this task become, that there may have been moments later in the life of Moses when he wished he had never turned aside from his intended path to see a bush that was burning but not being consumed. Perhaps if he had known all that lie ahead of him he would have hesitated in obeying God even more than he did at the time.
Indeed, when God told him of his plan for Moses to stand before Pharaoh and to go to the Children of Israel to tell them that God had appointed him to bring them out of Egypt, Moses began to argue with God. It was a daunting task. Moses had tried it once before – forty years previous to that time.
Concerning that time forty years earlier, the first martyr Stephen would say of Moses, “He supposed that his brothers understood that God was giving them deliverance by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25). Moses probably felt that if the Israelites did not accept him forty years ago, they certainly would not accept him now.
If Moses were to return to Egypt, many people in that place would remember that he had murdered an Egyptian. This had happened one day when Moses still lived in the Pharaoh’s residence. That particular day, Moses had gone out to see his people, the Israelites, who were also known as the Hebrews. When he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, Moses quickly looked around to see if there was anyone watching. When he saw no one, he struck the Egyptian down. Moses then took the body of the dead Egyptian and hid it in the sand in an attempt to cover up the evidence.
Despite his attempt to conceal what he had done, the story nevertheless became widely known. Moses may have been acting out of defense for one of his own people, but before the Pharaoh, that would have little to do with his guilt in the incident (Exodus 2:11-14). Moses fled for his life. That is how he came to be in the land of Midian, some two hundred miles from Egypt.
Having already the damning reputation of a murderer of one of the Pharaoh’s men, for Moses to then stand before Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh release all of his slave labor as God had told him to do, he would be sure to face the wrath of the most powerful man on the earth.
But besides being wanted for murder in Egypt, Moses was full of doubt as to whether his own people would even accept him as their leader. It was only the day after he had defended his own people by killing the Egyptian when Moses saw two Hebrews, two of his own people, fighting with one another. Moses tried to stop the fight and said to one of the men, “Why are you striking your companion?”
“Who made you a prince of a judge over us?” the man responded. “Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
This question by the Hebrew man was actually the comment that caused Moses to flee Egypt. Because of what the man said, Moses knew that his deed of killing the Egyptian had become widely known and soon would reach the ears of the Pharaoh.
In the End, Moses Obeyed
All of these things must have come to the mind of Moses when God told him of his plans for Moses to return to Egypt. Now, forty years later, as the old man stood looking at the burning bush, the rejection by his own people that he felt those many years ago still troubled him. He was not at all sure that he was up to the task that God was giving him. It is no wonder to me that he balked a bit at this information.
Nevertheless, say what we might about his hesitancy in listening to God, in the end Moses obeyed. It is easy for us to be critical of his reluctance, but it was not a simple decision. Moses was well settled in his life in Midian. He had a family, and even his wife did not completely understand his actions. In the years to come, he no doubt would sometimes need assurance that this change of careers had been the right one.
The Sign Given
God tried to reassure Moses that he would help him in this task. “Certainly, I will be with you,” God told him. Then God gave Moses a sign of God’s presence with him: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God at this mountain” (Exodus 3:12).
That which God was calling Moses to do was indeed a tremendous task. A sign given for assurance for this call of God would have been very welcome. In the place of Moses, I, too, would have liked a sign to demonstrate the Lord’s presence.
However, this particular sign seems a very strange one indeed. I think what I would have expected the sign of the Lord’s leading to be something given to me before I began the undertaking, before I had to stand before Pharaoh, and before I approached the Israelites to try and convince them that I was sent to deliver them from their bondage.
The Timing of Signs
That is how we often pray. That is, after all, how Gideon prayed. When this man asked God for a sign, he put out the fleece of wool to first collect the dew and then to not collect the dew. He asked God to give him these signs before he would act on what God wanted him to do. This also is how we usually think of a sign from God. It is something given before we begin the undertaking, not something that would happen afterwards. Likewise, it seems that Moses would need assurance to begin the task, not a confirmation that would come well after he had already put his life in great jeopardy.
Nevertheless, the sign that God gave him would be demonstrated to Moses after he had come before his people and after Moses had faced the might of Pharaoh and his court magicians several times. It would be after the death that was brought to the firstborn son of Pharaoh. It would be after the armies of the Pharaoh came out in full force in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites. It would be after they stood at the banks of the Red Sea with those troops swarming down upon them. It would be after the people had already cried out against Moses, to blame him for what they thought was their imminent death.
It is true that God also gave Moses other signs when he called him while still at the burning bush. God told Moses his eternal Name, “I AM.” God had Moses throw his staff on the ground where it changed into a serpent. When he picked it up again, it turned back into a staff. Moses placed his hand into his cloak and when he pulled it back out it was full of leprosy. He repeated the action and his hand regained its health. These were all demonstrations of the power of God. These signs would certainly be beneficial for Moses in giving him the confidence to begin the task.
However, even these signs had as their main objective a demonstration to the Hebrew people that God had indeed appeared to Moses and had sent him to them. They were indications that were to be given to the Israelites that God was with Moses. But in Moses’ case, he himself needed to be convinced of his call well before he would bring these signs to the Israelites.
The sign that was meant to be a benefit particularly to Moses was that, after he had brought the sons of Israel out of Egypt, Moses would return to that same mountain where God was presently speaking with him. He would return there to worship and to serve God.
The Greatest Test
I do not know if Moses wondered about this. Certainly, the challenging task that he saw at the time of his calling was the act of leading the Israelites out of Egypt. From the perspective of Moses, this was the great work of the entire exodus. There were many obstacles to overcome in escaping the tyrannical rule of the Pharaoh and making the exodus out of the country. Once out of Egypt, it must have seemed to Moses that the task would then become less demanding.
Today however, given the advantage of the complete history of the movement of this nation back to their native land, it is easier for us to see why God gave Moses the sign that was to take place after the removal from Egypt. From the historical text that we have concerning not only the exodus out of Egypt, but the entire journey all the way to the Promised Land, we know that the difficulties did not decrease after they left Egypt; they only changed in nature.
In the end, one could say that Moses’ greatest test was not going to his people to tell them he had been appointed by God to lead them out of the country of Egypt. His greatest test was not in standing before the Pharaoh. Nor was it even standing on the banks of the Red Sea looking for the deliverance of God. The greatest demand upon Moses was not the exercise of his faith to see the parting of the great waters of the sea so that the Hebrew nation could cross on dry land.
Moses’ greatest test, it seems to me, was in the years he spent in the wilderness. His greatest test was in leading a people that did not want to be led and listening to their endless complaining and grumbling for forty years. It was in having to endure endless groanings about the lack of good food and water. It was seeing the people forget that they had been slaves in Egypt and not appreciating the fact that Moses was leading them to freedom and to their own land.
Of the two types of tests, it seems to me that the demands of the second are in some ways greater. The demands upon Moses as he stood before Pharaoh were great indeed, but the anxiety came to a climax and then ended. With each of the plagues, there was great testing and anxiety, but after each, a great relief. When Moses and the Hebrew nation stood at the banks of the Red Sea with the mighty Egyptian army bearing down upon them, there was very great anxiety and even agony. But the sea parted and they crossed. After the great agony, there was great rejoicing, as we read in what is called “The Song of Moses” in Exodus 15. After the excruciating trial, the people were able to refresh themselves with an equally great relief and respite.
However, the tests of life in the wilderness were of a different nature. These were not tests that caused great initial anxiety but then came to a head and were over. It is true that in some small way, these tests also may have been because of an urgent necessity that came and went, such as when there was a great need for water. However, most of the testing came in the simple day-to-day living in the wilderness. The level of stress concerning the daily tests may have risen or fallen slightly, but they never climaxed and then came to an end. It was not like crossing the Red Sea where, once they were across the waters, the event was over. In the wanderings of the wilderness, the stress and anxiety continued, day after day and mile after mile.
Two Types of Testings
We do well to remember these two types of testing. I have often looked at beginning a new task given to me as being of the greatest importance. I have thought that it was in the initial stages where the greatest effort would be required. Indeed, in the initial stages of a work there are often obstacles of great difficulty that one must overcome. The great complexity and stress of leaving one life and beginning another can test the greatest of one’s resolve.
I have never had to move an entire nation, as did Moses, but the task of uprooting my family and myself from our own home and our own country to move to a new land has been testing enough for me. At times, as I looked at our small mountain of luggage and thought of the many airports we would have to pass through before reaching our destination, even the thought of the trip itself was daunting. Or, I remember the time when we drove the entire length of Mexico over the rough roads in an overloaded truck and with questionable tires and a failing head gasket. At these times, I have asked the Lord to confirm his word to me. I, too, felt unsure and I looked for a sign of some kind from the Lord.
The initial stages of something new always will have their challenges. It is standing before the Pharaoh. It is the wondering if the people will accept you as leader to bring them out of bondage. Or, it is the waiting to see if the Red Sea will indeed part to let you and your people past.
These are crises of an intense nature, but as quickly as they begin, they are over. We tremble in our boots before a powerful individual, but the moment passes. We escape great danger by passing through the sea, but then are safe on the other side. There is no denying these stressful anxieties. But once over, their absence brings relief and rejoicing.
The deeper test comes from another sort. These are the trials that continue over a long period of time. They are the situations of a new environment. They are the estrangement from your own home and family. They are the challenges of the diverse personalities of people with whom one must deal. They are living conditions that are a constant source of stress and anxiety.
For Moses it was wandering almost aimlessly in the desert day after day. Although he may at first have looked forward to the day when he would finally enter into the Promised Land, from very early in the wilderness wanderings he had been told by the Lord that, in the end, Moses would not be allowed to enter.
The Failure of the People
In Numbers chapter 14 we read that Moses had sent twelve men, one man from each of the twelve tribes, to spy out the land to which they were to travel. Ten of the spies returned to the people with a very discouraging report.
“The land is bountiful,” they said. They had even brought back a single cluster of grapes that was so large it had to be carried on a pole between two men. However, they also said that the land was inhabited by a people so large in stature that the Hebrew nation would surely be killed if they attempted to enter.
Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, had more encouraging words. “Do not rebel against the Lord,” they told their brethren, “and do not fear the people of the land, for they will be our prey. Their protection has been removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them” (Numbers 14:9 NAS).
Sadly however, the people did rebel, and the Lord swore that none of the nation of the Hebrews, save the two spies who tried to encourage the people, would enter the land. “Your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years...according to the number of days which you spied out the land, forty days,” God told the people. “For every day you shall bear your guilt a year, even forty years” (Numbers 14:33-34).
Why the Sign was Needed
Therefore, Moses continued to wander along with these rebellious people as the years counted on. His task may have seemed thankless. The nation of Israel would indeed one day enter the Promised Land - of that he was certain. It would not be the adults who had left the land of Egypt, but the children who had been born in the wilderness and who were now running and playing among the tents.
Nevertheless, was he himself destined only to wander and never have the pleasure of placing his feet on the banks of the Jordan inside the land that was promised to his people by God? According to the word of God, he knew that this would be his fate.
Knowing that this was to be the destiny of his own personal wanderings may have been difficult enough for Moses, but also had to endure the equally endless grumbling and complaining of those who had been put under his charge. Words like these are a pebble in one’s shoe. One can bear it, but it takes the joy out of every step and in the end, it will cut and wound.
The greatest test, and thus the need for the clearest sign, was the day-by-day task given to Moses in the wilderness. It was not the test of leaving Egypt, as great as that was. That test came and then was over. But this test in the wilderness continued day after day. And now, Moses knew that it would continue for forty years, even until the end of his life. How was he to bear this?
Moses Receives the Sign
After leaving Egypt, Moses reached the mountain that he had known in his shepherding days. It was the same mountain where God had promised Moses he would return to serve and to worship God. It was the mountain of the great sign. I think that Moses, by this time, was in need of not only a great sign, but also a great encouragement. He would need encouragement continually in the days and years of wandering in the wilderness. This is what God told him:
“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel:
‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself.
‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine;
and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:3-6 NAS).
As we look at the totality of the life of Moses, it would be these words that were among those that brought him the greatest encouragement. Despite all the thankless hardships that he would have to endure, it all would be worth it.
The long awaited sign for Moses that God would be with him was not a staff that changed into a snake, or a river that turned into blood. His sign was a reminiscence of the faithfulness of God in the past, plus a vision for the future. God reminded Moses how he had led in past days and how he intended to fulfill his future promises.
Is not this, after all, what our service to God really entails? It is seeing how God has been faithful in every circumstance in the past, and placing faith in the vision that he has for the future. Our purpose in service is not to fulfill or to gratify ourselves, but to accomplish God’s plan. To this end, God’s sign for Moses had been completed. Moses would serve and worship God on the mountain.
The Strength of the Sign
I believe many times in those forty years of wandering, Moses thought back to those days that he had spent in the presence of the Lord on the mountain. The initial tests of leaving Egypt were long over. They were nothing but a memory. Now, looking back, it was easy to see the presence of the Lord in those times.
When Moses really needed assurance of the Lord’s presence was in the days, weeks, months and years after those monumental events. Moses particularly needed this assurance in the many days after many previous days of wandering when he awoke from his sleep in the morning and thought about the day ahead. It would be like the day before and the day after – a day of wandering and a day of listening to the complaints of the people.
It was at these times when Moses would remember the words of the Lord: “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God at this mountain… I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself.” (Exodus 3:12; 19:4 ESV).