Standing on Holy Ground


Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your 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 at God.

Then the Lord said, “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, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send 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?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”  But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. Exodus 3:1-15.

I found this reading in the Daily Office for today.  The passage begins with Moses engaged in an everyday sort of task.  He’s tending to his father-in-law’s flock; he’s working.  Moses has not set out on a spiritual journey, he hasn’t gone into the desert to retreat and encounter the Infinite.  Like most of us, God confronts Moses when he’s busy trying to do something else.

We should also note that Moses is pretty much homeless when this remarkable event happens.  Although an Israelite child, he was adopted by the Egyptians and lived among them until he killed an Egyptian overseer.  He runs away from the wrath of Pharoah into the land of Midian.  And as we know from the balance of the story, Moses will spend the bulk of his life wandering.  (It’s a bit ironic that he ends up finding a homeland for his people, but not for himself.)  In fact, Moses offers a revealing glimpse into himself when he says, “I have been an alien living in a foreign land.”  Gen. 2:22.  I think lots of folks feel that way, constantly looking for a home.

As Moses encounters this burning bush, YHWH tells him to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.  The removal of one’s sandals not only signifies that one has arrived at a sacred space, but also (within many cultures) suggests that one has entered a home.  Therefore Moses, the wanderer, finds his home with the Lord.

Two questions from this passage echo into each of our lives, and will shape the course of our faith.  The first is the question Moses asks of the Lord:  “Who am I?”  Moses wants to know his own authority to preach truth to power, and it’s a question most of us have faced at one time or another.  Who am I to be God’s voice in this troubled world?  Who am I to speak out against something that’s wrong?

We should find the second question equally troubling, and equally determinative for us.  Moses asks the Lord (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of our ancestors), “Who are you?”  Moses wants to know exactly what he’s going to tell people about who he met in the burning bush.  He wants to understand the Almighty; he wants to know God’s name.

The answer Moses heard, “I AM WHO I AM,” probably didn’t leave him completely satisfied.  The name “I AM” obviously conjures up so many of Jesus’ “I am” statements (the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, etc).  In this case, however, we might find particular encouragement in Jesus’ assurance:  “I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Matt. 28:20.

Many of us still hear the reverberations of these two questions, “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” As we begin to answer them, I think we may find the story of Moses even more rich.  Once Moses begins to understand the answers (a rudimentary and incomplete understanding) God immediately sends him on a mission.  In Moses’ case, the mission involves confronting Pharoah and leading the people into Israel as God saves His people.  In our case, that mission may be completely different.  But only through that journey, which will last for the rest of his life, will Moses come to more fully understand who God is and who Moses is.

The journey leads him to a deeper understanding of YHWH, which leads him to a deeper understanding of himself, which leads him further along the journey.  I believe that’s part of the reason why the Exodus became the overarching narrative of the Jewish people, and why it remains so important today.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

13 responses to “Standing on Holy Ground

  1. “Like most of us, God confronts Moses when he’s busy trying to do something else.” So true!

  2. barbaraduffield

    Striking to me that God didn’t wait for Moses’ understanding to be complete before he was sent out on a mission. And not just a “gofer” type mission – this was serious and important work as he led his people to Israel. When I am fearful of not being enough for the ministry placed before me, I would do well to hold onto this message.

    • Dear Barbara,

      Thank heavens he doesn’t wait for our complete understanding. It’s an interesting thing: the more deeply he understands his mission, the more deeply he understands himself, and the more deeply he understands himself. And getting the answers to the questions (“Who am I” and “Who are you”) becomes his life’s work.

      God’s great peace,

      Br. James

  3. I look at “home” here metaphorically — it is not a place so much as a way of being in the world. Similarly, with your title “Standing on Holy Ground,” my vision was that of standing my ground or taking a stance in life that is grounded in the God of my understanding. It is here where I find my home.

  4. I love this part of the Old Testament. God’s answer, “I Am Who I Am” has been a lifelong quest for me, I find endless meaning and depth in these words and all invoked by their message. Thank you for this special post!

    • Linda,

      The great I Am formed a good deal of the thinking of one of my favorite theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas. I love this passage, too. It is endless.

      God watch over thee and me,

      Br. James

  5. apocalypseicons

    I am very fond of Moses and Moses’ humility.

  6. I like how you underscored the two questions: “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” The answers come in the living out of our stories, much more than in a single discursive revelation.


    • apocalypseicons

      Do you know Ron you have pinpointed the essential part of Br. James’ discourse. I think those two questions will be posted on my front door, so every time I leave my house they are uppermost in my mind

    • Ron,

      I think that’s exactly so. We live out our answers to those two questions, hopefully in a heroic fashion.

      God’s peace, amigo,

      Br. James

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