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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Exodus Chapter 3


exo 3:0

Call of Moses,and His Return to Egypt - Exodus 3 And 4

Call of Moses. - Whilst the children of Israel were groaning under the oppression of Egypt, God had already prepared the way for their deliverance, and had not only chosen Moses to be the saviour of His people, but had trained him for the execution of His designs.

Exodus 3:1

exo 3:1

When Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, he drove them on one occasion behind the desert, and came to the mountains of Horeb. רעה היה, lit. "he was feeding:" the participle expresses the continuance of the occupation. המּדבּר אחר does not mean ad interiora deserti (Jerome); but Moses drove the sheep from Jethro's home as far as Horeb, so that he passed through a desert with the flock before he reached the pasture land of Horeb. For "in this, the most elevated ground of the peninsula, you find the most fertile valleys, in which even fruit-trees grow. Water abounds in this district; consequently it is the resort of all the Bedouins when the lower countries are dried up" (Rosenmller). Jethro's home was separated from Horeb, therefore, by a desert, and is to be sought to the south-east, and not to the north-east. For it is only a south-easterly situation that will explain these two facts: First, that when Moses returned from Midian to Egypt, he touched again at Horeb, where Aaron, who had come from Egypt, met him (Exo 4:27); and, secondly, that the Israelites never came upon any Midianites on their journey through the desert, whilst the road of Hobab the Midianite separated from theirs as soon as they departed from Sinai (Num 10:30).

(Note: The hypothesis, that, after the calling of Moses, this branch of the Midianites left the district they had hitherto occupied, and sought out fresh pasture ground, probably on the eastern side of the Elanitic Gulf, is as needless as it is without support.)

Horeb is called the Mount of God by anticipation, with reference to the consecration which it subsequently received through the revelation of God upon its summit. The supposition that it had been a holy locality even before the calling of Moses, cannot be sustained. Moreover, the name is not restricted to one single mountain, but applies to the central group of mountains in the southern part of the peninsula (vid., Exo 19:1). Hence the spot where God appeared to Moses cannot be precisely determined, although tradition has very suitably given the name Wady Shoeib, i.e., Jethro's Valley, to the valley which bounds the Jebel Musa towards the east, and separates it from the Jebel ed Deir, because it is there that Moses is supposed to have fed the flock of Jethro. The monastery of Sinai, which is in this valley, is said to have been built upon the spot where the thorn-bush stood, according to the tradition in Antonini Placent. Itinerar. c. 37, and the annals of Eutychius (vid., Robinson, Palestine).

Exodus 3:2

exo 3:2

Here, at Horeb, God appeared to Moses as the Angel of the Lord "in a flame of fire out of the midst of the thorn-bush" (סנה, βάτος, rubus), which burned in the fire and was not consumed. אכּל, in combination with איננּוּ, must be a participle for מאכּל. When Moses turned aside from the road or spot where he was standing, "to look at this great sight" (מראה), i.e., the miraculous vision of the bush that was burning and yet not burned up, Jehovah called to him out of the midst of the thorn-bush, "Moses, Moses (the reduplication as in Gen 22:11), draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground" (אדמה). The symbolical meaning of this miraculous vision, - that is to say, the fact that it was a figurative representation of the nature and contents of the ensuing message from God, - has long been admitted. The thorn-bush in contrast with the more noble and lofty trees (Jdg 9:15) represented the people of Israel in their humiliation, as a people despised by the world. Fire and the flame of fire were not "symbols of the holiness of God;" for, as the Holy One, "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all" (Jo1 1:5), He "dwells in the light which no man can approach unto" (Ti1 6:16); and that not merely according to the New Testament, but according to the Old Testament view as well, as is evident from Isa 10:17, where "the Light of Israel" and "the Holy One of Israel" are synonymous. But "the Light of Israel became fire, and the Holy One a flame, and burned and consumed its thorns and thistles." Nor is "fire, from its very nature, the source of light," according to the scriptural view. On the contrary, light, the condition of all life, is also the source of fire. The sun enlightens, warms, and burns (Job 30:28; Sol. Sol 1:6); the rays of the sun produce warmth, heat, and fire; and light was created before the sun. Fire, therefore, regarded as burning and consuming, is a figurative representation of refining affliction and destroying punishment (Co1 3:11.), or a symbol of the chastening and punitive justice of the indignation and wrath of God. It is in fire that the Lord comes to judgment (Dan 7:9-10; Eze 1:13-14, Eze 1:27-28; Rev 1:14-15). Fire sets forth the fiery indignation which devours the adversaries (Heb 10:27). He who "judges and makes war in righteousness' has eyes as a flame of fire (Rev 19:11-12). Accordingly, the burning thorn-bush represented the people of Israel as they were burning in the fire of affliction, the iron furnace of Egypt (Deu 4:20). Yet, though the thorn-bush was burning in the fire, it was not consumed; for in the flame was Jehovah, who chastens His people, but does not give them over unto death (Psa 118:18). The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had come down to deliver His people out of the hand of the Egyptians (Exo 3:8). Although the affliction of Israel in Egypt proceeded from Pharaoh, yet was it also a fire which the Lord had kindled to purify His people and prepare it for its calling. In the flame of the burning bush the Lord manifested Himself as the "jealous God, who visits the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate Him, and showeth mercy unto thousands of them that love Him and keep His commandments" (Exo 20:5; Deu 5:9-10), who cannot tolerate the worship of another god (Exo 34:14), and whose anger burns against idolaters, to destroy them (Deu 6:15). The "jealous God" was a "consuming fire" in the midst of Israel (Deu 4:24). These passages show that the great sight which Moses saw not only had reference to the circumstances of Israel in Egypt, but was a prelude to the manifestation of God on Sinai for the establishment of the covenant (Exo 19 and 20), and also a representation of the relation in which Jehovah would stand to Israel through the establishment of the covenant made with the fathers. For this reason it occurred upon the spot where Jehovah intended to set up His covenant with Israel. But, as a jealous God, He also "takes vengeance upon His adversaries" (Nah 1:2.). Pharaoh, who would not let Israel go, He was about to smite with all His wonders (Exo 3:20), whilst He redeemed Israel with outstretched arm and great judgments (Exo 6:6). - The transition from the Angel of Jehovah (Exo 3:2) to Jehovah (Exo 3:4) proves the identity of the two; and the interchange of Jehovah and Elohim, in Exo 3:4, precludes the idea of Jehovah being merely a national God. The command of God to Moses to put off his shoes, may be accounted for from the custom in the East of wearing shoes or sandals merely as a protection from dirt. No Brahmin enters a pagoda, no Moslem a mosque, without first taking off at least his overshoes (Rosenm. Morgenl. i. 261; Robinson, Pal. ii. p. 373); and even in the Grecian temples the priests and priestesses performed the service barefooted (Justin, Apol. i. c. 62; Bhr, Symbol. ii. 96). when entering other holy places also, the Arabs and Samaritans, and even the Yezidis of Mesopotamia, take off their shoes, that the places may not be defiled by the dirt or dust upon them (vid., Robinson, Pal. iii. 100, and Layard's Nineveh and its Remains). The place of the burning bush was holy because of the presence of the holy God, and putting off the shoes was intended to express not merely respect for the place itself, but that reverence which the inward man (Eph 3:16) owes to the holy God.

Exodus 3:6

exo 3:6

Jehovah then made Himself known to Moses as the God of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, reminding him through that name of the promises made to the patriarchs, which He was about to fulfil to their seed, the children of Israel. In the expression, "thy father," the three patriarchs are classed together as one, just as in Exo 18:4 ("my father"), "because each of them stood out singly in distinction from the nation, as having received the promise of seed directly from God" (Baumgarten). "And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God." The sight of the holy God no sinful man can bear (cf. Kg1 19:12).

Exodus 3:7

exo 3:7

Jehovah had seen the affliction of His people, had heard their cry under their taskmasters, and had come down (ירד, vid., Gen 11:5) to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up to a good and broad land, to the place of the Canaanites; and He was about to send Moses to Pharaoh to bring them forth. The land to which the Israelites were to be taken up is called a "good" land, on account of its great fertility (Deu 8:7.), and a "broad" land, in contrast with the confinement and oppression of the Israelites in Egypt. The epithet "good" is then explained by the expression, "a land flowing with milk and honey" (זבת, a participle of זוּב in the construct state; vid., Ges. 135); a proverbial description of the extraordinary fertility and loveliness of the land of Canaan (cf. Exo 3:17; Exo 13:5; Exo 16:14, etc.). Milk and honey are the simplest and choicest productions of a land abounding in grass and flowers, and were found in Palestine in great abundance even when it was in a desolate condition (Isa 7:15, Isa 7:22; see my Comm. on Jos 5:6). The epithet broad is explained by an enumeration of the six tribes inhabiting the country at that time (cf. Gen 10:15. and Gen 15:20, Gen 15:21).

Exodus 3:11

exo 3:11

To the divine commission Moses made this reply: "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?" Some time before he had offered himself of his own accord as a deliverer and judge; but now he had learned humility in the school of Midian, and was filled in consequence with distrust of his own power and fitness. The son of Pharaoh's daughter had become a shepherd, and felt himself too weak to go to Pharaoh. But God met this distrust by the promise, "I will be with thee," which He confirmed by a sign, namely, that when Israel was brought out of Egypt, they should serve (עבד, i.e., worship) God upon that mountain. This sign, which was to be a pledge to Moses of the success of his mission, was one indeed that required faith itself; but, at the same time, it was a sign adapted to inspire both courage and confidence. God pointed out to him the success of his mission, the certain result of his leading the people out: Israel should serve Him upon the very same mountain in which He had appeared to Moses. As surely as Jehovah had appeared to Moses as the God of his fathers, so surely should Israel serve Him there. The reality of the appearance of God formed the pledge of His announcement, that Israel would there serve its God; and this truth was to till Moses with confidence in the execution of the divine command. The expression "serve God" (λατρεύειν τῷ Θεῷ, lxx) means something more than the immolare of the Vulgate, or the "sacrifice" of Luther; for even though sacrifice formed a leading element, or the most important part of the worship of the Israelites, the patriarchs before this had served Jehovah by calling upon His name as well as offering sacrifice. And the service of Israel at Mount Horeb consisted in their entering into covenant with Jehovah (Exo 24); not only in their receiving the law as the covenant nation, but their manifesting obedience by presenting free-will offerings for the building of the tabernacle (Exo 36:1-7; Num 7:1).

(Note: Kurtz follows the Lutheran rendering "sacrifice," and understands by it the first national sacrifice; and then, from the significance of the first, which included potentially all the rest, supposes the covenant sacrifice to be intended. But not only is the original text disregarded here, the fact is also overlooked, that Luther himself has translated עבד correctly, to "serve," in every other place. And it is not sufficient to say, that by the direction of God (Exo 3:18) Moses first of all asked Pharaoh for permission merely to go a three days' journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to their God (Exo 5:1-3), in consequence of which Pharaoh afterwards offered to allow them to sacrifice (Exo 8:3) within the land, and at a still later period outside (Exo 8:21.). For the fact that Pharaoh merely spoke of sacrificing may be explained on the ground that at first nothing more was asked. But this first demand arose from the desire on the part of God to make known His purposes concerning Israel only step by step, that it might be all the easier for the hard heart of the king to grant what was required. But even if Pharaoh understood nothing more by the expression "serve God" than the offering of sacrifice, this would not justify us in restricting the words which Jehovah addressed to Moses, "When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain," to the first national offering, or to the covenant sacrifice.)

Exodus 3:13

exo 3:13

When Moses had been thus emboldened by the assurance of divine assistance to undertake the mission, he inquired what he was to say, in case the people asked him for the name of the God of their fathers. The supposition that the people might ask the name of their fathers' God is not to be attributed to the fact, that as the Egyptians had separate names for their numerous deities, the Israelites also would want to know the name of their own God. For, apart from the circumstance that the name by which God had revealed Himself to the fathers cannot have vanished entirely from the memory of the people, and more especially of Moses, the mere knowledge of the name would not have been of much use to them. The question, "What is His name?" presupposed that the name expressed the nature and operations of God, and that God would manifest in deeds the nature expressed in His name. God therefore told him His name, or, to speak more correctly, He explained the name יהוה, by which He had made Himself known to Abraham at the making of the covenant (Gen 15:7), in this way, אהיה אשׁר אהיה, "I am that I am," and designated Himself by this name as the absolute God of the fathers, acting with unfettered liberty and self-dependence. This name precluded any comparison between the God of the Israelites and the deities of the Egyptians and other nations, and furnished Moses and his people with strong consolation in their affliction, and a powerful support to their confidence in the realization of His purposes of salvation as made known to the fathers. To establish them in this confidence, God added still further: "This is My name for ever, and My memorial unto all generations;" that is to say, God would even manifest Himself in the nature expressed by the name Jehovah, and by this He would have all generations both know and revere Him. שׁם, the name, expresses the objective manifestation of the divine nature; זבר, memorial, the subjective recognition of that nature on the part of men. דּר דּר, as in Exo 17:16 and Pro 27:24. The repetition of the same word suggests the idea of uninterrupted continuance and boundless duration (Ewald, 313a). The more usual expression is ודר ידר, Deu 32:7; Psa 10:6; Psa 33:11; or דּרים דּר, Psa 72:5; Psa 102:25; Isa 51:8.

Exodus 3:16

exo 3:16

With the command, "Go and gather the elders of Israel together," God then gave Moses further instructions with reference to the execution of his mission. On his arrival in Egypt he was first of all to inform the elders, as the representatives of the nation (i.e., the heads of the families, households, and tribes), of the appearance of God to him, and the revelation of His design, to deliver His people out of Egypt and bring them to the land of the Canaanites. He was then to go with them to Pharaoh, and make known to him their resolution, in consequence of this appearance of God, to go a three days' journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to their God. The words, "I have surely visited," point to the fulfilment of the last words of the dying Joseph (Gen 50:24). עלינוּ נקרה (Exo 3:18) does not mean "He is named upon us" (lxx, Onk., Jon.), nor "He has called us" (Vulg., Luth.). The latter is grammatically wrong, for the verb is Niphal, or passive; and though the former has some support in the parallel passage in Exo 5:3, inasmuch as נקרא is the verb used there, it is only in appearance, for if the meaning really were "His name is named upon (over) us," the word שׁמו (שׁם) would not be omitted (vid., Deu 28:10; Ch2 7:14). The real meaning is, "He has met with us," from נקרה, obruam fieri, ordinarily construed with אל, but here with על, because God comes down from above to meet with man. The plural us is used, although it was only to Moses that God appeared, because His appearing had reference to the whole nation, which was represented before Pharaoh by Moses and the elders. In the words נלכה־נא, "we will go, then," equivalent to "let us go," the request for Pharaoh's permission to go out is couched in such a form as to answer to the relation of Israel to Pharaoh. He had no right to detain them, but he had a right to consent to their departure, as his predecessor had formerly done to their settlement. Still less had he any good reason for refusing their request to go a three days' journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to their God, since their return at the close of the festival was then taken for granted. But the purpose of God was, that Israel should not return. Was it the case, then, that the delegates were "to deceive the king," as Knobel affirms! By no means. God knew the hard heart of Pharaoh, and therefore directed that no more should be asked at first than he must either grant, or display the hardness of his heart. Had he consented, God would then have made known to him His whole design, and demanded that His people should be allowed to depart altogether. But when Pharaoh scornfully refused the first and smaller request (Exo 5), Moses was instructed to demand the entire departure of Israel from the land (Exo 6:10), and to show the omnipotence of the God of the Hebrews before and upon Pharaoh by miracles and heavy judgments (Heb 7:8.). Accordingly, Moses persisted in demanding permission for the people to go and serve their God (Exo 7:16; Exo 8:1; Exo 9:1, Exo 9:13; Exo 10:3); and it was not till Pharaoh offered to allow them to sacrifice in the land that Moses replied, "We will go three days' journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice to Jehovah our God" (Exo 8:27); but, observe, with this proviso, "as He shall command us," which left, under the circumstances, no hope that they would return. It was an act of mercy to Pharaoh, therefore, on the one hand, that the entire departure of the Israelites was not demanded at the very first audience of Moses and the representatives of the nation; for, had this been demanded, it would have been far more difficult for him to bend his heart in obedience to the divine will, than when the request presented was as trifling as it was reasonable. And if he had rendered obedience to the will of God in the smaller, God would have given him strength to be faithful in the greater. On the other hand, as God foresaw his resistance (Exo 3:19), this condescension, which demanded no more than the natural man could have performed, was also to answer the purpose of clearly displaying the justice of God. It was to prove alike to Egyptians and Israelites that Pharaoh was "without excuse," and that his eventual destruction was the well-merited punishment of his obduracy.

(Note: "This moderate request was made only at the period of the earlier plagues. It served to put Pharaoh to the proof. God did not come forth with His whole plan and desire at first, that his obduracy might appear so much the more glaring, and find no excuse in the greatness of the requirement. Had Pharaoh granted this request, Israel would not have gone beyond it; but had not God foreseen, what He repeatedly says (compare, for instance, Exo 3:18), that he would not comply with it, He would not thus have presented it; He would from the beginning have revealed His whole design. Thus Augustine remarks (Quaest. 13 in Ex.)." Hengstenberg, Diss. on the Pentateuch. vol. ii. p. 427, Ryland's translation. Clark, 1847.)

חזקה ביד ולא, "not even by means of a strong hand;" "except through great power" is not the true rendering, ולא does not mean ἐὰν μὴ, nisi. What follows, - viz., the statement that God would so smite the Egyptians with miracles that Pharaoh would, after all, let Israel go (Exo 3:20), - is not really at variance with this, the only admissible rendering of the words. For the meaning is, that Pharaoh would not be willing to let Israel depart even when he should be smitten by the strong hand of God; but that he would be compelled to do so against his will, would be forced to do so by the plagues that were about to fall upon Egypt. Thus even after the ninth plague it is still stated (Exo 10:27), that "Pharaoh would (אבה) not let them go;" and when he had given permission, in consequence of the last plague, and in fact had driven them out (Exo 12:31), he speedily repented, and pursued them with his army to bring them back again (Exo 14:5.); from which it is clearly to be seen that the strong hand of God had not broken his will, and yet Israel was brought out by the same strong hand of Jehovah.

Exodus 3:21

exo 3:21

Not only would God compel Pharaoh to let Israel go; He would not let His people go out empty, but, according to the promise in Gen 15:14, with great substance. "I will give this people favour in the eyes of the Egyptians;" that is to say, the Egyptians should be so favourably disposed towards them, that when they solicited of their neighbours clothes and ornaments of gold and silver, their request should be granted. "So shall ye spoil the Egyptians." What is here foretold as a promise, the Israelites are directed to do in Exo 11:2-3; and according to Exo 12:35-36, it was really carried out. Immediately before their departure from Egypt, the Israelites asked (ישׁאלוּ) the Egyptians for gold and silver ornaments (כּלים not vessels, either for sacrifice, the house, or the table, but jewels; cf. Gen 24:53; Exo 35:22; Num 31:50) and clothes; and God gave them favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, so that they gave them to them. For אשּׁה שׁאלה, "Let every woman ask of her (female) neighbour and of her that sojourneth in her house" (בּיתהּ גּרת, from which it is evident that the Israelites did not live apart, but along with the Egyptians), we find in Exo 11:2, "Let every man ask of his neighbour, and every woman of her (female) neighbour." - ושׂמתּם, "and put them upon your sons and daughters." על שׂוּם, to put on, applied to clothes and ornaments in Lev 8:8 and Gen 41:42. This command and its execution have frequently given occasion to the opponents of the Scriptures to throw contempt upon the word of God, the asking being regarded as borrowing, and the spoiling of the Egyptians as purloining. At the same time, the attempts made to vindicate this purloining from the wickedness of stealing have been in many respects unsatisfactory.

(Note: For the different views as to the supposed borrowing of the gold and silver vessels, see Hengstenberg, Dissertations on the Pentateuch, vol. ii. pp. 419ff., and Kurtz, History of the Old Covenant, vol. ii. 319ff.)

But the only meaning of שׁאל is to ask or beg,

(Note: Even in Kg2 5:6; see my commentary on the passage.)

and השׁאיל, which is only met with in Exo 12:36 and Sa1 1:28, does not mean to lend, but to suffer to ask, to hear and grant a request. ישׁאלוּם (Exo 12:36), lit., they allowed them to ask; i.e., "the Egyptians did not turn away the petitioners, as not wanting to listen to them, but received their petition with good-will, and granted their request. No proof can be brought that השׁאיל means to lend, as is commonly supposed; the word occurs again in Sa1 1:28, and there it means to grant or give" (Knobel on Exo 12:36). Moreover the circumstances under which the שׁאל and השׁאיל took place, were quite at variance with the idea of borrowing and lending. For even if Moses had not spoken without reserve of the entire departure of the Israelites, the plagues which followed one after another, and with which the God of the Hebrews gave emphasis to His demand as addressed through Moses to Pharaoh, "Let My people go, that they may serve Me," must have made it evident to every Egyptian, that all this had reference to something greater than a three days' march to celebrate a festival. And under these circumstances no Egyptian could have cherished the thought, that the Israelites were only borrowing the jewels they asked of them, and would return them after the festival. What they gave under such circumstances, they could only give or present without the slightest prospect of restoration. Still less could the Israelites have had merely the thought of borrowing in their mind, seeing that God had said to Moses, "I will give the Israelites favour in the eyes of the Egyptians; and it will come to pass, that when ye go out, ye shall not go out empty" (Exo 3:21). If, therefore, it is "natural to suppose that these jewels were festal vessels with which the Egyptians furnished the poor Israelites for the intended feast," and even if "the Israelites had their thoughts directed with all seriousness to the feast which they were about to celebrate to Jehovah in the desert" (Baumgarten); their request to the Egyptians cannot have referred to any borrowing, nor have presupposed any intention to restore what they received on their return. From the very first the Israelites asked without intending to restore, and the Egyptians granted their request without any hope of receiving back, because God had made their hearts favourably disposed to the Israelites. The expressions את־מצרים נצּלתּם in Exo 3:22, and וינצּלוּ in Exo 12:36, are not at variance with this, but rather require it. For נצל does not mean to purloin, to steal, to take away secretly by cunning and fraud, but to plunder (Ch2 20:25), as both the lxx (σκυλεύειν) and Vulgate (spoliare) have rendered it. Rosenmller, therefore, is correct in his explanation: "Et spoliabitis Aegyptios, ita ut ab Aegyptiis, qui vos tam dura servitute oppresserunt, spolia auferetis." So also is Hengstenberg, who says, "The author represents the Israelites as going forth, laden as it were with the spoils of their formidable enemy, trophies of the victory which God's power had bestowed on their weakness. While he represents the gifts of the Egyptians as spoils which God had distributed to His host (as Israel is called in Exo 12:41), he leads us to observe that the bestowment of these gifts, which outwardly appeared to be the effect of the good-will of the Egyptians, if viewed more deeply, proceeded from another Giver; that the outwardly free act of the Egyptians was effected by an inward divine constraint which they could not withstand" (Dissertations, vol. ii. p. 431). - Egypt had spoiled Israel by the tributary labour so unjustly enforced, and now Israel carried off the spoil of Egypt-a prelude to the victory which the people of God will one day obtain in their conflict with the power of the world (cf. Zac 14:14).

Next: Exodus Chapter 4