“I am a God at hand, says the Lord, and not a God afar off.”(Jeremiah 23:23)
I loved watching the movie Prince of Egypt with my kids. The scene of Moses at the burning bush is my favorite. The desert scrub bush is transfigured, ablaze with fiery glory. Moses initially seems terrified by God’s awesome presence but also amazed by how wonderful it is. I appreciate the gentleness with which God speaks to Moses; when Moses appears afraid, God gently and lovingly seeks to quiet his restless heart. This encounter from Exodus 3 conveys the kind of person God is.
Moses is afraid to look too closely at the burning bush—he senses that he is encountering something awe-inspiring, and it gives him more than a moment of pause. Moses stands in awe of God’s presence, loving the startling yet beautiful light. Such an experience can be a frightening mirror that reflects our imperfections. Does God love me? Does He care? Is he attuned to my heart’s cries? After getting Moses’ attention at the burning bush, God tells him that He is motivated by our hardship and suffering (Exodus 3:7–9). When God hears the cries of His people, His heart is triggered to rescue and redeem.
When Moses asks to know God’s name, he receives a mysterious answer: “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14, ESV). Is God making a joke or using circular reasoning? There seems to be no sense in His answer. Is He making a profound theological statement about His inscrutability, or is He referring to His eternality? What if the name God speaks to Moses represents more than divine existence? What if God is telling Moses something about His character and His relationship with us?
Hebrew Scholar Umberto Cassuto translates God’s mysterious answer beautifully: “It is I who am with my creatures in their hour of trouble and need … to help them and save them” (Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 1997, p. 38). Rabbi Jacob Edmonds confirms that this name emphasizes God’s presence, not His eternality. Thus, “God is He who is with someone” (Theology of the Old Testament, 1958. p. 52).
This name is the most important revelation of the burning bush. It reveals God’s character as an all-merciful and engaging God. It conveys relationship. God shows up to rescue His people but only after a long time. Why doesn’t God show up more often? Why does He delay?
We too are waiting. We have been wandering in deserted places for a long time, and the wait feels interminable. Waiting is hard, no doubt, but perhaps its burden is eased by our knowledge of the outcome. Oppression will not last forever. During long and discouraging days, we can know that God, the One who comes to save us, is with us. “I AM WHO I AM” God says, which means that “God is first and foremost the One who is with you” (Sigve Tonstad, All Creation Groans, 2021, p. 69).
We tend to ritualize our encounters with God rather than take the time to turn aside like Moses to behold the kind of person He is. Where a lowly scrub bush—a mere clutter of thorns—is on fire, transfigured with glorious light, God shows up and tells us that He is with us in all such small and lowly spaces. We see that the bush is not consumed. God is not harsh or vindictive; He is full of compassion.
Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus identifies Himself as the “I AM”—a reflection of the unique phrasing in Exodus 3—where the Angel of the Lord or the theophany appears to us. Perhaps it’s time we look for such burning bush experiences. God is there for anyone in need of His help. God wants to be present in everyone’s life. “I AM WHO I AM,” God tells Moses. “And I am who I am, always, and just as I am with you, so am I with all the children of Israel who are enslaved, and with everyone who is in need of My help, both now and in the future” (Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 1997, p. 38).
Take the time to approach the burning bush of God’s presence and to hear Him say, “I am with you.’’ It is our responsibility to hear God speaking to us. We are not lost on Him. He sees the oppression. He hears our cries and comes to deliver us.
In the movie the Prince of Egypt, God tells Moses that He is the One who will be with him. When God reveals Himself to you like this, empowering you with His loving presence, you want to share the good news. In words similar to those spoken by Jesus in the Great Commission, He says to us, “Now go! Tell My people I am coming to deliver them.”
Craig Ashton Jr.