Group Study: Recognizing God's Voice

August 12th, 2011

Scripture: Exodus 3:1-6, 13-15

Background Scripture: Exodus 3

Key Verse

He continued, "I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God." Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:6 CEB)


We all have experienced the surprise of someone calling our name whose voice we do not recognize. What happens to us when we hear this unfamiliar voice? When Moses heard God’s voice, he responded by saying, “Here I am”; then he hid his face because he was afraid.


  1. to review how God’s identity is revealed in the story of God’s call to Moses in the burning bush.
  2. to feel thankful for God’s willingness to speak to us and call us today.
  3. to develop and commit to a plan for learning how to recognize and obey God’s voice.

Pronunciation Guide

Adonai (ad oh ni’)
Midian (mid’ ee uhn)
Hobab (hoh’ bab)
Reuel (roo’ uhl)
Horeb (hor’eb)
theophany (thee of’ uh nee)
Jethro (jeth’ roh)

Understanding the Scripture


Exodus 3 tells the story of Moses’ call to lead his people out of slavery and into the land God promised their ancestors. Exodus 6:2–7:7 basically repeats the call of Moses before God brings the plagues on Egypt.

The account in Exodus 3 follows a pattern found in many other call stories in the Bible. In such stories:

  1. the person being called meets God or an angel (3:2)
  2. God commissions the person to a special task (3:10)
  3. the person being commissioned expresses doubt or questions the task (3:11, 13; 4:1, 10)
  4. God gives a sign of assurance that the task will be successful (3:12, 14-15; 4:2-9, 15-16)

Exodus 3 emphasizes Moses’ doubts about the commissioning.

Exodus 3:1-6

The story is set when Moses is shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law near the mountain of God. Here the holy mountain is called Horeb. In other texts, however, the same location is known as Sinai (Exodus 19:1). Moses’ father-in-law is here named Jethro, though elsewhere he is called Reuel (Exodus 2:18) or Hobab (Numbers 10:29).

Moses is drawn to the location of his meeting with God when he sees a bush that is burning but not consumed. God’s appearance from the midst of fire, storm, or wind is a common motif in the Old Testament (1 Kings 19:11-18; Psalms 29:3-9; Ezekiel 1). The event is often called a theophany, the revelation of God through natural phenomenon.

According to Exodus 3:2, “The LORD’s messenger appeared” to Moses in the burning bush. But verse 4 indicates that God spoke directly to Moses from the bush, not through a mediator or divine messenger (the role of angels). This type of interplay between God and the angel shows the reluctance of the biblical writer to say matter-of-factly that God appeared and spoke (see Judges 6:12, 14; Ezekiel 1). God’s instruction for Moses to remove his shoes (3:5) indicates the seriousness and holiness of the place because of God’s presence (see Joshua 5:15). Moses shows awareness of God’s holiness by hiding his face (3:6). Looking directly at the divine countenance was thought to be fatal (Isaiah 6:5).

In Exodus 3:6 God expresses the divine identity by saying, “I am the God of your father.” “Father” here could be translated generically as “ancestor.” The culture of the Old Testament, however, traced lineage through male forebears. Property was passed from father to son unless there were no male heirs (see the inheritance of daughters, for example in Joshua 17:4-6 and remarkably in Job 42:15). Therefore, God’s introduction to Moses with this language reminds Moses and the Israelites they are heirs to the promises made long before to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Exodus 3:7-12

God introduces the call to Moses by first expressing concern for the Israelites’ condition in Egypt (3:7). God is not the detached deity described by philosophers. Instead, God is passionate about people and about justice.

The mission will be to deliver the Israelites from bondage and to take them to the land of Canaan. Moses raises objections to the commission God has given him. In verse 11 Moses raises the first and most general objection to God’s call: “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” The other objections are really an expansion of this one (“What if they don’t believe me or pay attention to me?” [4:1]; “I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue” [4:10]). Ironically, the sign of assurance God gives Moses can only be seen after Moses answers the call (3:12)!

Exodus 3:13-15

One of the most difficult portions of the story is the exchange between God and Moses in verses 13-15. It is not certain why Moses asks God to reveal God’s name. As Moses indicates in verse 13, the Hebrews had known this God previously as the God of their ancestors. So, perhaps it would have been necessary for Moses to tell this generation—the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—what this God will be to them. The name of God would help them understand since the name would indicate something of God’s character. Although this is possible, Moses’ inquiry about the divine name appears in a string of objections to Moses’ call.

It is also not certain what God’s response to Moses means. The sentence, “I AM WHO I AM” could be translated several other ways. In Hebrew the sentence consists of three words, two instances of the verb “to be” (“I am”) connected by a relative particle (“who”). But verbs in Hebrew have no built-in tense as verbs in English. So, the sentence could also be translated, “I will be who I will be,” or “I am who I will be,” among other possibilities. The meaning of the answer God gives for the meaning of the divine name can only be surmised. Some have proposed that the answer is essentially evasive. A better explanation may be that Moses and the people will know who God is by seeing what God does.

In Exodus 3:15 God’s statement “I AM WHO I AM” is linked to the name of God frequently used in the Old Testament. It is translated “the LORD.” But the Hebrew word that stands behind the translation is actually a third-person form of the verb, “to be.” Christians sometimes translate this name as it perhaps sounded, Yahweh. The name is formally translated “LORD,” however, because Jews in the ancient world held it to be so sacred that it was not pronounced. And the scribes who passed on the Old Testament put signals in the text that instructed readers to say another, common word, Adonai, which refers simply to one who has authority over another (hence, a “lord”). Since this name appears in verse 15 as God instructs Moses on how to address the Israelites, it seems that God’s answer to Moses in verses 13-14 is meant to explain the divine name (Yahweh). Here “the LORD” is identified as the God of Israel’s ancestors.

Exodus 3:16-22

After revealing the divine name, God does promise to strike Egypt and rescue the Israelites from slavery (3:17-22). Moses is to request that the Israelites be allowed to go “a three days’ journey” into the wilderness to make a sacrifice (3:18). This is intended as a ruse to fool Pharaoh. God knows from the start, however, that it will not work (3:19). Rather, God will defeat Pharaoh in order to free the Israelites. In an interesting conclusion to Moses’ commissioning, God states that the Israelites will not leave Egypt empty-handed (3:21-22). This becomes for the Israelites a model for how they will release their own debt slaves (Deuteronomy 15:13).

Interpreting the Scripture

God’s Elusive Presence

One of the most important implications of the story of Moses’ call is the realization that we experience God always as one who is elusive, whose presence we cannot predict or control. This is extremely important in an age when some popular religious figures regularly speak of God speaking to them, giving them clear signs of his plans for the world and for their lives. To be sure, God gives Moses clear instructions. But God appears to Moses in an unexpected and unique way. Moses saw a bush that was burning but not consumed and turned aside to see what it might mean. From the bush Moses heard God’s voice. Moses had no control over God’s appearance to him. It was due completely to God’s initiative. So it is with God’s claim upon us and God’s call for us to take on a particular task.

The Nature of God’s Call

While God’s presence is elusive, we can be sure that he has not abandoned us. But how do we judge God’s presence and how do we discern if God has really called us to perform a particular task or to take on a certain role or identity? Although we cannot answer the question easily, it may be helpful to ask the question: Is the call we think we are hearing something easy and simple that makes us more comfortable? Or is it something hard that requires preparation and sacrifice? The story of Moses’ call in Exodus 3, like most commissioning stories in the Bible, presents God’s instruction to Moses to do something very hard. To answer the call Moses must travel from a place of comfort to a place of danger; he must risk his reputation, not to mention his life. Moreover, God asked Moses to stretch himself— to do things he did not think he had the resources to do—for the sake of God’s people. This is not to say that God’s call upon our lives always requires us to risk life and limb, as it did for Moses. Our own call to act with and for God will likely be less dramatic. Nevertheless, when God speaks to us with a commission to act it typically involves sacrifice. This is undoubtedly so because the nature of God is to sacrifice himself for us, as he did most profoundly in Jesus’ death. Hence, since God calls us to participate in his own activity in the world, it should not be a surprise that our task will have the same character. But God’s claim upon us is also likely to require sacrifice and self-giving because he calls those who have the capacity so to give and sacrifice, even if they do not immediately recognize it.

God Works Through Frail Creatures

Moses risked his life in answering God’s call. But perhaps the greatest risk in this story is the one God took in calling Moses in the first place. Such is the nature of God’s work in our world. God works through frail creatures to accomplish the divine purpose, and his work through Moses is a good example of this fact.

To many readers, Moses may not seem weak and ineffective. They may have in mind an image of Moses like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments: rugged, handsome, powerful, charismatic. But the story itself suggests a different picture. The exchange between God and Moses, particularly the persistent doubts Moses expresses about his ability to carry out the mission, shows that Moses had some very real limitations. To be sure, Moses used his many inadequacies as excuses to avoid accepting the task God had for him. Nevertheless, his objections apparently indicate God could have chosen someone with more potential for success: Moses was unknown to the Israelites, thus he legitimately worried they would not listen to him (3:11; 4:1); he may have had a speech impediment (4:10), or at best he was not trained in the art of persuasion and so he wondered if he could make a convincing case to Pharaoh. These limitations of Moses seem significant, not to mention the fact that he was a convicted murderer being asked to return to the scene of the crime to deliver God’s people! In other words, God’s call of Moses is yet another example in Scripture of what the apostle Paul said about how God works: “God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

This dimension of the story reminds us that God is the main actor in the story of the exodus and in our story. The point is not so much that we are weak and inadequate. Rather, our abilities are never enough to deliver us. God knows already that our efforts alone will fail (3:19). Ultimately only God can save us. So, while Exodus 3 focuses on Moses as God’s agent, it also reminds us that Moses is an ordinary human being (thus, the generic quality of his commissioning) chosen by God to show God’s extraordinary deeds.

Experiencing the God Who Acts

Exodus 3 reveals an essential feature of the character of God: God is moved by human suffering; God acts within human history and enters human experience to alleviate the suffering he sees. God is not an inanimate spirit. God is not the sum of all the good and just actions in the world. God is not just the prime mover who set the world in motion. To be sure, God may be understood in all these ways. But the biblical God is much more. The account of Moses’ call depicts God as one who seeks a relationship with individuals God identifies as servants who carry out the divine mission. It also portrays God as one who has a relationship with a particular people, Israel. God works for them and through them to bring justice to the world. God’s work is not always seen and identified clearly when events take place, but the Bible testifies to his intimate involvement with humankind. This feature of God’s character appears in the very first part of his address to Moses, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. . . I’ve heard their cry of injustice . . .  I’ve come down to rescue them” (3:7-8). In other words, the story of Moses’ call encourages us to look for suffering in our world and to discern how and where God is acting to deliver those in pain.

Sharing the Scripture

Preparing Our Hearts

Explore this week’s devotional reading, found in Luke 20:34-40. When asked about the resurrection by Sadducees, who do not believe in resurrection, Jesus cited the story of Moses and the burning bush, which figures prominently in today’s lesson. Jesus’ point was that God is the God of the living, not the dead, and so for Moses to refer to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob indicates that “to him they are all alive” (20:38). What do you believe about the resurrection? How does your belief shape the way you live?

Pray that you and your group will be open to the many ways God reveals his own self to humanity.

Preparing Our Minds

Study the background Scripture from Exodus 3 and the lesson Scripture from Exodus 3:1-6, 13-15. Consider your response when you hear an unfamiliar voice.

Leading the Group

  • Pray that the group will recognize God’s identity as it is revealed in the story of Moses and the burning bush.
  • Invite everyone to tell stories of times when someone they thought was a stranger phoned them or called their name, perhaps in some public place. How did they react when the caller revealed his or her identity? [The caller may be someone known in the past, or may be a person who knew the learner by reputation but had not yet met.]
  • Read aloud today’s focus statement: We all have experienced the surprise of someone calling our name whose voice we do not recognize. What happens to us when we hear this unfamiliar voice? When Moses heard God’s voice, he responded by saying, “Here I am”; then he hid his face because he was afraid. 
  • Read “Introduction” in Understanding the Scripture so that the group will become familiar with the pattern of call stories.
  • Have the group read Exodus 3:1-6; 13-15.
  • Discuss these questions with the group:
  1. What do you learn about God from this passage?
  2. What do you learn about Moses?
  3. What do you learn about the nature of God’s call? (Use “The Nature of God’s Call” in Interpreting the Scripture to add to this discussion.)
  4. What would you have done or said had you been Moses?
  • Option: Show a picture of Moses and the burning bush. Invite the group to comment on the emotions this picture evokes, such as fear, amazement, or confusion. Ask them to discuss how the picture is similar to and different from the way they envision the scene.
  • Point out that a burning bush experience has, to our knowledge, only happened to Moses. But God does speak to us in other ways. Theologians refer to “general revelation,” which is available to anyone at any time, and “special revelation,” which is given to a specific people at a certain time in history. Briefly discuss the following means of revelation: General Revelation: Nature, Conscience, Providence (for example, God providing rain, sun, and harvest); Special Revelation: Lots, Visions, Dreams, Prophets, Voices, Angels, Miracles, Jesus Christ, The Bible
  • Wrap up this portion of the session by asking the group to give examples from their own lives of how God is speaking to them today. Use the following questions:
  1. Which types of revelation have you experienced personally?
  2. By what means did God last speak to you?
  3. What convinced you that it was God who spoke?
  4. How did you respond?
  5. If you ignored God, what will you plan to do now?
  6. If you listened to and obeyed God, what has that experience been like for you?
  • Suggest that group members armed with this information now have an opportunity to create a plan to improve their reception of God’s word.
  • Brainstorm ideas with the group concerning ways they can be more aware of God speaking to them. Recommend that they again look at the list of ways God reveals himself and try to generate some questions about each one. Here are some examples:
  1. Where in the natural world do I feel closest to God: on a beach, mountaintop, woods, at home with a dog on my lap?
  2. When have I had dreams that I believe were messages from God? Do I keep paper and pencil handy to record my dreams and their messages?
  3. Do I read the Bible simply for information, or do I use techniques that allow God to speak to me through it?
  • Conclude by challenging the group to identify those places or techniques that are the most helpful to them in hearing God. Suggest that they pay careful attention to these in an attempt to listen for God.
  • Pray that those who have participated today will be better able to recognize and obey God’s voice.
  • Conclude today’s session by leading the group in this commission: We go forth to worship and serve the Lord our God. Thanks be to our merciful and gracious God.

Adapted from The New International Lesson Annual © 2010 Abingdon Press

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