The story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15), which is the Hebrew scripture lesson for Lent 3-C for those using the Revised Common Lectionary, is a fairly well known one and rich with meaning. Moses, alone with Jethro’s flock at Mt. Horeb, sees a bush that is blazing yet impervious to the usual effect of fire on plant life. He decides he must look at it; that is, until he hears the voice of God telling him that he stands on holy ground and the voice self-identifies as the God of Moses’ own ancestors, ancestors that until that moment he may not have actually known he had. At that point, Moses turns away.
But a conversation ensues, and Moses is given a mission. At that point the reluctant prophet asks two questions of this holy Presence, questions that echo through the long history of divine/human relationship. Stated simply, they are: “Who am I?” and “Who are You?”
Granted, Moses’ Who am I is more of a “Why me?” After all, he had assumed he was part of the royal house of Egypt, having been raised by Pharaoh’s daughter for almost all of his life – why would he be expected to deliver those whom his people had enslaved? But in this exchange God gives Moses back his true identity: he is a son of the Hebrew patriarchs, a member of the very race his adoptive family has oppressed, and God has chosen him for the important task of leading his people – his true people – to freedom. And God will not abandon him, but will be with him and his people and give them a sign: they will worship God on the very mountain where this conversation is taking place.
Then comes the second question. If Moses is to have any credibility with the Hebrew people, he must be able to tell them who, exactly, is the God who has called him out. It’s one thing to say “the God of your ancestors”, but what is God’s name? (Remember, the ancient near east was rife with deities, all of whom had names. It was important to know to and of whom one was speaking!) God’s answer here is frustratingly non-committal – “I am who I am” – frustrating, that is, until we recall what Moses would learn (and what Yul Brynner, in The Ten Commandments, would ultimately give voice to): God is God. There are, there can be, no others. “I am has sent you.”*
“Who am I?” “Who is God?” These are burning questions that the journey of faith seeks to answer. They are neither easily nor readily resolved, and can only be truly and finally answered through ongoing relationship with the Creator.
*In Mark’s gospel (6:47-52), when Jesus comes walking across the water toward his disciples as they struggle in a boat against “an adverse wind”, he tells them “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Some scholars have identified the phrase “it is I” in the original Aramaic to be more properly translated “I am.”