There was this series of commercials a while ago—they might still be playing—put out for Snickers, the candy bar. Y’all remember these? It had some character being ornery and angry, complaining about everything, and then one of the other characters in the commercial would hand them a Snickers. They’d take a bite, and suddenly transform back into a regular person. Now, the fact that they’re pushing a candy bar as a legitimate cure for low blood sugar aside, the commercials really get at something true.
We get angry when we’re hungry. We get snippy, and short-sighted, and short-tempered with each other when we’re hungry. Y’all know the word, “hangry.” Well, in today’s Exodus reading we hear about just that kind of thing happening. The Israelites, wandering in the desert, running out of food, are hangry. And they take out their frustration on Moses.
After wave and wave again of plagues—river turned to blood, frogs everywhere, fire from the sky, darkness at noon, and even the death of the firstborn—Pharaoh had finally relented and let Moses take the Israelites out of Egypt. There must have been a feeling of wonder among the Israelites, realizing for the first time in hundreds of years they were finally free people. The cruelty of slavery was done for and they were on their way to the Promised Land! Moses must have seemed like quite a hero to them as they walked together, belongings in tow, down the coast road toward Canaan.
Then for some reason they veered off the road. The pillar of fire and cloud that had been leading them on the way suddenly led them down into the wilderness, where they camped by the shore of the sea. And then, dust appeared on the horizon. A cloud rising that could only be from the hoofs of horses, the whirling spokes of chariots, and the stamping feet of soldiers. Pharaoh, ever the dithering, indecisive tyrant, had gone back on his word to free them and decided not to let them go. And he’d sent an army to retrieve them.
When I was first learning how to drive, I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to drive stick shift. See, my parents had this old Nissan pickup that my mom absolutely loved, and one of the reasons she loved it was because it was a stick shift. Something about shifting gears made her feel like a racecar driver. But anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to drive it, in case I was ever in a situation where the only option was a stick shift vehicle. I know, it seems very unlikely now, but this was fifteen years ago.
So I enlisted the help of my parents to learn how to do it. The first thing they did was taught me about how gear shifting works—how you had to equally push down the clutch and release the gas just right in order to not stall. And they taught me that I would need to memorize where the gears were, because I couldn’t be looking down at the gearshift while driving. That part went well. I understood it all. It made sense, in a theoretical way.
Every time I read this story, it’s hard for me not to picture that old movie classic The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston. This scene gets depicted in it, too, where Moses sees this burning bush, and feels compelled to go and investigate it. Now, in the movie, I am really puzzled as to how Moses managed to see the bush to begin with, since the scene where he finds it looks like the bush is in some kind of cave, and even then he only gets to it after trekking across a montage of rocky desert landscapes.
But this conversation, no matter how we may picture it in our heads, is one of the most world-altering encounters in the Bible. Moses encounters God—not an angel or some emanation of God, but God’s very presence. God is enveloped in the burning bush, speaking out of it to get Moses’ attention, and then telling him something that reveals God’s own heart to us.
“I have heard my people’s cry.”