This is my retelling/ paraphrase of Exodus 4. I had to edit it slightly to account for the fact that, archaeologically, the Israelites seem to never to have left Canaan, let alone come back to it in the Exodus.
I believe I got this version of ‘I am who I am’ from Harold Bloom, in his book Jesus and Yahweh, The Names Divine. If I remember correctly, Bloom believed Yahweh was being coy with Moses when he told him that was his name.
I had to take a break from ranting about Biblical Sexual Ethics. I’m afraid I didn’t get very far. While I was sitting making clay dinosaurs with my little sister, my mom put on some radio preacher. He was preaching a sermon on insecurity, and using Exodus 4 as his text.
He explained that Moses kept turning God down because he was all being silly and insecure. We should learn from his negative example and not be such wusses all the time.
He understood- in his guts, in his bones, in his skin, in the hair on his arms and head that was standing on end (and he wasn’t sure, later, if that was because of his own fear or because of almost visible energy charging the air)-
He shouldn’t have come.
He didn’t see how he could have avoided coming.
He had seen a fire on the horizon, over the backs of the goats. A wildfire could set the mountainside ablaze in a remarkably short time, endangering the flock. A campfire could mean raiders, with plans to attack the tribe’s main encampment and herds, or guests, to whom hospitality must be extended.
Moses had been feeling a little glow of happiness lately, watching his two little sons playing by the campfire at night. He gripped his staff and felt its strength, the fiber of wood grown in the desert. It wouldn’t break. He felt capable of fighting or charming his way out of anything. Strangely light-hearted, he set out towards the light. He would prove to his father-in-law, Jethro of the Midianites, that the man’s kindness in adopting a half-dead stranger, found lost in the wilderness, had not been wasted.
But this was no wildfire. This was no campfire.
This was a was a god.
The bush stood flickering and silent before him.
Energy like tongues of flame flickered up and down its branches, nesting in the living leaves. He could see nothing else. The god had not appeared. But only a fool would fail to understand what was happening.
The Being before him (around him? behind him?) was watching. It gave no sign.
His mind raced, thinking of the names of various gods and their behaviors. How one must behave around each one. His hand gripping his staff and the gravel of the hillside underfoot, he was suddenly in the cool dim room in Egypt where he had learned to read-
“You’ve come close enough” a voice said, from nowhere, or maybe from above the bush itself. The voice was like the voice of the hill side, dry and warm. It purred like stone chips pouring over the face of a rock. “Don’t come any closer.”
He let his mind go blank, He waited, tense. The god was going to speak for itself.
“Take off your sandals, Moses.” the voice told him. “The ground where you are standing is holy.”
Moses complied, not taking his eyes away from the bush. This was not a god who demanded temples, then, he thought with a sinking feeling. That ruled out many of the gods, and meant that it could be something older- something more dangerous-
The image of a sceptered being, with the head and face of an unknown creature, flashed through his mind. Set, of the wilderness and whirlwind. Set, who did not love cities.
“I am the god of your fathers.” the voice rolled accusingly, as if disappointed that Moses would think such things. “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
For one moment, Moses’ heart moved strangely with recognition- joy and terror and pride. Then he whipped his outer robe over his face and dropped to his knees.
It wasn’t in the books of the Egyptians he had learned about this god.
To see this god was to die- but no one knew for sure what he looked like. Moses could have incurred death already.
He crouched, waiting. He could hear his own heart beating in his ears.
His people had worshiped this god once, before the Egyptians had come into their country. His rites were associated with deception and massacre, and when He Himself acted entire city-states and their surrounding regions were sometimes consumed by unnatural fire.
This was a dangerous god.
He claimed to be the god who ruled all the others. The Elohim.
Through the fabric of his robe, Moses saw the air seemed to brighten. The energy around him seem to relax and flame up.
“I have, indeed, seen the misery of my people.” the god said royally. “I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers and I am concerned about their suffering.”
The god paused, letting that sink in. Moses didn’t move. The god was telling him this. So… he hadn’t seen god? The god wasn’t going to kill him?
The god went on.
“So, I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians, and to give them a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey– the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.”
Moses’ breath caught in his throat, and his arm sank. He looked at the bush. It still stood there, silent flames flickering along its branches.
The other inhabitants of the land worshiped the Elohim as well. He had always said that he could have made them into one people- a power to rival Egypt- but he preferred for them to be separate. His plan was to test them, he said. That way they would strive with each other to excel in devotion.
This was the end of the test, then. God was discarding the others, and keeping Jacob’s descendants. Moses wasn’t sure if he felt happy or ill.
“And now, the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. ”
After four hundred years of Egyptian rule, he had, Moses thought fiercely. Well, if he had finally chosen, the Egyptians would have to be pushed out of the country first, of course… They didn’t approve of unrest in regions they had nominal claim to. People tended to ask them for help.
“So, now, go.” the rock slide of a voice struck a crescendo, ” I am sending you to Pharaoh, to release my people, the Israelites, from the power of Egypt.”
Moses jumped to his feet. Images of his Egyptian family were hanging in his eyes now- his stepmother- his father- the repercussions against them at Pharaoh’s court when he had-
“Ah- Elohim, I am no one. Among Jacob’s children or the Egyptians. Who am I that I should stand before Pharaoh- on behalf of a people who belong to You?”
“I will be with you.” the god replied, airily, as if that were the only problem. “And the sign that I have sent you will be that… if it’s done… you will come back here and worship me, on this very mountain.”
Moses dropped back to his knees and averted his eyes. One could die for almost anything around a god. Particularly this one.
The image of Set rose again, unbidden, in his mind.
“Suppose…” Moses began cautiously “…suppose I go to the Israelites. And I tell them, ‘The god of your fathers has sent me to you!” And they say to me, ‘Oh? Then what’s his name?'”
He risked a glance at the bush. It was silent, waiting.
“What shall I tell them?”
“Hm.” the voice purred around him. It seemed to be somehow nearer, as if the speaker were kneeling to look at him. “Tell them that I will be whoever I will be.”
“You can tell them that’s what they are going to call me. From now on.”
Thoughts streamed from the god to Moses. The entire land, waiting to be taken. All it’s riches- that Moses could give as a gift to his mother’s people. The tribal elders all listening to him in awe, the Pharaoh- something about the Pharaoh being struck down, but the Egyptians, the Egyptians all looking respectfully at him, giving presents to his people. The sons and daughters of Israel dressed in silver and gold and white linen- dancing-
“What if they don’t believe me?”Moses objected suddenly, tearing his mind away. “The Sons of Jacob- they probably won’t believe me.”
The silence was angry and taken aback.
“What’s that in your hand?” the god asked him.
Moses looked at his hand weakly.
“Throw it on the ground. ”
Moses threw it on the ground as if it had stung him. The wood clattered against the rocks.
Before it had finished clattering, the impact became a soft slap. Moses looked back at the stick, sharply.
It had become a poisonous snake. It was coiling now- staring up at him. He backed away slowly.
He jumped back and it struck, he wasn’t sure which happened first. But it had missed. It slithered towards him and he stumbled backwards, running. He tripped and fell and it coiled again, preparing to strike. He crawled backwards. It struck again and missed as he jerked away his arm. It coiled again.
There was a pulsing, like laughter,
“Reach out your arm. Take hold of it.” the god said.
He looked over at the bush, and back at the snake. He reached out and grabbed the snake.
His hand closed on the grain of wood, polished smooth with long use. He was holding his staff.
He pulled himself to his feet and looked around, confused. His tracks in the rocks and sand led in a half circle around the bush. He had thought he was moving straight backwards.
“Put your hand into your coat.”
Moses looked around wildly for the source of the voice but there was nothing.
His chest heaving, he threw down the staff and griped the edge of the robe with one hand. He plunged the other inside, and stood with his arms wrapped around him, one inside, and one outside his clothes.
“Now take it out.”
It didn’t feel like a snake, at least. He took his hand out.
Pieces of his flesh flaked off, scraped free by the hem of the robe, and fell to the ground at his feet. His hand was leprous. He tried moving his fingers, and they moved. Most of them. But none of the tips would bend.
“Now put it back.” the god told him, before he had a chance to look back up.
He did. He put his hand under the robe slowly, and a little carefully. Trying not to flake off any more skin.
The air pulsed again.
“Take out your hand.”
Moses stood for a moment, not wanting to look. Not wanting to move or see or be here. He took his hand out.
It was clean.
He let his hand fall and stood still, not thinking of anything and not looking at the spiritual fire.
The voice was close to him again.
“If the Sons of Israel don’t believe the first sign, they may believe the second, don’t you think?”
Moses nodded miserably. t was common to die of snake bite. But leprosy like that took years acquire. It didn’t happen overnight.
“There’s a third sign. ” the god told him. “If those don’t work. Do you want to see it?”
Moses shook his head. No.
“Draw water from the river. Pour it on the ground. It won’t just look like blood when it touches the ground. It will be blood.”
“Can you imagine that, Moses? Blood, drawn from the water?”
Moses’ eyes were fixed on a rock. They didn’t move.
“Pardon your servant, Elohim. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue. I cannot go.”
The god was suddenly annoyed.
“Who gave humans their mouths?” he snapped. “Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind?”
Moses’ brows knit, puzzled, as he stared at the rock. He was pretty sure the answer was Khnum, the potter-god-?
The fire sprang up on the branches of the tree. soundlessly. It towered over Moses like a bonfire.
“Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will help you speak, and teach you what to say.”
Moses eyes were fixed. The rock was little more than a pebble. It was dark grey with clean edges. Maybe a larger stone had recently shattered.
“Pardon your servant, Elohim. Please send someone else.”
The unnatural fire sank down. Moses felt a shiver of new fear. The god was angry with him now. Very angry. And very quiet.
“What about your brother, Aaron?” the god asked casually. “He can speak well.”
Moses gasped and turned to the bush, eyes wide with fear.
“He’s on his way to Midian to meet you, you know” the dry voice purred. “He’s going to be glad to see you.”
Moses sank to his knees, and then spilled forward til he lay on the ground with his face in the dirt. Without words, without even thoughts he asked for none of this to happen to his brother. The air pulsed with dry laughter. A weight like a hand rested on his head for a moment, then disappeared.
“I will help both of you speak and teach both of you what to say. You will speak to him and he will speak to the Israelites. It will be as if you were god, Moses! He is going to be your prophet. And now the problem is solved.”
Moses found himself standing up. He wasn’t sure why.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it, Moses?”
Moses shook his head, no it wasn’t, without thinking. He turned to go.
“Wait.” The voice was a little harder than it had been. Moses turned back.
“Take your staff with you. You never know when you may need it.”
Moses stared down at the staff. Then he shut his eyes and picked it up. It didn’t change into anything this time.
“Now, you may leave. ” the voice told him.
Moses turned and started walking. A new kind of life lay ahead of him.
The Israelites never came back to Canaan because they never left
Judaism Monotheism was most likely a form of Canaanite Polytheism
More about that and about Elohim.
An Islamic line of reasoning for why God keeps multiple Religions of Himself running among humans at the same time.