WHY WAS MOSES ORDERED TO BE SHOELESS?
by Shawn Brasseaux
We are all aware of that classic passage of Moses meeting the LORD God in the burning bush. Why did the LORD God order Moses to remove his shoes, and why was Moses “afraid to look upon God?” Let us search the Scriptures to find out.
The passage is Exodus 3:4-6: “ And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses.  And he said, Here am I. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.  Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.” As we have already stated, everyone familiar with the Bible has heard of Moses meeting the LORD in the burning bush. Unfortunately, meaningful details of the account have usually been overlooked. Let us begin reading chapter 3 of Exodus at the beginning—the context of our main text—and proceed to expound it.
“ Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.  And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.  And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.  And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.  And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.  Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.”
In the decades previous to Moses, his nation Israel multiplied in the land of Egypt. A new Pharaoh—fearing the Jews would outnumber the Egyptians and side with their enemies during wartime—ordered his people to kill the Hebrew baby boys (Exodus chapter 1). Chapter 2 chronicles Moses’ birth and his mother’s attempt to spare his life by placing him into a basket in the river; Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and raises him as her own son (verses 1-10).
According to Acts 7:23, “And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel.” Return to Exodus chapter 2: “ And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.  And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.  And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?  And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.  Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.” Another 40 years pass!
Indeed, at the time of Moses meeting the LORD in the burning bush, he was 80 years of age. He had spent his first 40 years in Egypt, before fleeing to live in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula for another 40 years. What was his reason for departing? The Prophet Stephen, speaking as the Holy Ghost led him, revealed the motive in Acts chapter 7: “ And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel.  And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian:  For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not.  And the next day he shewed himself unto them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren; why do ye wrong one to another?  But he that did his neighbour wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?  Wilt thou kill me, as thou diddest the Egyptian yesterday?  Then fled Moses at this saying, and was a stranger in the land of Madian, where he begat two sons.  And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush.”
Moses left Egypt because he had abandoned Israel. Remember, 40-year-old Moses, when he had approached his Jewish brethren in Egypt, was rejected. Again, recall Acts chapter 7: “ And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian:  For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not.” Exodus chapter 2, verses 13 and 14: “And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow? And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.”
Moses left Egypt because he had given up on Israel! Remember the Jews’ hardships under “the king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8)? They are slaves, oppressed and seemingly forsaken of God. Moses attempted to help them, “but they understood not,” so he, rejected, fled to Sinai. Forty years later, Exodus chapter 2 says: “ And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.  And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them.”
God now appears to Moses in the burning bush. Continue reading in Exodus chapter 3: “ And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;  And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them.  Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.”
Moses feared to look upon God because he knew he had abandoned Israel in Egypt. God appeared to remind him that, contrary to what Moses believed, He had not forgotten Israel, and that he (Moses) was negligent in forsaking Israel 40 years earlier. Concerning “the burning bush [that] was not consumed” (verse 2), that pictured Israel undergoing intense persecution in Egyptian bondage and yet not being annihilated. Moses had to be taught that God was still preserving her in that “iron furnace” (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jeremiah 11:4), and now it was time for Moses to return to Egypt and rescue her from Pharaoh. Moses was to bring them into God’s land, the Promised Land.
After Moses met the LORD in the burning bush, chapter 4 of Exodus reads: “ And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.  Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.  So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.” Why did God want to kill Moses? Moses, while in the wilderness 40 years, saw the Abrahamic Covenant as invalid. Contrary to God’s commandment in Genesis 17:9-14, he had not physically circumcised his son!
Once Moses heard “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” was addressing him, he recalled the Abrahamic Covenant. Although Israel was suffering in Egypt, their God had not forgotten them: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them” (Exodus 2:24-25). When Moses encountered God, he was terrified. It was more than a sinful, mortal man seeing a holy, righteous God. The LORD ordered him to remove his shoes, for not only was Moses standing on “holy ground,” he had been in unbelief! Since Moses forsook Israel in Egypt four decades earlier, he was to take off his shoes. In Israel, the shoeless man was confessing his failure to fulfill his duty (see the levirate marriage situation of Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and Ruth 4:1-8). Now, Moses was ready to return to Egypt.
Moses had forgotten the LORD’S words to Father Abraham centuries before Israel’s Egyptian bondage: “ And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;  And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.  And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.  But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again [the Promised Land!]: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Genesis 15:13-16).
Now, God’s message to Abraham in chapter 17: “ And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.  And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.  And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” Moses was in unbelief when he left Israel in Egypt. God had not forsaken them as assumed. Despite their temporary captivity, the Abrahamic Covenant was permanent. As per God’s faithfulness, they would return to the land in which Abraham sojourned.
Once he met the LORD in the burning bush, Moses—although corrected with the removal of his shoes—reluctantly confronts Pharaoh. After intentionally delaying even more to judge sinful Egypt, God finally frees Israel with a mighty hand. For the final 40 years of his life, Moses leads Israel from Egypt to the eastern edge of the Promised Land. (The trip that would have lasted a few weeks was greatly lengthened after Israel’s unfaithfulness and subsequent wilderness wanderings!) Upon Moses’ decease, Joshua becomes Israel’s new leader and brings them westward across the Jordan River. Through a series of victorious wars, God enables them to conquer Palestine’s Gentile inhabitants.
Almost three decades later, aged and dying Joshua counsels Israel in Joshua chapter 23: “ Behold, I have divided unto you by lot these nations that remain, to be an inheritance for your tribes, from Jordan, with all the nations that I have cut off, even unto the great sea westward.  And the LORD your God, he shall expel them from before you, and drive them from out of your sight; and ye shall possess their land, as the LORD your God hath promised unto you.  Be ye therefore very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, that ye turn not aside therefrom to the right hand or to the left;….” Alas, Israel forsook the LORD once she settled Canaan—worshipping and serving idols, and ultimately being scattered around the world!
Where Moses failed, God was faithful; where Israel was unreliable, God will be reliable. She will return to the land of her fathers in due time!