Meditations in Exodus: 8. Significant Places
Ex 3:1 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
In a material world places take on significance. First of all places in Scripture identify where God was active or where particular things took place. I am always struck by the plethora of places that Luke uses to identify the location of the heart of the Gospel story: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” (Lk 3:1,2) All those ‘big names’ ruled in well known locations and so Luke well and truly locates the start of the story with these geographic places. Yet in those two verses there is also a hidden message: big names rely upon established locations, fixed places, known lands, and then God comes and moves in the desert, the place of weakness, the place with vague identity, the place no one wants to claim.
And that is where we find Moses, still in the desert. It is interesting to note in passing that Moses’ father-in-law’s name appears differently. Previously he had been called ‘Reuel’ (see 2:18), which means “friend of God.” But now he is named, ‘Jethro’ which may be a title meaning “his Excellency.” When Moses first met him he was simply a man of God. Now, forty years later, there is a maturity which will, in the not too distant future, be used to help Moses. He is a wise and mature leader now. Is that how we develop in Christ through the years?
So forty years have passed (see Acts 7:30 & Ex 7:6) Moses leads his flock constantly looking for new places to pasture them and comes to “the far side of the desert” or the “back side of the desert”. The eastern people focused their compass directions from the east which they faced (perhaps because the sun rises in the east) and so behind them or ‘the back side’ would be to the west, so it would appear that Moses traveled westwards back into the Sinai Peninsular where he eventually came to this mountain here identified as ‘Horeb’ which, it is thought simply means ‘place in the desert’. Now we know that the Lord said to Moses, “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” (Ex 3:12) and later when Israel arrive back here it is identified as Mount Sinai (see Ex 19:1,10,18,20) In the Sinai Peninsular was the Desert of Sin but the word ‘Sin’ here simply refers to a past moon goddess and it is from that that we have the name Sinai. Although we are uncertain exactly where this mountain is, the fact that it is later identified as Mount Sinai clearly places it somewhere in the Sinai Peninsular.
Further in our starting verse we see this mountain is identified as “the mountain of God”. Now Moses would not know that when he first arrived there; it simply took on that designation because here he first encountered God and here the people of Israel later encountered God.
So why this mountain, why this place to reveal Himself, why not in Canaan where Israel would eventually settle. Possibly to indicate His separateness, His inaccessibility; that is His starting place, He is a holy God, distinct and separate from anything else, separate from even His Creation. And yet later on – and this separateness makes this even more wonderful – He locates Himself and identifies Himself with this people Israel by having them manufacture a ‘Tabernacle’ (big tent) and later on a Temple, both eventually set up in Jerusalem where he indicates He will preside.
It is interesting that many people have special places where they have encountered God, places where there was special revelation perhaps, or a special sense of encounter. I had such a place on a Welsh beach, a place of special encounter that I went back to several times over the years to ‘meet with the Lord’. But of course He dwells with us and so these are merely places of particular encounter. We should never place long term reliance upon such places – perhaps that is why Mount Sinai was so far from Israel. The only person who travelled there purposefully was Elijah the prophet (1 Kings 19:8)
Note also in respect of such places they are the places God chooses to meet with us. Moses had gone there for no particular reason except to feed his sheep and as far as he was concerned this mountain was no different to any other place. That was soon to change. However it is always God’s presence that He reveals to us in a particular or special way that makes a particular place special. There is nothing about the place – except Him, except the fact that for that moment He chose to reveal Himself there. After leaving Sinai, travelling, nomadic, local Bedouin would have had no sense of it being special; it was just another mountain. It was only what happened between God and Moses and later God and Israel that made it noteworthy. That is how it is with special places in our lives. Don’t given them special powers but hold on to the memories by all means for they form part of the overall testimony of our lives. Hallelujah.