Last week, on the run from trouble he himself had instigated, Jacob slept rough with only a stone for a pillow and he had a dream, and in it received this blessing: “The Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you … Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”
Jacob left his stone pillow, turning it upright into an altar in the sand, and made his way through the desert to his uncle’s home. In time, he married both of his uncle’s daughters, had relations with both of the daughter’s handmaids, and between them had 12 sons and one daughter. (And we think family life is messy.) Out of the 13 kids, Joseph is the one the biblical storyline follows through his obnoxious youth and as he is sold by his jealous brothers and taken into Egypt on a slave caravan. He suffers various calamities there, but, because Joseph can interpret dreams, he eventually rises to power in the Pharaoh’s household. Years pass, and he is reunited with his family. He is able to rescue them at a time of severe famine in their homeland. So they leave Canaan to settle near him in Egypt along the Nile where, even as foreigners, they thrive….
Generations pass. Joseph is no longer remembered. The family ‘begat’ by Abraham and Sarah long ago now comprises a vast, but enslaved, people. A new pharaoh comes to power in Egypt who is wary of these prolific Hebrews, conscripts them into labor camps, and tries to have their numbers decreased by decreeing that their midwives kill the newborn boys. They sneakily refuse.
In the midst of this, Moses is born. By a twist of fate (or divine intervention), he is taken into the Pharaoh’s own household and raised as an adopted grandson. However, his cushy life comes to an abrupt end.
One day Moses sees a guard beating a Hebrew slave. He intervenes and kills the guard, buries him in the sand and hopes that no one saw him do it. They did. And in a repetition from last week, Moses, now fearing for his life, flees to the desert. He, too, finds his way to a shepherd, who, also, in time, becomes his father-in-law. (This repeated storyline between Jacob and Moses fleeing to the desert and becoming a shepherd for their fathers-in-law probably has less to do with a mystical foreshadowing of their chosen status, than it does with the lifestyle options available to them. In the 13th century BCE, people of the mid-east were tribal, nomadic shepherds – you could be a keeper of sheep, or camels or goats – or some combination thereof.… but the apprenticeship career options were limited.)
Anyway, this is where we catch up to the story. One fine, hot, sunny day Moses was out in the wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep. He comes to the mountain at Horeb, known to Bible readers but probably not to Moses, as the mountain of God, or Mount Sinai; and he happens to see a burning bush. Fire is a common sign in the Bible of God’s presence but, again, Moses wouldn’t have reason to know that – this is his first meeting with God.
This bush burns and burns… and burns, and burns… and he is curious. He might actually have seen it a long way off, a flickering light glinting across the Sinai’s barren wilderness. He might have been steering the sheep toward it all along, like the magi following their star. However it happened, Moses came up close to see this odd thing.
Exodus, chapter 3:4-6
“When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! But remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your 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 at God.”
Hymn #490 Let all mortal flesh keep silence.
“Don’t think of it as dust. Just think of it as the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling on “Pig-Pen!” It staggers the imagination! He may be carrying the soil that was trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!, said Charlie Brown.…”
Last week, I noticed that when God spoke the promises to Jacob, God did not say, “Your offspring shall be as plenteous as the dust.” Back in the day, when God made similar covenantal promises to his grandfather Abraham, God did say, “I will make of you a great nation, you shall be exceedingly fruitful, numerous… Look to the heavens and count the stars if you are able, so shall your descendants be.” The promise to Abraham was about numbers. To Jacob, God said, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth and you shall spread from west to east, from north to south and all people shall be blessed through you and your offspring…”
My imagination has been playing with this difference. God is no longer concerned with quantity, it seems, but with activity.
What is it about dust?
This week, God tells Moses to take off his shoes, to stand barefoot in that dust because it is holy ground.
The argument can be made that all ground is sacred. As any farmer will be happy to tell you, soil is the essential element of life….both living and life-giving – soil is a blessing. We can’t have a Harvest Fest without it. Dirt is essential, and it shares the chemical essence of our being. Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, magnesium – our bodies hold these things is common with the crust of the earth.
In the first story of creation, God forms the earth, separates the dry land from the water – and, in the second story of creation, forms some of the dust into a human being, breathes into his lungs, and the dustling comes becomes a man. At the end of that story, the man and woman are sent out of the Garden of Eden and the ground is cursed. “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;” God tells Adam, “by the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread.” Any farmer will also tell you the truth of that curse. (In full disclosure, God should have made mention of rocks.)
But standing in his bare feet in the dust, Moses is back on holy ground.
The Sinai peninsula, where Moses stands, is not the Garden of Eden. Here is a description from the Encyclopædia Britannica:
“The Sinai falls within the great arid belt crossing northern Africa and southwestern Asia, manifested by a degraded soil structure, sand-dune expanses, salinization, and wadis (seasonal watercourses). Vegetation is mostly ephemeral, but perennial scrub survives on the steep southern slopes (the burning bush). The region is essentially composed of igneous rocks and is sharply incised by deep, canyonlike wadis. This gaunt mountain mass is separated from the Gulf of Suez to the west by a narrow coastal plain, and on its eastern side, rises precipitately from the Gulf of Aqaba.”
Vacation-land it’s not. But there Moses stands, sandals in his hands.
So a word about sandals. God said, “Take them off. This is holy ground.”
Removing one’s sandals is an ancient spiritual practice. It’s one still honored today – especially by Buddhist and our sibling Muslim worshippers. When entering a holy place, one takes off one’s shoes. More than for the sake of silence or purity or cleanliness, it is a deeply humbling act recognizing our humanity; it’s a sign and symbol of our vulnerability, or our ‘otherness’ from God. We remove the artificial boundary, the pretense, the defense between us and the ground of our being.
Typically made of animal skin or plant fibers, sandals in Moses’ day not only protected the tender underbelly of the foot but could also symbolize property, purity, social contracts, and status. Actually, they still do today. In Egypt a pair of sandals could be purchased for the price of a sack of grain: not exactly a luxury, still an investment. Sandals of the upper class were more artfully made, sometimes adorned with bling of precious stones and metal work and other decorations. Sandals discovered in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amon were inscribed with the image of foreign captives on his insole, proclaiming with the every step he took, the Pharaoh’s power over the people and nations his armies subdued.
In Deuteronomy, we learn that removing one’s sandals – or having them removed by another – nullified previously binding legal and social ties, creating the conditions for new claims, new relationships, and new responsibility. (1)
Removing one’s sandals is also a sign that we’re home. The first thing many of us do when we get in our front door is to kick off our shoes. The ground of our being might be the linoleum or oak of our kitchen floor. We feel it and know we belong.
God said, “Moses, take off your sandals.”
So, is the significance of Moses standing barefoot in the dust of creation his vulnerability – the awe of standing before his creator, humbled in the humus? Is it the new relationship, the new claim, new responsibility God is placing on his life to release the captives under Pharaoh’s feet? Is it a sign of assurance, that this nomadic wanderer stuck between two cultures, at home in neither one, has found his true home, wiggling bare toes in the dust of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God?
Maybe yes – all; but this story isn’t primarily about Moses’ encounter with God. I hope you are running through flashbacks of places and times and people that have brought you near to God. Personal, life-changing engagement with what is sacred, holy, divine is where we have to begin… The life of faith begins with some authentic encounter in loving God, in knowing God, trusting God through the world and through the Word…
But… the thrust of the story, the thrust of God, is for Moses to go – to go back into the land of Egypt, back to the place of his fear, back into danger, back to the need of his people. This is not a story of Moses’ holiness or righteousness… or of peace. It is a story of justice and salvation. It is a story of God working through someone who has many good reasons not to be that someone – and who lists them boldly before God, finally pleading not to be that someone, not to be sent as the agent of divine change. “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently!” And God adjusts the plan. “Your brother will go with you.”
This is a story that shepherds Moses – that calls him – and courageous people of all times – to rise out of the dust and get on with the holy, hard work of speaking out, calling out the captives, standing up to arrogance and fear and greed – the powers that enslave us. “You are dust…you are my Dust, beloved and holy and ordinary and often inept….. and as dust you shall go to be a blessing to all people…. and to dust you shall return.”
In this scripture, with Moses the shepherd standing barefoot, wiggling his toes, halfway up the mountain of God, with his father-in-law’s sheep no doubt straying back down the mountain, this is an empowering call to action. “You are my dust!” We, the people of God are dust motes: everywhere, ubiquitous, a fine covering, dust that works its way into every crevice and cranny and every situation; created stuff that is seen and not seen; an agent of irritation and change. Dust has a way of working itself in-between your toes even when when you’ve got socks and work boots on out in the garden or out in the woods or out with your sheep. Desert dust covered up entire pyramids and the Sphinx and cities. Dust has power. Dust has presence – just ask Moses as he backs away from the bush – not quite able to turn his back on God – and returns his sandals to his feet.
Dust has a calling, a claim on us – to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly, dustily, with our God. It staggers the imagination.
(1) Anathea Portier-Young, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC