As the leader of the exodus, Moses plays a significant role in the Bible but before leading the Israelite people, he leads Midianite sheep (which may have been as good a precursor as any). Moses is exiled in Midian where he marries the daughter of the local priest (Exodus 2:15-22). While tending his father-in-law’s flock on Mount Horeb, the extraordinary breaks into the ordinary when God famously appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames (Exodus 3:1-2). This is known as a theophany, a visible manifestation of God. Some have quipped that the burning bush is also the first road sign.
God immediately sets the tone of the encounter by issuing two commands: come no closer and remove your footwear (Exodus 3:5).
Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5 NASB)Moses is naturally terrified (Exodus 3:6). In the midst of this alarming scene, Moses’ choice of footwear was likely the furthest thing from his mind and the text makes no mention of whether or not he regains the composure to comply but the presumption is that he did so. Promptly.
Marc Vervenne (b. 1949) observes:
Moses is allowed and even called upon to stand on holy ground, but he is not to approach any more. Exactly the same situation is presented by the tale of the Sinai revelation: Israel is called upon to stand on the outskirts of the holy precinct on a given moment, but may not ascend the mountain any more [Exodus 19:12-13]. Like Moses before they are standing on the border of the holy. The veil has been lifted but not removed. (Vervenne, Studies in the Book of Exodus, 135)The encounter transforms Moses’ life. Max Lucado (b. 1955) remarks:
With these...words Moses in enrolled in a class on God. Immediately the roles are defined. God is holy. Approaching him on even a quarter-inch of leather is too pompous...no time is spent convincing Moses what Moses can do, but much time is spent explaining to Moses what God can do. (Lucado, The Great House of God, 27)At the burning bush, God calls Moses to lead the exodus and the tale’s dramatic features and historic impact make it one of the Bible’s most famous stories. Stephen J. Binz (b. 1955) lauds, “The mission of Moses is the prototype of the many other calls that will follow in the history of salvation. Of all the vocation narratives in the Bible, this is the longest and most memorable (Binz, The God of Freedom and Life: A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 20).”
The directive to remove his shoes was a significant enough detail to be incorporated into Stephen’s retelling of the history of Israel in Acts (Acts 7:33). Peter Enns (b. 1961) writes, “Why...must he remove his sandals? This is a sign of reverence common in the ancient Near East, a practice that continues to this day. Joshua is commanded to do the same in Joshua 5:15 (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 98).”
As Enns alludes, removing one’s shoes is still a sign of reverence in parts of the world. In deference to this passage, certain Hasidic groups remove their shoes before approaching the grave site of a holy person. The practice clearly has ancient roots. J. Gerald Janzen (b. 1932) explains:
On entering one’s tent or someone else’s, one removed one’s sandals to walk cleanly on the rug spread on the ground. A host’s invitation to remove one’s sandals (especially the offer to remove them and wash the feet, as in Genesis 18:4 and John 13:1-17) was an offer of hospitality—an offer of one’s home as the visitor’s home away from home. One accepted such hospitality by respecting the sanctity of the host’s space and moving about in it courteously. If the God of the ancestors, whom contemporary scholars characterize as a family or clan God, could receive such hospitality at Abraham’s hands (Genesis 18:1-8), it should not be surprising to find the same imagery used here, where Moses finds himself in the presence of that same God (Exodus 3:6)...Moses finds himself in a presence that is unfathomably sacred, a presence that invites him to be at home at the same time that it claims his profound respect. He who has felt himself “an alien residing in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22) now finds himself a guest of God. (Janzen, Exodus (Westminster Bible Companion), 28-29)Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) expounds:
There are many references in the Bible to taking off or putting on sandals, but none has any connection with holiness except this one. Presumably, taking off shoes was done when entering the presence of a superior person which usually would occur formally when one was at the superior person’s house, palace, or tent. Thus Sinai/Horeb is here implicitly identified as “Yahweh’s place.” Thus the very ground is holy—something said of no other location in the Bible. (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary), 114-115)Carol Meyers (b. 1942) adds:
The descriptions of priestly attire in the tabernacle passages do not mention priestly footwear [Exodus 28:1-43, 39:1-31; Leviticus 8:5-9); presumably priests went barefoot as they traversed the sacred precincts of Israel’s god. A similar removal of shoes as a sign of respect in the domain of the deity is found in the custom of Muslims taking off their footwear as they enter a mosque; and to this very day, members of priestly families traditionally remove their shoes when they recite certain blessings in the synagogue. (Meyers, Exodus (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 53)While shoes certainly serve a practical purpose, Moshe Chagiz (1671-1750) posited that there might also be a spiritual dimension to God’s request. Nosson Scherman (b. 1935) documents:
Moshe Chagiz offer a deeper reason for wearing shoes. Man does not want to touch the ground directly because the ground was cursed as a result of Adam’s sin [Genesis 3:17]...Thus, man took to wearing shoes...Shoes are only worn on accursed ground; on holy ground, one goes barefoot, making contact with the ground. (Scherman, Yom Kippur, 77)Some still find spiritual value in making a barefoot pilgrimage. Barbara Brown Taylor (b. 1951) challenges:
Take off your shoes and feel the earth under your feet, as if the ground on which you are standing really is holy ground. Let it please you. Let it hurt you a little. Feel how the world really feels when you do not strap little tanks on your feet to shield you from the way things really are. (Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, 67)What do you do to indicate respect? When do you take your shoes off? How do you think the sheep responded to the burning bush? Had Moses been hiking barefoot, what would God have commanded him to do? What made the ground holy?
Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) clarifies:
This ground is now holy because of God’s appearance, not because it was already holy. There is no holiness inherent in the place as such, no natural sanctity, but that which is not holy now becomes so by virtue of the divine purpose for the place (not just the divine presence). That which is an ordinary part of the natural order is sanctified, set apart for special use by God. This setting apart was not only for this occasion but also for the future. God’s appearance to Moses establishes Sinai/Horeb as a sacred place (cf. Exodus 3:12; Genesis 28:16-17). God draws a particular plot of ground, an aspect of the creative order, into a new sphere of relationship. (Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 56-57)As evidenced by Moses’ wilderness encounter with God while completing a mundane task, God’s holy ground is not limited to the walls of a church or to any single place. Meyers records:
At this point, the notion of sacred space becomes an explicit part of the narrative for the first time in the Hebrew Bible. The word for “place,” māqôm, is often a technical term in biblical Hebrew for a sanctuary or holy place (cf. Genesis 28:11, 19); and “holy ground” likewise connotes sacred space. (Meyers, 53)Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) adds:
The theme of the divine Presence is a major topic of Exodus. It often is emphasized by commands requiring distance from God so as not to intrude too far on his holiness, proximity to which carries with it danger to the person not properly prepared (sanctified). This passage, with its come-no-further command, is remarkably parallel to that of Exodus 19:9-25, where a series of conditions of sanctification (procedures that confer holiness) and distance...are imposed upon the Israelites. Thus what God’s people would eventually have to learn from God through him, Moses now began to learn from God. (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary), 114)Not even Moses was exempt from recognizing God’s holiness. This is the first time that the Hebrew noun for “holy” (qodesh) is used in Scripture. Donald E. Gowan (b. 1929) explains:
“Holiness” has been identified as the quality of divinity itself, as the term is used in scripture, and so it seems that Exodus begins talking about God where we ought to begin. (Gowan, Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary, 26)How do you acknowledge God’s holiness? Have you known any preachers who assumed the pulpit barefooted in deference to this passage? Is there any place that should be considered holy ground today?
“Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground (Exodus 3:5), and incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here. And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth, but our bodies and our earth themselves. “ - Frederick Buechner (b. 1926), Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 52