Shemot: Moses the Good Shepherd

This sheet on Exodus 3 was written by Avner Moriah for 929 and can also be found here

Shemot, the first parasha in the Book of Exodus, introduces the story of the Israelite nation as slaves, and God's calling of Moses to be their liberator. Avner Moriah’s painting visualizes God revealing Himself to Moses and telling him that he is destined to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. How does the artist portray this awesome event? What in the picture helps us understand why Moses was destined for such a crucial task?

In the center of the painting we see Moses holding a small white kid with three more goats on the ground to his left, a scene that reflects the well-developed tradition of the Good Shepherd in Western art. Legend has it that while Moses was tending the flock one kid escaped. He chased the kid, found him, and carried him in his arms, and so proved himself to be the ultimate shepherd, fit to lead God’s people.

We are told that as he approached Horeb, Moses saw a bush burning in the distance without being consumed by the fire: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in the blazing fire out of the bush” (Exod. 3: 2), but apparently Moses did not see the angel, for when he heard God calling to him he was overwhelmingly surprised. When God said, “Do not come closer…for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5), Moses turned his back to the bush and hid his face “because he was afraid to look at God” (Exod. 3:6).

The artist depicts the burning bush as being exuberantly alive and sets it against the mountain of a later revelation, suggesting that the sneh (bush) is actually Sinai, so what we have here is in effect a combined mini/maxi revelation. There are smudges of red and splashes of yellow, which likely represent the fire, and a large mostly white area to the left behind the bush seems to signal divine intervention. The yellow and green leaves – some attached to the branches and others flying through the air – make it seem as though the bush is covering the entire “mountain of God,” the flying leaves also suggesting the shaking and trembling in the air at the sound of God’s voice. Moses is not facing the burning bush, but rather is turning away from it and hiding his face, a sign of his reluctance to take on this formidable challenge, his timidity at the dawning of his leadership, and his reverence, a distancing himself from direct exposure to the Divine Presence.

Although Moses is careful not to look at God, he does speak to Him and asks His name, and God answers: “Ehyeh-asher ehyeh” (“I Am that I Am”; Exod. 3:14). Referring to the bush, God says: “That shall be your sign that it was I who sent you and when you have freed the people from slavery you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exod. 3:12).

Avner Moriah is a prolific Israel artist who is illuminating the entire Chumash.

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