When I lived in the Cayman Islands for three years, I would frequently take visitors to a little town called Hell. The visitors got a kick out of sending postcards home stamped from the post office in Hell. The quirky town gets its name from the centuries-old, weather- and surf-eroded coral reef shore that is now a formation of black, razor-sharp rocks that look very much like a nightmare spawned of Hell itself. Slight-of-frame, local boys play on these dangerous formations, climbing with bare feet along the jagged points. I was once astounded to hear an adult Caymanian remark wistfully that he could no longer climb barefoot among those rocks due to his adult weight.
Perhaps there is something primal in baring one’s feet and walking in grass or sand or perhaps even on rocks (preferably smooth ones). Curling one’s toes in the grass is a visceral experience that seems to connect us to nature in an almost spiritual way.
In Sri Lanka, as in most eastern cultures, removing one’s shoes before entering a home is an expectation. That custom has become so ingrained in me now that it is difficult to wear shoes indoors when I’m back in the States. In many cultures, removing one’s shoes before entering a dwelling, a store, or a religious space is a demonstration of respect and honor. The cultural assumption in the East is that the floor inside the home is clean. In the West, our assumption is that the floor is dirty.
I can’t help but see Moses’s experience on Mt. Horeb from a different perspective after serving on the mission field in Southeast Asia. In the theophany in Exodus 3, God commands Moses to remove his shoes because he is on holy ground (v. 5). Few biblical scholars address the barefoot before God motif directly. Most seem to gloss over it, if it is mentioned at all. Those who do address it, generally do so in reference to extra-biblical parallels or in conjunction with Joshua 5:15. Historically, the act of removing shoes in holy places is considered by anthropologists to be atavistic, pre-rational behavior, meaning that the custom is ubiquitous and ancient without clear origin.
Exodus 3:1-12 is about God revealing himself to Moses and commissioning him to a foreign mission. These verses are rich and apply to all who accept personal accountability to the Great Commission in Matthew 28, whether we serve on a foreign field or in our stateside community.
In verses 1-2, Moses is pursuing his own agenda, tending sheep at this point in his life. His attention is drawn to the burning bush. Note that God does not speak until Moses steps away from his own path, leaves his own agenda and is drawn to the burning bush (3-4). Could it be that we must set aside our own agenda to be drawn into the presence of God? I believe so.
When God calls out to Moses, he tells Moses to remove his sandals because he is on holy ground. This entire encounter with God is immensely personal and intimate. God says, “I know your people; we’re connected (v. 6)!” This demonstration of intimacy with Moses continues when God’s heart is revealed to him. “My people are suffering and I want to set them free and give them a new place to live” (vv. 7-9). This is always God’s agenda, and as people on mission for God, it is our agenda, to hear the call of the suffering and to set people free from the bondage of sin through Jesus Christ.
Then God does something incredible, no doubt something he has done with each of us. God calls Moses away from his personal agenda and invites him to join God’s agenda (v. 10)! We know this story well. Moses goes on to protest (v. 11), but God promises to be with Moses (v. 12). It’s an incredibly rich story made more incredible if we ask ourselves why God wanted Moses to be barefoot for this encounter.
When we consider the intimate connection that God is establishing with Moses on Mt. Horeb, seeing God’s command to Moses to remove his shoes as a sign of respect for the holy ground seems out of place. Instead, God is asking Moses to remove his sandals so that his feet connect to the holy ground he was on. When God calls us to his agenda, God wants us to remove the barriers in our life that separate us from God’s holiness. God didn’t tell Moses to back up a few feet! God’s incredible invitation for Moses to experience God’s holiness in a truly visceral way is the same invitation God gives to us. It is this barefoot, no-barrier connection with God’s holiness that sustains each of us when we answer the call to God’s agenda.