“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take of your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Grit and Grime
Several years back, a friend asked us to a black-tie holiday party she and her boyfriend were giving at his place. When the invitation arrived, it included a rather unusual advisory: “Guests are asked to remove their shoes before entering.” We accepted in writing and when she called to say how happy she was we were coming, we had to ask, “What’s up with the no-shoes thing?” She explained her boyfriend spent a small fortune getting his floors refinished and was concerned about 100 or so people scarring them with street grit and grime. It seemed odd, perhaps, but understandable.
When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, he’s invited to remove his shoes for the same reason. He takes off his sandals to protect the pristine condition of his Host’s domain. God’s presence has sanctified the bush’s perimeter. What was once a desert floor is now holy ground. The grit and grime Moses picked up during his travels corrupt the place where he stands. He’s welcome, but dirt that’s settled into the seams and crevices of his sandals won’t be tolerated. And while most Bible commentators equate Moses’s obedience with reverence and leave it at that, there’s more to learn from this episode.
Scholars view Moses’s stepping out of his sandals casually because barefoot worship was common in Biblical times. Especially in city settings, where streets and alleys doubled as sewers and heavy animal traffic left its mark, temples of every sort expected worshipers to remove their footwear before entering, with some demanding everyone wash his/her feet as well. (This tradition lingers today, most notably in Islam, and also in several Asian traditions.) It makes scholarly sense to regard Moses’s taking off his shoes in the burning-bush narrative as a not-so-subtle confirmation that Moses indeed stands in God’s divine presence.
Beyond religious customs, though, the Bible takes a peculiarly dim view of shoes. In Exodus 12.11, the Jews are directed to wear shoes while eating the Passover in readiness to leave Egypt. In Joshua 9, delegates from a city fearing it may suffer Jericho’s fate put on old shoes to beg Joshua’s mercy. Twice, Ezekiel instructs Israel to keep its shoes on because in His anger, God will soon uproot them. Amos confronts Israel for selling “the poor for a pair of shoes.” John the Baptist describes Jesus as One “whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1.7) By and large, Bible shoes carry shoddy associations with impermanence, anxiety, and lowliness. If we think of Moses’s shoes in this context, we get a richer message from his burning-bush experience.
Pitching the Past
Where is Moses? He’s in exile, hiding in fear after killing a cruel slave overseer. That act, a strike to reclaim his lost identity, ultimately outed him as a Hebrew, rather than the Egyptian noble he’s presumed to be. Indeed, he’s spent the whole of his life in exile, living in Pharaoh’s court yet knowing he’s an outsider. Now, after feeling trapped for so long between two cultures, he has neither to fall back on. He’s far from the clay pits and oppression of Hebrew slavery and the pampered ease of palace life. He’s trying to carve out an existence where no one can find him, trudging across the desert with a few sheep to keep him company. He has no home. He’s anxious and afraid. He has no status, security, or pride. Figuratively and literally, his shoes are crusted with filth from his journey.
When Moses comes face to face with God, he’s first cautioned about getting too close. Naturally, he’s curious to see how the fire blazes without consuming the bush. Since there’s no logical explanation, he’s advised to stand back and accept it as is. He’s told to take off his sandals. Yes, it’s a call for reverence. But it’s more than that. It’s a divine directive to remove the filth that attached itself to him along the way—to stand free and clear before his Maker. There’s no need of staying tied in his shoes, nor any reason to hold on to them. He can’t lay them on the holy ground. So he tosses them. This is the pivotal moment in Moses’s life. By throwing his shoes aside, he’s pitching the past—his alienation, fears, and feelings of worthlessness. Such things aren’t fit for holy ground.
Let’s look at our shoes. As we’ve traveled between cultures and crossed wildernesses, walked dark alleys and polluted streets, all kinds of grit and grime have affixed to our shoes. We could spend our lives—as many do—trying to restore them to their true condition. Yet we’ll never rid them of dirt deeply embedded in their seams. The scuffs and scars can’t be rubbed out. Now let’s turn ahead and realize we stand at this very moment in God’s very presence. We’re on holy ground, a place of permanence, safety, and honor. It’s time to hear what He wants us to be. But first, we need to get rid of our nasty old shoes.
To stand in God’s presence and hear Him speak, we first have shoes encrusted with filth picked up along our journey. We pitch the past and look ahead.
(Tomorrow: From Coat to Robe; or, Rejected to Rise)