Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Exodus Chapter 3, we learn of Moses’ pilot prophecy. The Bible relates that the divine
communiqué took place in a wilderness – from the midst of a fiery, burning bush.
“Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest
of Midian. And he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and
came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb. And the angel of God
appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. And he
looked, and behold the bush burned with fire. And the bush was not
Throughout his commentaries on the Bible, Abravanel deals with Moses’ prophecy at length. Here, he
focuses on the greatest prophet of all time, Moses, and the timing behind Moses’ pilot prophecy.
With the opening verse of this chapter, Holy Scripture teaches Bible students four instrumental aspects
of Moses’ prophecy, truly indispensable knowledge. See Abravanel’s World for the full treatment. Here,
however, we will cover the first one: timing.
Abravanel questions why Moses only received God’s word at this juncture, in a wasteland? Why, for
example, had he not been graced with a heavenly message while growing up in opulence, in Pharaoh’s
palace under the care of the king’s daughter? Or perhaps, Moses should have received bonus prophecy
as the young activist went out to visit his brethren, advocating on their behalf.
Indeed, timing is key. Abravanel cites an ancient history text that chronicles Moses’ life prior to tending
to Jethro’s sheep. That source writes, that after Moses fled Pharaoh’s palace, he headed south and
settled in Ethiopia. There, his career blossomed. In time, he assumed the throne. For our purposes,
though, the question is: Why didn’t the Almighty appear to Moses when he ruled Ethiopia?
Here is the first point about prophecy. It does not rest upon someone surrounded by fame and
grandeur. On this delicate – and elusive – topic of prophecy, Abravanel quotes from Maimonides.
What is the right stuff, Maimonides asks about prophets in a general sense? First, prophets need to
possess analytical prowess and express themselves eloquently. Second, for Maimonides, the Creator’s
messenger must be extraordinarily imaginative. Finally, seers display steely self-discipline, shunning
physical pleasures. Clearly, Abravanel adds, prophets run from foolish pursuits, such as politics. They
Abravanel circles back to his original query about the timing of Moses’ first prophecy. He says, that as
long as Moses engaged in politics and amassing temporal power, prophecy eluded him. After his stint in
Ethiopia, Moses left Ethiopia and traveled to Midian. There, he labored as a shepherd and spent his days
hiking deserted desert dunes. Change came, as well as personal growth.
In the “farthest end of the wilderness…the angel of God appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the
midst of a bush.” Miles from the din of civilization, Moses cared for his father-in-law’s flocks. One day, in
mindful mediation, “he looked, and beheld the bush burned with fire.”
A transformative dialogue with the One Above was about to commence.