While tending his flocks in the desolate wilderness, Moses arrived at Horeb, the "mountain of God." Here he suddenly beheld an awesome spectacle that defied nature's laws and all human experience. A bush was all aflame yet remained intact, unaffected by the fire. Given its non-material, formless, mysterious and luminous characteristics, it is understandable that fire is frequently used in descriptions of the manifestation of the Divine Presence. [1]

The Hebrew word used in this context for bush is seneh. The Hebrew seneh occurs only here (Exodus 3:2-3 )and in Deuteronomy 33:16, where God is poetically named "the Presence in the Bush." Seneh is most likely a deliberate wordplay on Sinai, an intimation of the Sinaitic revelation foreshadowed in verse 12.[2] The bush in question has been identified as the thorny desert plant Rubus sanctus that grows about a yard high near wadis and in moist soil, and has flowers that resemble small roses and fruit like the raspberry that turns black when it has ripened. It has also been identified as the cassia senna shrub known in Arabic as sene.[3]

The startling suspension of nature's fixed laws arouses Moses' curiosity. "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn?" he wonders. At this point the Lord calls out to him, "Moses! Moses!" In the Bible, repetition of a name often characterizes a direct divine call.[4] Similarly, Moses' answer, "Hineini" (Here I am), is the standard, spontaneous, unhesitating response to a call.[5] Moses is then told to approach no further and to remove his shoes because the site is holy ground.[6] Moses' initial encounter with God is a terrifying experience; "afraid to look at God," he hides his face -- a reaction is shared by other biblical characters.[7]

The idea of explicitly sacred (Heb. kadosh) space is encountered here for the first time. No such concept exists in Genesis, which features only sacred time - the Sabbath.[8] The pagan mythological notion that certain areas are inherently holy does not exist in the Bible. It is solely the theophany that temporarily imparts sanctity to the site, rendering it inaccessible to man.

The pictorial detail of the scene of the Burning Bush has been understood in two different ways. Most commentators see in fire - an element that is self-sustaining, requires no substance for its existence or perpetuation, and is wholly unaffected by its environment - a symbolic representation of the transcendent, awesome, and unapproachable Divine Presence. The Bible affords ample justification for this interpretation. In the "Covenant of the Pieces" in Genesis,[9] the Lord is said to have come down upon Mount Sinai "in fire."

The imagery is even more explicit in Exodus: "Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain."[10] In Deuteronomy [11] the theophany is described as follows: "The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, dark with densest clouds. The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sounds of words but perceived no shape; nothing but a voice."[12]

Another line of interpretation sees in the lowly bush a symbol of the pathetic state of the people of Israel in Egyptian bondage, while the fire represents the forces of persecution. Just as the bush remains unconsumed, so Israel will not be crushed by its tormentors and will survive Egyptian oppression.[13] This rendering by no means excludes the other, for the biblical text can simultaneously accommodate multiple levels of meaning.[14]

Overcome with irresistible fascination at the astonishing scene, yet now profoundly sensible of the divine potency with which the place is charged, Moses' attention shifts from the visual to the aural. The sight of the Burning Bush fades away and is not mentioned again. Its place is taken by the Divine Voice. Here, too, a transformation takes place. The imperious Voice, commanding and admonishing, gives way to softer tones of pathos, concern, and tidings of liberation.

[1] Gen. 15:17; Exodus 13:21. 19:18, 24:17; Numbers 9:15-16, 14:14; Deut. 1:33, 4:11-12, 24, 9:3; Ezekiel 1:4, 13, 27, 8:2; Psalms 78:14; Neh. 9:12, 19 [back]
[2] D.N. Friedman, "The Burning Bush, " Bib 50 (1969); 245-246 [back]
[3] See J. Feliks, The Plant World of the Bible (Heb.) (Ramat Gan: Massada Press, 1968), pp. 110-112. M. Zohary, Plants of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 140f [back]
[4] Genesis 22:11, 46:2; I Samuel 3:10 [back]
[5] Genesis 22:1,7,11; 27:1; 31:11; 37:13; 46:2; I Sam. 3:4,6,8,16; II Sam. 1:7; Isa. 52:6; 58:9 [back]
[6] In the ancient Near East, removal of footwear, here probably sandals of papyrus or leather, was a sign of respect and displayed an attitude of humility. Priests officiated barefoot; and to this day they remove their footwear before pronouncing the priestly benediction in the synagogue service. [back]
[7] Gen. 32:31; Judges 6:22; 13:22; I Kings 19:13; Exodus 20:19; 24:10; 33:20 [back]
[8] Genesis 2:3 [back]
[9] Genesis 15:17 [back]
[10] Exodus 24:17 [back]
[11] Deuteronomy 4:11-12 [back]
[12] Contrast, however, I Kings 19:11-12 [back]
[13] Exodus Rabba 2:10 [back]
[14] The multiple sense of the Scriptures in emphasized in rabbinic literature. Cf. B. Sanhedrin 34a; B. Shabbat 88b; Numbers Rabba, Naso 13:15 [back]

The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (commentary by Nahum Sarna). Exodus Commentary © 1991, The Jewish Publication Society.

Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel by Nahum Sarna. Schocken Books, 1986.



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