Exodus – the Burning Bush

In these Exodus blogs, I’m exploring some of the ways in which the writers/editors crafted their work. In my view, they were writing neither straightforward history, nor fiction, but what might be called ‘religious literature’, which they shaped into an inspiring eye, ear and imagination catching, ‘national epic’. I think of it as being mythicised history, employing archetypal symbolism and figurative language, making the Hebrew Bible one of the priceless treasures of world culture.  

Why, in this work of spiritual literature is there a story (in Exodus 3) about God speaking to Moses from inside a burning bush? In exploring the Hebrew Bible, I’ve occasionally drawn attention to instances of word-play, which are a frequent occurrence. A recent example was the Egyptian name ‘Moses’ being supposedly linked to the Hebrew מָשָׁה ‘mashah’, meaning ‘to draw out’ (as from the River Nile).

In Exodus 3, the Hebrew word for “bush” is סְנֶה (sineh) meaning ‘a thorny bush’. This comes from the same root as the word סִינַי (Sinai) as in the Mountain of that name, where Moses is said to receive the Law from Yahweh, the God of Israel. So what’s important about this image of a burning bush out of which God speaks?

In Deuteronomy 4, Moses reminds the Israelites that, at Mount Sinai (the ‘thorn bush’ mountain), they “stood at the bottom of the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire … and Yahweh spoke to you from the midst of the fire.” For good measure, the word for “burning” is exactly the same in both instances. In Exodus 3, then, I’d suggest that God speaking to Moses from the ‘burning bush’ is a graphic prefiguration of the God’s later speaking to Israel from the ‘burning mountain’.

There are other prefigurations in the Exodus story. In chapter 4, God shows Moses three signs that would ‘prove’ him to be the bearer of a divine message. (i) A staff held in Moses’ hand temporarily turns into a snake; (ii) his hand briefly is made leprous; (iii) and if he poured some Nile water on the ground it would turn to blood. 

(i) In Exodus 7, Moses flings down a staff before the Pharaoh, and it becomes a snake. (ii) In Numbers 12, after criticising Moses, his sister Miriam was smitten with leprosy for 7 days. (iii) In Exodus 7, Moses, with the Pharaoh watching, struck the water of the Nile with a staff and turned it into blood, the first of the 10 plagues of Egypt.

In a piece of music, a composer sometimes, near the beginning, introduces brief motifs, which later reappear as fully developed main themes, giving his work a sense of structural integrity. Similarly, these skilled Hebrew Bible writers and editors introduce prefigurative motifs which then recur as important themes. An unimaginative approach to their work is impoverishing in my view, and does less that justice to these accomplished literary craftsmen (or women, if any were both permitted and enabled to be involved).  

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