By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of Moses and the burning bush from the Book of Exodus is a well-known episode in the Old Testament. It is a decisive moment because God reveals his name to Moses: the first time he has spoken his name to anyone. Located on Mount Horeb (better known as Mount Sinai), the burning bush was on fire, but wasn’t consumed by the flames. When Moses beholds the burning bush, God (or Yahweh) speaks to Moses and tells him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan.
But what was the burning bush? Is there a scientific basis for this miraculous occurrence, or should we just accept it as divine theatre? The burning bush is described in Exodus 3:1–4:17. Let’s take a closer look at what Exodus chapter 3 tells us, with a view to offering an analysis of the story.
Moses and the burning bush: summary
3:1 Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.
Midian (on what is now known as the Arabian Peninsula) is where Moses’ mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt begins. Mountains often have sacred connotations in classical literature: compare Mount Olympus, the seat of the gods in Greek mythology. Here, Horeb (also known as Sinai) will be the site of Moses’ encounter with God (or Yahweh, or Jehovah: more on that name in due course).
3:2 And the angel of the LORD 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 consumed.
As so often, this seemingly impossible phenomenon – a bush that burns but is not burnt away by the fire – signals the miraculous and the divine, paving the way for God’s address to Moses.
3:3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.
3:4 And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.
3:5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.
3:6 Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.
3:7 And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; 3:8 And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
Here we have the first reference to the ‘Promised Land’: a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’, in a now-famous phrase. God has appointed Moses as the person to lead the people of Israel out from the oppressive tyranny of the Egyptian Pharaoh and to the land that is theirs: Canaan (also known as Palestine, though the modern state of Israel was established on this spot in 1948).
3:9 Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them.
3:10 Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.
3:11 And Moses said unto God, Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? 3:12 And he said, Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.
3:13 And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? 3:14 And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.
I AM THAT I AM is God revealing his personal name to Moses. Essentially, the gist of the name as it’s translated into English here is that God is ‘being’, an eternal being, present throughout time. God, if you will, is existence itself.
3:15 And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, the LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.
3:19 And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand.
3:20 And I will stretch out my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof: and after that he will let you go.
God warns Moses that once he has gathered together the children of Israel, Pharaoh will not let them go. After all, they are living as slaves under Egypt’s rule, and the king of Egypt isn’t going to give up his slaves just like that. But God will strike Egypt with miraculous ‘wonders’ and that should do the trick in helping Pharaoh to change his mind. (Well, it would, wouldn’t it?)
4:1 And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.
4:2 And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod.
4:3 And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.
Rods or staves are connected with serpents in other cultures, too. The staff of Asclepius represents pharmacy, but originally symbolised the Greek god of healing of that name. The staff has a serpent wrapped around it, symbolising healing; this symbolism is grounded in the snake’s ability to shed its own skin, representing renewal and rejuvenation.
Also in classical Greek myth, there was the caduceus: a staff with two intertwined serpents. This staff was carried by Hermes (or his Roman counterpart, Mercury): the messenger of the gods. The two staffs are often confused, but the herald’s staff borne by Hermes/Mercury had two serpents, rather than one, with their heads facing each other. The caduceus came to symbolise trade and transportation because Hermes was often flying around from one god to another to deliver messages.
4:4 And the LORD said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand: 4:5 That they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee.
Moses will use this rod to perform a number of subsequent miracles, including the parting of the Red Sea.
Moses and the burning bush: analysis
The burning bush is an important moment in the Old Testament because it acts as a sign to Moses that God has chosen him to lead his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land. However, it is also significant in broader biblical terms because God imparts his personal name to Moses.
But what is that name? I AM THAT I AM is how it is rendered in the King James translation. But later in Exodus, in 6:3, when God reappears to Moses, the name is given as JEHOVAH. This is the form in which the tetragram (four-letter name) of God’s name, JHVH, is usually rendered.
But curiously, JEHOVAH was the result of an error which has been perpetuated ever since. Jews became reluctant to pronounce God’s name out loud, so instead of trying to pronounce JHVH, they substituted the Hebrew word ‘Adonai’, meaning ‘Lord’. In Hebrew script, diacritical marks under the consonants indicate the accompanying vowel sounds, but because it became Jewish tradition not to pronounce God’s name but to say ‘Adonai’ instead, they didn’t provide any diacritical marks for JHVH.
They did, however, do this for ‘Adonai’, and a medieval Christian scholar erroneously assumed that the diacritical marks under ‘Adonai’ were meant to be transferred to JHVH, with the result that ‘Jehovah’ was born. Indeed, if there is a ‘correct’ agreed way to say God’s name, most scholars agree that it should be ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Yahveh’, rather than ‘Jehovah’.
Similar interpretive issues surround the burning bush itself. The Hebrew word for the burning bush is seneh, meaning brambles. At least, that is how the word is usually translated. It’s difficult to say for sure what seneh means because the word appears only twice in all of ancient literature, with both instances found in the Book of Exodus where they describe the ‘burning bush’. (There’s a word or a term for that – isn’t there always? – and that term is dis legomenon, denoting a word that is used just twice.)
It’s been suggested that the burning bush is based on a mistaken interpretation of Sinai, since Exodus 19:18 describes Mount Sinai as being on fire: ‘And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.’ At the very least, seneh may have been formed as a pun on ‘Sinai’. We cannot be sure.
However, the Dictionary of the Bible helpfully (as ever) suggests one of the thorny shrubs of the acacia family which are found around Sinai. This seems more likely than a bramble.
Or perhaps, for all that, it was drugs. Benny Shanon, a professor of psychology, has proposed the hypothesis that the burning bush story grew out of a psychedelic experience: some acacias found in this part of the world contain DMT, a substance which can induce hallucinatory experiences, when joined with another tree, Peganun harmala. Could this famous Old Testament story have begun life as some kind of ritual involving these trees? You can find more about this theory here.