Among Jews and Christians, the burning bush is a biblical representation of the numinosity of God, where Moses encounters a fiery bush on a mountain whose foliage is never consumed by the flames. Described in the Book of Exodus (3:4), the burning bush is also said to be the location at which Moses was appointed by Yahweh to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan.
As a powerful religious symbol, the burning bush represents many things to Jews and Christians such as God's miraculous energy, sacred light, illumination, and the burning heart of purity, love and clarity. From a human standpoint, it also represents Moses' reverence and fear before the divine presence.
More skeptical scholars, however, argue that Moses may have been under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance when he witnessed the burning bush. Certain entheogens found in arid regions of the Sinai peninsula and in the south of Israel (i.e. Negev) were commonly used for religious purposes by the Israelites.
The Hebrew word used for bush is seneh (סנה), which refers in particular to brambles. It is possible, however, that the reference to a burning bush is derived from the word Sinai (סיני), a mountain described by the Bible as being on fire. If this is true then the words burning bush may be a copyist's error that originally denoted Sinai.
In the narrative, an angel of Yahweh is described as appearing in the bush, and God is subsequently described as calling out from it to Moses, who had been grazing Jethro's flocks there. When Yahweh notices Moses starting to approach, God tells Moses to first take off his sandals, due to the place being holy ground, and Moses hides his face.
Textual scholars regard the account of the burning bush as being spliced together from the Jahwist and Elohist texts, with the Angel of Yahweh and the removal of sandals being part of the Elohist version, and the Yahwist's parallels to these being God and the turning away of Moses' face, respectively.
The text portrays Yahweh as telling Moses that he is sending him to the Pharaoh in order to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, an action that Yahweh is described as having decided upon as a result of noticing that the Israelites were being oppressed by the Egyptians. Yahweh tells Moses to tell the elders of the Israelites that Yahweh would lead them into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites, a region generally referred to as a whole by the term Canaan, which is also described as being a land of milk and honey.
According to the narrative, Moses was given supernatural powers, in order to help Moses persuade the Egyptians and Israelites of his commission; these included the ability to turn his staff into a snake, the ability to make his hand (temporarily) become leprous, and the ability to turn water into blood.
Despite the signs, Moses is described as being very reluctant to take on the role, arguing that he lacked eloquence, and that someone else should be sent instead; in the text, Yahweh reacts by angrily suggesting that Aaron is sent to assist Moses, since Aaron is eloquent and was already on his way to meet Moses. This is the first time in the Torah that Aaron is mentioned, and here he is described as being Moses' prophet, as if Moses were Aaron's god.
Debated Locations of the Burning Bush
Christian hermits originally gathered at Mount Serbal, believing it to be the biblical Mount Sinai. However, in the fourth century, under the Byzantine Empire, the monastery built there was abandoned in favor of the newer belief that Mount Saint Catherine was the Biblical Mount Sinai; a new monastery—St. Catherine's Monastery was built at its foot, and the alleged site of the biblical burning bush was identified. The bush growing at the spot (a bramble, scientific name Rubus sanctus), was later transplanted several yards away to a courtyard of the monastery, and its original spot was covered by a chapel dedicated to the Annunciation, with a silver star marking where the roots of the bush had come out of the ground. The Monks at St. Catherine's Monastery, following church tradition, believe that this bush is, in fact, the original bush seen by Moses, rather than a later replacement, and anyone entering the chapel is required to remove their shoes, just as Moses was in the biblical account.
However, in modern times, it is not Mount Saint Catherine, but the adjacent Jebel Musa (Mount Moses), which is currently identified as Mount Sinai by popular tradition and guide books; this identification arose from bedouin tradition. Mount Serbal, Jebel Musa, and Mount Saint Catherine, all lie at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, but the peninsula's name is a comparatively modern invention, and it was not known by that name at the time of Josephus or earlier. Most modern scholars, as well as many modern theologians, dismiss the idea that the biblical Sinai was at the south of the peninsula, instead favoring locations in the Hijaz (at the north west of Saudi Arabia), northern Arabah (in the vicinity of Petra, or the surrounding area), or occasionally in the central or northern Sinai Peninsula. Hence, the majority of academics and theologians agree that if the burning bush ever existed, then it is highly unlikely to be the bush preserved at St Catherine's Monastery.
Views and Interpretations
In Eastern Orthodoxy a tradition exists that the flame Moses saw was God's Uncreated Energies/Glory, manifested as light, thus explaining why the bush was not consumed. Hence, it is not interpreted as a miracle in the sense of an event, which only temporarily exists, but is instead viewed as Moses being permitted to see these Uncreated Energies/Glory, which are considered to be eternal things; the Orthodox definition of salvation is this vision of the Uncreated Energies/Glory, and it is a recurring theme in the works of Greek Orthodox theologians.
In Eastern Orthodox parlance, the preferred name for the event is The Unburnt Bush, and the theology and hymnography of the church view it as prefiguring the virgin birth of Jesus; Eastern Orthodox theology refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus as the God bearer, viewing her as having given birth to Incarnate God without suffering any harm, or loss of virginity, in parallel to the bush being burnt without being consumed. There is an Icon by the name of the Unburnt Bush, which portrays Mary in the guise of God bearer; the icon's feast day is September 4.
Symbolic uses of the burning bush
- The current symbol of the Reformed Church of France is a burning bush with the Huguenot cross.
- The motto of the Church of Scotland is Nec tamen consumebatur, Latin for Yet it was not consumed, an allusion to the biblical story of the burning bush, and a stylized depiction of the burning bush is used as the Church's symbol.
- The Burning Bush is also used as the basis of the symbol of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which uses the Latin motto Ardens sed virens, meaning Burning but flourishing, and based on the same passage. The same logo is used from the separated Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.
- The burning bush is also the symbol for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Presbyterian Church in New Zealand and the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan.
- The Burning Bush is the name of Far Eastern Bible College's theological journal.
The logo of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America is also an image of the Burning Bush with the phrase and the bush was not consumed in both English and in Hebrew.
The burning bush which does not consume itself has been said to symbolically represent the sun, an unquenchable fire which burns without ceasing.
- Benny Shanon, Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis (PDF), Time and Mind I(I) (March 2008): 51–74. Retrieved March 27, 2021.
- Ofri Ilani, Researcher: Moses was tripping at Mount Sinai Haaretz, March 4, 2008. Retrieved March 27, 2021.
- Matthew Black, Peake's commentary on the Bible (Routledge, 2001).
- T.K Cheyne and Sutherland Black (eds.), Encyclopedia Biblica (Thoemmes Continuum, 1903).
- Exodus 3:2
- Exodus 3:4
- Exodus 3:5
- Exodus 3:6
- Exodus 3:16
- Exodus 3:14
- Exodus 3:7
- Exodus 3:17
- Exodus 3:17
- Exodus 4:2-4
- Exodus 4:6-7
- Exodus 4:9
- Exodus 4:10-13
- Exodus 4:14
- Exodus 4:15-16
- The Burning Bush Popa's Tales 4(5). Retrieved March 27, 2021.
- St. John of Kronstadt, The Octoechos, Volume II (Liberty, TN: Trinity Press, 1999).
- Isaiah 9:6 (LXX)
- Black, Matthew. Peake's Commentary on the Bible. Routledge, 2001. ISBN 978-0415263559
- Cheyne, T.K., and Sutherland Black (eds.). Encyclopaedia Biblica. Thoemmes Continuum, 1903. ISBN 978-1843710677
- Humphreys, Colin. The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories. New York: HarperOne, 2004. ISBN 978-0060582739
- Williams, Larry R. The Mountain of Moses: The Discovery of Mount Sinai. Wynwood Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0922066452
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