Burning but not consumed : Moses, God, and a bush

Moses and the burning bush

Moses and the burning bush / Raphael, ca. 1515

Fire appears in the Bible a lot.

  • God is like a refining fire (Malachi 3:2).
  • His word is like a fire and like a hammer that breaks the rock (Jeremiah 23:29). Three friends of Daniel spent some time in a fiery furnace.
  • Elijah called down fire on the men sent to arrest him (2 Kings 1:10, 12).
  • James and John wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans (Luke 9:54).
  • Tongues of fire appeared over 120 people in the upper room on Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
  • And during the Exodus God appeared as a pillar of fire at night (Exodus 13:21-22).

Fire can symbolize destruction of evil, refinement of believers like gold, finishing of believers like pottery, the presence of God, the action of the Holy Spirit and much more.

A green and flaming bush

Moses didn’t know any of that the day he saw a bush on fire. Now, he’d seen a lot of bushes on fire in his day, but they always turned black and shriveled up and turned to ashes.

This one was on fire, but it was still every bit as green and fresh as any other bush Moses could see. It was so strange that he had to go closer to check it out.

He was about 80 years old at the time. He had grown up in Egypt, and although a Hebrew by birth, he had been raised as an Egyptian prince.

He got angry when he saw an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew and killed him. That was 40 years earlier, and he had fled to the wilderness as an exile.

The Bible doesn’t say much about those 40 years, but Moses got married and had three sons. He had a wonderful relationship with his in-laws, a wealthy and influential family.

He became a skilled shepherd and knew his way around this wild and sparsely populated corner of the world.

I have no idea if he thought of Egypt very much and less idea what he thought. In any case, life was good for him in the present. He had to work hard, but that’s never a problem if life is rewarding. He could go home to a family that loved him, secure in the knowledge that he had taken good care of his sheep.

I notice that the Bible does not explicitly mention if he was alone, but I suspect that he was with at least two or three other shepherds, and that they were close friends who enjoyed working together.

For all anyone knows, he was completely content as he went to investigate this strange bush that was on fire, but not burning up.

The last thing he expected was for God to show up and call him by name, but that’s the reason the bush was on fire in the first place. God wanted Moses’ attention.

Whether Moses still thought about the Hebrews in Egypt or not, God had not forgotten his covenant with Abraham. The Hebrews were supposed to be in Egypt for 400 years.

Actually, Moses had come of age about 390 years after Pharaoh invited Joseph’s family to settle in the land of Goshen. The Bible says Moses led the people out after 430 years.

Could it be that when Moses took matters into his own hands and murdered an Egyptian taskmaster instead of praying to God about it, he delayed the eventual Exodus by another 30 years? God had preordained Moses to be the leader, and he hadn’t forgotten that choice, either.

The voice from the bush

Moses and the burning bush mosaic

Byzantine mosaic. sixth century. St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

So when Moses approached the bush, God called his name—not once, but twice. Moses responded, “Here I am,” and started to go nearer.

But before the resurrection of Jesus, no man could approach the divine glory at will. God ordered Moses to remove his sandals and keep his distance. The ground he stood on was holy.

Taking off sandals has at least two meanings. First and most obvious, it is a mark of respect and submission to a superior.

Second and easier to miss, it is a mark of hospitality. People would routinely remove their shoes at home. If when visiting someone else the host would invite them to take off their shoes, it was the equivalent of our telling a guest, “make yourself at home.”

The Bible portrays God as a leader, ruler, judge, and otherwise someone superior and stern. It also frequently portrays him as a host, and here he invites Moses to be his guest!

God identified himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Stories of these patriarchs and the God who had made covenant with them had been passed down from generation to generation. Moses knew them well.

Although he had come specifically to see the bush and find out why it wasn’t burning up, he hid his face in fear when God spoke from it.

He no longer wanted to figure out the mystery for himself. He had a revelation from God, and it was more than he could handle.

God was not finished revealing, but he did not reveal any of the things that would have satisfied Moses’ immediate curiosity. God does not reveal himself to humanity to satisfy people, but to work his will.

He told Moses that he had seen and heard how the Egyptians oppressed the Hebrews and had come down to deliver them.

Judgment, grace, and the Hebrews’ bondage

I suppose a lot of people would point out that pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph had been oppressing people for hundreds of years.

Where was God until now? God had told Abraham that the sin of the Amorites had not yet reaching its full extent (Genesis 15:16). God always sees a wider view than we do. He extends grace even to people he knows will reject it. His relation to time is not the same as ours.

I often wish he would hurry up and quickly rescue me from whatever scrape I’m in, but God wants first to develop my character and personality so that it more nearly resembles Jesus.  Deliverance comes later.

When we find that we have a difference of opinion with God about his timing, or really anything else, we must learn that God is always right and we are always wrong.

The sooner we accept that fact and look to God in faith without grumbling, the sooner we’ll become Christ-like enough to receive the blessings he so much wants to give us.

Whether or not we appreciate the timing here, what God told Moses provides one of many pieces of evidence that he cares about the oppressed and that he will work directly on their behalf.

And all of the various scriptural evidence of God’s compassion for the suffering and oppressed also underscores another fact: he expects his people to demonstrate the same concern and compassion for the suffering and oppressed.

Moses probably understood and appreciated everything God told him in an impersonal and abstract way. Lots of Christians today hear the word in the same way. If we really believe it, it makes us feel good about God.

Moses’ unwelcome assignment

Moses and the burning bush

Attributed to Dirk Bouts, ca. 1450-1475

But now comes the shock. The reason God told Moses all of this was that he expected Moses to leave his comfortable existence, confront Pharaoh himself, and lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt and into the promised land.

Throughout Scripture, God called a lot of people for a lot of tasks. Moses responded with the majority of them by informing God that he had called the wrong person.

God has never yet told anyone, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll find someone else.” Instead, God promised to be with Moses and gave him a sign. Unfortunately, Moses would not see the sign before he went so that it would encourage him.

He would see the sign only after he had successfully completed his task. Now that’s just like God. Sometimes he did give people a sign in advance to encourage them, but it’s always his choice, not the choice of the person he calls.

Whatever else Moses may have thought, he accepted the call. There was just one problem. He had heard stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He knew that God had made covenant with them and performed mighty acts for them.

Surely there were some among the Hebrews who remembered God’s name, but Moses couldn’t know that for sure. How could he persuade the Hebrews, let alone the Egyptians, that he had an authentic call from God if he didn’t even know his name?

God answered, “I am who I am. Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” Now, at the time the Old Testament was written, the Hebrew alphabet had no vowels.

There are various ways to render their alphabet into ours, so the divine name can be written as JHVH or YHWH. The first is the oldest way, and adding vowels gives us Jehovah.

Scholars have decided that in English anyway, that transliteration does not provide a pronunciation that the ancient Hebrews would recognize. The second transliteration is preferred today, and with vowels it becomes Yahweh.

It hardly matters how the ancient Hebrews pronounced the word, because by the end of the Babylonian exile pious Jews didn’t pronounce it at all. They substituted the word Adonai, which means Lord.

We’re probably better off just remembering that however we spell or pronounce it, it means “I am.”

God all-sufficient—for us, too

Moses and the burning bush

Nicolas Poussin, ca. 1650

I am what? It depends on what God means to reveal at any given time. The Old Testament frequently combines the divine name with other expressions, usually to name altars erected to honor him: I am provider; I am peace; I am healer; I am victory; I am present; I am righteous; I am shepherd.

The name of Jesus, in its Hebrew form, means I am savior. God is whatever we need him to be.

Meanwhile, he expects his followers, his chosen people to be whatever he needs us to be. All humans look for their lives to mean something. We seek meaning in our families, friends, and achievements.

There is nothing wrong with any of that, but God always has more in mind. He wants us to serve him as instruments of divine grace. We can do that in church. There is much, much more to be done outside of church.

God passionately cares about the lives of individuals. He wants everyone to live holy, prosperous, and successful lives—according to his definition of those terms, not the world’s.

He has chosen to do his work not directly, but through people. That’s why God called Moses: both so that Moses could fulfill his purpose (act as deliverer) and so that Moses could grow into a far godlier individual than he could have ever imagined.

That’s why God calls anyone else, too.

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