This week we open a new book in the cycle of Torah readings, the book of Exodus/Shemot (“Names”). The Israelites, who were welcome guests in Egypt at the end of Genesis/Bereishit, are now slaves under a genocidal pharoah. This week’s Torah portion, also called Shemot, tells the story of Moses from his birth to Hebrew slaves until his return to Egypt as God’s prophet.
His life story does not mention God until after Moses is settled in the land of Midian with a wife and child. He knows that he was born a Hebrew, and that his people have their own god, but he does not know the god’s name. Moses learns about Egyptian gods while he is growing up as the adopted son of the pharaoh’s daughter. He also learns about the gods of Midian, since he lives with the Midianite priest Yitro and marries one of his daughters.
In Midian, Moses leads a introspective life as a shepherd, deliberately taking his flock to remote places where he will be alone.
Moses was shepherding the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, priest of Midian, and he guided the flock achar the midbar, and he came to the mountain of God, to chorev. (Exodus/Shemot 3:1)
achar (אַחַר) = behind, after, in the back, in the future
midbar (מִדְבָּר) = the wilderness. (A homonym is midbeir, מְדַבֵּר = speaking, speaker.)
chorev (חֺרֵב) = dry desolation; “Horeb” (in English), the name of a mountain and a region also identified as Sinai.
A simple translation is that Moses “guided the flock beyond the wilderness, and he came to the mountain of God, to (Mount) Chorev”.
Alternatively, maybe Moses “guided the flock to the future of the speaker, and he came to the mountain of God, to dry desolation”. The second translation is non-standard, but it does describe Moses’ psychological journey. He takes what he was given by his father-in-law the priest (literally sheep, but perhaps also theology), and goes beyond his accustomed life into his own future. He is about to become a prophet, a speaker for God. He is also about to feel dry and desolate, because he does not want the mission God thrusts upon him.
Meanwhile, God has noticed the groaning of the enslaved Israelites, and is about to recruit Moses as the instrument for liberating and leading the Israelites. But God does not suddenly speak to Moses, or appear in a dream, as God did with Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Jacob in the book of Genesis. Instead, God arranges a small miracle off to one side of Moses’ route.
Then a messenger of God appeared to him in a flame of fire from the middle of the seneh; and he saw it; and hey! the seneh was burning in the fire, but the seneh was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2)
seneh (סְנֶה) = a particular type of bush
In the entire Hebrew bible, the word seneh appears only in this scene (five times), and once in Deuteronomy/Devarim. It is probably related to the Arabic word sina = thornbush, and the Latin senna = a family of woody flowering perennials with straggling branches, about knee-high. The seneh may or may not come from the same Hebrew root as Sinai (סִינַי), the other name for the mountain where Moses repeatedly meets God. But as Martin Buber pointed out, repeating the word seneh three times in one sentence certainly evokes the name “Sinai”.
Later in the book of Exodus, God manifests at Mount Sinai in volcanic fire and thunder. But here, God’s fire appears in a small plant, and burns quietly without consuming it. Why does God choose this manifestation?
The symbolic meaning of the burning bush according to Shemot Rabbah is that Moses is afraid Egypt will destroy Israel, just as a fire would normally destroy a bush. Since this burning bush is not consumed, it represents a promise that the Israelites will never be destroyed by their oppressors.1
I agree with 20th-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz that the fire in the bush is an implausible symbol for the Egyptians; since God’s messenger (angel) speaks from the middle of this fire, the fire would more plausibly represent divine revelation.2 According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the burning bush means that anyone who opens their heart to God will not be destroyed by the divine power.3
Moses said: “Oh, I must turn aside so I will see this great sight! Why does the bush not burn up?” (Exodus 3:3)
The “messenger” of God is simply the sight of something outside natural law—and therefore numinous. Moses is a person who will notice something unusual and turn aside. Maybe he is curious about the nature of the universe; or maybe he is searching for God. After all, why did he take the flock beyond the grassy wilderness to this dry and desolate mountain, where there is nothing good for sheep to eat? His father-in-law the priest must have told him where to find the “mountain of the gods”. Now Moses is alert for any sign of the divine.
God does not speak to Moses until after he has turned aside to look at the bush. Apparently alert curiosity and a willingness to approach the numinous are essential traits that God requires in his prophet.
And God saw that he had turned aside to see, so God called to him from the middle of the bush, and said: “Moses! Moses!” And he said: “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:4)
That Moses hears God speak from a mere thorn-bush demonstrates that God is everywhere, even in the lowliest places: a scrubby shrub as well as a tall cedar of Lebanon, a small and barren mountain as well as a lofty peak.4
I have heard many of my friends say they feel God’s presence the most when they are out hiking and surrounded by tall trees or snow-capped peaks. I confess that I, too, feel touched by something numinous when I see the forest or the ocean here in Oregon. Yet I know that if we want to seek the divine, we need to look at straggly little plants as well as cedars, and pray in pre-fab rooms as well as cathedrals.
And God said: Don’t come closer to here! Take off your sandals from upon your feet, because the place that you are standing upon is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5)
Moses cannot come closer to God right away. No matter how much he wants to understand the divine, he must learn about God during the course of a long relationship.
In my experience, that is also true for God-seekers today. A mystical experience can be a message, but it does not change your life, or even your soul. The next day, your old behaviors come right back (even if your feeling of transformation keeps you from noticing them). One experience cannot change you into someone who walks with God—someone who thoughtfully does the right things and remains aware of a larger view of reality. You have to change yourself over the course of many years, noticing when it is time to turn aside, noticing when you have made another mistake, and remembering over and over again that a divine fire hides in the weedy bushes of life.
At least that’s what I believe. So I take comfort from knowing that even Moses cannot walk right into the divine fire and become one with God. His encounter at the burning bush is only the beginning. But at least God tells him he is standing on holy ground. If only we could realize that we are all standing on holy ground!
- Shemot Rabbah 2:1. (Written by rabbis of the first few centuries C.E.)
- Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot, translated by Aryeh Newman, The Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 55.
- Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 31.
- Mekhilta of R. Shimon b, Yochai, attributed to R. Eliezer b. Arakh, quoted in Leibowitz, p. 56.