The story of Moses and the burning bush is etched in the minds of most of us who grew up in Sunday School or hearing Bible stories from our parents. Its beats are so familiar — Moses is tending sheep in the wilderness when he sees a bush burning with fire but not being burnt up. He goes to investigate the strange phenomenon and God speaks to him from the flames, commissioning him to lead his people from slavery in Egypt into freedom in the land once promised to their ancestor Abraham. But beneath the familiarity of this story, it has much to offer us. Specifically for the purposes of this series on knowing God, it contains two details that provide helpful insights into encountering the Mystery of God: the burning bush and the revelation of the divine name, YHWH.
And so, let’s once again pick up the Integral hermeneutical framework and see what emerges for us in this famous story. (Note: These Integral hermeneutical posts are always very long and somewhat repetitive because their intent is to explicitly ‘show the work’ of each step of this cyclical process. As always, you can feel free to scroll down to the bottom for the reading of the text that emerges at the end.)
The first step is to reflect on my experience of reading the text. What stuck out to me in this reading of the story is just how removed Moses is from everything. Not only has he fled his life in Pharaoh’s household, but he is living in Midian, a sort of No-Man’s-Land in the Bible, in what’s now northwestern Saudi Arabia. Not only that but he has led his father-in-law’s flocks (note that they aren’t even his own flocks) “beyond the wilderness.” He is isolated, removed from friends and family. His encounter with God, then, really comes out of nowhere.
I was also struck by the role of wonder and curiosity in the story. Curiosity really isn’t a trait that the Bible goes out of its way to commend, and yet in this story, Moses’ curiosity sets the story in motion. He sees the mysterious fire and rather than shepherding his flock to safety, he says to himself, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.” God provided a sign for him, but it was up to Moses to investigate it. There’s a play here between God’s initiative and Moses’ initiative that piqued my own curiosity. At the same time, what governs this play is wonder. The reason Moses is curious is that the sign God has sent is strange, compelling, and mysterious — in other words, wondrous.
The final aspect of the story that I noticed was a reminder that humility is not the same thing as timidity. Moses responds with humility before God (he averts his eyes when he finds out the god of the bush is the God of his father, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and yet this does not keep him from debating, arguing, and objecting to God’s commission. This did not bother God, or dissuade God from using Moses. God called — God wanted — a whole human being with a will and opinions (not to mention insecurities and weaknesses), not a wilting flower of a yes-man.
Already in this first step, some beautiful themes have emerged. Let’s now turn to the second stage and see who it is we are encountering in the story.
There are two characters that we meet in this story, Moses and YHWH, and we learn a lot about both in these verses.
At the start of this passage, Moses is in a sense a man without an identity. Back in chapter 2, we read that Moses was born to enslaved Hebrews, but raised in Pharaoh’s own household. In today’s language, we could say his early life was heavily intersectional: a complicated array of marginalization and privilege and competing identities. He has enough solidarity with his people that he defends a Hebrew slave who is being abused on the streets by an Egyptian, but his fellow Hebrews view him as a collaborator and he is forced to flee the country. And when he arrives in Midian, his appearance marks him out as being Egyptian. He has a deep sense of justice — three times in chapter 2, Moses intervenes to stop an attack — but his attempts to defend the innocent haven’t generally gone well. Even after he is welcomed and married into a Midianite family, Moses’ sense of not belonging is such that it provides the meaning for his son Gershom’s name: “for he said, ‘I have been an alien [Heb. ger] residing in a foreign land.’” With all this in mind, it is no surprise that the start of our story finds Moses alone, keeping his father-in-law’s flocks “beyond the wilderness” (3.1).
It’s unclear how familiar with the stories of the Patriarchs and their God Moses is. What is clear is that when the voice from the burning bush mentions Moses’ father and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he listens. He averts his eyes, recognizing that this is not a local spirit or deity but the God of his own people.
Later, when God commissions Moses to free the Hebrews from slavery, we see that, while he may feel isolated and maybe even a failure, Moses has not lost his spark. He goes toe-to-toe with God, questioning God’s plans, which sound like a fool’s errand at best and a suicide mission at worst. Twice in this passage but five times in the discourse as a whole, Moses objects to the plan: “Who am I to tell Pharaoh what to do?” “Why should the Hebrews even listen to you when they don’t know who you are?” “Why should they believe me?” “I can’t even speak properly!” “Please, just not me!” These objections range from the sensible to the desperate, but they demonstrate a man who hasn’t lost his fight, even if life has battered and bruised him.
So the image of Moses that emerges from the story is a man whose life has been defined by his experience of not belonging and feeling alien and other even in his own family. And yet he hasn’t given up on life: he turns away from the safe road, towards the burning bush, is still alive with wonder and curiosity, and willing to argue his case before his God. Deep down he’s still the man who is willing to put his life on the line for the sake of justice. And this is the man God chooses to do the impossible.
Because of the importance of names in Biblical culture, this passage that includes the revelation of the divine name to Moses offers a particularly helpful place to learn something about who God is.
When God speaks out of the bush, God first identifies Godself in terms of history: “I am the God of your father, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” This is actually a risky thing for God to do. After all, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the supposed beneficiaries of God’s promise — have been cut off from their land and enslaved for generations. And so, while God uses the past to get Moses’ attention and to connect what’s about to happen with those old family stories, God quickly moves on to the present and future: The time has come for God to act to bring the chosen people out of slavery and into the land promised to their ancestors (3.7-8). When Moses questions God’s plan, God doesn’t really answer his objections, but what God does do, however, is promise to be with Moses and the people. God stakes God’s very identity on being present with Moses and the Hebrews: “I will be with you” (3.12; cf. “I have given heed to you” (3.16); “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak” (4.12, 15)).
This is made clear most of all in the revelation of God’s name. When Moses demands to know God’s name, he is essentially calling God out for having abandoned Jacob’s descendants for generations. It’s as though he’s saying, “Who are you to tell any of us what to do? We don’t even know who you are!” He’s certainly asking for more than just a name. As we’ve seen before, in the culture of the Hebrew Bible, names were believed to say something essential about the person. And so in demanding to know God’s name, Moses is also asking to know something of God’s character — specifically, something that would make the Hebrews willing to trust him. God’s answer is complicated and mysterious: “I am who I am,” and then “tell them: YHWH, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.”
Again we see that God links back to the promises made to the Patriarchs, but is staking God’s identity on the future. The grammar and translation of this is complicated (as we will see below), but the point is straightforward: God’s “name forever” and “title for all generations” is this mysterious tautology: this God cannot be defined by anything other than God’s own existence and this God is staking any claim to the Hebrew people on what’s about to happen. God is what God is, will be what God will be. Like the fire raging in the bush, God simply is. And this God is telling Moses that from now on, God will be with him and his people.
As I approached the external questions asked by academics, I had three main lines of questioning: What might I be missing about the burning bush as a theophany? What does Moses’ commission tell us about God? And, for lack of a better way of phrasing it, what really is the deal with the divine name?
The Burning Bush and Sacred Geography
A few of the works I looked at noted that the setting of the story is set up for something unexpected to happen. For example, on the strange syntax of the Hebrew in 3.1, Thomas B. Dozeman that it was “likely intended to indicate fantastic geography, meaning locations of mystery at the edges of everyday human experience, where unexpected events occur.” This idea is supported by the vagueness of the name Horeb, which simply means “a wilderness,” and sometimes refers to a specific mountain but at other times to a wilderness area around it. Dozeman also notes an ancient tradition that associated YHWH as dwelling in the southern mountains of Sinai and Midian, a tradition corroborated by evidence that the Midianites worshiped a god named “Yah” well before the establishment of Israel. Furthermore, Ancient Near Eastern cultures were also known to conflate mountains and temples as dwellings of the gods: Mountains were places of theophany and temples were called ‘mountains’.
All this is to say that the setting of this story would likely have raised expectation in its early audiences. Knowingly or unknowingly, Moses has led Jethro’s flocks to a place haunted by the idea of the divine.
With respect to the burning bush itself, there has been a lot of reflection in biblical studies on the appropriateness of the symbol of fire for God. Nahum Sarna notes: “Fire, because of its nonmaterial, formless, mysterious, and luminous characteristics, is frequently used in descriptions of the external manifestation of the Divine Presence.” About this particular fire that burns but does not consume the bush, Sarna adds: “The self-sustaining fire, requiring no substance for its existence or perpetuation, is a clear representation of the Divine Presence.” And certainly, the burning bush anticipates later appearances of God in fire, such as when God spoke “out of the midst of the fire” on Mt. Sinai (Deut. 4.12), and God leading the people “in a pillar of fire” (e.g., Ex. 13.21, Num 14.14), and the visible manifestation of God (shekinah) at the Tabernacle.
This burning bush is “YHWH’s Messenger.” This is often translated as “Angel of the Lord” but as James K. Bruckner notes, this isn’t quite right: It is the bush itself and not an ‘angel’ present in the bush that is the messenger: “God was present here and spoke directly to Moses. The flame was not God, but was rather the visual part of the message.”
One helpful insight about Moses’ commission is that the conversation between God and Moses here parallels God’s conversation with the elderly Jacob as he left to join his sons in Egypt in Genesis 46. In both stories, God addresses the human protagonist with a repetition of his name, which prompts the response “Here I am.” In both stories, God leverages historical ties to the human’s ancestors before proclaiming that God would be (has been) with them in Egypt and bring them back again. Rhetorically, then, the text is reminding its readers of God’s old commitments and promises. God promised Jacob that his descendants would return to the land promised to Abraham. God is now acting on that promise.
Michael P. Knowles reminds us that, just as Abraham’s theophany enacted God’s promise of a son to Sarah, so too here does Moses’ theophany have a larger role in Israel’s salvation history, since it triggers the defining story of the people of God: the Exodus. This is not only the context for the theophany of the burning bush but also of the revelation of the divine name. With the death of the generation that had escaped to Egypt, from the perspective of the Hebrews, God enters the story as much of an unknown as Moses does. This story of the commissioning of Moses, shapes not only Moses’ identity but also God’s.
The Name and Identity of God
So far in this study, we’ve seen how the revelation of God’s name occurs in the context of God trying to convince Moses to return to Egypt to free the Hebrews, and that God’s preferred “name” is to relate to the promises and actions of the past: “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God has made promises to these men and so God’s honour and justice is on the line. It’s important that Moses and the Hebrews know that this is not a new God coming to save them, but the same God who made promises that God intends to keep.
But, Moses isn’t satisfied: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” Several of the texts I consulted (see especially Fretheim and Knowles) note that Moses’ argumentation with God opens God up to further revelation. It is not only true that “curiosity leads to call,” as Fretheim put it, but that “persistence … occasions a greater fullness in the divine revelation. Human questions find an openness in God and lead to fuller knowledge.”
There has been a lot of discussion in the literature about whether this further revelation represents a new knowledge. That is, does God give Moses a name that had previously been unknown? Does God remind Moses of a name that had been lost with the death of Joseph’s generation? Or, does God provide a new meaning for a name that Moses already knew? This is one of those questions that is impossible to answer, but I think there are two helpful takeaways from the discussion: First, that what is important is the equation of the God represented by this name with the God of the Patriarchs. And second, that the name and the meaning God provides for it give meaning and content to God for Moses and the Hebrews. As Child notes, what is really important for the story is “What does Yahweh intend for us by his name?“
If names in the Ancient Near East were seen as a way of defining, understanding or even having power over what is named (see Cassuto for a good exploration of this idea), God’s name represents “a resolute evasion of [this] intent” (Knowles). The name reveals something about God and God’s intention, but what it reveals is that God will not be defined by anything other than God’s own actions.
Part of the reason why the divine name has elicited so much commentary over the centuries is that it isn’t clear how it actually works grammatically. As a verbal form it is clearly in the imperfective aspect, which focuses on continuing action without reference to time, so it could mean “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be.” But that’s about all we can say about it with any certainty. Some scholars have suggested a causative sense “I will bring to be what I will bring to be” or a form that focuses on potential “I will be whatsoever I will be” or existence itself “I am the One Who Is” (an idea corroborated by the ancient Greek translation that was the most widely used Bible in the Second Temple period). Later in Exodus, God adds “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,” which further suggests an open-ended interpretation of the name (33.19). The tautology seems to be what is important.
In large part because of this grammatical confusion, there seems to be increasing focus on the meaning of the name rather than its actual derivation. This shift seems justified not only considering the difficulties in parsing the form, but also that Hebrew names are often more about wordplay than actual etymology: What something sounds like is more important than what it actually means. So it could well be that the actual form of the name, YHWH, isn’t any actual form of the verb ‘to be’ but simply sounds like it could be; and from the point of view of Ancient Near Eastern naming conventions, that would be more than enough.
I have to say I love how even the grammar of God’s name is mysterious and unknowable. Not only is it a kind of object lesson for the whole thrust of this series — that God can be known and experienced but not defined — but it also leaves the answer to the question “Who is God?” open-ended and to be determined. As Bruckner says, “The important point is that God’s name is first revealed as an active verb, not a noun. Yahweh (the LORD) is not an abstraction, but a living, acting being. God’s name … gradually gains meaning in relation to what transpires between God and the people.” Framed in this way, the name “I am what I am” functionally means, “Who am I? Watch and learn.”
And so, contrary to Moses’ intention in asking the question, “God is not demystified through further understanding. In fact, the more one understands God, the more mysterious God becomes” (Fretheim). This truth has come down to today in the Jewish tradition by the ancient taboo on speaking God’s name aloud, which has rendered its original form and pronunciation lost to history. God’s identity remains, for Moses and for us still today, a question mark. Like the burning bush that was the medium for this revelation, God’s name is self-sufficient, all-consuming, without beginning and without end.
This step in the process challenges us to ask difficult questions of our emerging interpretation: Whose text is it? Who is being left out? What cultural factors — ours or the text’s — might be clouding our vision?
I often use this section to explore Jewish readings of the texts, since they represent an alternative interpretive tradition to my own. In this case, it was interesting to learn that it seems that the story of Moses and the burning bush was far more central to early and medieval Christian thought than it was in Jewish thought of the same period. What was for Jews but one formative incident in the life of Moses, in which the burning bush was an object lesson of Israel’s resilience in the face of the flames of oppression, became for Christians an allegory of the spiritual life itself, in which the burning bush was an icon both of the all-consuming presence of the Living God and the faithful believer too, who is called to similarly burn with the divine life without being destroyed by it. There’s definitely room for both interpretations, and in fact I think they feed off each other. There is nothing in this life that must either bring us closer to God or separate us from God. Anything can be a lesson in resilience or an agent of our destruction, an impetus for either communion or alienation. The choice in response is ours.
In terms of the divine name, there is an interesting difference between the two communities. I think it’s fair to say that Christians tend to think more about the implications of the divine name for God, while Jewish interpreters tend to think more about its implications for us. As the eminent twentieth century philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the divine name: “Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy.” And Carol Ochs, reflecting on the traditional Jewish toast, L’chayim ‘to life!’, says;
“We know it is in and through life that we find God. We seek not to flee this messy world or write it off as an illusion but to find God in and through all that is. God’s name has been given to us, and it keeps us from despair, forces us to look more deeply into all we experience, and leads, ultimately, to a life of commitment, engagement, gratitude, and love.”
Finally, in any story about the Exodus, the deep ethical problems of the Conquest of Canaan hang over everything. As much as it would be nice to bracket the experience of those from whom the Israelites would take their land, our belief in justice prevents us from getting off so easy. (This is especially true for those of us who make our homes on land that was similarly taken from other peoples.) After all, the gift of the Land of Promise is the very future action upon which God is staking God’s name, goodness, and justice here in this story. Unfortunately, there is not space to go into this unsettling problem here, and indeed it is more fitting for a study of Judges: the Conquest is still a good forty years in the future from the point of view of the story under consideration. But we can’t afford not to think about it at all. I leave the question here as an open problem, but will add this: Without ignoring the ethical problem of the conquest, we can and must assert that the people living in Canaan were also part of God’s plan for the future. This is not just the promise of the Christian Gospel, but of the covenant to Abraham as well, that his descendants were to bless all the nations of the earth.
So at last we come to our ‘integral questions’ to help us put it all together. Has our reading opened our minds and eyes? Has it expanded our circle of empathy? Does it promote growth? Is it good for us, our neighbours, and the world?
This story is all about expanding our vision and ideas. God finds Moses alone and alienated, and gives him a renewed purpose and connection to life and his people. The medium of this encounter is a perfect image of the message itself: God is an all-consuming fire, impossible to control or define, an unquenchable, self-sustaining force of life. God will not allow Israel to be burnt up by the experience of slavery; nor will God allow those who come to know God be destroyed by the divine presence. God is simply what and who God is: an infinitely expansive promise for the future.
This being the case, we need humility, not only about this infinite God whom we know, but about everything else in life. Our ways are not God’s ways; our wisdom is foolishness next to God’s wisdom. And so we need to check ourselves and our assumptions. And we must always be on the side of the big expansive life God is and offers to us.
Who is God? Watch and learn.
Bruckner, James K. Exodus. New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.
Cassuto, U. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.
Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A critical, theological commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Dozeman, Thomas B. Commentary on Exodus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2009.
Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching adn Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Presss, 2010.
Knowles, Michael P. The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in our midst. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2012.
Sarna, Nahum M. The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991.