What do you mean God speaks?

S4E2: Why Moses heard God from a burning bush

January 28, 2024 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 4 Episode 2
What do you mean God speaks?
S4E2: Why Moses heard God from a burning bush
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

It is an iconic scene in the Bible: God calls Moses from the burning bush. But, why the burning bush? After all, God can speak through an immeasurable number of things.

It is because the bush that does not burn up, and the flame that blazes, yet will not burn itself out, means something to Moses--and to us--which connects us to how God, speaking all of reality, can speak to human individuals in a powerful and personal way. We'll explore what that is in this episode.

(edit: Jan 30, added ~1 minute of content from 26:26, and revised sentences that were too long the final 5 minutes )
           
 2:21     Moses is “born” twice – his birth narrative             
 8:28     Moses as a failed “Zorro / Batman”             
 16:51    Moses’s life before the Burning Bush             
 24:43    What was the fire, and "The Angel of the LORD"             
 32:33    What did the burning bush mean?              
---------------------------------------------------

Support the show

----------------------------------------
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/whatdoyoumeangodspeaks/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Paul_Seungoh
website: https://whatdoyoumeangodspeaks.buzzsprout.com/

* Please review or rate this series on Apple Podcast and other platforms!
* You can financially support this show by clicking the "Support the Show" line above.

 It is an iconic scene in the Bible: a man named Moses stands before a burning bush in the desert, and from the flames, God calls his name and speaks to him. It is definitely one of the most significant and well known scenes in the Christian Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, ranking perhaps just a tier below the opening of Genesis—which is, after all, God speaking forth all that ever exists. 

But, why the burning bush?

Now, you may answer, “Why not a burning bush?”—which is quite fair. But, hear me out: according to the Bible, God can speak from an immeasurable number of different things. So, why the burning bush, specifically, for Moses? Is there any meaning to that? This question becomes even more significant when we consider that the story of Moses is not only a story of one particular man in the past, but, also meant to describe how everyone encounters God, at least, under a particular kind of circumstances.

I mean, if I were to describe some event in my life as “a burning bush moment,” you’d know what I mean, that is, if you are even semi-literate regarding the Bible. People can have a “burning bush” moment—we all know what that means—an important, personal encounter with something holy, which transforms us and the directs the subsequent course of our lives. But, again, why a “burning bush” for such an encounter?    

And I believe the answer to that is largely due to what flame and light symbolize for us, which is then emblazoned into that moment in the life-story of Moses, shedding a light on everything leading up to it. So, we will explore what this means in this episode of…

[ music / ]

"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our second episode of the fourth season, “Why did God speak to Moses from a burning bush”? 

[ / music ]

My high priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. He appointed me as his gardener.”

This is the birth narrative of Sargon of Akkad, the first ruler of the Akkadian Empire, who conquered and unified most of Mesopotamia—today’s Iraq and Syria—sometime from the 24th to the 23rd century BC. That’s several centuries, btw, before the time of Abraham, according to the Bible. Sargon became a legendary hero for a couple of thousand years afterward, sort of like Alexander the Great, or perhaps King Arthur, for English-speaking countries. The latter is especially relevant as we’ll later find. 

The story of his birth you just heard was written down during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, sometime in the 7th century BC, which is more than fifteen hundred years after his time —though of course, there were probably older sources that this story was based on, just like how it is with the current version of the Genesis and Exodus accounts of people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. And speaking of Moses, did Sargon’s birth story remind you of one, particular story about Moses?

In case you said no, let’s continue from our previous episode. Several generations after the time of Jacob, his descendants living in Egypt, are now regarded with distrust and hostility by the Egyptian ruling class, who in turn enslaves them, and enforces a form of periodic population control. Specifically, every male Hebrew baby born during this time was to be thrown into the River Nile. It is then that a baby boy was born to a Hebrew couple who refused to let their son die. So, his mother laid him in a basket, sealed it with bitumen, and placed it on the river—specifically, among the reeds that grew by its banks, which I guess, was so that she could claim she did technically “throw the baby into the river.” His older sister remained, watching from afar to see what happened. 

Then, an Egyptian princess, surrounded by her attendants, came to take a walk by the river, and noticed the basket. She became curious, and sent her maids to fetch it for her, and inside, she found a Hebrew baby. He was crying, and she felt really sorry for him, so she decided to raise him as her own child—and since she was royalty, no one dared to point out that she was supposed to throw this baby back into the river to drown. She named him “Moses,” saying “Because I drew him out of the water.” This is a pun, btw, as the name, “Moses,” sounds like the Hebrew word that means, “to draw out.” 

So, Sargon of Akkad, who would unify all of the known lands into a single Empire, was placed in a basket, sealed with bitumen, and cast into the river, only to be found by the drawer of water, who raised him as his son. Moses, who would speak with God, and deliver the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, was placed in a basket, sealed with bitumen, and placed on the river, only to be found by an Egyptian princess, who names him “Moses,” because she drew him out of the water, to raise him as her son. 

Now, the point here is not about which story inspired which; Sargon’s birth story as we know it was composed about 200 years before the version of Exodus that’s in our Bible, which narrates the birth story of Moses. But, then again, both stories may very well be drawing upon older sources. Nor is it about which story “historically happened,” since neither is something that archaeology can confirm. The point is that the ancient Jewish readers who first read the book of Exodus in its current form would have immediately recognized the symbolic meaning of this birth-story and the image of a baby in a basket, floating on a river. I suppose a good comparison for today is the image of a sword in the stone. So, in any story today—whether in a novel, or a movie, or a video game—if there is a scene where a character comes upon a mysterious sword embedded in stone, or perhaps an old tree, we immediately know what it means. The sword is waiting for a hero, often a king, who will save the land. The image is from the story of King Arthur, the legendary King of Britain, but it has become a universal symbol. And likewise, the story of Sargon of Akkad, who lived about a thousand years before the time of Moses, would have become—like the story of King Arthur—a wellspring of symbols and images for the ancient world, including the Jews who were reading the book of Exodus.

So, what did these imageries communicate to their readers? That the child is to be a leader of nations, whose actions will redirect the course of history. However, what is truly significant in the story of Exodus is not how their birth-stories are similar, but how they diverge. Sargon’s story begins with a child of noble birth, the secret son of the high priestess, cast into the river, then drawn out of water, and given the job of a gardener; he rises from that low status to become the king of the world. The story of Moses, on the other hand, is the reverse: a child of slaves, cast into the river, then drawn out of water, and given the status of a prince—a position far beyond his birth at the start of his story. And he has to cast all of that away, so that his story can start anew—so that it can truly begin. To put it differently, in his story, Moses is born twice

[Pendulum ] 

The name, “Moses”—or “Mose”—according to Exodus, means “to draw out,” in Hebrew. However, scholars studying ancient Egypt found that “Moses” is also an Egyptian name. Perhaps, you remember the names of some of the Pharaohs of Egypt we glossed over in our previous episodes: Ahmose, Thutmose, or Rameses. “Moses,” in the language of ancient Egypt, meant “the child of,” or “born of.” So, Thutmose, means the child of the god, Thoth. The more famous name, Rameses, is actually Ra-mose, or “the child of Ra, the sun god.” This is one of the several reasons why even though historians today tend to be skeptical that Moses in the Bible is a historical figure, many of them also think that there was a Moses-like person in some distant past, which the biblical Exodus account is about. They suggest that Moses was an Egyptian name, but by the time the book of Exodus was put together in its current form, the original meaning of the name was long forgotten, along with the ancient language that used that name; the Jewish authors thus gave the name its meaning in Hebrew. But, of course, all this is just speculation.

However, the Hebrew meaning of the name, Moses, is itself significant. The Egyptian princess named him, “Moses,” because she drew him out of the water, but his name does not mean, “to be drawn out,” a passive, but rather, “to draw out,” an active; he is not simply drawn out of water, but he himself will “draw out” others—specifically he will “draw” the Israelites “out” of their life of slavery. It has a prophetic meaning. 

So, in a sense, it is quite appropriate that the name, “Moses,” has meaning for both the Egyptians and the Hebrews. For the ancient Egyptians, he is the “child,” one that was adopted into the royal family, whose members also have the same name. For Hebrews, the ‘apiru-like, landless foreigners and slaves, whose deliverance by God is recounted in the Bible, Moses is the one who will “draw them out” of this servitude into a new life. But, to do so, he too must also be drawn out once more, from his first life.

That began when Moses was a fully grown member of the royal family. Now, remember how his older sister was watching from a distance after his mother placed him on the riverbank? When the daughter of the Pharaoh found him and decided to adopt him, his sister approached her, and rather innocuously asked, “Do you need a Hebrew woman as a nurse for this baby?” And though the story does not say so outright, I personally think the princess caught on to what was going on, when she replied, “Why, yes. Take this child to her and nurse him for me; I will pay you your wages for this.” So, Moses’s own birth mother, with the support of the princess of Egypt, nursed him and raised him. And when he was old enough, she brought him to the princess, who adopted him as her son. So, it seems Moses knew who he was—that even though he was raised as royalty, he was born a Hebrew, a child of slaves. This is affirmed in the Christian New Testament Bible, in the Letter to the Hebrews, which describes Moses as living a life of faith, by choosing to share in the suffering of the people of God, rather than living as a prince of Egypt. And it is then that Exodus reports, Moses went out to his people and saw their forced labor. There, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and after checking for witnesses, he struck down the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand. 

It seems that what he did was not simply out of some fit of passion. Moses wanted something better for his people. The next day, he saw two Hebrew slaves fighting, and he tried to intervene, saying to the one who was in the wrong, “Why are you striking a fellow Hebrew?” Translation: we are all in this together; we should be helping each other. I think he wanted to inspire and encourage his people. But, the man answered him instead, “Who do you think you are—acting all high and mighty like you’re our judge and ruler? What are you gonna do? Kill me like you killed that Egyptian?” 

Does anyone know of the character, “Zorro,” nowadays, or is that too old-school? I’d use Batman, but “Zorro” fits better with Moses. Zorro is a masked vigilante in pre-US California, who defends the commoners and indigenous peoples from the tyrannical abuse of its colonial, Spanish rulers. But, he himself is a member of that ruling class, educated in Spain and trained in swordsmanship there. So, he keeps his identity hidden, even as he secretly helps the very people his peers are oppressing. Btw, “Zorro” was a key inspiration for “Batman,” and hence their similarity. And I think Moses saw himself as a kind of “Zorro” figure, secretly defending and avenging his fellow Hebrews by night, and advocating for them as a member of the royal family by day. But, the thing is: that only works when no one knows you’re Zorro.

What the Hebrew slave said to him revealed that he was unmasked. A member of the Egyptian ruling class, the son of an Egyptian princess, was not only sympathetic to the Hebrew slaves, he committed murder for their sake. And despite the negative, initial impressions the story of Exodus gives of Egypt, Egypt was a nation of law and order, where even the people of lower status had significant legal protection. Archaeology has discovered, for example, that the workers who built the Great Pyramids were treated quite well, given extra incentives in the form of higher wages. The Israelites may have been treated more harshly because they were foreigners who were distrusted. But, even the Israelites, according to the Bible—including the book of Exodus—complained frequently after leaving Egypt, because their lives there were actually pretty good, with plenty to eat, good food, and housing—well, minus the injustices and disregard they had faced daily as enslaved foreigners. Anyway, this means Moses’s high status did not place him above the law when he killed a man. What is more important, however, is what this act signified. Enslaving the Hebrews was what the Pharaoh, the ruler of all of Egypt, instituted. To kill an Egyptian to defend a Hebrew slave was not just any murder, but an act of outright rebellion against the Pharaoh. Soon enough, the Pharaoh himself would take action, and Moses would become the enemy of the state.

But, perhaps equally distressing for Moses was that he was rejected by his own. He was a fellow Hebrew, but also a prince—someone who had both the desire and the means to help them all. Yet, neither his appeal to their common ground, nor his exalted social position, made even a single Hebrew slave listen to him, who instead disdainfully defied his words. It seems that this profoundly shook his confidence, to the extent that many years later, he afraid of speaking to other people, convinced that his words would never persuade anyone. What did Moses wanted to be for his people, oppressed and disregarded? A revolutionary, who would lead their uprising? An advocate in the royal court, championing some social reform? Or, perhaps a “Zorro,” or “Batman,” secretly championing their cause, even with vigilante-style justice? The Exodus account does not tell us. Whatever it was, it was broken that day, and Moses fled from his adoptive homeland, before the Pharaoh’s guards could take him into custody. 

On that day, his life as a prince of Egypt, the power and status that came with it, and the vision and dreams for his people it enabled, died; all of that came to an end. 

[Short pendulum ] 

There was only a few places Moses could go that was beyond the reach of the Pharaoh, the ruler of the most prosperous and powerful empire of that time: the deserts outside of Egypt. One such desert was the Arabian desert, specifically its north-western portion that include the Sinai peninsula today. There dwelled a desert-dwelling tribe of nomads that the Bible called the Midianites. We mentioned them once, as the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham through the maidservant, Hagar, which means they were distant kin of the Israelites. They too would’ve regarded themselves as the children of Abraham, and passed down the story of the voice that spoke to their ancestors—the God of Abraham, and the God who “sees” Hagar and her son, Ishmael, and enabled them to live in the wilderness. The Midianites were also what the ancient Egyptians would’ve called the “Shasu,” the nomadic peoples that included group called the “Shasu of Yhw,” which if you remember our previous episode, a number of historians today think are closely connected with the origin of the people of Israel. 

It was their land that Moses, now a fugitive, ended up. He came to rest by a well, which was owned by a priest of the Midianites, named Reuel—which means, “God, or El, will pasture.” Reuel, who is also named Jethro in the later chapters of Exodus, had seven daughters. And it seems that a local band of shepherds often harassed them, so that they could not use their own well, but this time, Moses came to their defense. They reported what happened to their father, who thanked him and invited him to stay in his land. Moses agreed and began a new life there; he became a shepherd, and married one of Reuel’s daughters, named Zipporah, who bore him a son. But, Moses could never forget where he came from, and lived as an alien to the land that had taken him in; he expressed this feeling by naming his son, “Gershom,” which means “alien”.  

In the meanwhile, the Pharaoh of Egypt died, and a new Pharaoh took the throne. The Israelites remained enslaved, and they continued to cry out to God. And Exodus reports that all through that time, God heard their cry, and remembered the promise that was spoken to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So it was that one day, Moses saw a sight in the desert wilderness—a bramble set afire, without burning up.

[ Pendulum ]

An aged man stands before a burning bush, set aflame, yet somehow not being burned up. The flame calls to him—it is calling him, and not anyone else, speaking his name

The man finally answers, and the voice speaks, “Do not come any closer, and remove your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.” Awestruck, the man does so, and the voice speaks again. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” At these words, the man becomes afraid and hides his face, but, the voice continues to speak. “I have indeed seen the misery of my people, and I have heard them cry out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned for their suffering.” 

This is how Exodus describes Moses’s encounter with God, and the first words God speaks to him. But, let’s back up, and explore what leads to that conversation. Exodus account reports that Moses lived among the Midianites until he was eighty, and a speech reported in the book of Acts, in the Christian New Testament, states that Moses was forty when he fled from Egypt into the desert. Again, numbers quite often have symbolic meaning in these biblical narratives: forty years means a full generation—a time for someone to grow into full maturity as a particular person; the number is not so much about biological age, as much as about personal identity. Moses became a full member of Egyptian royalty, but, he lost that life when he fled into the desert. He then fully became a different person, a shepherd in the land of Midian. 

But, though he lived a completely different life from that of Egypt, and lived it until he was no longer the same person, one thing in him still remained the same. What God first speaks to him hints at what it was: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people.” Different translations of this text all add this emphasis in this opening statement—even if the exact placement differs like the following: “I have seen their misery. I have heard them cry out. I indeed know their suffering.” Of course, the statement is an emphasis that God knows what has been happening, but this is a conversation—one between God and Moses. And the emphasis here makes a lot more sense as a conversation, if it is God responding to an unspoken thought of Moses—something like: “Even now, my people continue to suffer in their slavery! But, don’t the stories my people tell their children, says that God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, made a promise with them? Does not that God see what is happening to them in Egypt? Is He not concerned?” Then, we can understand what God spoke as a direct reply to his thoughts. “I am the God of your ancestors. I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt, and heard their cry. I know their suffering.” But, we’ll explore what God spoke to Moses in the next episode. For here, we want to return to the question: Why the burning bush?

Moses was tending the flocks of his father-in-law in the wilderness, and arrived on a mountain, called Horeb. There, he saw a strange sight; a bush, or a bramble, is set alight by flames, but it was not burning up. The bush simply continued to blaze, without being consumed by fire. “What a sight!” He thought. “Why isn’t it burning up? I have to take a look at this!” And he turned aside and headed toward the flames. And Exodus reports that the angel of the LORD appeared to him in that flame within the bush. 

Now, we don’t know where Mount Horeb is, btw. It seems though that when the book of Exodus was put together, or during the time when Israel had formed a kingdom, people did know its location—or at least, they made pilgrimages there. But, we don’t know where that is; there are candidates, of course. There’s a mountain on Sinai peninsula, in today’s Egypt, which is the “official” location for the tourists—in fact, there are several such mountains there; but, it could have been one of the mountains in North-western Arabia, since the Midianites dwelled there. Apostle Paul, in the New Testament, also stated that the mountain is in Arabia, though in his time, that term included today’s Sinai Peninsula. Wherever it was, God spoke to him from the burning bush on that mountain. 

But, just what was the burning bush? Why was it set alight with flames, yet did not burn up? The simplest answer is that this was not a natural fire, but an appearance of the angel of the LORD. But, Exodus says that the angel appeared to him in the flame—it’s not like the fire itself was the angel—not quite. So, what is that fire? For that matter, what or who is the “angel of the LORD?” 

[Short pendulum ] 

The title, “the angel of the LORD,” or “the angel of God,” poses a complicated, but fascinating idea. In Hebrew, it is either, “the angel of Yahweh,” or “the angel of Elohim,” and it describes something more than just your average angels. What’s the difference? Well, the angel with this specific title sometimes speaks as if he is God; that is, instead of relaying what God is speaking, by saying: “Thus says the LORD,” or “God declares that He will bless you,” this angel sometimes speak what God is speaking in the first person, so rather than “God will bless you,” he says, “I will bless you.” Not only that, biblical narratives often switch seamlessly from describing what this angel is speaking or doing to what God is speaking or doing, as if both are the same thing. We’ve already encountered a few notable examples in this series. So, remember the time when three angels visit Abraham and Sarah? When they were leaving, one remains to speak with Abraham about the impending judgment on Sodom. Yet, as this angel speaks, Genesis simply says that the LORD spoke. There’s also the angel that spoke to Hagar when she was pregnant with Ishmael, and this angel relayed the words of God in the first person. Then, there is the angel of the LORD who wrestled with Jacob. But, afterwards, the angel names Jacob, “Israel,” declaring that he had “wrestled with God and prevailed.” And it is this “angel of the LORD” that appeared to Moses in the flame. 

So, why is this angel speaking as God? Well, if we remember what the word, “God,” really means for monotheistic religions like Judaism or Christianity, we can understand the idea this way. You can by now probably quote word-for-word what I’m going to say: “God is not an entity in our reality; God is Reality. Reality is speech-like in character, and so, all of reality is God speaking.” But, let’s pause and think about what this idea of God actually entails. What happens then when God is speaking to people? After all, everything is God speaking—every law of nature, every event, every possibility. 

But, we cannot exactly take in every truth about everything there ever can be. So, when God is speaking to us, it needs to be a particular thing among that everything that God speaks. What God speaks to us has to be a particular truth, in a particular location and time, in some specific context. To put it differently, though all of reality as a whole is God speaking, so that God is not any entity inside our reality—what we will encounter when God speaks to us -is- something inside our reality: an entity, but a very special entity. That entity will speak what God is speaking, but specifically to us—a kind of focal point in our reality, personal and meaningful to us, and thus speaks to us. That entity, you could say, is a point of contact between ourselves and all of reality—that is, God.

Here’s a hopefully helpful analogy: what would happen in a story, if the author of that story was to somehow communicate directly with a particular character in that story? Now, there could be other characters in the story who may speak for the author, saying something like “The author is saying this to you,” and so on. But, what if the author was to speak directly to the character? Even then, it would be a particular thing inside that story that speaks to him—maybe a mysterious character who never appears again, or a voice from heaven, or perhaps, flame from a burning bush. Remember the limit of this analogy though. Every author lives their own life in the world outside their story, but, there is no outside to what God speaks—which is, again, all of reality.  Anyway, the special entity inside our reality that is given the title, “the Angel of Yahweh, or the Angel of Elohim,” in the Bible is like the thing inside the story, which speaks what the author is speaking to a character. And what this angel speaks and does is what God speaks and does at a particular time and place for particular people. Btw, this is also the reason why Christian traditions often connect this idea of the angel of the LORD, who is the point of contact with God, to the person of Jesus Christ, who is God, yet lived among us. Further distinction between the two is, well, complicated and has to do with salvation, but we’ll get to that in a future season. 

This returns us though, to the burning bush that Moses saw in the Exodus account. When God is speaking to Moses, it is also this angel of the LORD that is speaking. Yet, that angel appears as a particular something in his world that is meaningful to him—in this case, in the flame within the burning bush. 

Now, there have been a number of speculations on just what the burning bush could have been, including natural explanations. Perhaps, it was some kind of phosphorous luminescence, so it looked like fire, but didn’t burn? Or maybe what Moses saw was sunlight shining on the mountainside in the Negev desert, which can sometimes appear as if it’s set on fire. Neither quite fits, but then again, who knows? There is also a plant called “Dictamnus” that secretes volatile sap that can sometimes flare up into flame, but such fire dissipates quickly, so that the plant does not burn up. But, that doesn’t quite fit either since the Exodus account describes the bush as continuing to blaze as Moses stared at it, not to mention that these plants don’t seem to grow in the region where God is supposed to have spoken to Moses. It could have also been that Moses simply had a vision—something psychological. Of course, it could even have been something that is unlike anything else humanity has ever experienced, something our science cannot explain—what we rather haphazardly call today, the “supernatural.” Btw, some day, we’ll have to examine more in-depth how badly we use that term.  

However, these explanations of the phenomenon of the burning bush are of secondary in importance, at best. This is because again, all of reality is God speaking. So, natural phenomena is God speaking, any psychological experience is God speaking, and of course, unexplainable phenomena beyond our knowledge is God speaking. All of that is what reality can unfold, all of that is real, and “God is Reality.” 

So, what is important is not what the phenomenon of the burning bush was—because whatever it was, it is God speaking; the question is what it meant. Because that is what was being communicated to Moses. For the burning bush is the appearance of angel of the LORD, so that God may personally speak with Moses. 

[ Pendulum  ] 

So, what is the meaning of the burning bush? One meaning, according to some Jewish traditions (Zohar, a work of Kabbalah from the Middle Ages) is that the flame symbolized both the suffering that the enslaved Israelites experienced and God’s protection. They suffered like a bramble set afire, but by the power of God, they would not be burned up and destroyed. Similar interpretations abound in Christianity, especially in Protestant, reformed churches, which understood the Church as suffering and persecuted, but by the grace of God, not burned up and consumed. 

There is also the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition that understands the flame as the glory of God, or “uncreated energies,” which to put it simply, is very the power of God— that which brings forth new possibilities, new being, new goodness, new world. But, this power, though it is like the flame that sets alight the entire cosmos, will not harm those under God’s grace—the foremost example being the Virgin Mary, who bore Christ, who is this very power of God, yet was not harmed. This is why you can find some religious icons in that tradition that depict Virgin Mary as the burning bush.

So, for some, the flame represents how the people of God is suffering, yet enduring, and for others, the very power of God that brings forth all things—two very different things. But, profound symbols often hold multiple meanings. For example, “water” has symbolized Life and possibility, but also Chaos. For that matter, fire has symbolized destruction and pain, yet also Light, life, and civilization. And the flame of the burning bush, likewise hold these dual meanings that “fire” has held, across the world. 

But, there is one other set of meaning that is connected to fire that has been universal to humanity. And I believe this will be is significant for understanding what the burning bush meant. Fire as Light, and thus, truth and hope—but the kind that is kindled within us. The sun is the light and fire in the sky far above, as are the stars, though much less so—as far as symbols go that is. But, fire is on earth; fire we carry. Even today, people stand together in candlelight vigils, carrying small flames during the night—which if you think about it, is a really odd thing to do; but, they mean something to us, deep within. 

And Moses saw a small bush, set aflame. Yet, though this bush should have quickly charred black and burned up by fire, it does not. It continues to burn, impossibly, its light quietly blazing in the wilderness—a flame that will not be extinguished, a fire that will not go out. Like a truth that will not be silenced. Like a hope that will not die.    

That small, yet unextinguished flame, was like the love that Moses had for his people, which made him see in the burning bush, his own people who suffered as if set aflame, yet somehow enduring. The fire that somehow still burned was like his hope that there will come a day when his people will be free, that their dignity and life will blaze like this fire. Its quiet light that would not go out was like the truth that he still held on to from the life-stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he heard as a child—that God who spoke to them, will speak to his people again, and bring forth what was promised

It should have been extinguished, this love, this hope, this truth, when he had fled from Egypt, rejected by his own people, and pursued by the Pharaoh’s men. It should have smoldered into embers and died in the long years living a different life as a foreigner here in the wilderness. But, it did not. It still burned within him, even though he was a different person, living a different life. Moses was born twice, but in his old life and the new, there was one truth, one hope, one love, that one thing incomparably meaningful and truthful that did not, and would not, change. And though it seemed insignificant and weak, like a small fire in the cold, desert night, it would not die.

And that flame within him was like the flame of this burning bush, flame set alight by the angel of Yahweh, to speak to him what God is speaking. That flame within was like the piece of the fire that represent the very power of God, speaking forth all of reality. For that flame, that small flame he carried was what God has been speaking into his life: his reason for living, his calling. Because that’s what it’s like: a thing that is true, a thing that you love and love truly, the promise and hope you hold on to, if they continue to burn, even though there is every reason it should have been extinguished already, that is something that calls to you, in a deeply personal way; it calls your name, so to speak. Even today, we literally say that that’s your “calling.” 

And so, the burning bush called to Moses. “Moses, Moses,” God spoke to him.

But, the voice that would speak to him was not just that which burned within him; it was the voice that spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and unfolded their lives. Because we know: not every hope you hold comes true, not every love we carry, bear fruit, no matter how important it is to you. Remember our first episode: reality judges you and your endeavor, and God is Reality. Even for Moses, neither his love for his people, nor his hope, nor his truth, saved his people from slavery, and that was when he was a prince of Egypt with all the authority and power it gave him. What burns in you may resemble the burning bush and calls to you, but, that is only the beginning. You must then hear a voice—voice that speaks every truth. 

What we’ve called the voice of God.

[ Music ] 

So, please join me next episode as Moses hears the voice of God speaking to him. We will follow their conversation, and explore the ideas and insights it presents us, such as the Tetragrammaton, the name of God, Yahweh, and what that means for us. 

Thank you for listening, and please follow, subscribe, and share this series with others, and rate it on your Apple podcast and other platforms. You can also support this series at buymeacoffee.com—which you can go to by clicking on the line, “Support the show” in the episode description.


Moses is “born” twice – his birth narrative
Moses as a failed “Zorro / Batman”
Moses’s life before the Burning Bush
What was the fire, and "The Angel of the LORD"
What did the burning bush mean?