What did you see, Moses? That day on Mount Horeb, the mountain of God?
I saw a fire. An angel appeared to me out of the flames. And the bush was burning, but was not burned up.
Yes, but what did you see, exactly? How did it work?
I do not know. And it did not matter. I’m just telling you what I saw. That’s what matters. That is why I turned aside. To see.
Yes, but what did you see? I’m sorry to keep asking this, but it matters to us. These days we find it so hard to believe in such things. It’s just too fantastic. Unbelievable.
I’ve told you what I saw.
Yes, but what you’ve told us doesn’t make sense.
Perhaps that is because you are asking the wrong question.
You don’t understand. It’s a matter of credibility. Unless we know what you saw, we don’t know that we can trust you. We want to believe you, but we cannot be sure. Maybe you were mistaken. You imagined it. It was an optical illusion. It was all in the mind.
Does it matter?
Because it says something about the way the world works. God’s way of dealing with the world. God’s way of dealing with us.
Ah, so you do believe in God. I was beginning to wonder.
Yes, we do believe in God. But we aren’t so sure we believe in miracles. They are too far-fetched. They imply that God sometimes intervenes. Steps in to change things.
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. Except that if he does work like that, why doesn’t he do it more often? Why doesn’t he do it for the right people? For children. Those who are innocent and vulnerable? Yes, we know people who claim God has answered their prayers, but we also know people who have suffered so much. Good people, kind people, praying people. It seems so unfair. It seems so random. Maybe I am missing something – Maybe I’m just bitter because God doesn’t make a habit of stepping in to help me. It’s just that the world doesn’t seem to work like that. If it did, more people would be saved. There would be fewer wars and a lot less suffering.
I know what you mean.
Yes. I have seen suffering. I have seen how people with power and no scruples oppress people who do not have the power to defend themselves. I have seen how a people who have become insecure can turn against those amongst them who are different. I have seen how fear begets contempt, hatred, ignorance, corruption, exploitation, oppression and violence. I have seen how the brutality of oppression bears down hardest on those who are most vulnerable. I have seen how those who are enslaved are encouraged to collude with their own enslavement. I have seen how an oppressed people turn on their own.
You have? What did you do?
I took action. I lashed out. I killed a man who was beating up one of my brothers. But I was seen. Word got around. I was afraid. So I ran away. I went into exile. Made a new life for myself somewhere else. But I never forgot my people. And I spent a lot of time alone. I had time to think. And I realised that it was not right to return violence for violence. To kill those who were doing the killing. There had to be another way out. A more creative way. So I began to wonder what it might be. And where we might find the resources to pull it off.
That sounds exciting.
Actually, it was confusing. I was full of ideas and passion, but also full of fear. I was angry, miserable, hopeful and desperate by turns. I argue it out during my long walks through the wilderness, while I looked after the sheep. I talked it all out, even when it made no sense to me. I raged, I pleaded, I prayed. I questioned God.
Really? And what did he say?
That is what I am trying to tell you.
What did Moses see?
Whatever it was cannot be explained, or perhaps even described, in terms that a modern, rationalist reader would find credible, but that is not the point of the story. The story is not told so that we can argue about the how, but so that we can contemplate the why. The story itself, by its one brief mention of an angel, invites us to look beyond the physical phenomenon
What did Moses see? What did it mean to him – then and thereafter? A fire that was burning where he did not expect to find a fire. Where there were no people around to tend it and feed it. A fire that was able to sustain itself. A bush was on fire, and burning brightly, but was not consumed by the flames.
It was something extraordinary: a “great sight”. It was something he did not expect to see, that aroused his curiosity, and caused him to investigate further: “I must turn aside and look……” So he turned aside, and when God saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush.
Did he first see the fire at a distance, and assume that it was a camp-fire, with people around it? Was he then disappointed, to find that the place was deserted – that there were no signs of human encampment? Did he consider moving on, and only then wonder how the fire had been kindled, or how it was sustained? We are not told.
Was the bush on fire, or did it just appear to be so? If it was indeed burning, what had ignited it? And why was it not burned up? What was protecting the bush, whilst also feeding the fire? We do not know.
These are modern questions, an attempt to re-frame the experience in reasonable terms, and part of a desire to make the Bible intelligible to our own day by placing it in an historical or psychological context that makes sense to us. This is valuable, as far as it goes, but it can tend to lead us in the wrong direction, away from the story as a narrative, and the questions that the story is asking of us.
What we are given are clues to a steadily growing awe. This begins as curiosity: Moses is intrigued as to why the bush is burning, but not consumed. But perhaps he has already begun to think of this as an encounter with the divine, and when he hears the voice of God calling him by name, he hears also the instruction to remove his sandals, for this is a sacred place.
And it is at this point that the reader loses sight of the burning bush. We assume it has served its purpose in the story, as the puzzle that attracted the attention of Moses to the place where God waited to speak with him. Now we have the conversation between them, and as a dialogue, it contains so many layers, and so much drama, that we forget all about the image that brought Moses into that place. The bush is not mentioned again. And the question that he turned aside asking – the question that we are also asking – is left unresolved.
Why wasn’t the bush burned up? What answer – if any – does Moses receive to his question, and how might it relate to the rest of his story? And does it matter to us?
In the modern era, we tend to assume that we do our most profound thinking in words rather than images, using reason rather than intuition, analysis rather than imagination. Trained to think in this way, we fasten on the dialogue between God and Moses as the “meat” or “heart” of their encounter, and see the burning bush as having no more meaning or purpose than a beckoning finger, an attitude that is only reinforced if we are uncomfortable with the marvellous element in the story. As a consequence, we disrespect the text, and impoverish ourselves.
We are not respecting the text because we fail to take seriously the question that Moses was asking himself – or asking God – as he turned aside. Consequently, we fail to see how this question is answered by the image of the burning bush, which becomes for Moses a Sign, enabling him to face the broader, deeper issues of his life. Issues that may, in fact, resonate with our own concerns. It was the burning bush itself that was, for Moses, the means of his encounter with God. He met God first in the transformative image. The dialogue describes the effect and some of the implications of this encounter, but cannot convey its force. The conversation was not – is not – in itself life-giving. Few conversations are, when analysed as words alone. It is the Sign that contains and conveys the power.
This being the case, we impoverish ourselves by passing on too quickly to the dialogue; by focusing on the words and not the image; by regarding the image as suspect, because it is a marvel; or as evidence of God’s power that should inspire our awe without requiring further investigation. Because we tend to assume that our most profound thinking is done in words rather than images, we also assume that the burning bush is merely the prelude to the encounter, rather than the encounter itself, and so we rush on, turning our attention away from the Sign before it can become a Sign for us. Whereas, as soon as we begin to imagine this encounter, we realise that Moses was turned aside by an image – a visual effect, if you like – and remained before it, in an attitude of prayer, for some considerable time.
To ask “What did Moses see?” is to ask the wrong question, if by it we mean, “How was this effect achieved?” We are not told, and it does not matter. What matters is that Moses, travelling in the Wild with a question burning in his mind, glimpsed a phenomenon which answered his question. And turned aside to investigate further and reflect on what he saw. And in questioning, investigating and reflecting, he began to change.