May 3, 2024

What Was the Burning Bush?

7 Min Read

According to Jewish tradition, the most common bushes in the area of the desert around Mount Horeb were bramble bushes. The assumption of Jewish historians was that the particular bush that Moses saw burning was a simple, ordinary bramble bush of no great significance in itself. So, the first thing we must understand is that before the burning bush event, there was nothing at all supernatural about the bush itself; it was a natural, common bramble bush doing what bramble bushes naturally do in the desert.

In describing the experience of the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses uses phenomenological language; that is, he says what it looked like. He was walking with his sheep in the desert, he saw the strange phenomenon of a bush burning, and he turned aside to see what this was all about. He was astonished to see that, although the bush was burning, it was not consumed. What Moses saw was a fire in the bush; it wasn’t beside the bush or on top of the bush like the flames and tongues of fire that came down on the day of Pentecost. From Moses’ viewpoint, the fire was coming from within the bush. The significance of his comment that the bush was not being consumed indicates that the bush itself was not burning—the fire was in the bush, but not of the bush.

What is the significance of the fire’s being in the bush but not of the bush? It indicates that the fire Moses saw was independent of the bush—it was not using the bush for its fuel. That’s why the bush wasn’t consumed. It was burning from its own power. It was self-generated. This is a biblical example of what we call theophany, meaning “God made manifest.” The God whom we worship is a spirit. He is invisible, and His invisible substance cannot be seen by the human eye. But there are occasions in redemptive history where the invisible God makes Himself visible by some kind of manifestation. That is called a theophany, and it’s what we see with the burning bush.

In theology, such an activity as this—a bush with fire burning within it, but not being consumed—is said to be contra naturam, meaning “against nature.” It was not a natural phenomenon but a supernatural one. What Moses saw in this fire was a supernatural, visible manifestation of the glory of God.

The Bible sometimes speaks about the outward appearance of God’s glory—what we call the “shekinah glory.” It is a refulgent glory radiating from the very being of God that is so powerful and majestic that it overwhelms anyone who comes into contact with it. Throughout redemptive history, at critical junctures, God manifested Himself to people through the shekinah glory, which was represented chiefly through some kind of fire. Here I will consider some of those episodes, particularly in the Old Testament.

In Genesis 15, we find the record of God speaking to Abraham and promising that he would be the father of a great nation. Abraham had been called by God, and God told him, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1). Abraham asked, “What will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Gen. 15:2). Abraham was already one of the wealthiest men in the world, and all that he lacked was what seemed impossible for him to have: an heir from his own bloodline.

God said, “‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’” (Gen. 15:4–5). We’re told that Abraham believed God, and that his belief was accounted to him for righteousness. But even as God spelled out all these things that He was going to do for Abraham, Abraham had the same basic struggles that we all would have in a situation like that; so he said to God, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Gen. 15:8).

I’ve had the experience where people will ask me to tell them my “life verse.” Maybe you have been asked that as well. I’m not sure where this idea ever came from; in my view, the whole Bible is our life verse. But people ask for my life verse, and I’m a little bit mischievous when I tell them my verse: Genesis 15:17. Often what happens is that, sometime later, they come back and ask, “Did you make a mistake on this verse that you told me? I looked at what you said was your life verse, and I can’t make any sense out of it.”

There are occasions in redemptive history where the invisible God makes Himself visible by some kind of manifestation. That is called a theophany, and it’s what we see with the burning bush.

That verse says, “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” If I’m ever locked in a prison in solitary confinement and can have only one verse in all of the Bible at my disposal, that’s the verse I want. Genesis 15:17 tells of a garish and gory ritual in which God commanded Abraham to cut animals in half and place the halves opposite each other, forming a pathway in the middle. A dread came upon Abraham in a vision, and in the darkness, while he was asleep, Abraham saw “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” This text describes the making of a covenant. In Hebrew, you would say someone “cut” a covenant with another, and that’s what this ritual pictures. In revealing Himself as a torch and a smoking fire pot that passed between the animal pieces, God was communicating to Abraham, “Here’s how you can know that I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do, Abraham. If I ever fail to keep my promise to you, may I be like these animals, cut in two. May the immutable God suffer a mutation and become temporal, the infinite become finite. I swear by My own being.”

The author of Hebrews picked that message up in the New Testament when he wrote, “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13). It was an oath demonstrated by the shekinah glory made visible to Abraham in the darkness of the night. It was an oath by fire. Abraham and Moses both had the experience of encountering the shekinah glory of God in a fire that changed their lives.

In the New Testament, we read in Acts 9 about the Apostle Paul’s experience of conversion on the road to Damascus: “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him” (Acts 9:1–3). When he later recalled this event before Agrippa, Paul described it as “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me” (Acts 26:13).

“And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do’” (Acts 9:4–6).

Don’t miss the parallel: when God appeared to Moses, He called to him out of that burning bush by the repetition of his name, “Moses, Moses.” Then, when the shekinah glory appeared to Saul of Tarsus, the voice came again out of that brilliant, effulgent glory, saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are persecuting me?” This was the encounter that turned Paul’s life upside down and made him the greatest Apostle of the biblical era. What happened? What did Paul encounter? He came face-to-face with the glory of God, the brilliant, resplendent beauty of the shekinah.

There are other places in Scripture where this takes place, but the one that most are familiar with accompanied the birth of Jesus. Strangely enough, the shekinah glory wasn’t in the cave or the manger; it wasn’t with Mary and Joseph. It appeared in the fields outside Bethlehem, where the shepherds were tending their sheep. Luke’s narrative says that the glory of God shown around about them. I like the old translation, “And they were sore afraid” (Luke 2:9, KJV). They were so terrified that the angels had to calm them, saying, “Fear not” (Luke 2:10). The angel of the Lord came, accompanied by a visible display of the shekinah glory that would make anyone tremble. Nevertheless, they said, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).

This shekinah glory that changed Moses’ life, Saul’s life, Abraham’s life, and even world history at Bethlehem is not just linked to God the Father; it is inseparably related to the second person of the Trinity. When God appears in theophany with the shekinah glory, it’s not only God the Father appearing—ultimately, what is displayed is the glory inherent to God the Son from all eternity.

Thus, it’s not so much what was in that bush, but who was in that bush—who it was who was speaking to Moses centuries before Moses would speak with Him on the Mount of Transfiguration, which was clearly the most magnificent display of the shekinah glory anywhere in the New Testament (Matt. 17:1–8). Just as that bush was burning from the inside and the bush itself was not burning, so in the transfigured Jesus, the glory that was displayed on the mountain was not a reflection but a glory that burst from His concealed deity—because where the shekinah is, God is.