Allegory in Our Reading of Exodus 3

Exodus 3 - burning bushRudolf Otto famously wrote, ‘Mysterium tremendum et fascinans’, to explain the human experience of the divine, the Holy. Literally it means something like, ‘fearful and fascinating Mystery’. Otto’s idea of the Holy was that we are drawn toward its magnificence in wonder, yet repelled by its awesomeness. R.W.L. Moberly suggests that a fire that burns without consuming is perhaps the prime symbol for God because it attracts (by its vivid movement) and deters (by its heat). But is this the intention of Moses’ first theophany, in Exodus 3? How are we meant to understand this great sight, a bush that burns and is not consumed (3:2-3)?

I ask the question because I recently preached on Exodus 3 and engaged with the commentators and listened to a few sermons. Many interpretations – even if only in passing – sound like Rudolf Otto.  The fire that does not consume is interpreted as a picture of Yahweh’s presence amongst his people; despite his transcendent holiness he comes near to the Hebrews in the exodus event. Bruce Waltke says in his Old Testament theology: the image of fire inhabiting that fit for kindling is a foreshadowing of God amongst the Hebrews (p363). There is no doubt that fire is linked with God’s presence in Exodus; the Hebrews are lead by a pillar of fire and cloud (13:22), fire symbolises God’s presence at Sinai (19:18), and God’s glory descends as cloud and fire onto the completed tabernacle (40:34-38). But can we conclude from this that the unaffected burning bush depicts the holy Yahweh dwelling amongst a people his nature should consume?

God went before Israel

Alan Cole thinks the fire might signify the “purificatory, as well as destructive” properties of God’s presence. That would come closer to my understanding of God’s holiness; which is not mere otherness and transcendence but an outwardly flowing attribute that creates holiness, destroys evil. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, ‘It is fit, as there is an infinite fountain of holiness, moral excellence and beauty, so it should flow out in communicated holiness’ (quoted by John Webster in Holiness, p52). One might even go as far to suggest that we see this in the ground surrounding the burning bush becoming holy, with Yahweh’s condescension (3:5). However, the question remains unanswered: can we see the burning bush as a picture of God’s gracious nearness to sinful and unholy Hebrews?

Alec Motyer, in his BST commentary on Exodus, spills the most ink in making this link. He writes, “The juxtaposition of the transcendent God in all his holiness and vitality and the ordinary, earthly bush is a powerful metaphor for the indwelling, transforming presence of God with his people” (p56). I like that Motyer sees God’s holy presence as transformative. But I am unconvinced that is the purpose of this theophany. In p51-56 Motyer vividly unpacks the burning bush: fire affirms wrath, but outreaching mercy is supremely displayed; without abandoning his divine essence God is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners; the fire is his holy presence and the smoke serves as a veil for that holiness. We want that to be the meaning, because that theological interpretation comes standard with application for preaching. But I wonder if our theological categories at this point are not overshadowing the literary context.

TetragrammatonMotyer offers a second way of understanding the burning bush which – in my opinion – does justice to what is going in at the narrative and what Yahweh is about to reveal about himself to Moses: “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14-15). Moses encounters a fire nourished by its own life, a truly living flame that needs nothing outside of itself to burn. Motyer writes, “The essence of this revelation is that Yahweh is the living God, a self-maintaining, self-sufficient reality that does not need to draw vitality from outside” (p56). This surely makes more sense given the context. So God is not as much revealing his holiness as he is demonstrating his glorious self-existence, independent eternality. When we begin to appropriate this truth we are not struck by God’s condescension; we are moved to awe and assurance by his underived and completely independent power over what he has made, his true divinity.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • otto is a noob

    otto is a noob who has had way too much influence on barth and webster (and therefore pretty much everyone). i just cant help but feel like grabbing at aseity is as much of a (preferential) stab in the dark

    • How would you suggest we interpret the event? In my reading I didn’t come across much outside of holiness and aseity. I think it makes sense at that point in the narrative to understand it as assurance for Moses and God’s people that Yahweh’s power is underived and therefore his plans cannot be thwarted, despite the seemingly unparalleled might of their oppressor Pharaoh.

      • Kyle Groger

        that post above was me (i forgot my password).
        quick question: how does aseity account for the holy ground?

        • That is a good question, which I don’t think I can answer whilst remaining unswerving from the argument of my post. What would you say? Like I said to Lisa above, “I don’t think that we should read the (not) burning bush as a prefiguring of Yahweh’s presence amongst his people, which should have destroyed the sinful Israelites”.

          Could we hold the two pictures together, tying the bush to aseity and the holy ground to God’s imminent holiness? Harris (in the ESV Study Bible) writes that God’s presence makes places and declares people holy, a theme throughout the narrative, perhaps seen most clearly at Sinai. Most commentators agree that the entire event demonstrates God’s humility and condescension. The narrative is moving towards God’s holiness descending into the temple where his people will meet him, but at this point in the unfolding of the exodus I think Yahweh’s unchallengeable divinity, as Creator and therefore the only true Lord, sets us up for the confrontation between himself and Pharaoh.

  • Lisa

    I’m attempting to contribute on your blog Graham!!…

    What if the absence of a clear understanding of the (not) burning bush is precisely the point?

    What must have been visibly striking regarding the (not) burning bush is that this God was operating outside the ‘normal’ parameters of creation. The event was something that was quite inexplicable and supernatural – ‘a strange sight’ 3:3.

    So Moses goes home to his kids that night: “Guess what I saw today kids?!” “What Dad?” “A bush that was burning, well, it wasn’t really burning…” Kids glance at each other with confused/skeptical looks on their faces. “But then God spoke to me… he said I must take off my shoes because the ground was holy, and he told me his name: I am who I am”. More confused looks from the kids. “Wow Dad!” Precisely. I’m liking face-value right now 😛

    The incomprehensible points to his being altogether outside the bounds of our minds, independent of our musings on his nature. Something of his ‘demonstrating his glorious self-existence, independent eternally’. This is the Creator who made bushes and fire, and can choose how they work! (Moses was needing a lot of courage to face this Pharaoh-world-superpower-guy.)

    Can I then conclude that we must wait for God to reveal himself to us? This God graciously does so in due course… in words. In those words he forbids any representation of himself, as he knows that we beings are apt to attribute meaning and significance where it is not due. I would stop short of attempting to read too much into what the fire and the bush signify independently. A neat evasion/cop-out 🙂

    Whilst not wanting to decry all attempts that have been made to understand the (not) burning bush :O (I see elements of value in many of the suggestions of commentators that you have put here!)… it just seems that definitive evidence is not obvious…

    • Thanks Lisa. You’re right to say that the interpretation isn’t really conclusive due to Scripture’s silence on informing our reading of Exodus 3. Maybe I should reiterate what I was challenging and offer my suggestion – of aseity – more tentatively: I don’t think that we should read the (not) burning bush as a prefiguring of Yahweh’s presence amongst his people, which should have destroyed the sinful Israelites but didn’t because of gracious condescension. I’m not inclined to read it this way for numerous reasons, outlined in the post.

      The other side of my post then, we might say that aseity is incomprehensible for it is firmly nestled under the heading ‘incommunicable attributes of God.’ But if the fire is a picture of anything it is of self-sufficiency. That does not necessarily lead us to infer that God has lived in community eternally, blending our trinitarianism and aseity, but it does serve as a vivid picture of God’s non-derived and completely independent being, his ‘otherness’ that holds the Creator-creation distinction in place. You’re right to warn against reading too much into Exodus 3:2-3; I’m suggesting that it be read in light of the revelation of Yahweh’s name (3:14). It’s an unforgettable image to his name, which I think has some of God’s being wrapped up in it.

      Lastly, the point you made about Moses needing courage is the same one I made in reply to a previous comment; and probably should have made more of in the post. Moses’ encounter is a terrifying one (3:6). So while the ‘gift of God’s personal name’ (Bruce Waltke) galvanises Moses’ resolve for the task we also see that meeting Yahweh is more devastating than going to Pharaoh. Moses’ meets a more awesome Lord than Pharaoh, and the physical illustration of the (not) burning bush causes him to shrink in fear while giving assurance that Pharaoh is no match for Yahweh (this, I should point out, is another way we could read Otto’s adage into the narrative, but that’s for another post).

      In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis speaks about greater terror overcoming lesser ones, recalling the trenches where a terrified mouse made no attempt to run from him amidst the explosions and death that surrounded them.

      • Lisa