5.2. “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire” (3:1-5)

 (1) Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

(2) An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.

(3) Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up”

(4) When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am”

(5) And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground“.

(1) Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro: A shepherd (or pastor) is one who cares for his flock, advances and protects it. As we know from the book of Genesis, our Patriarchs and their families were shepherds. This “secular profession” of the founders of religion left an indelible imprint on future Jewish behavioral models.

His father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian: We detect some redundancy here, which we can explain as follows. Moses has long been his father-in-law’s student and has already learned everything that Jethro can teach him. He therefore goes (or Jethro sends him) “into the wilderness, to the mountain of God” to find a new revelation. Thus, Moses is ready to ascend to the next level of his development, precisely when God decides (in accordance with the preceding verses) that the time has come to bring the Jews out of Egypt.

He drove the flock into the wilderness: Literally, “beyond the wilderness,” that is, to the extreme far edge of the wilderness. This cannot be a shepherd’s regular job. Crossing the desert is usually done with a caravan of camels, not with a flock of sheep.

And came to Horeb, the mountain of God: Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai, where the nation will later receive the Torah, are one and the same (the name “Sinai” itself derives from sneh, “bush,” as in the sneh of the next verse that “was all aflame but was not consumed”).

(2) An angel of the Lord appeared to him: Initially only an angel appears to Moses (a lesser degree of Divine revelation).

In a blazing fire out of a bush: This bush was most probably the thorny blackthorn. Its prickly spines are symbolic of the then still imperfect Jewish people.

He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed: The bush that burns but is not consumed symbolizes the indestructibility of the Jewish people, even in the face of the fire of suffering and calamity. Moses understands the meaning of the vision and is astounded. He had believed until now that the flame of the Jewish people in Egypt had already burned out, that the hardships of slavery had destroyed the people. When God shows Moses a bush that remains intact even as it continues to burn, Moses understands that he was wrong, and he changes his outlook.

(3) Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?”: By expressing his desire to approach the bush (that is, to understand the meaning of the history of the Jewish people – their indestructibility), Moses has taken a decisive step toward taking up the mission and becoming the leader of the Exodus, even if he himself is not yet aware of this.

(4) When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look: Here we see the transition to a higher level of revelation. First an angel appeared to Moses, and then the Almighty Himself. God reveals Himself to man only after man has taken his own first step toward God.

God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!”: As Moses has already begun to change, he acquires at this moment the double name “Moshe, Moshe.” We find that God uses such double names when addressing Abraham, Jacob, and several other exceptional Bible personalities[1].

He answered, “Here I am”: As in God’s conversation with Abraham (Gen. 22:1), this response demonstrates Moses’ initial readiness to accept the mission. However, the intense, protracted dialogue between God and Moses that ensues, lasts several days[2]. This shows that Moses was able, only with very considerable difficulty, to bring himself to actually accept the Divine commission.

(5) And He said: “Do not come closer”: This illustrates the requirement of keeping one’s distance when coming in contact with Divinity.

Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground: As shoes, which allow a person to go almost anywhere, are a symbol of independence, removing one’s shoes demonstrates dependence and subordination. In holy places and situations requiring holiness (in the Temple, for example), wearing shoes is prohibited, for there one must obey the instructions from Above and self-directed activity[3] is prohibited.

In this story of the Burning Bush, God will force Moses to accept a commission that Moses would much prefer to avoid. The requirement to remove his shoes prior to the conversation is an indication to Moses that, ultimately, he will have no choice but to obey.

[1] For more on this point, see Bible Dynamics on Genesis, §23.14.

[2] Moses goes on to say: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant” (v. 10). The Midrash believes that Moses’ dialogue with God as described here lasted a full week.

[3] See, for example, Josh. 5:15. Likewise, the Midrash says that after selling Joseph for twenty pieces of silver (Gen. 37:28), the brothers bought new shoes from the proceeds, as a statement that they could now walk independently, without Joseph telling them where to go and what to do.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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