Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
The Ordeal of the Burning Bush
The story of Moses and the burning bush is much more than a simple children’s story. In its Ancient Near Eastern context, Moses’ encounter with Yahweh has as many facets as my wife’s engagement ring. We could consider what we learn about Moses personally in his willingness to play the shepherd. We could consider the theophany, the fire itself, the word-play in “bush,” foreshadowing Sinai, and more.
Another facet, one I’d like to discuss today, is understanding that the burning bush is an ordeal symbol.
A Flame of Fire
Though pyros are most dazzled by the idea of finding something on fire, the wonder capturing Moses’ attention was the fact that the bush was not burning up. Flash fires in dry grass and isolated bush consume quickly, but this thing just kept burning. Exodus 3:2-3 says, “And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”
Now, ordeal speaks to the experience of encountering death and being divinely spared. Fire that doesn’t burn, lions that don’t maul, waters that don’t drown, etc.
In various pagan law systems, you were not innocent until proven guilty, you were guilty until proven innocent. A neighbor could accuse you of doing witchcraft without any evidence, and you could be made to face an ordeal. They might tie you up and throw you into the river—river ordeal—and if you drown… well…. that proves it. Your neighbor is given your entire estate as compensation. If you live, however, your accuser is executed for making a false accusation against you and you get his estate.
Daniel escapes the lion’s den, while those who accused him are then devoured by the same lions. Daniel’s friends are thrown into the furnace and only their ropes burn up… oh, except the men throwing them into the fire. We have Israel passing through the Red Sea, and again later through the Jordon in flood time. When the Egyptian army follows Israel into the Red Sea, Yahweh drowns them. Jonah too is cast into the deep and describes his inevitable death closing in on him, when suddenly Yahweh sends the great fish and saves him.
We even have people actually dying and being brought back. Elijah raises the widow’s son, Elisha sees two people raised, Jesus raises the 12-year-old girl, Lazarus, and the widow’s son at Nain. He also raises himself. Peter raises up Tabitha, Paul raises the man who fell from the window, and was himself possibly raised up after being stoned. God has spoken. God has delivered.
We could cast our nets wider and consider scenes of war, where each warrior casts himself into the maw of death seeking divine salvation in the fight. These are called contest ordeals in which the gods choose one over the other. David vs. Goliath is Yahweh choosing David as His champion for the people. Korah’s rebellion ends with both Moses and Korah’s people stepping into the presence of the Lord. Moses lives and Korah’s ilk perish in the fire as the earth swallows them up. We see something similar when death is not on the line, directly. Those who challenge Aaron’s priesthood put their staves in the presence of the Lord. Yahweh gives life to the staff of His elect.
Surviving an ordeal is a sign of innocence, divine acceptance, and divine election.
Of course, Korah’s rebellion and Aaron’s staff introduce another common, but often unrecognized form of ordeal… entering into the presence of the Holy Creator.
A Consuming Fire
It is a common notion, overtly stated in Exodus 33:20 that the unveiled presence of God is lethal to humans, even a peek at the fading afterburn of God revealed left Moses so altered that he had to veil his face to keep from terrifying the people. Psalm 97 paints quite a picture of unveiled God saying in verse 3, “Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries all around,” and in verse 5, “The mountains melt like wax before the LORD.” Hebrews 12:28-29 declares, “thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Entrance into the presence of the holy is an ordeal, for death is on the line. It is not unlike the incident in Esther. Anyone entering unbidden into the presence of the Persian king is executed on the spot unless the king extends his scepter. Even so, Esther risks it all to make an appeal for her doomed people. His favor is toward her, however. He extends his scepter. The executioners hold their hands.
God in Glory
This is recurring ritual imagery in Israel’s sanctuaries. God shows Israel how sinful men can dwell in His Holy and consuming presence. For example, God reveals Himself in the glory of His Holiness in the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest can enter once a year to offer atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people. His spared life is the sign of Israel’s forgiveness, acceptance, and election.
Of all the places this forgiveness, acceptance, and election are symbolized, one of the most powerful is in the burning-but-not-consumed bush. It preaches. It is possible by God’s grace to dwell in the presence of a consuming Holy fire and not be burned. Sinful man can find forgiveness and acceptance before the Holy One. God will show Israel the way, and at that moment, in the burning-but-not-consumed bush, He reveals the potential to Moses. In Israel’s sanctuary there will be another burning-but-not-consumed tree… a symbol of Israel, an ever-flaming olive tree, lighting the holy place, ignited by the fire of God and sacred oil… the lampstand.
And how should we respond as we stand with Moses and the Priest before the burning-but-not-consumed tree? Hebrews 12:28-29 gets it right. “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” May our encounter with God in Christ be likewise tinged with wonder, fear, and overwhelmed gratitude for God’s grace and mercy shown to the chief of sinners who dares to come before Him seeking forgiveness, acceptance, and election.
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