The Meaning of the Biblical Burning Bush
H. Abdul Al-Dahir
One of the perpetually controversial issues that perplexes Biblical commentators is the identification and the meaning of the ‘burning bush’ in the third chapter of Exodus:
“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father,the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
In order to identify the species of flora to which the Bible refers one must refer to the Hebrew word for the ‘burning bush’ and it is ‘senh’. According to Strong’s, the root of this word is ‘senah’ and it means to prick, to be thorny. The Arabic cognate is ‘sana’ and the root of this word is ‘snw’ or ‘sny’. The root means to gleam, shine, glisten, to be resplendent, radiate. There are senna bushes in the Middle East which have been used medicinally for millennium as a purgative. The particular bush that would be of interest would be Senna Alexandrina or Egyptian senna. Like other senna bushes and plants, it has bright yellow flowers but no thorns. So, the Hebrew meaning of thorny is not correct. The Arabic meaning that it was radiant (with bright yellow flowers) would be more appropriate to this verse. In other words, the ‘snh’ or senna bush would be a fiery bush and not a bush on fire as its radiant flowers would be reminiscent of yellow flames. This plant is native to Egypt and the Sudan or ancient Nubia, but not ancient Canaan. So, the burning bush was not subject to indestructible combustion as the Bible describes it. It was a flowering medicinal plant not familiar to Biblical commentators who equated the name ‘snh’ or senna to the Hebrew root word for thorny.
As for the flame; one must consult the Quran which has the same story except for the ‘burning bush’. According to Surah Ta Ha:
“[20:9] Have you noted the history of Moses? [20:10] When he saw a fire, he said to his family, “Stay here. I have seen a fire. Maybe I can bring you some of it, or find some guidance at the fire.” [20:11] When he came to it, he was called, “O, Moses. [20:12] “I am your Lord; remove your sandals. You are in the sacred valley, Tuwã. [20:13] “I have chosen you, so listen to what is being revealed.”
The Hebrew tales in the Quran were familiar to the Hebrew tribes in Arabia. In the Quran Moses approaches a flame and not a burning bush. A petroleum seep was probably the source of the combustion, so the bush is eliminated as a source of fuel. Whichever Hebrew author wrote the Exodus tale must have thought that a flame would need some kind of combustible plant for fuel and wrote in the senna bush. However, petroleum seeps are common in the Middle East and they often catch fire making them eternal flames. These burning seeps were often places of worship or holy ground, which explains Allah’s (swt) order to Moses to remove his footwear. The Biblical scene also has Moses removing his sandals which indicates that the original scene did not include a bush as the senna bush was not a sacred plant.
So, the Exodus story of the burning bush is a mix of 2 traditions; one that the incident took place at a holy spot where burned an eternal flame that could not be quenched and the other that the meeting took place at an important medicinal bush with flame like flowers that made it radiant or resplendent. The senna bush was a popular healing herbal which was an important part of ancient Middle Eastern materia medica. Moses is also associated with another healing instrument, the nehushtan or copper snake wound around a pole which was used to cure snake bites according to Number 21:8,9. Snakes were associated with healing and copper was considered to be a healing metal. Moses’ role in the Bible appears to be that of a shaman who healed the Hebrews of both physical and spiritual woes.
The use of both the senna bush and the perpetual flame motifs are also symbolic. The pods of the senna bush were used as a purgative. Moses’ marching orders from Yhwh were to purge the Hebrews of Egyptian rule and its pagan influence as well as cleanse them of their own spiritual transgressions. The senna bush would have been symbolic of the exodus to follow. The perpetual flame represented spiritual enlightenment as well as the unquenchable spirit of the Creator who led the recalcitrant Hebrews from the darkness of foreign oppression and depravity into the light of the Torah’s guidance. However, according to the Biblical narratives, the Hebrews did not hesitate to revert to their old habits of worshiping idols and rewriting the Torah to suit their ever changing political, economic and spiritual milieu (Isa 29:13). Isaiah appropriately warned: “The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” Because of these transgressions, Allah (swt) chose a new people to which he appointed Mohammed Ibn Abdullah as their lawgiver and leader as He had previously appointed Moses to the Hebrews. This time, the revelation was preserved. The Quran has remained pristine for more than 1400 years.