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.”
If one wishes 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. As for the biblical ‘burning bush’ which was not consumed by the flames, it is clear that the ‘flames’ were the ‘glory’ of Yhwh (Isaiah 4:5) and signaled his presence just as the ‘cloud’ of smoke signaled his presence in the tabernacle and the temple holy of holies. So, the word that English translators have been translating as ‘bush’ or ‘snh’ is not a bush at all. It is a tree but in extreme climates it only grows to bush height. The botanical name is Vachellia tortilis or Acacia tortilis. According to Wikipedia:
Timber from the tree is used for furniture, wagon wheels, fence posts, cages, and pens. Vachellia wood was also used exclusively by the Israelites in the Old Testament in the building of the tabernacle and the tabernacle furniture, including the Ark of the Covenant. The pods and foliage, which grow prolifically on the tree, are used as fodder for desert grazing animals. The bark is often used as a string medium in Tanganyika, and is a source for tannin. Gum from the tree is edible and can be used as Gum Arabic. Parts of the tree including roots, shoots, and pods are also often used by natives for a vast number of purposes including decorations, weapons, tools, and medicines.
The Septuagint authors in Alexandria, Egypt modeled this tree/bush on the Egyptian tree of life or Ished tree. “The ‘Tree of Life’ is also referred to as the sacred, mythical Ished tree has been identified with the Persea, Lebbek, Tamarisk, Acacia and sycamore trees. The Tree of Life was located in the Sun Temple of Atum Ra at Heliopolis. The sacred Ished tree of life first arose when Ra Atum, the Sun-god, first appeared at Heliopolis. The sacred Tree of Life is connected with the creation myth and the nine gods of the Ennead of Heliopolis. The Tree of Life was was one of the most potent symbols of ancient Egypt symbolizing Knowledge of the Divine Plan or the equivalent to a map of destiny. Eating the fruit of the sacred Ished tree of life was a guarantee of eternal life. The Tree of Life is strongly associated with ancient mythology and legends relating to the Bennu Bird and the Djed.”
The Acacia tortilis was sacred to Yhwh as it was used exclusively by the Israelites in building the tabernacle, the temple furniture and the Ark of the covenant. This is why the ‘bush’ did not burn. It was the one substance that could contain the glory of Yhwh without being consumed by his flaming glory.
As for the biblical flame of glory; 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 this Book of Exodus tale must have thought that even a sacred 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 acacia tree/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 a sacred tree/bush which was the source of wood which Yhwh’s flaming glory could not consume.
In fact, according to Isaiah 4:5, the fire that lit the bush was not a burning flame. It was the glory of the Lord that caused these flames which emitted light but not heat. This flaming glory led the fleeing Hebrews by day on the Exodus as they held aloft a serpentine image of their deity. The glory of the Lord was expressed as a cloud of smoke by night and this cloud of smoke led the Israelites through the Sinai by night. It was the same glorious cloud of smoke that filled the holy of holies in the tabernacle tent and the temple as well as shrouded Mount Sinai during the revelation of the Torah. 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.