What do You Say to a Burning Bush? A Reflection on Moses’s Encounter with God in Genesis
Legend has it that the rabbis – the Jewish religious leaders – once had a debate on the following question, “Why was the bush that Moses encountered burning but not consumed by the flames?” After many suggestions, one rabbi responded, “It was not consumed by the fire, so that one day when Moses was walking to his job, he would finally notice it!” The rabbi believed the burning bush was there all the time, but that Moses needed to stop long enough and to let go of his personal agenda in order to see and respond.
The bible contains many stories of divine-human encounters, or theophanies, in which God gives humans guidance about their life vocation and responsibility to the world. In this story, Moses has fled Egypt, where his people, the Hebrews (later known as Jews) were oppressed by the Egyptian government. Fearful of their growing population and prosperity, the Egyptian leaders enslaved the Hebrew people. More than that, all male babies were to be killed by drowning. Although Moses escaped this fate, and was raised in the household of the Egyptian leader, he fled to the desert after killing an Egyptian who was beating one of his kinfolk. He never anticipated returning to his homeland.
Moses married and went to work for his father-in-law, tending his flocks of sheep. Day by day, he passed by this bush until the fateful day in which he noticed something unique about this bush. It was blazing with fire, but also calling out to Moses. When Moses came close, the bush warned him, “Take off your shoes, this place is holy ground.” Then the Voice identified itself, as it had to the great parents of the Hebrews, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Frightened by his encounter with the bush, Moses becomes even more astounded when the Voice states its mission, “I have seen the misery of the Hebrew people, and I have come to set them free. I will give them a land of promise – a land of milk and honey.” Moses begins to regain his composure until he hears even more surprising words, “I will send you.” “No not me,” Moses replies. “I can’t speak and I am wanted for murder.” In response, Moses hears the great words of promise told to Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob, “I will be with you.”
Now, few people expect to meet God in all of the divine glory, and even fewer expect to be given a mission by God. But, the story of Moses and the burning bush reminds us that God can come to us on an ordinary day when we’re simply going about our business – walking to work, fixing a meal, reading the paper, or preparing lunches for our children. Any place can become a theophany, a revealing of the divine. In that encounter, we may catch a glimpse of our personal mission for this time and place.
Process theologians believe that God provides a vision for every moment, a possibility for growth and the energy to achieve it. No place or person is without insight or the ability to experience holiness. Burning bushes dot our everyday journey, and most of the time, we miss them. But, when we stop and pause awhile, perhaps, to pray or simply observe the world, we may receive guidance. We may receive a vision about our life’s work or our responsibility in a particular situation. We may, like Moses, discover what our role is to be in healing the world.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He can be reached for lectures, seminars, and retreats at firstname.lastname@example.org