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The Burning Bush

Was there really a burning bush?

Senna Italica plant or Cassia obovata. Photograph by Colin Paterson-Jones)

Q. I am interested in the story of Moses and the burning bush. Is this entirely figurative or are there any situations where bushes in the desert undergo something physical like spontaneous combustion? Or was it glowing with reflected light?

A. I think that the story is closer to figurative than reflective of some odd (or impossible) occurrence, such as the spontaneous combustion of a bush.  Indeed, the main point of the story is easy to miss in English translations.  The Hebrew word sneh, translated as “bush,” is not the generic word for bush (si-ach), but a particular type of bush or bramble, most likely the multicolored Cassia obovata

This particular word was chosen for the story since the Hebrew word sneh is almost identical with sinai, as in Mount Sinai.  This is a classic case of prefiguration or hinting ahead, which is often used in the Bible.  In other words, this scene with the revelation of the divine name to Moses at the sneh/burning bush foreshadows the giving of the law to the Israelite community on Mount Sinai—which was also accompanied by a great fire that did not consume (see Exod 19:18). 

The initial chapters of Exodus contain many other examples of prefiguration; for example, the conflicts of Moses in chapter two with an Egyptian man, and later with an Israelite hint ahead to the role Moses would play later in the Torah as antagonistic to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, while also fighting with the Israelites.

  • Marc Zvi Brettler

    Marc Zvi Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. He is the author of How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford, 2007) and coeditor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament.