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The Burning Bush – Moses` call vision


Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman







The Call Prophecy of Moses, Israel`s Ideal

The earth is crammed with heaven.
Every bush is ablaze

with the glory of God.
Those who see take off

their shoes.
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
1 Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

2 The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.


3 So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.”

4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”


5 Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

6 He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
(Exodus 3)


Raymond Katz, The Burning Bush, 1937

Raymond Katz, The Burning Bush, 1937


The story of the burning bush is the description of the call prophecy of Moses. It is Moses’ first encounter with God, and undoubtedly Moses experienced “the wholly Other”. In His revelation to Moses, God assigned him a mission of unmatched importance – saving the Jewish people from enslavement in Egypt. It is no wonder that Moses responded with anxiety, hesitation and reticence. Commentators from all periods, including artists, attempted to understand the experience Moses underwent and his responses to it. All saw Moses as an ideal type, but because the qualities of this ideal change from era to era and from one commentator to the next, each artist depicted Moses differently. We will focus here on the character of Moses in each portrayal of the story. In addition, we will attempt to examine how artists expressed the presence of God and how they chose to depict the burning bush.









The Days of the Mishna and the Talmud


At present, the oldest known painting of the burning bush is a mural from the synagogue of the ancient city of Dura Europos in Syria. This synagogue was built in the mid-third century CE by the local Jewish community, living on the edge of the Persian Empire; it was sealed and abandoned within just a few years. The time is the Talmudic period, a time when the ideal in Jewish society was the scholar and teacher. And indeed, in this painting Moses wears the Hellenistic teacher’s robe and teaches the story of the burning bush. Thus, the painting at one and the same time depicts Moses’ vision and Moses rabbenu, the wisest of all scholars, teaching us the weekly Torah portion. God is represented in this painting by a hand, also pointing to the burning bush. The teacher, Moses, is both God`s colleague and His disciple.


Dura Europos, Moses and the Burning Bush, 244

Dura Europos, Moses and the Burning Bush, 244


In Exodus 3:6-7 God proclaims to Moses the redemption of Israel from the slavery in Egypt. One question that arises regarding this astounding vision is whether there is any connection between the components of the vision of the burning bush and the content of its message? The people of Dura Europos apparently were acquainted with
Midrashim according to which the burning bush symbolizes the Jewish people and the fire symbolizes Egypt. In Midrash Shmot Raba, for example, regarding the words “from the midst of the bush” (Exodus 3:2), sages explain in various ways the meaning of a bush that is not consumed by fire: the common denominator of all is the promise that the people of Israel will survive and that it must believe in the coming redemption. Therefore the people of Dura understood the biblical story as relating to their own situation – in effect all the drawings in the synagogue express hope for the redemption of Israel, the return to the Land of Israel, the resumption of the Temple services and national freedom.









The Medieval Period


Another painting of the burning bush from a Jewish source is found in the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Passover haggadah illustrated in Spain in the 14th century.


Sarajevo Haggadah, Moses and the Burning Bush, c. 1314

Sarajevo Haggadah, Moses and the Burning Bush, c. 1314


Unlike the healthy looking Moses in Dura, this Moses is skinny, introverted, ascetic. He does not point out the bush like the Moses in Dura, but instead hides his face and clutches his staff out of piety. But this Moses also looks at the bush, out of an intense desire to experience God. Although the text specifically explains
why Moses concealed his face, Midrash continues to deliberate on Moses` response. According to one opinion, there is in this concealment a flaw or failure to seize the critical moment of the encounter with God. According to another opinion, his concealment expresses fitting respect and Moses’ action later on earned him a unique reward – the revelation of God face-to-face. The Sarajevo Haggadah was created in the period when Jewish mysticism or `Kabbalah` was at is height, at the time when one of the fundamental Kabbalist texts, The Zohar, was written. Kabbalah deals primarily with encounters between special men (the mystics) and the Divine. The kabbalists saw in Moses and in the revelation he experienced at the burning bush a model for their actions; they considered the combination of Moses` piety and awe with his curiosity and daring as appropriate to their own exploration of “the Infinite.”









The Renaissance


The next painting, drawn in 1613 by the Italian artist Domenico Feti, represents an inherently different world from that of the kabbalists.


Domenico Feti, The Burning Bush, 1613-14

Domenico Feti, The Burning Bush, 1613-14

Like many other artists, Feti chose to depict Moses’ reaction (which is not specifically described in the biblical text) to the Divine commandment in Exodus 5:3:

Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground


The removal of shoes is mentioned in only one other place in the Scriptures, in the description of
Joshua’s encounter with the commander of God’s army. In both cases, an angel of God appears and in both instances, the reason given for removing the shoes is that the place on which they are standing is holy ground. In Islam, as in other religions, approaching any holy site requires shoes to be removed, apparently in an effort to separate the holiness of the place from the profane and also as an expression of humbleness. In any case, Moses does what he is commanded, and even more. Unlike the painting in the Sarajevo Haggadah, Feti`s Moses does not conceal his face, but gazes openly at the wondrous sight. Although Moses turns toward the flames, it seems that he is also looking past the bush, perhaps out of intense curiosity and a desire to understand what is causing this wonder.

The ideal in Domenico Feti`s time is still today referred to as “the Renaissance man”: educated and active in many and varied fields of culture, science, politics and commerce. Moses` simultaneous fulfillment of the Divine command (action) and his intense gazing at the burning bush (study) express the Renaissance man’s involvement in a variety of areas. Comparison of these elements (action and study) as well as Moses’ physical appearance in Feti`s painting to the paintings from Dura Europus and the Sarajevo Haggadah highlights the difference in the perception of the ideal in each era and context. Feti’s Moses is not a respected teacher nor is he a humble kabbalist, rather he is a strong, active man thirsting for knowledge.









The Counter-Reformation


Finally, in a 1634 painting by the Spanish artist Francisco Collantes, we encounter the Catholic world of faith in the Baroque era.


Francisco Collantes, The Burning Bush, 1634

Francisco Collantes, The Burning Bush, 1634


In this detail from a large landscape painting, Moses kneels, surrounded by his flock and his donkey, before the blurry image of God, depicted as a venerable old man hovering above the burning vegetation. Moses is dressed as a humble peasant, gesturing submissively. It seems that Collantes is depicting the text in Exodus 3:11: But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” Spanish artists in the Baroque era dealt frequently with the deep faith of their ideal figures, a faith that is not shaken even in times of trouble. This preoccupation is apparently related to the intense political and religious upheavals Spain experienced at that time. After many years as a leading empire in Europe, Spain’s status declined considerably in the 17th century, as a result of its unsuccessful clash with England and of the Reformation, whose cultural and religious innovation was felt mainly in northern European countries. Spain’s weakness posed a serious challenge to its Catholic faith. And therefore, Collantes apparently saw in the vision of the burning bush and the Divine promises made then to the people of Israel encouragement for the prevailing mood in his own time. In summary: the burning bush episode describes Moses’ first encounter with God, the first time in his life when holiness penetrated into the secular world. The commentators and artists’ different approaches to the character of the ideal figure— Moses— are possible because the Bible does not go into detail in describing the event. Every artist, like every commentator, had to fill in the gaps in the biblical description. There are numerous opportunities here for employing imagination – to connect an event from the past with the present and to extend the use of symbolism. In other words, every painting is essentially a commentary.



Article Sources:

Exodus 3:1 - 22
1 Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. 3 So Moses said, I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up. 4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, Moses, Moses! And he said, Here I am. 5 Then He said, Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. 6 He said also, I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 The Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. 8 So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. 9 Now, behold, the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me; furthermore, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt. 11 But Moses said to God, Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt? 12 And He said, Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.
13 Then Moses said to God, Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you. Now they may say to me, What is His name? What shall I say to them? 14 God said to Moses, I am who I am; and He said, Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, I am has sent me to you. 15 God, furthermore, said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations. 16 Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, The lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, I am indeed concerned about you and what has been done to you in Egypt. 17  So I said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, to a land flowing with milk and honey. 18 They will pay heed to what you say; and you with the elders of Israel will come to the king of Egypt and you will say to him, The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. So now, please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. 19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion. 20 So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My miracles which I shall do in the midst of it; and after that he will let you go. 21 I will grant this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be that when you go, you will not go empty-handed. 22 But every woman shall ask of her neighbor and the woman who lives in her house, articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and you will put them on your sons and daughters. Thus you will plunder the Egyptians.

Joshua 5:13-15
13 Now it came about when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand, and Joshua went to him and said to him, Are you for us or for our adversaries? 14 He said, No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the Lord. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, What has my lord to say to his servant? 15 The captain of the Lord’s host said to Joshua, Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy. And Joshua did so.

Exodus Rabba 2:5
And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him (3: 2). It is written: I sleep, but my heart is awake(Song. 5: 2). I am asleep as regards the commandments, but my heart is awake to do them. My undefiled- tamathi (ibid.) because they attached themselves to Me at Sinai and said: All that the Lord had spoken will we do, and obey (Ex. 24:7)
 R. Jannai said: Just as in the case of twins (te`omim), if one has a pain in his head the other feels it also, so God said, as it were: I will be with him in trouble (Ps. 91:15). Another explanation: What does I will be with him in trouble mean? When they are in any trouble, they will call upon none but the Lord; in Egypt and their cry came up unto God(Ex. 2:23); by the sea: and the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord (ibid.14:10), and numerous examples like these. It says: In all their affliction He was afflicted(Isa. 53:9). God said to Moses: Do you not realize that I live in trouble just as Israel lives in trouble? Know from the place whence I speak unto you—from a thorn-bush—­that I am, as it were, a partner in their trouble.
And the angel of the Lord appeared - R. Johanan said: This is Michael; R. Hanina said it was Gabriel. Whenever they saw R. Jose the tall, they used to say, There goes our holy Rabbi;so also whenever Michael appeared, it was realized that there was the Glory of the Shechinah.
unto him - Why unto him?To teach that others were with him, yet Moses alone saw; as it is writtenof Daniel: And I Daniel alone saw the vision(Dan. 10:7).
in a flame of fire - to inspire him with courage, so that when he came to Sinai and saw the fires, he should not be afraid of them.
Another explanation of in a flame of fire is that the fire was from both sides of the bush and upwards, just as the heart (leb) is placed between the upper part of both sides of a man.
out of the midst of the bush - A heathen once asked R. Joshua b. Qarhah, Why did God choose a thorn-bush from which to speak to Moses? He replied, Were it a carob tree or a sycamore tree, you would haveasked the same question; but to dismiss you without any reply is not right, so I will tell you why. To teach you that no place is devoid of God`s presence, not even a thorn-bush.
in a flame of fire - At first an angel acted as intermediary and stood in the centre of the fire, and afterwards the Shechinah descended and spoke with him from the midst of the thorn-bush.
R. Eliezer said, Just as the thorn-bush is the lowliest of all trees in the world, so Israel were lowly and humble in Egypt; therefore did God reveal Himself to them and redeem them, as it is said: And I am come down to deliver them from Egypt (ibid. 8).
R. Jose said, Just as the thorn-bush is the prickliest of all trees and any bird that goes into it does not come out unscathed, so was the servitude of Egypt more grievous before God than all other servitudes in the world, as it is said, And the Lord said: I have surely seen the affliction of my people (ibid. 7). Why does it say seen twice? Because after drowning them in the river, theyimmured them in a building. It is as if one took a stick and smote therewith two men, so that both received the lash and knew its sting. So was the pain and servitude of Israel revealed and known to Him at whose word the world came into being, for it is said: For I know their pains (ibid.).
R. Johanan said, Just as one makes of thorns a fence for a garden, so Israel is a fence to the world. Moreover, just as the thorn-bush grows near any water, so Israel grew only in virtue of the Torah that is called water, as it is said, Ho, everyone that thirsts, come you for water(Isa. 55:1). Further, just as thorns grow in the garden and by the river, so Israel participates both in this world and the world to come. Also, just as the thorn-bush produces thorns and roses, so among Israel are thererighteous and wicked.
R. Phinehas b. Hama the priest said, Just as when a man puts his hand into a thorn-bush he does not at first feel it, but when he takes it out it scratches, so when Israel came into Egypt nobody perceived them, but when they went out, they departed with signs and wonders and battle.
R. Judah b. Shalom said, Just as a bird does not feel when it flies into a thorn-bush, but when it flies out its wings are torn to pieces, so whenAbraham came to Egypt nobody noticed him, but when he departed, the Lord smote Pharaoh with plagues.
Another explanation of from the midst of a bush, is given by R. Nachman, son of R. Samuel b. Nachman. Some trees produce one leaf, some two or three; the myrtle, forinstance, produces three because it is called ‘a thick tree’(Lev. 23:40), but the thorn-bush has five leaves. God said to Moses; Israel will be redeemed for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and for your sake and the sake of Aaron.
from the midst of a bush - God hinted to him that he would live 120 years, the numerical value of the letters comprising the word `bush`.
and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire - From this they derived that the heavenly fire shoots out branches upwards, burns but does not consume, and is black in color; whereas fire used here below does not branch upwards and is red and consumes but does not burn. Why did God show Moses such a symbol? Because he (Moses) had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel; hence did God show him a fire which burnt but did not consume, saying to him: Just as the thorn-bush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.
Further, because when God spoke to Moses, the latter was unwilling at first to desist from his work, He therefore showed him this thing, so that he might turn his face to see and speak with Him…And then, God called to him.
 
Exodus Rabba 3:1
And Moses hid his face - thinking: The God of my father is here and I shall not hide my face? R. Joshua b. Qarha nd R. Hoshaia [discussed this]. One said, Moses did not do well in hiding his face, for had he not done so, God would have revealed to him what is above and what is below, what has happened and what will happen. So when Moses later wished to behold [God], as it is said, Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory(Ex. 33:18), God replied, I came to show you, but you hid your face, now I tell you that man shall not see Me and live(ibid.20), for when I wished to do so, you did not wish to see. R. Joshua of Siknin in the name of R. Levi said that in spite of this, God did show him. As a reward for and Moses hid his face, the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face (ibid. 11); as a reward for he was afraid, we read, and they were afraid to come nigh him (ibid. 34:30), and because he feared to look, we read, and he looks upon the likeness of the Lord(Num. 12:8). R. Hoshaia the Elder said: Moses did well in hiding his face, for God said to him: Since you showed me respect and hid your face when I would show Myself to you, I assure you that you will be near Me on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. You will not eat nor drink, but will feast on the splendor of the Shechinah, as it is said, and Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams(Ex.34:29). But Nadab and Abihu uncovered their heads and fed their eyes on the luster of the Shechinah, as it is said, And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and ate and drank (ibid. 24:11). Did they not receive [the death penalty] for what they had done?
 
 
Tanhuma Shemot 14:2
 
As soon as he reached Mount Horeb, The angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire(Exod. 3:2). Why did He appear in a fiery flame? So that when he came to Sinai and beheld the fire, his heart would not be frightened by it.
Another comment on why in a flame of fire (belibbat esh)?The fire was on both sides of the bush and in the upper por­tion, just as the heart (leb) is placed between the two sides of a man`s body and in the upper portion of his body.
 
Why did He appear in the midst of a bush of thorns rather than in a large tree or a column of smoke? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I have stated in the Torah: I will be with him in trou­ble(Ps. 91:15); inasmuch as they were enslaved, I appeared in a bush of thorns, which is a place of trouble. Therefore, out of the midst of a bush, which is full of thorns, I appeared unto him.