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3. The Burning Bush

Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. 2And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. 4And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. 5And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. 6Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.

7And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; 8And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them. 10Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.

11And Moses said unto God, Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? 12And he said, Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain. 13And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? 14And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. 15And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations. 16Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt: 17And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey. 18And they shall hearken to thy voice: and thou shalt come, thou and the elders of Israel, unto the king of Egypt, and ye shall say unto him, The Lord God of the Hebrews hath met with us: and now let us go, we beseech thee, three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.

19And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand. 20And I will stretch out my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof: and after that he will let you go. 21And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty: 22But every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.

1. Now Moses kept the flock. We have already said that he was occupied as a shepherd for a long time (viz., about forty years) before this vision appeared to him. The patience, then, of the holy man is commended by his continuance in this work; not that Moses had any intention of boastfully celebrating his own virtues, but that the Holy Spirit dictated what would be useful to us, and, as it were, suggested it to his mouth, that what he did and suffered might be an example for ever. For he must have had much mental struggle at this tedious delay, when old age, which weakens the body, came on, since even in those days few retained their activity after their eightieth year; and although he might have lived frugally, yet temperance could not protect even the most robust body against so many hardships, because it is given to very few persons to be able thus to live in the open air, and to bear heat, and cold, and hunger, constant fatigue, the care of cattle, and other troubles. God, indeed, miraculously supported the holy man in the performance of his arduous duties; but still the internal conflict must have gone on, — why does God so long delay and suspend what he so long ago determined? It was, then, no ordinary virtue which overcame these distracting assaults, which were constantly renewing his anxiety; whilst, in the mean time, he was living poorly, in huts and sheds, as well as often wandering over rough and desert places, though from childhood to mature manhood he had been accustomed to luxury; as he here relates, that, having led his flock across the Desert, he came to Horeb, which certainly could not have been effected without his experiencing the cold as he lay on the ground by night, and burning heat by day. The title of “the mountain of God” refers3535     κατὰ πρόληψιν. — Lat by anticipation to a future period, when the place was consecrated by the promulgation of the Law there. It is well known that Horeb is the same mountain which is also called Sinai, except that a different name is given to its opposite sides, and, properly speaking, its eastern side is called Sinai, its western, Horeb.3636     Horeb appears to have been the general name of the whole mountainous district, of which Sinai formed a part. This solution fully meets the objection of certain modern cavillers, who have argued, at least, against the identity of the author of the Pentateuch, if not against its inspiration, on the ground that the same events are recorded as having taken place sometimes on Horeb, sometimes on Sinai. Vide Hengstenberg on the Genuineness of the Pentateuch, Ryland’s Transl., vol. 2, p. 325; Fisk’s Memorial of the Holy Land, p. 146. Since, then, God appeared there and gave so many manifest signs of his heavenly glory, when he renewed his covenant with his people, and furnished them with a rule of perfect holiness, the place became invested with peculiar dignity.

2. And the Angel of the Lord appeared unto him. It was necessary that he should assume a visible form, that he might be seen by Moses, not as he was in his essence, but as the infirmity of the human mind could comprehend him. For thus we must believe that God, as often as he appeared of old to the holy patriarchs, descended in some way from his majesty, that he might reveal himself as far as was useful, and as far as their comprehension would admit. The same, too, is to be said of angels, who, although they are invisible spirits, yet when it seemed good to the Almighty, assumed some form in which they might be seen. But let us inquire who this Angel was? since soon afterwards he not only calls himself Jehovah, but claims the glory of the eternal and only God. Now, although this is an allowable manner of speaking, because the angels transfer to themselves the person and titles of God, when they are performing the commissions entrusted to them by him; and although it is plain from many passages, and3737     Calvin’s own commentary on Zechariah 1:8, will best explain this reference; there, also, he inclines to identify the chief of the Angels with the Son of God. “There were then, as it were, a troop of horsemen: but the Prophet says that one appeared as the chief leader, who was accompanied by others.” “There was one more eminent than the rest, and in this there is nothing unusual, for when God sends forth a company of angels, he gives the lead to some one. If we regard this angel to be Christ, the idea is consistent with the common usage of Scripture,” etc. — Com. on Zech., pp. 31-33. especially from the first chapter of Zechariah, that there is one head and chief of the angels who commands the others, the ancient teachers of the Church have rightly understood that the Eternal Son of God is so called in respect to his office as Mediator, which he figuratively bore from the beginning, although he really took it upon him only at his Incarnation. And Paul sufficiently expounds this mystery to us, when he plainly asserts that Christ was the leader of his people in the Desert. (1 Corinthians 10:4.) Therefore, although at that time, properly speaking, he was not yet the messenger of his Father, still his predestinated appointment to the office even then had this effect, that he manifested himself to the patriarchs, and was known in this character. Nor, indeed, had the saints ever any communication with God except through the promised Mediator. It is not then to be wondered at, if the Eternal Word of God, of one Godhead and essence with the Father, assumed the name of “the Angel” on the ground of his future mission. There is a great variety of opinions as to the vision. It is too forced an allegory to make, as some do, the body of Christ of the bush, because his heavenly majesty consumed it not when he chose to inhabit it. It is also improperly wrested by those who refer it to the stubborn spirit of the nation, because the Israelites were like thorns, which yield not to the flames. But when the natural sense is set forth, it will not be necessary to refute those which are improbable. This vision is very similar to that former one which Abraham saw. (Genesis 15:17.) He saw a burning lamp in the midst of a smoking furnace; and the reason assigned is, that God will not permit his people to be extinguished in darkness. The same similitude answers to the bush retaining its entireness in the midst of the flame. The bush is likened to the humble and despised people; their tyrannical oppression is not unlike the fire which would have consumed them, had not God miraculously interposed. Thus, by the presence of God, the bush escaped safely from the fire; as it is said in Psalm 46:1, that though the waves of trouble beat against the Church and threaten her destruction, yet “shall she not be moved,” for “God is in the midst of her.” Thus was the cruelly afflicted people aptly represented, who, though surrounded by flames, and feeling their heat, yet remained unconsumed, because they were guarded by the present help of God.

3. And Moses said, I will now turn aside. It is certain that his mind was disposed to reverence from no rashness, but by divine inspiration. Although not yet accustomed to visions, he still perceives that, this is no unmeaning spectacle, but that some mystery was contained in it, which he must by no means neglect, and to the knowledge of which he was divinely called. In this, too, we must observe his tractableness, in turning aside to learn. For it often happens that God presents himself to us in vain, because we presumptuously reject such great mercy. Let us learn, then, by the example of Moses, as often as God invites us to himself by any sign, to give diligent heed, lest the proffered light be quenched by our own apathy. But from his calling it a “great sight,” we gather that he was taught by secret inspiration the depth of the mystery, though it was as yet unknown. In this way God prepared his mind to reverence,3838     A humilite. — Fr. that he might the sooner profit by it.

4. God called unto him out of the midst of the bush. In the first place, my readers will observe that, as is the case in almost all visions, it was not a voiceless spectacle to alarm the holy man, but that instruction accompanied it by which his mind might obtain encouragement. For there would be no use in visions, if the senses of those who see them were kept in alarm. But although God was unwilling to terrify his servant, yet, in two ways, he claims authority and reverence for his intended address; first, by calling Moses twice by name, he makes his way into the depths of his heart, that, as if cited before the tribunal of God, he may be more attentive in listening; and, again, by commanding him to put off his shoes, he prepares him to humility, by admiration and fear. There is much discussion with respect to the latter clause amongst many, who delight in allegory.3939     “En curiositez frivoles;” in frivolous subtleties. — Fr. I will not recite their various opinions, because a simple exposition of the true meaning will dispose of the whole of their subtle triflings. Moses is commanded to put off his shoes, that by the very bareness of his feet his mind might be disposed to reverential feelings; and on this account, too, he is reminded of the holiness of the ground, because, in our prayers, the bending of the knees, and the uncovering of the head, are helps and excitements to the worship of God. And this, I think, is made sufficiently clear by the reason which is immediately added, that the place on which Moses stood was “holy ground,” and, therefore, not rashly, or in a profane manner to be trodden on. Whence we gather, that he was instructed by the outward sign of adoration to enter into the presence of God as a trembling suppliant. He had, indeed, said, “Here am I,” (which was a testimony that his mind was teachable, and prepared to obey,) yet it was good that he should be more actively aroused, in order that he might come before God with greater fear. But if this most noble Prophet of God had need of such a preparation, no wonder that God stirs up our unwilling hearts, by many aids, in order that we may worship him in truth. And although the same command is not given to all which was given to Moses, still let us learn, that this is the object of all ceremonies, that the majesty of God, being duly and seriously perceived in our minds, may obtain its rightful honor, and that he may be regarded in accordance with his dignity. If any prefer the deeper meaning (anagoge,) that God cannot be heard until we have put off our earthly thoughts, I object not to it; only let the natural sense stand first, that Moses was commanded to put off his shoes, as a preparation to listen with greater reverence to God. If the question be now raised as to the holiness of the place, the reply is easy, that it received this honorable title on account of the vision. Mount Sinai did not, therefore, naturally possess any peculiar sanctity; but because God, who sanctifies all things, deigned to give there the sign of his presence. Thus Bethel was dignified by Jacob with high and honorable titles. (Genesis 28:17.)

“How dreadful is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven;”

because it had been consecrated by a special revelation. For, wherever we see any sign of the glory of God, piety awakens this feeling of admiration in our hearts. In the meantime, however, since we are too prone to superstition, these two errors must be avoided; lest, in our gross imaginations, we should, as it were, draw down God from heaven, and affix him to places on earth; and, also, lest we should account that sanctity perpetual which is only temporary. The remedy of the first evil is to reflect on the nature of God; of the second, to observe his design, how far, and for what use he sanctifies places. For since the nature of God is spiritual, it is not allowable to imagine respecting him anything earthly or gross; nor does his immensity permit of his being confined to place. Again, the sanctity of a place must be restricted to the object of the manifestation. Thus Mount Horeb was made holy in reference to the promulgation of the law, which prescribes the true worship of God. If the descendants of Jacob had considered this, they would never have set up Bethel as a holy place in opposition to Sion; because, although God once appeared there to the patriarch, He had never chosen that place; therefore they were wrong in proceeding from a particular instance to a general conclusion.

6. I am the God of thy father. He does not merely proclaim himself as some heavenly power, nor claim for himself only the general name of God, but recalling to memory his covenant formerly made with the patriarchs, he casts down all idols and false gods, and confirms Moses in the true faith. For hence he knew surely, that he had not set his hopes in vain in the God whom Abraham and the other patriarchs had worshipped, and who, by the privilege of adoption, had separated their race from all other nations. And lest, through the long lapse of time, Moses might think that what had been handed down concerning Abraham was obsolete, He expressly asserts that His faithfulness still held good, by calling Himself “the God of his father.” But since, in setting forth the hope of redemption, He renews the memory of His covenant, we gather that it was not obliterated from the heart of Moses; because it would have been absurd so to speak of a thing unknown; nor would it have been of any use to make mention of promises of which no recollection existed in the heart of Moses. Since, therefore, the hope of the redemption of the chosen people depended on the covenant which God had formerly made with the patriarchs, He shews that He had not been trusted to in vain, because His engagement would not be ineffectual. It was not so much a sign of reverence as of terror that Moses covered his face; yet must we take both feelings into account, that he felt sudden alarm at the sight of God, and voluntarily adored his majesty. It was necessary that his mind should be affected, and impressed with reverential feelings, that he might be more ready to obey. We read in Isaiah, (Isaiah 6:2,) that even the angels veil their faces, because they cannot bear the infinite glory of God; no wonder then that a mortal man dared not to look upon him. The name of God is appropriated to the visible appearance in which his majesty was concealed.


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