The Symbolism of the Burning Bush: a response to Matthew McConaughey
[to listen to the audio version of this article, click here] “I am a religious person… but I don’t know what to do with the burning bush,” Hollywood actor Matthew McConaughey said on the Joe Rogan Experience, the most watched podcast show in 2020. “Burning bush” may arouse several things in people’s imaginations. So before your mind begins to wonder, Mr. McConaughey is referring to the account in Exodus where Moses encounters a bush that was burning but not consumed by that fire, within which God spoke to Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian oppression. “I don’t know what to do with the magic, the miracles,” Mr. McConaughey continued, “I take from the Bible what I can apply to my life today.” Like so many Christians and non-Christians today, Mr. McConaughey struggles due to the influence of an over-reduction to the story’s mere literal interpretation. A story contains many levels of meaning beyond its literal one that can be drawn out from multiple angles. In this article, we will help our friend, Mr. McConaughey, understand the deeper meaning of the burning bush using the allegorical approach. We will identify the symbolic pattern and apply it to the greater context of the Exodus narrative. We will see how this pattern applies to other examples in the Bible, as well as modern ones outside the Biblical text – like poison oak. By the end, the meaning of the burning bush, as well as its applicability in everyday life, will have been illuminated for Mr. McConaughey and the readers alike.
Exodus 3 – The Burning BushLet’s take a quick moment to quickly review the text, Exodus 3:
1 “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.” 4 So 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 draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” 6 Moreover He said, “I am the God of your 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.Skipping down a few verses, we read:
9 “Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”Later in the chapter, God says:
19 But I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not even by a mighty hand. 20 So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you go.Elsewhere in the chapter, God reveals his name, “I AM WHAT I AM.” The name implies that God is defined by nothing else. God transcends reference and the linguistic attempts of humanity to contain him with language. Note this transcendent quality; for it will serve our understanding later in the article. Also in the chapter, God assures Moses that His presence is with the Israelites (v. 12).
The Pattern of the Burning BushThe theophany – an external manifestation of God’s presence – of the burning bush contains several layers of meaning. Let’s dig a little deeper to draw out the fundamental patterns. The main elements are the bush, God’s presence, and fire. Inwardly, the bush hosts God’s presence without being overtaken by the intensity of His transcendent Being. Outwardly, the fire burns the bush without consuming it. For reasons I will explain below, the bush maintains its identity as “bush” that would otherwise be disintegrated by the inward and outward forces. To recognize examples of the burning bush pattern elsewhere, we must have: an earthly object/person (burning bush) with God’s indwelling presence that preserves the object from a fiery intensity. Before we examine the burning bush in the Exodus narrative, let’s take a moment to understand its symbolism in an everyday example – a poison oak remedy.
Eating Poison OakThe burning bush pattern is not limited to events in the Bible. The symbolism happens all the time and all around us. A poison oak (also ivy, sumac) remedy provides a simple example to exhibit this pattern. Poison oak is a small, climbing tree native to North America with leaves that turn orange, deep red, and purple in Autumn. Visually, it can look like a burning bush. But for those who allergically react to its toxic oils, poison oak is practically a bush that inflames the body with a burning intensity. Skin reactions include small itchy red dots to pussing boils to swelling glands. It sucks. To remedy against poison oak’s hellish toxins, The pre-Western peoples in North America came up with a homeopathic remedy – they ate it. To this day, people eat the first budding leaves in Spring. Their bodies become accustomed to the toxins and build a defense against further exposure throughout the rest of the year. To protect themselves from the fire (poison oak toxins) they voluntarily bring into their body a part of that fire. The indwelling presence of the fire protects them from the fire without. They are exposed but unburned. Now, let’s examine the pattern of the burning bush within its immediate context – the Exodus of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt.
Moses and Israel’s ExodusAt the individual level Moses is a burning bush. God dwells within but does not consume Moses. God’s presence preserves Moses from the fiery persecution of Pharaoh. At the national level, Israel is a burning bush. Alastair Roberts points out that Israel is being burned by the fiery oppression of Egyptian enslavement but is not consumed by that fire because of God’s promise to be with her. The alternative title “unburnt bush” would most accurately express this angle of interpretation. At the regional level, the land of Egypt comes under the fire of God’s presence in judgement. God is Being (with a capital B), the energies of his presence are intense. It’s like the sun; the closer one gets to the sun, the greater the intensity of exposure. It gets brighter and hotter. In like manner, when God’s presence comes to Egypt, like the sun coming closer to the earth, the exposure is severe. Moses tells Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” And Pharaoh says Okay, but then changes his mind. Because of the “hardness of Pharaoh’s heart,” God sends a plague upon the land. Pharaoh continues this waffling act, so God sends 10 plagues. With each plague, the intensity of God’s presence burns the region of Egypt but the Israelites are not consumed. Meanwhile, the Egyptians are burned and consumed. The water turns into blood, but the Israelites’ water does not. Frogs, lice, flies, boils, livestock disease, fiery hail, darkness, and death engulf the land. The Egyptian people, crops, livestock, and infrastructure are consumed in the intensity of God’s presence in the land, while the Israelites are preserved. Why? The Israelites hosted God’s presence, while Pharaoh and the Egyptians rejected it. When the fiery sun comes down (phenomenologically speaking) to earth, the existing fires will only become hotter, or more fire. Their identity will only be magnified. That which is not fire, will be overcome by the sun’s intensity. We will refer to this pattern as the “burning bush.” Moving along in the Exodus narrative, the Israelites reach a dead end at the Red Sea. Pharaoh waffles yet again and pursues the Israelites. By the time the Egyptians reach the Red Sea they find that the waters have been split, and the Israelites have already walked through on dry land to the other side. The Israelites were surrounded by watery chaos, yet not consumed by it because God was within them. When the Egyptian army attempts a crossing, the waters collapse. They are surrounded and consumed because they rejected God’s presence. The pattern is not limited to literal elements of fire or water. Important here is to understand the meaning of an earthly object (bush, person, nation), surrounded by the intensity – of worldly oppression or God’s glory – being consumed or preserved based upon God’s presence indwelling the object or not.
Jesus in Mary’s WombThe Mother of God is the burning bush Moses encountered on Mt. Sinai. Mary is a woman of earth hosting the divine presence of the Son of God within her womb, yet the intensity of God’s Being did not consume her. Early in Christian history, Mary is connected to the burning bush in ways beyond strict linear time. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the 4th century in the book The Life of Moses:
“From this we learn also the mystery of the Virgin: The light of divinity which through birth shone from her into human life did not consume the burning bush, even as the flower of her virginity was not withered by giving birth.”Mary, the Virgin, is referred to as the burning bush. Note the picture below, the icon depicts Christ in his deity within the bosom of Mary, who is surrounded by small black branches and red flames – fire within and fire without. Also, note the figure in the bottom left with bare feet and sandals next to him – that is Moses. Mary, as the portal of the Incarnation of Christ, is the burning bush that Moses removed his sandals in reverence towards. To make the linear-leaning mind more confused, the symbolism works the other direction too. In the picture below, the setting is Moses’ mountain top experiences with God in Exodus. Moses draws near the burning bush, takes off his sandals and receives the 10 Commandments. And who is the burning bush? The Mother of God with Christ in her bosom. Early Christians seemed to have no issues connecting the symbol across time and space.
The TransfigurationThe transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor discloses another important part in understanding the burning bush. Jesus takes three disciples up a mountain and reveals a glimpse of his divinity – and it is intense. Peter, James, and John hit the ground, overwhelmed by the glory of the Uncreated Light. Light is inextricable from fire. To shine like the sun is to also burn like one. To burn is to shine. Christ burns with the Light of God’s transcendent mode of being, and yet his humanity is unburnt. Note in the picture below the concentric rings around Christ. As a burning bush, Christ is the source – the center – from which God’s glory emanates throughout the earth. Also note how Peter and James are facedown, while John alone looks upon the transfigured Christ. Why is he able to look while the others cannot? Later, John is the one who receives the prophetic vision of the heavenly realm. His written accounts of his experience in the presence of God become the book of Revelation. We will arrive at Revelation shortly, but let us visit the burning bush at the individual and community level first.
Individual Flames of FireJesus baptizes people in the Holy Spirit and Fire (Luke 3:16). What does that mean? In simple terms – he turns people into burning bushes. Individual believers are immersed (baptizo) in God’s presence inside and out – like a sunken vessel – without being obliterated. We see the fulfillment of Jesus’ baptism at Pentecost. In Acts 2, flames of fire rested upon the disciples. Note in the image below the concentric rings at the top center. The same source of Light in Christ at the Transfiguration is the source of fire at Pentecost. Christ’s fire was divided and given to His disciples. Through those disciples the fire was divided and given to other disciples – and the multiplication continues to this day. In this process of emanation, the Church as a whole becomes a burning bush, growing and expanding to the ends of the earth and the end of the age.
“Pentecost is the Church ablaze, a fire that spreads and consumes until the age itself is consumed; but like the burning bush seen by Moses on the Mountain, the Church itself is not consumed.” 
The End of the AgeAs every season comes to an end. Crops are harvested and the land transitions to a new season of growth. In like manner this age itself will come to an end (as Christians have it) and usher in the next age. To mark the eschatological transition, Christ comes back in the way He revealed at His Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, where he let shine a glimpse of his transcendent glory. Only this time, Christ comes in the fullness of his glory – and it is intense. To those who had received God’s indwelling presence – the Pentecost flame – the intensity of Christ’s return will be as a fiery light that transforms them. They go from one glory to another greater glory. Fr. Thomas Hopko puts it this way:
“Our judgement at the end will be by fire, that we stand the fire of the mercy and the love of God upon us, and if we endure that fire, we become all fire, but if we do not endure it, that fire then destroys us.”Those who have allowed the presence of God to begin the work of inner transformation through mercy and love will not only endure the intensity of Christ’s presence but become further refined in that fire. Symbolically, the burning bushes who host the indwelling presence of God will endure the fire of God’s presence when it descends upon the whole earth at the end of the age. “…but if we do not endure it, that fire then destroys us.” For those who, like Pharaoh and the Egyptians, hardened their heart and refused the presence of God to dwell within them, the intensity of Christ’s return will overcome them. The bushes without God’s indwelling flame are burned and consumed by the exterior fire. In the figure below, note that both the radiant light and river of fire emanate from the same source – the returning Christ. The fire at Pentecost and the fire at the Final Judgement are the same fire. God’s uncreated glory, his pure love, is intense. Some will be ready and transformed by His love, and others will not and be burned by it. When someone has wronged another the persecutor expects the victim to retaliate in vengeance. But if the victim instead responds in pure love and forgiveness, the persecutor can either repent and be transformed by that love or further harden their heart in rejection. The presence of love is extreme for the persecutor and causes a judgement (so to speak) – either transform into that love or become further hardened by persecution. The final judgement carries out this dynamic at the cosmic scale.
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