Let the Scriptures Speak
Burning Bush, Barren Fig Tree
As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush,
though on fire, was not consumed. (First Reading)
If there is a “Top 10” list of Bible passages conveying the essence of the Jewish and Christian idea of God, the one about Moses and the burning bush is surely included.
Consider how the mystery of divine presence is conveyed. As in the theophanies experienced by Abram and Gideon, the text refers to that presence by shifting among several names—“the angel of the Lord,” “God,” “the Lord.” Though the narrator first speaks of a messenger (angel), and Moses sees fire, it is clear that Moses knows he is dealing with God (“Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God,” v. 6). This dramatizes the insight that our human experience of God is always somehow distinct from God.
Then there is the paradox of the fire that burns the bush without consuming it. What better way to portray the intense presence of Creator to creature? Now more than ever, we know that our cosmos is literally enlivened by fire, the relationship of planet Earth to the Sun being our own best example. Similarly, the reflection of Christian philosophy treasures the insight that all beings derive their existence from the One who is not another being but Being itself (something that Exodus 3 makes explicit). In that sense, every creature is a kind of burning bush whose existence is fired by God without being consumed. The non-consumption hints that the sustaining Presence can be intimately present without violating the distinct essence of the creature.
If such considerations seem more philosophical than Hebrew poetry warrants, consider the conversation about the name of the Presence. Although we read three names for the Presence—malach YHWH (“an angel”), YHWH (“the Lord”) and Elohim (“God”)—Moses asks to know the name of the One who is commissioning him. He is told, “I am who am.” Then God adds, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I am sent me to you.” This is an unpacking of the divine name, YHWH. That most famous of four-letter words remained, in the Jewish tradition, a name too sacred to be pronounced (expect for once a year, on Atonement Day, by the high priest). To this day, when a Jewish reader comes to the Hebrew letters transliterated as YHWH, he or she says the substitute name Adonai (“the Lord”). This practice has been enshrined in most translations. The Jerusalem Bible broke with the tradition by rendering YHWH as “Yahweh,” which we Christians now boldly sing in some of our hymns. (The nonbiblical name “Jehovah” results from the misguided combination of the vowels of Adonai with the consonants YHWH.)*
As mentioned above, that mysterious name “I am who am [Greek, ego eimi ho on; Latin, ego sum qui est]” became a catalyst for the Christian metaphysics of creation—the cosmos as beings sustained by the Creator who is pure Being. But finally the account is not about metaphysical speculation; it is about the love of this mysterious Presence who intervenes to rescue through human agency. Caught up simultaneously in the attraction and fear that Rudolph Otto identified as primary ingredients (fascinans et tremendum) of religious experience, Moses is commissioned to do something in the name of the God of his ancestors. The Creator does not simply sustain (which would be plenty)! The Creator redeems, frees Israel from bondage, with a little help from such diffident souls as Moses.
In the Gospel reading, we hear Jesus draw on another image for the divine/human interaction: a fruitless fig tree. Whereas Mark (and Matthew following him) had told of Jesus' performing the prophetic action of cursing a fruitless fig tree (standing for the unproductive religious leadership of Israel), Luke clarifies this confusing action by presenting it as a parable (Luke 13:6-9) of a fruitless fig tree. Here we cannot doubt that the tree is symbolic. It stands for everyone who hears Jesus' call for repentance. The fruitlessness signifies the life lived out of touch with God. The way to fruitfulness is turning the heart to its source, the One who is.
Paul, writing to his Corinthians, conveys the same note of urgency. If the very people who experienced God's liberating power in the Exodus could lose their sense of the divine presence sustaining and saving them, it behooves those of us who claim to have entered “the end of the ages” in Christ not to remain complacent. In our own wilderness trek, we are subject to our own addictions and idolatries. The call to attend to the divine presence and respond is still urgent. Lent is for responding to that call. The One Who Is would enlist us in his saving work.
* The American Bishops have asked that this name not be used in translations, out of respect for the Jewish usage.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University