We are all pretty familiar with the story from this Sunday’s first reading from Exodus: Moses and the burning bush. Moses was out tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, when God spoke to him from the flaming bush that didn’t turn to ash.
Did you ever wonder what a burning bush might look like? Various artists have depicted the bush in many ways, including on this page. Usually it’s shown as a smaller shrub. In Hebrew, the bush is called seneh, which seems to refer to “brambles” or a “thorn bush,” which some scholars say could be a play on the name “Sinai.”
The late Jewish biblical scholar, Nahum Sarna, described the burning bush as “the thorny desert plant Rubus sanctus that grows about a yard high near wadis and in moist soil, and has flowers that resemble small roses and fruit like the raspberry that turns black when it has ripened.”
So everyone agrees on it being a shrub-like bush. While clearly not the same bush as the one in Scriptures, it is interesting to note that there is really a bush that spontaneously combusts and yet does not burn. The plant is botanically known as Dictamnus albus and is also called the gas plant, dittany, fraxinella or “burning bush.” According to “The Encyclopedia Britannica,” this perennial member of the rue family is native to Eurasia, has white or pink flowers and leaves “that give off a strong aromatic vapor which can be ignited.” The vapor rises above the bush and can ignite, especially from lightning.
Returning to the plant identified as Moses’ burning bush — the Rubus sanctus — there is agreement that the bush was located on, or at least near, Mount Sinai. It was here, at Sinai, that Moses later returned, with all the freed Hebrews, to receive the Ten Commandments.
In learning more about Moses’ burning bush, we need to know where Mount Sinai is located. Many scholars — including St. Jerome in the fourth century — believed that Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai are one and the same. (That’s why we hear the first reading on the Third Sunday of Lent refer to “Horeb, the mountain of God.”) Others believe “Mount Sinai” in the Bible refers to the entire Sinai range, which is not located in Israel, but on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
At the base of the mountain called Sinai, or Horeb, today, there is a Greek Orthodox monastery that has existed since the fourth century, when St. Helena visited the area. In the sixth century, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered a church built there. There are artifacts in Justinian’s church indicating that it was erected on the site of an even older church that honored the Transfiguration.
(There is also a tradition that says Mount Sinai/Horeb was the Mount of the Transfiguration. However, today, Mount Tabor in Israel is most often considered the site of last week’s Gospel reading.)
The monastery church, still called the Basilica of the Transfiguration, contains some of the most ancient Orthodox icons. The monastery also has a wonderful library, said to rival the Vatican Library as far as its number and quality of ancient Christian documents. It is also home to relics of the virgin-martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria. In 2002, the entire region around Mount Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery, about 200-square-miles, was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
Behind the altar in the main church there is a smaller chapel, which is called the Chapel of the Burning Bush. There one can see the shrub, just outside this chapel, that is believed to be the actual bush that Moses saw aflame. It is alive and growing, standing about six feet tall and with long, thorny branches. It is a Rubus sanctus, just as described by Sarna.
In Jewish tradition, the burning bush is seen as a symbol both of the holiness of God — reminiscent of the fire that later appeared as lightning on Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments — and of the care of God for his people.
As Sarna noted about this holy fire of Sinai and the bush: “Most commentators see in fire — an element that is self-sustaining, requires no substance for its existence or perpetuation, and is wholly unaffected by its environment — a symbolic representation of the transcendent, awesome and unapproachable Divine Presence.”
Moses’ burning bush is also seen by many commentators as a symbol of the Hebrews who were saved by God from being consumed by the slavery of Egypt.
Among Eastern Catholics, as well as those of the Orthodox traditions, the burning bush is also seen to prefigure the Virgin Mary. Dennis Sardella, docent of the Museum of Russian Icons (Clinton, Mass.), notes that a very ancient icon of Mary as “The Mother of God (Theotokos) of the Unburnt Bush,” widely venerated in Russia, may have originated at the monastery of St. Catherine.
The Orthodox Church in America notes on its website (oca.org) that it “has always regarded the Unburnt Bush on Horeb as a type of the Most Holy Theotokos giving birth to the Savior Christ, while remaining a Virgin. … One of the earliest depictions of the Mother of God as the Unburnt Bush shows her holding her divine Son in the midst of a burning bush. Moses is shown to one side, removing his sandals, for that place was holy (Ex 3:5).”
However you think of the burning bush, remember that Moses didn’t understand it at first either. All he did was go closer to see. God took it from there.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; sacredland.org; Jewish History Online Magazine JHOM.com; sacred-destinations.com; museumofrussianicons.org; jewishencyclopedia.com; aish.com; unesco.org; oca.org; and Britannica.com.