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Moses and the Burning Bush

Burning Bush. Seventeenth century painting by Sébastien Bourdon in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson for March 21–27; Exodus 1–6

In 2009, a graduate student of mine at Idaho State University, Aynur Gojayeva, invited my wife, Kathleen, and me to visit her home and family in Baku, Azerbaijan. The first night we were there, they drove us a short distance out of the city to Yanar Dagh (meaning “burning mountain”), to see a natural gas fire which burns constantly along the bottom of the hillside on the Absheron Peninsula, on the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan itself is called the “Land of Fire.” Yanar Dagh is described by the Geological Survey of Azerbaijan as “Intensive flames, to 1 metre (3 ft 3 in) high [up to 3 metres (9.8 ft) high], develop for 15 metres (49 ft) along the base of a 2–4-metre-high (6.6–13.1 ft) and 200-metre-long (660 ft) tectonic scarp.” The surface flames result from the steady gas emissions from a thin, porous sandstone layer at the base of the escarpment.

The next day, Aynur and her mother drove us to Surakhani, 30 km (19 miles) from Baku, to visit the Atashgarh Temple, also known as the “Fire Temple of Baku,” built in the 17th – 18th century as a castle-like monastery for Zoroastrian monks and Indian, Hindu devotees to Shiva. “Atash” is the Persian word for fire. The central, small temple structure has a little “eternal” flame burning inside, which is now supplied by a gas line from the city as the natural source of subterranean gas ran out in 1969 due to commercial extraction of gas in the area.

Although Zoroaster lived in the eastern part of the Iranian Plateau, his birthplace is unknown. Dates proposed in the scholarly literature for his lifetime vary widely – ranging anywhere between the 18th and the 6th centuries BC. However, we can think, very roughly, that he was more-or-less a contemporary of Moses, who Jerome suggested lived around 1592 BC, and who Bishop James Ussher specified was born in 1571 BC. But, probably more accurately, Rabbinical Judaism has calculated his lifespan to be around 1391–1271 BC.

Zoroaster saw the human condition as being a mental struggle between truth and lies. He emphasized the freedom of the individual to choose right or wrong and to assume individual responsibility for one’s own actions. Fire played a huge role in Zoroastrian religious practices, as the link between humans and the supernatural. Fire was considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom are gained. Elements of Zoroastrian philosophy may have entered Western thought through their influence on Judaism and Platonism, and have been considered to be among the early key elements in the development of Western philosophy. Pliny the Elder identified Zoroaster as the inventor of magic. In his circa 1510 fresco, The School of Athens, in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican, Raphael depicted a figure who might be Zoroaster among a group of figures in the lower left corner (to the viewer’s right) holding a globe of the stars. It has been said that the Celestial Room in the original Nauvoo Temple had a globe of the earth and one of the stars, along with six maps.

The Prophet Joseph Smith received the revelation now recorded as Doctrine and Covenants section 88 at Kirtland, Ohio, December 27 and 28, 1832, and January 3, 1833. “The revelation was given [by] the Lord to reveal his will unto us concerning the upbuilding of Zion.” Verses 78-80 state, “Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.”

In that light, let’s consider Moses’ experience with the burning bush as recorded in the Book of Exodus. It has been proposed that the Pentateuch was probably written down some seven hundred years after the events described here by Moses.

Exodus 3:1-4 “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. And 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. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And 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.” Let’s then add in Moses 1:17 “And he also gave me commandments when he called unto me out of the burning bush, saying: Call upon God in the name of mine Only Begotten, and worship me.”

First of all, Mount Horeb was called “the mountain of God.” Why? There must have been something about that mountain to give it such a reputation. Therefore, Moses apparently knew ahead of time, before taking Jethro’s sheep there, that there was something special about this mountain. Second, we are told that “the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire.” Why? It is interesting that the word “seraph” means “the burning one,” and the plural seraphim is often used in the scriptures to denote angels. Even into the Renaissance, astronomers thought the planets, the “wandering stars,” were fires in the sky, formed and moved about by angels. Even then, fire was considered to be one of the four basic elements; along with air, water, and earth; and it was a mystery where it came from – it must come from angels – the seraphim.

Third, why a bush? In 1300 BC, or even 600 BC, when the story was finally written down, where was fire going to come from? Everyone knew, from common sense, that in order to have a fire, you had to have a combustible source – after all, fire didn’t just come up out of the ground – did it? So why did Joseph Smith refer to a burning bush in 1830? By then the term “burning bush” was likely a metaphor. We certainly use the term as such today – for some sort of revelatory experience. What if there was no bush? What if the fire, inexplicitly, was coming right up out of the ground? Zoroastrians have been viewing fire as a medium to speak to God for over 3,000 years, and the flames in Azerbaijan have been burning for at least that long. Where else in the Middle East are there sources of natural gas?

Lastly, was it critical to the story of Moses and the Burning Bush that there was a bush? Wouldn’t the story still be just as important without the bush, or a fiery angel? The bottom line is that the fire captured Moses attention – as it would anyone’s – if there was a fire that was not extinguished, especially with no apparent source of fuel that was being consumed. “And 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.” So God said to Moses, “Now that I have your attention, I have a mission for you.” The bush is not critical to this message.

The fact that today we understand how fire can come right up out of the ground does not detract from the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. In fact, such understanding, as explained in Doctrine and Covenants 88, actually strengthens the story. I have seen such fire myself, at Yanar Dagh, the “burning mountain.” Such phenomena have been going on, uninterrupted, for at least 3,000 to 4,000 years in the Middle East. What I found interesting about my visit to Yanar Dagh in 2009 was that no one seemed to be kneeling by the fire waiting for the word of God to come to them. Rather they were kneeling before the fire roasting hot dogs.

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

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