The Burning/Unburnt Bush – Agni and Yogic Fire by Steve Gold
On a recent visit to the Pike Market in Seattle, I was attracted to a booth selling crafted tiles featuring symbols from various world spiritual/religious traditions. They were all very beautifully done, but what particularly caught my eye was a depiction of the burning bush in the Judaica collection. All of a sudden the deep significance of this particular image hit me in a way it never had before. Certainly, the other Judaica images displayed, the menorah and the Star of David, are much more well-known and more often utilized in depicting Judaism, but when I saw the burning bush, I realized what a spiritually powerful image it is. The menorah came later, and the star later still (and is not unique to Judaism), but the burning bush is more primordial and in some aspects more quintessential.
It came to me in a flash of insight that what was so special was generally overlooked by traditional sources discussing this event and symbol, partly due to the emphasis on the bush. The focus has generally been on the fact that there was something special about the bush, because it was burning, but not being consumed. So that was some special bush! It was burning, but it really wasn’t burning, because it wasn’t being consumed. I did a little bit of quick Internet research, and found that some strains in Eastern Orthodoxy espouse a significance similar to my revelation, referring to this as the event of “The Unburnt Bush”.
In the revelation of the unburnt bush, the bush in some sense is incidental. The real significance concerns the nature of the flame, the fire, not the bush. What is extraordinary about this flame/fire is that it is not dependent on fuel (why the bush was not consumed), but rather depicts the foundational source of fuel and all existence. The first word in the Rig Veda, the oldest of all of the Vedas, is Agni, which means fire, which to me is what is depicted in the burning bush, the same Divine primordial fire from which emanates both Divine Light and Divine Sound, the source materials for creation.
There is nothing extraordinary about the bush. It is not the source for the fire, but just a contrast background for its appearance. I began pondering about why have the bush at all? The fire could have appeared independently, and the event would have become known as the event of The Eternal Flame or Holy Fire or something like that. So why the bush? Why the bush? What purpose does it serve in this depiction? Hmm…And then it came to me. If the flame/fire appeared independently, then those hearing the story might still have assumed that it was more or less like any other flame/fire, even if it appeared that its source was supernatural or miraculous, as it appeared to have no normal fuel. The bush was utilized to illustrate that not only was the source of the flame other-worldly, but also the very nature of the flame was other-worldly. This was no ordinary fire, for it was the fire of creation, not of destruction. It did not require fuel as its origin, and it did not consume fuel for its sustenance. The Hebrew word used for it in the Torah describing the event of the burning bush in Exodus is “eish”. A derivative is earlier used in describing man and woman in Genesis as “ish” and “isha”. Even earlier in Genesis, another derivative of “eish/fire” is used in combination with the word for water (mayim) to form the word for heaven and the firmament dividing heaven from earth (shamayim). So this creating, sustaining, non-consuming Divine Fire that appears in the burning bush also exists as a core element in Human Being and in Heaven. There is nothing unusual about the bush itself, other than that it helped to illustrate the unusual nature of the fire, and that it could coexist with the fire, just as heaven, earth and life coexist with the fire.
[The above is an excerpt from the book, IVRI: The Essence of Hebrew Spirituality; 21st Century Perspectives on an Ancient Tradition, by Steven J. Gold, with contributions from Shirley Chambers, Seyh M. I. Baha’uddin, Marcus J. Feed, and Bill Heilbronn. Available at www.lulu.com/spotlight/zorach and online retailers]
Steve J. Gold is the founder of the Yoga and Judaism Center.