3 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Exodus 3:1-4 – NRSV
During the last few weeks, I’ve found myself reading more books than before, but I’ve also found occasional time to watch long films. Generally, I find it difficult to free up more than a couple of hours or so to watch a film. But a few weeks ago, I sat down in cold blood to watch the famous 1956 film by Cecil B DeMille, The Ten Commandments, one of the longest films ever made by Hollywood, at three hours and forty minutes.
One of the special effects that received accolades at the time was the story of Moses and the burning bush. If you look up this Biblical story on the Internet, you can find theories for it, ranging from an example of St Elmo’s Fire, to the suggestion that Moses must have been under the effects of a hallucinogenic drug. But speculation about what natural phenomena could have caused the story, wrecks our understanding of the passage. Why? The story of the life of Moses is packed with metaphorical images. If we just debate the pseudo-scientific theories, rather than looking at what the stories might mean, we miss the point completely.
Moses looks and sees a bush that’s blazing, and he says to himself: ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush isn’t burned up’. And we then read that only when the Lord sees that Moses has turned aside to see, does he call to him: ‘Moses, Moses’.
Watching the film in the early days of the lockdown and reading the passage afterwards, what struck me was the fact that Moses turned aside from what he was doing, and if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have heard the voice of God.
Why is it that modern life is lived at such a frenetic pace? After all, modern gadgets mean we have an amount of ‘free time’ which our ancestors would have found astonishing. It’s just that in ‘normal times’ we manage to fritter it all away.
Why do we so often find our lives rushing past in a blur of often worthless ‘activity’?
We seem intent on proving the phrase of the Welsh poet William Davies, who wrote:
‘A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’.
Many people have quite reasonably found the last few weeks a huge challenge. We are just not used to having so much time on our hands. But if I try to look on the bright side, I admit that the thing that I’ve most enjoyed has been having more time for contemplation and reflection, and less time feeling pressured by a seemingly endless ‘To do’ list.
The story of the burning bush doesn’t tell us how long Moses turned aside for. What we do know was that he wasn’t expecting God to speak to him; we hear that the reason he turned aside was to see why the bush was not burned up; his was nothing more than idle curiosity. But we can picture him standing a few yards from the bush, watching the spectacle in silence and wondering what he’s looking at. What he’s succeeded in doing is allowing God a space in his life to speak to him.
When Moses had his experience, he might well have been lamenting the fact that God had handed him such a raw deal. As we know, he’d gone from a life of wealth and privilege in a short time to one as a shepherd, which in the ancient world was the lowest of the low. These are feelings that we seem to suffer from particularly in our modern world, ie concentrating on what we haven’t got, rather than giving thanks for what we have.
The one thing that we do know from this wonderful story full of imagery and metaphor is that it was a close-run thing. If Moses hadn’t turned aside from what he was doing, and if he hadn’t paused to give God the chance of breaking through his busyness, God wouldn’t have spoken to him, and the moment would have been lost.
It’s a good thought, perhaps, as we start to head out of lockdown and wonder what we might have learned from the last few weeks.
Encourage us, Lord, to find space in our terrible ‘busyness’, to listen for what you might want to communicate to us. Amen