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The burning bush and the burning mountain - Exodus 3 and 19 - notes

This page compares the two accounts of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3) and at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19 and succeeding chapters). There are numerous points of similarity between them, suggesting that the two were constructed together in such a way as to lead the imagination of the audience from the lesser to the greater occurrence.

Parallels between the passages

There are numerous words shared between the two descriptions:

WordMeaning Burning bush ref.Mount Sinai ref
(Qal imperfect wayyare’)
See 3:2, 320:18
yârê’ Fear 3:620:18
mare’eh Sight 3:324:17
’êsh Fire 3:219:18, 24:17
’âkâl Consume 3:224:17
qôdesh Made holy 3:519:10, 23

As well as that, there are a number of plays on word sounds both within each passage and between the two. The most obvious of these arises with the location of the two events. Thorn-bush is çeneh, and the mountain is çîynay. The pronunciation of the two would suggest that the bush was a smaller, more diminutive version of the mountain. Other similar word plays include juxtaposing the imperfect stem wayyare’ - he was looking at - and the perfect stem yârê’ - he feared.

The common features of the descriptions suggest strongly that the two accounts have been constructed in parallel. The Sinai account is certainly on a grander scale, and the description is accordingly more lavish. The phenomena are seen by all the people, not just a single person, they affect a whole mountain rather than a single bush, and the accompanying natural turmoil is greater and more impressive. The simple flames of fire of Exodus 3 develop into fire, lightning, heavy cloud and billowing smoke, and the fear of the people is expressed with broader vocabulary (chârad - tremble - and nûa‘ - waver - as well as yârê’ - fear, common to both accounts). The mountain trembles as well as the people.

However, this grander description should not obscure the fact that the same basic elements are present in both, and the Exodus 3 account is intended to prepare not just Moses for his changing circumstance, but the reader for the approaching theophany. The underlying pattern of seeing a sight that causes fear, a voice out of fire, and the need for holiness are present in both. As mentioned above, the two have been deliberately written in conjunction with each other and not as separate, unrelated episodes.


3:1) chôrêb is used as a name for this place more widely than çîynay. As well as various other references in Exodus (17:6 and 33:6), it is used extensively in Deuteronomy. Elsewhere it is used in 1 Kings (twice), 2 Chronicles, Psalm 106 and Malachi. It appears to refer more specifically to the mountain rather than the general area. ’elôhîym here has the definite article.

3:2) çeneh - thorn bush or similar - is used only here, in verse 4, and in Deuteronomy 33:16 in the entire Old Testament. Note the use here of the verb ’âkal - eat/consume. male’akh is often translated angel but messenger or burden-bearer is more descriptive of the role.

3:3) ’ere’eh, let me see, and hammare’eh, the sight are both derived from the same verb, râ’âh.

3:4) Note the change in divine appellation: Yahweh saw... but Elohim called. ’elôhîym here lacks the definite article.

3:5) qârab - come close here can have connotations of intimacy in relationship, or having an attitude of worship, as well as the literal meaning. ’ademath-qôdesh - ground made holy is literally ground of holiness and given the Genesis interplay between ground (’adâmâh) and man (’âdâm) can be seen as contrasting the unholy man with the holy ground.

3:6) The final ’elôhîym, has the definite article, whereas the earlier uses in this verse do not.

19:10) This time the making holy is to apply to all the people. Notice the frequent changes through these verses between Yahweh and Elohim.

19:11) çîynay is used to indicate both the mountain (10 times in Exodus, 4 in Leviticus, twice in Numbers and once in Nehemiah) and the wilderness area containing it (3 times in Exodus and 9 times in Numbers). Judges 5:5 (and its recapitulation in Psalm 68:8-9) and Deuteronomy 33:2 both tell of Sinai trembling at the coming of Yahweh - the Judges and Deuteronomy references link this with Seir, though the Psalmist avoids this connection.

19:12) See also Genesis 3:2 in which Chawwah extends Yahweh's restriction concerning the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to include touching it (welô’ tigge‘û bôw - the same verb nâga‘ is used in both cases).

19:16) qôl can indicate a voice, noise or thunder. berâqîym comes from the root verb bâraq, flash as in lightning, and the noun bârâq is often used in poetry to indicate lightning. Hence, in combination with the cloud descending, thunder and lightning has been chosen. However, great noises and flashes would be possible, as would other similar variations. shôphâr - horn here - denotes a curved instrument usually made from a cow's or ram's horn.

19:17) ’elôhîym here has the definite article.

19:18) Yahweh descended in fire here, just as the messenger of Yahweh in Exodus 3. Notice the parallel between verses 16 and 18 - wayyecherad kol-hâ‘âm - all the people shook - and wayyecherad kol-hâhâr - all the mountain shook.

19:19) ’elôhîym here has the definite article. In speech at the end of the verse could read with thunder.

19:20) See also Deuteronomy 4:15 in which Yahweh's voice is said to come from within the fire.

19:23) ha‘êdôthâh - you solemnly charged here, comes form the same root as ‘êd (witness) or ‘êdûth (testimony). Literally the phrase signifies you placed a testimony in us.

20:18) Again, noise could alternatively be voices or thunder. lappîydim is a different word than berâqîym of 19:16, suggesting the flickering of a torch.

24:17) Glory here has the same root as heavy (cloud) in 19:16. Like a consuming fire reminds the reader of thorn-bush ... not being consumed. The bush - and indeed the mountain - were not consumed by the fire, but Yahweh's theophany here has the capacity to consume the watchers.