Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in Exodus 2-3 is structured as a chiasm that demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his people. Through persecution, they are refined and disciplined, but never destroyed. God always preserves a remnant of Israel. (See here for more information on chiasms.)
Here is the full text of the passage:
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”
When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Exodus 2:23-3:9
The Chiastic Structure of Exodus 2:23-3:9
Thanks to Tony Robinson who pointed this out in his “Shemot – Moses’ Rendezvous With the Burning Bush” video on Youtube.
A1-v23 – People groaned because of slavery
B1—-v23 – God heard their cry for rescue
C1——–v24-25 – God heard their groaning. Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked on the Israelites and understood.
D1————v1 – Led the flock to the mountan of God.
E1—————-v2 – YHVH appeared in flames from within the Bush and Moses saw
F1——————–v3 – Moses thought, Go over and see
G————————v3 – Why the bush does not burn up?
F2——————–v4 – God saw, Gone over to look
E2—————-v4 – God called from within the bush and Moses replied
D2————v5 – Come no closer. Standing on holy ground.
C2——–v6-7 – God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw their misery and heard their crying.
B2—-v8 – God came down to rescue them
A2-v9 – God heard the cry of the people
This chiasm contains 6 levels on each side, with a 7th in the center. Each of these levels teaches truths about God’s relationship with mankind, and especially about his relationship with his people. Although we should always be cautious in formulating doctrine without explicit statements, at the very least, we can learn a lot about how the Biblical authors thought about their subjects.
In this case, we can make inferences from the connections that Moses laid out for us. In his mind, point A1 was connected to A2, B1 was connected to B2, and so on. Our job is to consider those connections and their implications in light of the rest of Scripture.
Level A: God hears the cries of his people
- A1: 2:23 – The people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out
- A2: 3:9 – God heard the cry of the people and saw their oppression
It might seem at times as though God isn’t listening, but he is never deaf to the cries of his people. He has not forgotten them, and cannot. He sees every wrong done to them. This ought to be a source of hope for all those whose faith is in him and a terror to those who have scorned and oppressed the people of Israel.
Level B: God will rescue his people
- B1: 2:23 – Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.
- B2: 3:8 – God came down to rescue them from Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land.
Periods of oppression are part of God’s plan, but they are temporary. Suffering is never a permanent state of being for the faithful. It is only a step in a process that inevitably leads to redemption and reward.
Level C: God honors his covenants
- C1: 2:24-25 – God heard their groaning, and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He saw the people and understood.
- C2: 3:6-7 – I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I have seen and heard the people’s affliction. I understand.
God is faithful. He keeps his promises.
Because of Abraham’s faithfulness, God made a covenant with him that was passed on to Isaac, then to Jacob, and to all of Israel. When the text says that he remembered the covenant and saw the people of Israel, it means that he looks past the current generation of Israel all the way back to Abraham, and saves them for the sake of that ancient covenant. Because Abraham believed in God and kept his commandments, God is faithful to Abraham throughout all the generations of Israel.
If God can forget his covenant with Abraham, then he will forget that Israel is his chosen people, but God never forgets or annuls a covenant. He is always faithful.
Level D: Moses can only bring you so far
- D1: 3:1 – Moses led his flock to the mountan of God.
- D2: 3:5 – Then God said, “Do not come near.”
Paul wrote that the Law of Moses is a guide to lead us to Messiah (Galatians 3:24) and that Messiah is the aim of the Law (Romans 10:4). Keeping the feasts and the Sabbath and obeying the commandments are good things, but if they never lead us to Messiah, then they are ultimately pointless.
Once Moses had arrived at the place of the burning bush, God told him to stop, then gave him instructions for existing in the divine presence. God is a raging fire that will destroy anyone who comes to close without authorization and the proper precautions. Se can never come to God on our own terms. He sets the rules, not us, and he has given us detailed instructions on how to live in his presence. The first and most important rule in approaching God is this:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Moses leads us to Messiah Yeshua, and Messiah Yeshua leads us to the Father.
Level E: No one comes unless the Father calls him
- E1: 3:2 – YHWH appeared in a flame out of the midst of a bush. Moses looked.
- E2: 3:4 – God called to him out of the bush. Moses replied.
God revealed himself, and then Moses saw. God called out, and then Moses replied. This recalls Yeshua’s words:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
God is beyond our understanding, and the natural inclination of our flesh is to rebel against him and worship things that have no power to save. Before a man can be saved from his sins and evil inclination, God must make himself known and call him. That revelation and calling can take any form: an evangelist, a Gideon Bible in a hotel room, or a still, small voice that can only be heard in the heart. Without that revelation, we are lost.
Level F: God requires an answer
- F1: 3:3 – Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight.
- F2: 3:4 – YHWH saw that he turned aside to see.
Although we can ever see the truth about God and our need for salvation unless he reveals it to us, God doesn’t force us to act on that revelation. He extends an offer of mercy, but it’s up to us to accept it.
Level G: The bush doesn’t burn up
“Why the bush is not burned” in 3:3 is at the center of the chiasm.
Did the fire leave the bush unburned merely to catch Moses’ attention? Or did God have a specific reason for choosing this sign rather than a floating boulder or a talking goat? What is significant about vegetation?
The bush itself isn’t God. Rather God appears and speaks from within the bush. So what is the bush?
The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans.
Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.
For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
Throughout its text, the Bible portrays Israel as a tree, a vine, a field of barley or wheat, etc., and God appeared to Moses on Mount Horeb to send him to rescue Israel from Egypt. The bush is Israel and the fire is the sign of God’s presence among them, just like the pillar of cloud and fire that would accompany them through their wilderness travels.
Over the next few chapters in Exodus, Israel was protected from the brunt of the plagues, while Egypt was consumed around them. The fire burned the air around the bush, but not the bush itself.
This same pattern played out over and over throughout Israel’s history: God destroys Israel’s oppressors along with the wicked, fruitless branches within Israel, but always preserves a remnant for himself.
Following the Chiasm to its Axis: God Preserves a Remnant of Israel
God is a consuming fire, hotter and more terrible than any star in the universe, yet he holds and protects those he loves. He has perfect control of his power, and will use it to refine his people and destroy their enemies. It scorches everything that approaches, burning away the dross of uncleanness, leaving only those who have placed their faith in him and in the righteousness imputed through the Covenant of the Redeemer.
This is the point of the Exodus and the focus of the chiasm: Because of Abraham’s faithfulness, God is faithful to keep the covenant that he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, particularly that aspect which promised a new covenant mediated by a Savior. He reveals himself to his people and draws them to himself, and those who respond in humility and obedience are rewarded with salvation, not only from enslavement and oppression of the body, but from the fire of eternal damnation.