‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’
How many times have I read, told, preached the story of the burning bush? It is one of the foundational stories for Jewish and Christian faith, and much more troublingly, for much of the history of the Middle East. But this morning it caught me: ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’ My breath, catching with Moses’; my heart leaping alongside his at the sheer wonder and beauty of it.
Then I found myself singing Dayenu. I was still at the bush, mind. Still ‘caught’ and in awe. But in another part of my brain, the passover song was buzzing ‘Dayenu-dayenu, dayenu.’ ‘It is enough, it is enough…’
Had it been lectio, I’d have stopped here (and I did for a while), but it was morning prayer, so I knew I would have to go on. I happily read about the sandals and Moses hiding his face. I felt the joy of the promise of liberation I paused again under the weight of YHVH, and thought of Eish Levanah’s white fire. I felt the soothing hope of a land flowing with milk and honey. And I flinched as I had to read over and over again: ‘to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Prizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.’ I remembered the anger that filled a room of seething, hormonal 15 year-olds in Rugby, as I let them ask their questions: ‘but why would God do that? It’s not fair. You can’t give away what belongs to someone else. Why does God start wars?’
I often carry their anger into my reading of this story. Not deliberately, but as an embodied memory. How could God do this? It is not fair. The history of the Middle East is full of pain in a thousand directions, and much of it, on all sides, is deeply unjust and unfair. It is easy to blame, easy to simplify, easy to completely misunderstand through sheer ignorance of culture, history, belief. I do not claim to understand it. Yet it comes to me in this passage, fighting with the glory of the burning bush.
But today, I suddenly saw my own part in it: I want to stop with the bush. I want to say: ‘Dayenu. It is enough. This is the religious moment, turning aside to the bush, to the “transitory brightness”, to the things that steal our breath away and stop us in our tracks and reveal the very presence of God.’
And I do think that is the staring point: unless we encounter God for ourselves and help others to do the same, Christianity will be a very dry and dull thing.
But we don’t get to stop there. We have to go on, into the awkward bit, into the stories we would rather avoid. ‘I will give you a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Cannanites, the Hittites, the Amorites…’ I’ve read it a thousand times, but I’ve never seen it before. Dayenu. The land flows with milk and honey. It is enough.
If a bush can burn without being consumed, then Israelites can live alongside Cannanites, Hittites and Amorites without mutual destruction. Here, in this story, there is no necessary conflict: just a challenge to our imagination, to see a world in which God’s presence is enough. And that means that we can live alongside that things that feel impossible for us: the clashing visions, the different theological and liturgical ways. Even the competing needs of temperament and priorities.
Sometimes I think I have let the bright bush blind me. I have held too tightly to my vision of the holy and felt the tension of its interruption, its opposite, the things in life that disrupt, clash, compete. I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this, and that it is all too human a response.
The burning bush is an invitation into paradox and humility: what should not be able to co-exist can exist freely in the mutual presence of God. What we see and experience and hold dear is held safe in God’s presence, and the appearance of conflict, contradiction, opposition need not consume us.
I have known this. I have even, sometimes, lived in the reality of it. And I have often forgotten. But I had never before seen it in this story, in the paradox of wonder and terror that spins out from the telling of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.
Dayenu was the right song for this passage. God gives us all we need and more than we can imagine. The clashing conflict is in our failure of imagination. The land flows with milk and honey and it is enough.
addenda for the very observant:
yes, my declension of dayenu is wrong in translation. I went with the theological concept of the song rather than the literal translation.
yes, the words of dayenu make me flinch as much as the second half the story of the burning bush. The song is thought to be a thousand years old, and I’m willing to make allowances.