Being, the God of Fire

February 28, 2016
Third Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Exod 3:1-8a, 13-15
http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022816-third-sunday-lent.cfm

God has a way of interrupting our daily activities. His appearance is often unexpected, disruptive, inconvenient. I can’t imagine how Peter’s wife felt when her husband quit his solid fishing job and followed a wandering rabbi. Abraham’s wife must have been surprised when he came home one day and announced that the family was moving to an unknown land. In this Sunday’s reading from Exodus, we find Moses going about his daily work, tending sheep—something that he has been doing for four decades! And yet, God comes to Moses in the bizarre, burning bush, and sets his life on a whole new track.

God as Fire

Old Testament appearances of God are often referred to as “theophanies,” and the burning bush has to be one of the strangest. Moses is watching his sheep, when something catches his eye: “he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exod 3:2 RSV). God doesn’t always use special effects to convey his message, but when he wants to communicate something extremely important, he often does—as when the heavens are opened and we hear the voice of the Father (Matt 3:16-17). In this particular case, God chooses to reveal himself as fire. But why fire?

In fact, fire is one of the only “definitions” of God that we get in the Bible: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). “God is light” (1 John 1:5). “God is one” (Rom 3:30). “God is a devouring fire” (Deut 4:24). He comes on Mt. Sinai “in fire” (Exod 19:18). His fire comes out from the sanctuary (Lev 10:12). The fire of God consumes sacrifices (Judg 6:21; 1 Kgs 18:38). God comes in fiery chariots (2 Kgs 2:11; Isa 66:15). But again, why fire? Fire has qualities that no other visible phenomena have. It is powerful, even ravaging, and yet if you touch it you will only get a burn. You can’t capture fire and put it in a box. You can’t control which way it will go. And yet its power can be used for good—to heat your home, to cook a meal, to light up a dark path. In these ways, fire is like God. Many gods from the ancient Near East were identified as astral phenomena: the sun, the moon, stars, or even equated with animals: the bull, the eagle. But the God of Israel cannot be equated with any earthly thing. He can’t be defined in such a way. However, fire provides the closest analogue, the physical thing that describes God’s elusive, powerful, beautiful, destructive, and helpful characteristics. It is a fitting metaphor for his character.

God’s Rescue Plan

When God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush, he comes with a timely message: He has heard the cries of his people in slavery in Egypt. He recalls the past—the history of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He remembers his covenant promise to bring them to a fruitful land. Like a good father, the Lord remembers the promises he made to his children and he observes their current state of affairs. He is not a clockmaker-god who sets the universe in motion and then steps aside. Rather, he comes to Moses to intervene directly in the affairs of humanity and his own people. His plan is simple: he will commission Moses to go back to Egypt and lead the people out of slavery. Of course, a mass migration is not an easy task, but God will assist his chosen representative. Moses famously balks at the invitation.

God’s Name

In response to Moses’ half-hearted objections to the plan and his request to know God’s name, the Lord reveals his sacred name to Moses in one of the most mysterious passages of the Bible. On the one hand, we’ve seen the name of the Lord, Yhwh, many times before this scene of Moses’ encounter. Moses can’t be asking just for the mention of the name so here God gives him something more than that. He offers an explanation of his name: eheyeh asher eheyeh. It is an enigmatic phrase that can be roughly translated “I am who I am” or even “I will be who I will be.” It tells us something about the very nature of God. He is not merely one god among many, but he is being itself. When Moses talks about his encounter with God, he is supposed to say that “I AM sent me.” That is, Being sent me. Thomas Aquinas explains this passage: “But God is the first being, with nothing prior to Him. His essence is, therefore, His being…Now, names have been devised to signify the natures or essences of things. It remains, then, that the divine being is God’s essence or nature” (Summa Contra Gentiles I.22.9-10). The name of God, which denotes being or existence itself, tells us about his nature as being itself. Like fire, which shows us God’s mysterious character, his name, which is meant to disclose him, gives us insight into who he is: Being.

Being “Being” might not sound that exciting, but it shows us that God is foundation of all other beings. He is first before all else. Everything that is has come forth from him. Nothing exists before God, without God, apart from God. He is the origin of everything, including us. Perhaps the next time you find yourself sitting before a comforting fire, something will catch your eye and you’ll notice how the flames describe God in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. That mysterious fiery Being is the “I AM” that sent Moses to save his people and sent his Son to save us.

image: Taula de Moisès i l’esbarzer ardent by Jaume Huguet / WikimediaCommons / PD-1923

Dr. Mark Giszczak

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Mark Giszczak (“geese-check”) was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI. He studied philosophy and theology at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, MI and Sacred Scripture at the Augustine Institute of Denver, CO. He recently received his Ph. D. in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America. He currently teaches courses in Scripture at the Augustine Institute, where he has been on faculty since 2010. Dr. Giszczak has participated in many evangelization projects and is the author of the CatholicBibleStudent.com blog. He has written introductions to every book of the Bible that are hosted at CatholicNewsAgency.com. Dr. Giszczak, his wife and their daughter, live in Colorado where they enjoy camping and hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

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  • Episteme

    Understanding God as Being, and even understanding God as Active Process analogized to Fire (albeit a fire which does not require external fuel and which does not burn out, but nevertheless exists in activity versus how we consider the stasis of matter) is always helpful. One way that I’ve tried to approach thinking about God, and approaching the Mystery of the Trinity, is to use that idea of process versus stasis in the Thomistic sense to wonder if our idea – I apologize if putting this into words in a combox is awkward – of looking at God like a ‘noun’ is somehow less sensible that looking at Him like a ‘verb,’ especially given his presents His name in the form of the copula (and indeed, when He speaks in The Beginning, it to says “Let there Be”). As the First Principle and Uncaused Cause, we understand that His Creation is ongoing as a process – but in that core unity that theologian examine, do we no pay enough attention to the ‘am’ of I AM, especially given our Trinitarian understandings of the Divine?

    I recall when first reading of the notion of God’s begetting of the Son as Word and the subsequent reflection of his Love for the Son (and through the Son) as Spirit – again I’m sure that I mangled the precision of theology right there – and had a thought. We speak of three persons in two places: the Trinity of God and conjugation of verbs; those are also the two places where we find “I am.” I mean no simplification when I look at this analogy of understanding if I ask whether the way to better understanding the Trinity is as the conjugation of God. Just as A subject speaks to an object and so the First person of a verb now requires a differentiated second person, so would the initial spoken Word of the Perfect Divine and Uncaused Cause at The Beginning, existing at at points – including beyond the creation of space of time – beget the Second Person as the First Person speaks and thus hears Himself in Perfect creative loving speech (“In the beginning, the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – are those clauses coterminous or, from our perspective, effectively subsequent to each other?). Likewise, Two persons may speak of a third or a person may speak of themselves to another in the third-person ‘outside’ of themselves when discussing an external context.

    With the Son, the Father created all, “his Spirit upon the water;” even beyond the creation of other intellectual or spiritual beings, the process work of Creation by the Father, separate from His identity as the first-person, is itself the beginning of reference. This is all the more when creatures begin observing the act of creation and can only process when part their senses observe and so what reason tells them, informed by revelation – we see the various forms of the Spirit in scripture like an nth-dimensional polytope projecting into a lesser-dimensional grid and appearing as all sorts of different forms ‘below’ it (in our semantic analogy, like with a third-person verb, the Spirit-as-copula can take many subject-nouns; the beauty of baptism and confirmation is when we begin the work of divinization to become ourselves nouns for the Spirit-as-verb to use in sentences within this world). I don’t entirely know if this schema is fully sound (as noted, I mean no attempt as being undoctrinal – it’s rather than I thought the analogy WORKED with doctrine that I began to explore it), I’ve begun to consider further whether there’s a ‘plural’ involved in a sense (involving such issues as the hypostatic union and the Church-entire) but I think that that’s likely a matter of stretch an illustration too far as if it were actually the truth…

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