The Angel of the Lord at the Burning Bush

In the Book of Exodus, we encounter the angel of the Lord in several contexts: (1) as a voice from a burning bush; (2) as the destroyer on the night of Passover; (3) as the divine presence in a pillar of cloud and fire; and (4) as the promised deliverer who leads the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. 

Each appearance is unique. Moses’ encounter with the angel on the backside of the desert ends forty years of hard-knocks leadership development and launches a dramatic return to ministry. After Moses goes back to Egypt, on the night of the tenth and final plague, one called the destroyer sweeps through the land and strikes the firstborn of every male not sheltered behind a doorpost stained with lambs’ blood. Then, with Pharaoh and his army in hot pursuit of the escaping Israelites, the angel of God inhabits a pillar of cloud and fire that separates God’s people from their pursuers. Finally, the Lord reminds Moses and the Israelites that he is sending my angel to see them safely into the land of milk and honey.

In this post, we’ll examine the angel’s appearance to Moses at the burning bush.

To Moses at the burning bush

Talk about your midlife crisis. Moses is set to fulfill his calling at age forty. Providentially rescued from death as an infant, adopted as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, mighty in words and deeds, Moses seems poised to take his stand against Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelites. But an impious act of righteous indignation – killing an Egyptian who has brutalized an Israelite – sends Moses fleeing for his life from Pharaoh’s vengeance. Worse, he finds no quarter with his own people. 

It takes forty years in the hard-scrabble desert as a herder of sheep to mold Moses into the humble servant Yahweh employs to fulfill his promise of deliverance. No longer a pampered child or a highly educated leader in the house of Pharaoh, Moses embraces an unsavory career, “since all shepherds are detestable to Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34). Tending flocks may have seemed a most unfitting occupation for a man who once enjoyed the creature comforts of royalty. Yet, Yahweh is preparing Moses to lead a flock of grumbling, wandering, self-absorbed people with his divinely anointed shepherd’s staff.

We know practically nothing about Moses’ sojourn in Midian. He is married and has a son. He tends sheep. But there is something in those four decades that equips Moses to hear God’s voice, to learn patience, to become resourceful, and to master the art of leading creatures who are resistant to the shepherd’s rod. 

By now, Moses is no longer a novice, who might be lifted up with pride and fall into the devil’s condemnation (1 Tim. 3:6). This time of preparation for Moses, with sparse scriptural details, begins a pattern we see in John the Baptist in the wilderness, and in the apostle Paul in Arabia. As Arthur Pink writes, “Certain it is that there is no uniform curriculum in the school of God. Each servant is dealt with according to his individual needs and disciplined with a view to the particular work which God has for him to do.”

The decisive moment comes when Moses least expects it. We pick up the story in Exodus 3:

Meanwhile, Moses was shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. Then the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire within a bush. As Moses looked, he saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed. So Moses thought, “I must go over and look at this remarkable sight. Why isn’t the bush burning up?”

Exod. 3:1-3

Moses comes to Horeb, a mountain range. More specifically, he comes to the “mountain of God,” or Sinai, a particular peak in that range (see Exod. 24:12-13; Deut. 4:10-15; 18:16; Mal. 4:4). Centuries later, the Lord meets Elijah here and commissions him (1 Kings 19:4-11). It’s possible this is where Jesus schools Paul (Gal. 1:17; 4:25).

In any case, Moses sees a bush ablaze with fire, yet it is not consumed. The Hebrew word for bush occurs in only one other Old Testament passage, where Moses blesses the Israelites before his death: “with the favor of him who appeared in the burning bush” (Deut. 33:16). In this verse, the word for appeared is shah-can, from which we get Shekinah. So, when it is recorded that “the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire,” it is the very glory of God on display.

Notice the mounting evidence that Yahweh is the one appearing to and speaking with Moses:

First, Moses recognizes the angel of the Lord as God and responds with appropriate fear (3:6). 

Next, the angel repeatedly identifies himself as God. He refers to himself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6, 15, 16; 4:5); “God” (3:12); “I AM WHO I AM” and “I AM” (3:14); “the LORD” (3:15, 16, 18; 4:5); “the God of the Hebrews” (3:18); “the LORD our God” (3:18); “the God of their [Israelites’] fathers” (4:5); and “I, the LORD” (4:11).

Third, the angel of the Lord and the Lord are both clearly in the bush (3:2, 4). The angel appears in a flame of fire within the bush. The Lord calls to Moses out of the bush. This illustrates the close identification and intimate relationship between Yahweh and the angel of the Lord.

Fourth, the angel of the Lord declares he has “come down” to rescue the Israelites and bring them from Egypt to “a good and spacious land” (3:8). Other Scriptures make it clear that Yahweh is the one performing this task in fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. In other words, though the angel of the Lord and Yahweh may be distinguished, they share the same divine nature. 

Fifth, the angel sends Moses to Pharaoh and promises to be with him (3:10-12). Throughout the biblical account of the exodus, it is God who commands, accompanies, and empowers Moses. 

Sixth, the angel, self-identifying as God and speaking as God, reveals his unique name, “I AM WHO I AM” … “I AM.” This name, known as the tetragrammaton, or YHWH, is never ascribed to other deities or individuals, as “Lord” (Adonai) or “god” (elohim) sometimes is.

Seventh, the angel expresses foreknowledge, omniscience, and omnipotence – attributes of God (3:19-22). 

Eighth, when the angel tells Moses to throw down his staff and then pick it up after it becomes a serpent, he explains that this sign will cause the Israelites to believe that “the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you” (4:3-5, emphasis added).

Finally, when Moses protests that he lacks the eloquence necessary to convince the Israelites of his divine mission, the angel replies, “Who placed a mouth on humans? Who makes a person mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (4:11, emphasis added).

We might ask how the Lord and a messenger of the Lord can use the same name to identify themselves. Michael Heiser explains: 

The Angel of Yahweh … is not like other angels, since the essence of Yahweh dwells within him. Thus writers in the Old Testament often depict him as a surrogate Yahweh or even interchange the Angel with Yahweh himself…. The Angel of Yahweh thus anticipates an Israelite belief in a Godhead – the view that God comprises more than one person, each of whom is identified as the presence of Yahweh. Jewish theologians prior to the New Testament era, observing these texts featuring the Angel and other ‘dual Yahweh’ language, developed a theology of two Yahwehs (one visible, the other invisible spirit) or two powers in heaven.

The Bible Unfiltered, 67

More to the point, this angel is none other than Christ, appearing in human form prior to the Incarnation. As John Calvin writes, “I am rather inclined, however, to agree with ancient writers [the biblical authors], that in those passages wherein it is stated that the angel of the Lord appeared to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, Christ was that angel.” 

A messianic foreshadowing

Perhaps more than any other angelic Old Testament appearance, this episode foreshadows the Messiah’s earthly ministry. Consider first of all the angel of the Lord’s visible manifestation as a flame. Fire in Scripture often symbolizes divine judgment. It illustrates the purity and holiness of God as set against evil. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). 

What a frightful, yet magnificent, sight Moses beholds as he approaches the fire that needs no fuel; it neither consumes the bush nor spreads to other combustible materials. The self-existent Creator flashes in brilliant light and blazing heat as he commands his servant to remove his sandals.

Next, consider the bush. The Lord does not appear atop a mighty cedar, or in the crux of a majestic oak. Rather, he comes in a humble acacia, a desert thorn bush. Looking back from a New Testament perspective, we see breathtaking symbolism. The acacia reminds us of the curse that fell on the created order after the Fall; the ground produces “thorns and thistles for you” (Gen. 3:18). 

It further reminds us of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, whom God cultivates as his special vineyard, yet who produce worthless grapes (Isa. 5:2). Rather than bear fruit, God’s chosen people render dryness; rather than burst with buds, they excrete sharp thorns. 

But into this sinful and fallen world comes a Savior – humble, despised, and rejected, taking upon himself a crown of thorns, and suffering the agony and shame of a naked death on a Roman cross. Yet, the flame is not extinguished, for on the third day Jesus conquers the last enemy in resurrection power.

After this, we must pay heed to the ground upon which this scene plays out. “Do not come closer,” the angel warns. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (3:5). What makes any place holy, or separated from the profane? It is the very presence of God. The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, and later in the temple, is off limits to all but the high priest, who may only enter once a year – and even then, not without atoning blood. Why? The Shekinah glory, the very presence of God, resides there. Moses comes to realize that this uncommon manifestation of God has made a common patch of wilderness “holy ground.”

Finally, in the fiery presence of the angel, we see Yahweh coming to us in our sin and distress. The Israelites are suffering in a furnace of oppression in Egypt. Just as the Lord walks through the flames with three Hebrew men in Babylon (Dan. 3:25), he first comes in fire on display to Moses. “I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt, and have heard them crying out because of their oppressors,” he tells Moses. “I know about their sufferings, and I have come down to rescue them …” (Exod. 3:7-8). 

Much later, the Man of Sorrows comes down – from the portals of heaven and the glory of a universal throne – adding sinless humanity to his deity via the miracle of the virgin birth. In the dusty navel of the earth, the King of the universe humbles himself by pitching his tent with us (John 1:14), experiencing every form of human temptation so that he who knew no sin might become sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21; cf. Heb. 4:15). 

We must resist the temptation to read too much symbolism into Moses’ encounter with the preincarnate Christ. Even so, this is a magnificent display of divine compassion, calling, and covenant faithfulness. The angel of the Lord comes down from heaven, revealing himself and his divine plan. In so doing, he foreshadows the sinlessness, humility, and triumph of the Messiah. And he does this centuries before entering the  womb of an Israelite teenager so that he might emerge as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

We may draw a connection between the Lord’s appearance to Moses at the burning bush and later on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19). Vern Poythress writes:

The same God who will speak to all Israel first speaks to Moses as their spokesman…. We do not have a full thunderstorm, or fire from heaven, but fire in a bush. But this appearance of God still communicates his divine power and sovereignty. He can work miracles at will. And the fact that the bush is not consumed hints at the eternal nature of God and his independence from the world he created.

Theophany, 272

We should note that Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel “see” God on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:9-11). It follows the making of a covenant (vv. 3-8). The parties share a covenant meal, which foreshadows the intimacy God’s people are to enjoy with him in the consummation of the ages (Isa. 25:6-9; Rev. 19:9). The description of God is limited – Moses only mentions seeing the Lord’s  feet. Nevertheless, it anticipates the day when all those whom God knows see him face to face (Rev. 22:4).

The bush and the pillar

Consider the link between the fiery presence of the Lord in the burning bush on Mount Sinai and the pillar of fire and cloud that accompanies the children of Israel throughout their desert journey. “Then the angel of God, who was going in front of the Israelite forces, moved and went behind them. The pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and stood behind them” (Exod. 14:19, emphasis added). 

This comes right after “the LORD” commands Moses to raise his staff toward the Red Sea so the waters divide (Exod. 14:16). And it comes right before the pillar of cloud moves from in front of the people to behind them. “It [the cloud] came between the Egyptian and Israelite forces. There was cloud and darkness, it lit up the night, and neither group came near the other all night long” (v. 20). 

Here we see “the LORD,” “the angel of God,” and “the pillar of cloud” as distinct. The cloud is described as “it,” yet it is closely associated with Yahweh, as well as with the angel of God, a visible wall of protection between the Israelites and the Egyptians. 

This protecting fire, a manifestation of God’s name and God’s presence, also is seen numerous times in fiery judgment. For example, fire comes out from before the Lord and consumes Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron who offer unauthorized fire (Lev. 10:2). The fire of the Lord consumes people at Taberah who complain against God (Num. 11:1). Fire destroys two hundred fifty men offering incense at the time of Korah’s rebellion (Num. 16:35). Fire of the Lord falls from heaven and consumes the burnt offering and surrounding elements that accompany Elijah in his stand against the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:37-39). And fire comes down from heaven and consumes companies of fifty men that King Ahaziah sends to capture Elijah (2 Kings 1:10, 12). While the fiery presence of God provides light, warmth, and protection for his people, that same presence executes judgment upon the wicked. 

Further, these fiery theophanies prefigure Christ, who comes with the fire of judgment and purification: 

I [John the Baptist] baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn. But the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out.

Matt. 3:11-12

Last, we should note that God speaks to Moses in Exodus 6, telling him, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but I was not known to them by my name ‘the LORD’” (vv. 2-3). This is a reference to appearances by the angel of the Lord to the patriarchs, when he established his covenant and made them promises of deliverance and land. 

Yes, the angel makes these promises, but so does the Lord. Both speak and act with divine authority. So, the Lord tells Moses:

I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from the forced labor of the Egyptians and rescue you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from the forced labor of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.

Exod. 3:6-8

In summary, there is strong evidence that the angel of the Lord, who appears to Moses in the burning bush, in none other than Yahweh himself. He manifests himself elsewhere in fire and through fire. Even more revealing, the angel of the Lord presents himself to Moses in ways that foreshadow the earthly ministry of Jesus the Messiah.

Next: The Destroyer

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.