By Rev. David Millar
And Moses was feeding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock behind the wilderness and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb.
And the Angel of Jehovah appeared to him in a flame of fire from the middle of a thorn bush. And he looked, and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, and the thorn bush was not burned up!
And Moses said, I will turn aside now and see this great sight, why the thorn bush is not burned up. (Exodus 3:1-3)
One of the main ideas we are led into seeing by our efforts to live the spiritual life is that in and of our selves we are incapable of thinking anything true or of doing anything good. The reality is that in terms of possessing anything genuinely spiritual we are barren, a desert or a Horeb, this name literally means “desert” from a Hebrew root meaning to “parch” (through drought).
As we grow in our knowledge of spiritual things the expectation is that life would become easier, more ordered, and in general more satisfying. And in one sense this is in fact what happens, at least initially. When we first come into the spiritual life there is often a sense of relief, a sense of finally having found what we had been looking for, for so long. We have finally found something truly meaningful, and have a sense of being on track, of having a real sense of purpose. It’s a time of incredible growth – at least in terms of our knowledge and even in terms of our activity. We willingly throw ourselves into activities in support of the more external organisational aspects of religious expression all the while becoming more and more grounded in the ideas and social contacts our new found faith brings with it. Then slowly things begin to change. Something happens and things are no longer as satisfying as they once were. We find it becoming dry, of somehow having lost the vitality and life we found so satisfying in the beginning. We draw back and struggle to find the meaning and purpose we were so sure about before. What’s going on? We have entered the experience of the desert.
In the technical language of doctrine, this kind of experience is called “desolation and vastation.” It’s a vital part of growth and the mistake people can make when in this state of life is that the cause for how they are feeling lies outside of them in the outer world. “I was fine before, now this thing I’m into no longer satisfies me; there is something wrong with it” and so the search begins again for something more satisfying. Yet somehow the excitement – dissatisfaction cycle continues. You see, truth is designed to create conditions that bring us face to face with our lack in spiritual things so that we humble ourselves and cast ourselves upon the Lord who is the source of everything we could ever possibly desire. The purpose of such states is to actually deepen our attachments to what is spiritual through a removal of our attachments to what hinders the spiritual life developing within us. The process, while it may feel like we are cast aside, is actually designed to make us more receptive to receiving life from the Lord. This is why in the description of this process we are told in the symbolic language of Scripture that Moses is said to have led the flock in the backside of the desert to the mountain of God, to Horeb.
The use of the term “mountain of God” in connection with the name Horeb is interesting in that as far as the Hebrew language use in the original text is concerned, the meaning is obscure. It can be read that the phrase “mountain of God” is interchangeable with the name “Horeb” i.e. the mountain is called Horeb, or an alternative reading is that the mountain is to be found towards Horeb. Again as we saw last week with the names Reuel and Jethro we could join the debate with scholars as to the most correct reading and be none the wiser or we can look to a spiritual understanding and see that the answer here is that both readings hold true and that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. How so?
Well the spiritual experience of the mountain of God and of Horeb or desert is inseparable. The literal reading of the text may be obscure as to its meaning but the spiritual experience of those who know what’s described here is not and for them there is no confusion. The mountain of God is something inseparable from Horeb. For Horeb, being a desert experience is our realisation that we are sorely inadequate in our ability to love in appropriate ways. It’s a realisation that in ourselves we just don’t know how to love the neighbor as we should. Horeb is our realisation of this core principle or truth, without which we can’t receive into ourselves the spiritual aspect of love represented by the mountain of God. This realisation is different from acknowledging something is true from the head, it’s a realisation that hits us in the gut – something that hits us forcefully with a full emotional impact. It’s the knowing connected with real conviction, it’s the kind of realisation that impacts us with such force it creates a fundamental change in our thinking and emotional structures. When this happens we are open to seeing something remarkable – a bush that burns but isn’t consumed.
Exo 3:2 And the Angel of Jehovah appeared to him in a flame of fire from the middle of a thorn bush. And he looked, and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, and the thorn bush was not burned up!
Have you personally ever seen such a sight?…strange question you might think. Do angels appear in bushes in this way today? Well the surprising answer is yes they do, and that the experience described here is in fact open to us all. But it’s a spiritual experience not a natural one. The irony here is that we often don’t see spiritual experiences as somehow as real as natural experiences or experiences we have via our external senses. If someone came in here right now and told us with apparent conviction that there was an angel speaking from a burning bush outside the back door how would we react? We would probably look at them a little askance, but it could well arouse our curiosity and if it did we would, I think, be tempted to go out and check it out for ourselves. And if we saw it – well how real is that. But if some described the spiritual experience that this natural one corresponds to we are more likely to regard it with curiosity to be polite to the person recounting the experience but not really give it a lot more thought. Which experience is more real; the difference in our responses would suggest the one of the physical bush burning. Why is that? Well there are a number of reasons, but perhaps the main one is that genuine spiritual experience is deeply personal.
It can be described in a general way, using images and symbols as we find here in the language of Scripture but the actual personal experience of it is as varied as there are individuals who go through the process. How can we really connect with or empathise with a person’s experience of the reality of spirit – its difficult, because another’s experience is just that, their experience. But there is another difficulty which has to do with our own ability to recognise the presence of an angel speaking into our lives. As we shall see, until we have some understanding of the general aspects of spiritual experience and how angels interact with us we will struggle to even recognise it as something in our experience. The fact is angels speak to us every day from the midst of bushes that burn but are not consumed, and it is our natural mindedness that obscures our ability to see it. In the New Testament it admonishes the members of the infant church of the importance of the practice of hospitality and how that those who do this have entertained angels unawares. This parallels an internal principle and highlights the importance of developing a sensitivity to the promptings we receive from the Lord. To practice hospitality from a spiritual perspective is to welcome insights that come from heaven into ourselves that we might grow in our capacity to love others.
Moses, remember, is our developing understanding of truth – he represents a degree or level of psychological activity in the mind that is directly connected with living a spiritual life. The state of life this understanding has reached at this point in the story is a realisation that in and of ourselves there is nothing good or true and this realisation is what opens us up to being able to receive the Lord in a new way. Moses has come to the mountain of God. Or if you like, our work with the truth we have received has brought us to the mountain of God. Truth, if it is genuine, leads and guides us to good or if you like truth always teaches us “the how” in regard to living a good life or a life of charity. Mountains in the Word correspond to elevated states of life or love. So Moses coming to the mountain of God represents our coming into the love or goodness (rep. by the mountain) of God – the name for God here is Elohim and we have seen that this name is specifically used when truth is the focus. So when we live according to the truth we have received we come first into a desert state of life – which prepares us for receiving the heavenly life more deeply into our sense of self.
Our knowledge of that heavenly life grows within us like a tree – I’m sure we are all aware of the parable of the mustard seed which the Lord likens to the kingdom of heaven – it begins as the smallest of seeds and grows into the greatest of shrubs, becoming a tree in whose branches birds can settle (Matt, 13:31-32). The bush here has the same representation as that mustard tree, it is a symbol for the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven growing in our mind. From the growth of this knowledge in conjunction with its application to life we are able to receive into our consciousness a new revelation concerning the nature of God. Up to this point the name of God used has been Elohim now we are introduced to the “Angel of the Lord” or the “Angel of Jehovah.” The focus has shifted from a life that is focused on truth to one being introduced into goodness or love. The shift in names here is for similar reasons for the shift from Reuel to Jethro in regard to the priest of Midian we looked at last week. It reflects a shift in our spiritual state.
This shift involves seeing the Lord in a new way. Moses our growing understanding of truth is our new spiritual mind – he is the Word in our mind, the principles of which are now becoming more and more the basis from which we live our lives. Having passed through the desert and being in the life of caring for those tender affections and ideas from the Word represented by the flocks he cares for a person grows into the real things that matter concerning the spiritual life. The ideas they have gathered and have had planted in their minds has now become a living bush and from the midst of this knowledge of heaven and its life comes a new way of understanding – an understanding from the ground of love. This understanding from the ground of the Lord’s love in our life is the angel of the Lord that appears.
This angel describes something truly miraculous, a change in the human heart – it is not a seeing with the physical eyes of some entity, its not even seeing some entity with our spiritual eyes that mirrors a physical experience – this angel, when experienced spiritually is the appearance in our minds of light specifically to do with how we are to love, it is a seeing from the truth we have had worked into our lives. This truth is the angel because it is this truth that communicates to us ideas of love, seen in the actual Hebrew word used here. For “angel” in the Hebrew is “malak” and “malak” means a lot more than what is commonly understood by the English term “angel” and we can see this in the Word where it is also translated using the English words, prophet, priest, teacher and king, and these are all offices connected with the teaching of truth. Here in our story it is an “angel of the Lord” or “angel of Jehovah.” Jehovah you will remember is the name of God specifically used when love is the focus. So the phrase “angel of the Lord” spiritually means “truth that teaches us about the Lord’s love.” This “angel” can only appear to those who are working with the truth they have received in an effort to have removed from their lives what prevents the inflow of heaven.
Every moment in which we receive a feeling of genuine compassion for another’s spiritual well-being, so the angel of the Lord has appeared in a flame of the fire of love. Every moment in which we receive a prick of conscience that seeks to correct some aspect of selfish behaviour, so the angel of the Lord has made its appearance. But our ability to receive such promptings, to have an encounter with the angel of the Lord is dependent on what we have done with the spiritual knowledge we have received; if we have worked with it in relation to our life it becomes a bush able to nurture and support the fire of the Lord’s own love in our life. This bush is not consumed because it is from and of the divine, it is the Lord’s Word in the natural mind which enables us to continually receive an infinite variety of new thoughts and affections from their infinite source in the Lord Himself.
From Arcana Coelestia paragraph 6832
‘In a flame of fire from the middle of a bramble bush’ means God’s love present in true factual knowledge. This is clear from the meaning of ‘a flame of fire’ as God’s love, dealt with below; and from the meaning of ‘a bramble bush’ as true factual knowledge. The reason why ‘a bramble bush’ means true factual knowledge is that all shrubs of every kind mean factual knowledge, whereas actual plantations of trees, being larger, mean cognitions and perceptions. Because it produces flower and berries ‘a bramble bush’ means true factual knowledge. True factual knowledge that the Church possesses consists in nothing else than the Word as it exists in the sense of the letter and also every one of the Church’s representative forms and meaningful signs that existed among the descendants of Jacob. These in the external form they take are called true factual knowledge; but in their internal form they are spiritual truths. But truths in their internal or spiritual form could not be made visible to those descended from Jacob, for the reason that they were interested solely in things of an external nature and had no wish whatever to know about anything internal. Therefore the Lord appeared in a bramble bush (when the Lord appears to people He does so in a way suited to the kind of people they are, for a person cannot receive the Divine in any way other than that which is a way suited to the kind of person he is);…..