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The Burning Bush, conclusion

Click here to return to Part 1

Morning

At first, the rising sun illuminated only the top of the mountain looming behind our little encampment.  Then, climbing higher in the sky, it began to warm the desert sands around us.  Aaron quietly rehearsed his lines:  “‘The place whereupon you stand is holy ground.’”

Then we heard the distant bleating of sheep.  “He’s coming!” Aaron hissed.  “Start the fire, Jambres!”

I lit the oil, and, with a whoosh, a great yellow-orange flame blossomed above the bowl buried in the sand.  In front of the cauldron, the acacia bush trembled slightly in the rush of air.  We hoped that, when seen from the footpath on the far side, the fire behind the bush would give the appearance that the bush itself was aflame.

Moments later, a tall man strode into view, herding a flock of sheep down the path.  Aaron, using his deepest tone, called through the speaking tube:  “Moses!”

The shepherd stopped and looked in our direction.  He saw what seemed to be a burning bush.  He stared and listened.  Would he recognize the sound of his brother’s voice after all these years?  Not likely.  The voice, distorted by the speaking tube, echoed oddly off the surrounding rocks.

“Moses!” Aaron shouted again.  The shepherd seemed puzzled by the strange voice.  He also was curious about the bush, which was on fire but was not being burnt up.  It trembled there, still as straight and green as ever.  He started to walk toward us to investigate.

“Moses!” Aaron cried a third time.

“Here,” Moses answered uncertainly.  “Here I am.”

“Stay where you are!” the voice commanded.  “Don’t come any nearer!”  Moses froze.  “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground!”

This, of course, was part of our plan.  If Moses got close enough to examine the bush, he would discover our trickery, and he would discover us in our hiding place.  Fortunately, the plan worked.  He took off his sandals and obediently stood there barefoot in the sand of the wadi, staring at the burning bush, not daring to move.

Aaron now identified himself.  “I am God!”

Moses covered his face with his sleeve.  As a God-fearing Hebrew, he was literally afraid of God.  No one had ever seen God, at least no one who lived to tell about it, and the thought of looking God in the eye terrified Moses.

Aaron continued, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  I have witnessed the troubles of my people in Egypt.  I have heard them crying out because of their oppressors.  I know the misery that they are suffering.  I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that country into a fine broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the territory of the Canaanites.”

The fire burning beside us was hot, and Aaron’s speech was more long-winded than I thought it would be.  He stopped to wipe his face before resuming.  “Now the Israelites’ cry has reached me, and I have also seen how hard the Egyptians oppress them.  Come, I shall send you to Pharaoh, and you are to bring my people Israel out of Egypt!”

Moses was dumbfounded.  “Me?” he asked from behind his sleeve.  “Who am I to approach Pharaoh?  What mandate do I have to lead my people?”

The voice of God replied, “I will be with you.  And this will be your proof that it is I who have sent you:  When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall all worship God here at this mountain.”

Moses remained skeptical.  “That proof is for the future.  What proof do I have now?”

“I am my own proof, I who now speak to you.”

“Suppose I return to my people, the Israelites.  Suppose I tell them what happened.  I'll report that I was out in the desert, all alone except for my sheep, when suddenly, without warning, the God of our forefathers called me to be the leader of all the Israelites.  I heard Him talking to me personally.  His voice came out of a little brushfire.  It's incredible.  They won’t believe me.”

“They will believe.”

“No, they won't.  I know what they’re going to say,” Moses went on.  “They’ll say, ‘If you talked with the God of our forefathers, you must know His name.  What is it?’  When they ask me Your name, what should I tell them?”

The Divine Name

Aaron had not anticipated this question.  Odd as it might seem, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had never had a proper name.  The Hebrews simply called him God.

“Are you there, God?” Moses asked.  “What is Your name?”  

Aaron tried to improvise a response.  “I am . . . .” he began.  He looked to me, but of course I could offer no help.  I'm no Hebrew; I'm an Egyptian magician.  Finally he proclaimed, “I am who I am!”

For heaven’s sake, I thought, what does that mean?  I am who I am?

Sweating, Aaron tried to clarify what he had said.  “Tell them that ‘I am’ has sent you to them.”

Apparently the Hebrew God’s name was “I am.”  That's a sentence fragment, not a proper name.

Stifling a laugh, I wrote the phrase in the sand, using the four Hebrew consonants YHWH.  Around the letters I drew an oval, like a royal cartouche.  I leaned back to chuckle at my work.

Aaron blinked at the divine name scrawled there in the sand in front of him.  Could those four letters for “I am” somehow be pronounced differently, like a real name?  Yehowah or Jehovah, perhaps?

Aaron amended his instructions to Moses.  “You are to tell the Israelites,” he called out, glancing down at the YHWH letters I had written, “that Yahweh has sent you!”

“Yahweh?” I whispered incredulously.

He continued, “Tell them that it is Yahweh, the God of their forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who has sent you to them.  This is my name for ever.  This is my title in every generation.”

“Yahweh?” Moses echoed.

“Here I am,” Aaron responded.  “I . . . am . . . Yahweh.”

“Forgive me, God,” said Moses, “but I have never heard your name until now.”

Aaron explained, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as ‘God Almighty,’ but at that time I did not let myself be known to them by my true name, Yahweh.  I also established my covenant with them to give them Canaan.  I shall lead you to that land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  I shall give it to you for your possession.  I am Yahweh!”

(Later, the superstitious Hebrews would come to revere this nonsense word.  They didn’t dare pronounce it aloud.  When they recounted the story of Moses and the burning bush, instead of Yahweh they said “The LORD.”)

Your Brother Is Ready to Help

Moses had more questions.  He still doubted that the people would believe he had spoken with this newly named god.  We showed him a few more magic tricks that might convince some of them.

“But, Yahweh,” Moses protested, “I’m not the right man for the job.  I’ve never been a good orator.  Even speaking here with You has not changed that fact.  You should send somebody else.  Send anyone else You like.”

Aaron had been waiting for that objection.  “Moses,” he said, “don’t you have a beloved brother?”

“Yes, I do,” Moses replied.  “His name is Aaron.  But I have not seen my brother in many years.”

The voice of God said, “I have a surprise for you.  Aaron is already on his way out here, and he will be overjoyed when he sees you.  And I know he can do all the talking that’s necessary.”

He explained to Moses how this would work.  “You are to speak to Aaron and put the words in his mouth.  He will do all the speaking to the people for you.  Do you recall how in Egypt, a priest or an actor will give voice to the statue of a god?  Aaron will be the mouthpiece, and you will be the god he speaks for.  But, of course, I will be the real God behind both of you, telling you what to do.”

My fire was dying down, and I hoped Aaron had answered all of the shepherd’s objections.

“I bow to the ground before You, Yahweh,” Moses said.  “Let it be done, all the things that You have spoken.  And when Israel has left the land of Egypt, I promise that we shall certainly come here and worship You at this holy mountain.”  He looked up, and the bush was no longer burning.  The spirit of Yahweh had departed.

Planning a Festival

When he returned to his native land of Goshen in Egypt, Moses was a new man, energetic, charismatic.  With the help of Aaron’s magic tricks and verbal embellishment, he enthusiastically told the Hebrews about his life-changing experience at the burning bush, and the people were convinced.

Aaron proudly told me, “It’s only a matter of time now!  A land of milk and honey!  God has promised it to us, and he has commissioned Moses to lead us there.”

“You know you’re lying about that last part,” I reminded him.

“Yes,” he admitted, “but it’s a beautiful lie.  It has inspired my brother.  And it will unite our people!”

The brothers started to promote the idea of a grand Hebrew festival in honor of Yahweh.  “We shall gather in the desert,” Moses told his people.  “All of us.  We will encamp at the foot of the sacred Mount Horeb, where Yahweh spoke to me.  Our livestock will be with us so that we can make sacrifices to Yahweh, and we will be dressed in our finest garments.”

“Yes, the finest,” Aaron concurred.  “Every woman should go to her Egyptian neighbors and borrow jewelry and clothing to wear to this festival.  It will be a glorious time.  We may never want to come back to Egypt, and your neighbors may never get their jewelry back.  But don't tell them that.”

Moses and Aaron needed royal approval for this proposal, so they applied for an audience at the palace.  Pharaoh himself came to meet them.

Aaron proclaimed, “These are the words of Yahweh, the god of Israel:  Let my people go, so that they may keep a pilgrim-feast in my honor in the desert.”

“Yahweh?” scoffed Pharaoh.  “Who is that?  I don’t acknowledge any such god, and I won’t listen to any of his alleged words.  Permission denied.”

Aaron persisted.  “The god of the Hebrews has spoken to us.  Now we request leave to go three day’s journey into the wilderness.  There shall we offer sacrifice to Yahweh our god.  If we fail to make that journey, we shall suffer the consequences of our disobedience.”

“Stop distracting the people from their jobs!” Pharaoh snapped.  “All of you Hebrews are lazy.  One day out of every seven, you refuse to do any work at all.  Well, I'm not approving any more holidays!  No more vacations!  Get back to work making bricks!”  He was so angry that he issued a punitive proclamation that very day.

“They’ve cut off our supply of straw,” Aaron complained to me a few days later.  “Now we have to do extra work to collect the straw ourselves.  That takes a lot of time.  But they haven’t reduced our quota.  We still must produce as many bricks as before!  Apparently Pharaoh thinks that if we’re kept hard at work, we won’t have time to dream about pilgrim-feasts.”

“So you’ll have to abandon that idea,” I said.

“No way!  I’m going back to Pharaoh, and I’ll show him the power of my god!”

“Do we need to burn another bush?” I asked.

“Not this time,” Aaron said.  “I’ll use some of the other magic you taught me.  If I can get Pharaoh and his courtiers to respect Yahweh, then surely they will agree to Yahweh’s demands.”

Demonstrations at Court

When Aaron returned to the palace, he performed the elementary trick of turning his staff into a snake — the very stunt he had learned, as a boy, from me.  “That’s nothing,” said Pharaoh.  “I’ve seen my men do that many times.  Here, I’ll prove it.”

I still had my regular job at the court, of course, so I was one of the royal magicians called upon to duplicate the illusion.  We hid serpents up our sleeves, then pretended to throw down our staffs.  There were snakes all over the floor!  Aaron glared at me, but of course I could not give any sign of recognition.

The next morning, Aaron filled a “magic wand” with cinnabar and met Pharaoh at the riverbank.  He said some impressive words and struck the water with his wand.  The cinnabar poured out of the wand and turned the water red, and Aaron proclaimed that Yahweh had changed the Nile into blood.

Pharaoh challenged his court magicians to copy this feat as well.  We did.  We did it so well that all the fish in the area died.  People couldn’t drink the river water, polluted as it was with red dye and mercury, so they had to dig wells.  It took a week for the mess to wash out to sea.

That impressed Pharaoh, but not in a good way.  So far, Aaron had given him no evidence that Yahweh was any greater than the Egyptian gods.  Aaron hadn’t even proved Yahweh was any greater than the Egyptian magicians, such as me!

However, Aaron kept trying.  He collected some frogs and made them jump out of an empty box.  We royal magicians did the same.  That was another disaster.  Between his frogs and our frogs, we released so many in the palace that they got into people’s beds and the ovens and the kneading troughs and even other people’s houses.  Eventually the frogs died, and that led to a plague of maggots, and that led to a plague of flies.

Enough!

“This is ridiculous,” I told the other royal magicians.  “Aaron inflicts plagues upon Egypt, and when we copy him, we make the misery twice as bad!”

“We should go to Pharaoh,” my colleague Jannes ventured bravely, “and tell him we refuse to compete any longer.  If we keep on contending against Moses and his brother Aaron, it will ruin the whole nation.”

And so we stopped.  But that didn’t stop Aaron.  

“Bad things happen all the time,” he confided to me, “with or without the help of magicians.  Any time there’s a disaster, I can claim responsibility for it in the name of Yahweh.  I’ll tell the Egyptians that the God of the Hebrews is causing all the troubles in order to punish Pharaoh.”

“And how is that working out so far?” I asked sarcastically.

“You know what?” said Aaron.  “He’s actually beginning to negotiate with us!”

“Really?”

“Yesterday he offered to let us hold our religious festival.  However, he said, we won't be allowed to leave Egypt to do it.”

“But leaving Egypt is the whole point, as far as you’re concerned.”

“That’s right.”

“So that offer isn’t good enough for you.”

“It isn’t.  We declined.”

“On what grounds?”

“Well, we told Pharaoh that, of course, we aren’t sure what rites Yahweh will order us to perform.  We might be commanded to sacrifice a certain animal that can’t legally be sacrificed within Egypt.  If that happens, we need to be out of the country.  We don’t want to offend the local authorities.”

“What animal is that?” I wanted to know.

“Oh, I don't know,” Aaron replied.  “We might have to kill some cats.”

“So you rejected Pharoah’s offer to allow you to hold your festival within Egypt.  Now what do you plan to do?” I asked.

“We’ll keep up the pressure.  More bad things are sure to happen.  We'll create the perception that these plagues are becoming worse.  Perhaps the annual swarms of locusts will be unusually voracious this year.  That would not hurt our cause.”

“These disasters for which you plan to claim responsibility — won't the Egyptians call them acts of terrorism?”

“That's what we want!  We want them to be terrified of Yahweh.  Yes, we’ll put the fear of God into them!  The dread of Yahweh's wrath will spread throughout the land.  Eventually, Pharaoh will get tired of all this, and he will let our people go.  In fact, he will order us to leave.”

“So whenever something goes wrong from now on, the palace will blame the Hebrews,” I said.

“And Moses and I will be quite willing,” Aaron added, “to take credit for the suffering.”

“In the name of your sadistic God, of course.”

“In the name of Yahweh.”

Where the Power Lies

“But,” I protested, “your God actually has no power at all!  You know what I mean.  As a magician, you can pretend to perform impossible feats, and then you can claim that God made them happen.  As a priest, you can point to natural events, and then you can claim that God made them happen.  But you and I both know that God had nothing to do with it.”

“You’re right, of course,” Aaron agreed.  “You’re a magician yourself.  You know how these things work.”

“God has no power to do anything.”

“That’s right.  God has no power to do anything.  Belief in God, on the other hand, has the power to do everything.”

“How’s that?” I asked. 

“Belief can inspire the people to do what God cannot do himself.”

“Inspire the people?  You mean, motivate them to pray to their God?”

“No, I don’t mean that!  I hate people who meekly ask God to please — pretty please — do something for them.  They’re fools.  He can do nothing!  They might as well be asking a statue for a favor.  They might as well be talking to a bush.

“But look at it this way.  Moses and I have convinced our people, the Hebrews, that God is on our side.  Whether or not it’s true, the people believe that God is behind them.  Therefore, they have the courage to tackle their problems themselves.  They will take risks.  They will abandon all caution.  They will become fearless fanatics, rising up to fight with lions, recklessly confident that God will never let them fail!

“Then consider your people, the Egyptians.  They are convinced that God has cursed them and caused all these plagues.  That’s what I’ve told them, repeatedly.  Whether or not it’s true, they're starting to believe it.  Therefore, they cower in a corner.  They're superstitious and afraid, and soon they'll be willing to agree to anything we ask, anything to lift the dreaded damnation.”

“So God is powerless,” I repeated.

“But belief in God has all the power in the world!” Aaron replied.  “And as the spiritual leader of my people, it is my job to create that belief.  It is my job to cultivate that faith, by any means necessary.”

 

A PSALM OF AARON
TO THE CHIEF MAGICIAN.  NOT FOR PUBLICATION.

Let us open our eyes to reality
   And behold the truth of the world.

Man created God in the image of man.
  Man ascribed to this image great strength,
Though an imaginary God is helpless
   And an imagined diety can do nothing.

Nonetheless, a man who thinks he walks with God
  Strides forward with godlike vigor and force.
His boldness increases, his confidence grows.
  He trusts that his deity will surely come to his aid.

Belief in an idol can move mountains,
  And faith in a deity can topple towers.

 

 

 

(a retelling of part of the Torah, particularly the first eight chapters of Exodus;  Jambres is mentioned in the New Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:8)

Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.

TBT

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