Jun 15, 2023
“Exodus 3 can be read as the last chapter of Genesis and/or as the first chapter of the New Testament. Either way, it is monumental.”
Adam & Eve, Abraham & Sarah, Jacob & Leah, Joseph, and Moses: Genesis and the first two chapters of Exodus provide us with a compelling foundation narrative, but in many ways, the Bible proper begins with Exodus 3:
“Meanwhile (long ago in a galaxy far, far away) Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock beyond the wilderness, he came to the mountain of God, Horeb.
There the angel of the Lord (the Lord) appeared to him as fire flaming out of a bush. When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed.”
Moses was no physicist, but like any intelligent person in the second millennium BCE, he had a working knowledge of entropy. Reality melts: things die, decay, and decompose, fire consumes everything in its path, leaving nothing but ash in its wake. But what if this were not so?
That is the very question posed at the opening of what is certainly ‘the greatest story…’ What if everything we think we know about the world is false? Then what?
The image of the burning bush captures in a single icon a world in which the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) does not hold, in which death does not have the last word, in which the coming to be of one thing does not entail the ceasing to be of something else.
This is Being and, in the burning bush, God reveals himself as Being per se. A few verses later, God clarifies: “I am who am,” period!
The meaning of the ‘burning bush’ is not to be found in the fire; God performs tricks like that every day before breakfast. The miracle is that the bush itself, its roots, its branches, its bark, its buds, is not consumed. In fact, it appears to remain unaltered by the event. Who knows? It may be growing still in Midian.
In this seminal event, there’s no doubt that Moses is ‘seeing God’ (whatever that means). But the appearance of a bush (albeit burning) remains. In the language of Christian philosophy, God is the ‘substance,' bush is the ‘accident.'
Normally in our experience, substances remain unchanged, but accidents (or attributes) are always in flux. In theophany, however, that relationship is reversed: the substance is changed while the accidents remain unaltered. God and World are templates!
Where else in scripture do we see substance change while accidents remain the same? In the New Testament, at the Last Supper when Jesus says, “This is my body…," the bread and wine are substantially changed into the body and blood of Christ, while the accidents (appearances) remain those of a Woodstock banquet.
Medieval Christians even coined a word for this process; they called it transubstantiation. Ever since, theologians have been trying, unsuccessfully, to find an alternative moniker. Why? The term is entirely apt. One substance is changed into another. What more is there to say?
But where does that leave the precious accidents? I mean, ‘Jesus is just alright with me’ but I had to save up to afford this bottle of Lafitte; I’m not anxious to give that up, even for the Savior of the World.
Fortunately, I won’t have to. The accidents that make a bottle of grape juice Lafitte are unaltered by transubstantiation. Oh, the terrior! Wait, just how shallow am I? I am consuming the ‘living bread’ and the ‘living water’ that make eternal what was otherwise mortal. I need not ever hunger or thirst again, yet all I can think about are hints of leather and cassis.
How can a raging fire support leaves and blossoms, roots and shoots? How can the body and blood of Christ support the sacramental specie of the Passover meal?
Attributes are pure potential. They become actual when they inhere in a specific event or entity, i.e., when they adhere to a substance. God is the entity/event in which all attributes inhere, the substance to which all attributes cling. Bishop Berkley was right: it is solely thanks to God that a tree in a forest makes a sound when it falls, even when no one is there to hear it.
When a particular event manifests attributes that appear to be inconsistent with its substance, God is the only possible explanation. God is the substance in which all attributes inhere, so God is rightly attribute-agnostic. All attributes are good, so it matters not which attributes are manifested by any specific event. It’s all good! God is all about the substance!
Jesus made this point in a different context when he said to a gathering of Pharisees and Sadducees, “Out of these stones, God can raise up children for Abraham.” (Mt. 3:9) He did not offer metaphysical detail. Does the substance of the stones remain the same (stone) while the accidents (children) change? Or do the accidents remain the same (stone) while the substance (children) changes? For our purposes, it matters not.
Moses grasped this immediately upon seeing the burning bush. At the time, he knew little of God, but reason and natural law enabled him to recognize the divine in the phenomenon before him. Exodus 3 can be read as the last chapter of Genesis and/or as the first chapter of the New Testament. Either way, it is monumental.