Encountering God: A Tale of Two Bushes

A fresco by Raphael, in the Vatican Museums

I want to hear God. I want to know his specific will for my life. I want him to tell me what to do next. I want . . .

A Burning Bush

It worked for Moses. When he was on Mt. Horeb and saw the bush that burned but didn’t burn up, he went over to get a closer look. That’s when God spoke to him in an unmistakable, clear, audible voice.

God called him by name.
He announced who he was.
He told Moses the overall plan.
He answered Moses’ questions.
He promised to be with him.
He gave Moses a sign to show that he had sent him.
He revealed his name to him.
He gave him step-by-step directions.
He told him what to expect.
He gave him the ability to perform three miraculous signs.
He promised his help.
And he responded to Moses’ fears by allowing him a helper.

Yeah, a burning bush. That’ll do it.

As a former missionary—oh, forget that—as a believer in God, I’ve faced many times when I’ve wanted him to communicate with me through a miracle. I’ve even been tempted to let my imagination wring meaning out of not uncommon occurrences: The supermarket is selling spaghetti 50% off? Surely that means that God wants me to move to Italy . . . and I can leave with only half the money raised . . . right?

But when it comes to hearing from God, I think there’s another kind of Old Testament bush that we should look for—

A Broom Bush

Shortly after Elijah won his showdown with the prophets of Baal, he ran in fear from Queen Jezebel, who had vowed to kill him within a day. Leaving his servant behind, he continued into the wilderness and sat under a broom bush, despondent.

I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. (I Kings 19:4)

A broom bush (retama) in Spain

What is a broom bush?

Sometimes called a retem or rothem tree, juniper tree, or broom tree, the broom bush is actually more of a shrub than a tree and is not related to the juniper evergreen. Though it can grow up to 10 feet tall, it does not have a trunk with branches but rather thin green stems, with small leaves that are quickly shed. The name of the bush gives us the name for brooms today, as its stems were often tied together for sweeping.

When it blooms, sweet-smelling pea-like flowers cover the broom bush. Retama raetam, common in the Middle East, is called the white broom because of the color of its flowers.

Job refers to the broom bush when he complains about the young men who mock him in his suffering. He considers their fathers lower than his sheepdogs. He says they are weak, hungry men who roam the parched countryside, forced to eat plants from the salt marshes and the roots of the broom bush, which are normally considered inedible. In fact, broom-bush roots are so unlikely as food that some think that Job is actually talking about broomrape, a parasitic herb that attaches itself to the roots of the broom bush and other plants. Others believe that the second half of Job 30:4, “and their food was the root of the broom bush,” should be translated “and their fuel was the root of the broom bush,” as in fuel for a fire.

Broom-bush wood is good for fuel. It burns very hot and is excellent for making charcoal, which in times past, Bedouins would use for trading in Egyptian markets. For the Psalmist, its red-hot coals make a fitting punishment for “deceitful lips”:

He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows,
with burning coals of the broom bush. (Psalm 120:4)

Great for making charcoal and brooms. Bad for eating. So-so for shelter.

When Elijah collapsed in the shade of the broom bush, he wasn’t under a majestic tree, known for its tall stature or wide canopy of branches. And when he prayed, his words weren’t majestic either. He wanted to die and asked God to make it happen.

Instead, after he fell asleep, God sent a messenger, an angel who woke him with a touch and told him to eat and drink. Near his head was bread baking over hot coals (made from the bush he was under?) and a jar of water. After Elijah lay down again, the angel returned. “Get up and eat,” he said, “for the journey is too much for you” (I Kings 19:7). The journey turned out to take forty days and nights and ended at Mt. Horeb—also called Mt. Sinai and the mountain of God.

On Mt. Horeb, Elijah heard God’s voice, but under the broom bush, God communicated in a different way. God’s messenger gave him sacred gifts of food, water, and rest. Like the bush, the gifts were commonplace but sacred nonetheless.

Of course, it’s not an ordinary occurrence to be ministered to in person by an angel. But what the angel did for Elijah, we can do for each other. It doesn’t take a celestial being to prepare food and drink, to acknowledge life’s difficulties, to be present with few words—all to ready a servant of God for taking the path ahead and, ultimately, for hearing his gentle whisper.

As you serve God cross-culturally, have you ever been in the wilderness? Have you ever been lonely, depressed, afraid, exhausted from work and worry? Have you ever wished that you were dead? Have you ever believed that going forward was too much for you? Have you ever needed a broom bush? Do you need one now?

I’m still going to keep my eyes open for burning bushes. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss any. But I don’t want to miss the God-given favor of a broom bush either.

And as I continue on my journey, I’ll also watch for other travelers who are wearied by the past and concerned for the future. Because there will be those who need me to pass on holy commonplace blessings—the kind of blessings that happen under a simple bush in the desert.

(scripture from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

[photos: “O Adonai,” by Lawrence OP, used under a Creative Commons license; “046. Retama,” by Por los caminos de Málaga, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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