Moses and the Thorns

Exodus, Uncategorized

Since I started work on the Exodus Big Read with my friends in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, I’ve been struggling to make a good piece of art that depicts Moses and the Burning Bush.  The story is at once too small and too huge.  Too small because there’s not a lot of action – there are only two persons present, Moses and God, and all they’re doing is talking.  But too large because it’s a theophany – the nature of God is being revealed.  Something beyond image and language is happening to Moses, and he’s being transformed by it.  How do you depict that?

I’m not sure that this attempt is any more successful than the previous images I’ve made. But I learned from my friend, Rabbi Daniel Bogard, that in Judaism its traditional to think of the burning bush as a thorn bush.  You can’t put your hand into it without being grabbed by the thorns.  Once you engage with it, you’re snagged.  Hearing that, I realized that this must, in part, be what’s happening to Moses.  He’s trapped by his contact with the divine.  This resonated with me because I, too, feel entangled with the divine.  My own theophanies haven’t necessarily led to clarity about the nature of the sacred or of the profane, nor do I have any better idea how to respond to either.  But they have snared me in the questions – big, ultimate questions that I can’t stop asking.  For me, in this moment, Moses’s contact is less with fire than with thorns, and I hope that this image reflects that.

From the Dark Tower


“We shall not always plant while others reap.” This is the first line of Countee Cullen’s poem “From the Dark Tower.” I first read the poem last year, during the election and after having been active in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Cullen wrote the poem at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. The Dark Tower itself was a building in Harlem where writers and intellectuals frequently met. As I read it, I wondered why it is that, ninety years later, the plaintive hope of the poem still seems so distant.

Cullen’s poem helps me remember, as I read the Book of Exodus, that the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness is as nothing compared to the centuries that African-American people have been waiting for justice. Yet it’s the poem’s hope that most deeply effected me when I first read it. I made this image to reflect that hope, and the question that lingers behind the hope: how long must people wait for justice? In Cullen’s words, how long must people “wait, and tend our agonizing seeds”? Here’s the whole text of the poem:

From the Dark Tower

Countee Cullen

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.


Exodus, Uncategorized

Birth has always been perilous. For most of our history, conceiving meant reconciling oneself with the possibility of death, even in the act of bringing forth new life. Death and life sat very close together on the birthing bed. Midwives, or wise women, would accompany women in labor into that liminal space between life and death, and would guide them through it with their rituals and plant lore and coaxing hands. They have always been the ones who ensured the human future.

The midwives in Exodus have names, Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh is known only by his position, not by his name. His dominance would suppress life and bring about death. He is the opposite of a midwife. When the midwives oppose him, it is life opposing death, the named and specific opposing the general and indifferent.

The spiritual life is about putting away the old and welcoming the new. It is about coming through death into new life. It is about discovering ourselves – finding our true names. And it is about standing with God in opposition to dominance and indifference. This is a journey we undertake many times. Again and again, old selves die so that new selves can be born. It is always perilous. And it is when we are faced with this peril that we might cry out for a midwife. We might hope for someone wise to come and aid us with rituals and lore and kindness.

What has died in you?  Do you feel the empty spaces where the dead thing used to be?

What has been trying to be born in you?  Are you struggling with a new birth of self?

Who are the midwives in your life right now?  Who is helping you?


Exodus: Beneath the Apple Trees


This year I will be joining my friends in the Diocese of Southern Ohio as we read the Book of Exodus together. Preparing for this, I’ve found myself dipping into Jewish midrash, especially the Shemot Rabbah, which, according to was composed in 1200 CE in Talmudic Israel/Babylon. I’m honestly not sure what that means. Was in composed in two places? Sefaria provides the text, but not much information about it, and I haven’t found more online. But while reading through it, I was struck by a beautiful story about the Hebrew women giving birth, a magical scene that has the logic and poetry of a fairy tale. I took some liberties in turning it into a poem. If you would like to read the original, you can find it on Sefaria at this address. Here’s my poem:

When the Israelite women conceived
they gave birth under apple trees,
where, loved by the divine, light woke them.

Angels came and cleansed them,
with water bright with apple seeds,
and white blossoms, softly fallen, were their altar.

When the Egyptian masters learned
of these birth rites of the chosen
they came into the apple groves with long knives to kill them.

But angels made the earth a womb,
and placed the children in it, and oxen
plowed the sheltering ground, ensuring it was innocent.

When the killers went away again the children,
born like grass again, rose from mud and bracken,
a generation that peeled the eye, and saw the red sea broken.

Now bring us light and empty us, and bury us like seeds
protect us in our innocence with love beneath the apple trees,
and when we wake from death again, ensure that we can see.