In the Hebrew, the first time the burning bush appears it has an article. Literally this is translated by "the bush" (as in Young's Literal Translation). However, most common translations translate this indefinitely, i.e. "a bush". This makes more sense in English, because the bush has not been mentioned before.

I cannot recall any other Hebrew text where an article is more logically left out in the translation. Does this tell us something about the meaning of the text?

What are common suggestions why Ex. 3:2 reads הַסְּנֶ֑ה and not סְנֶ֑ה?

Ex 3:2, WLC:
וַ֠יֵּרָא מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתֹּ֣וךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל׃

There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.

and there appeareth unto him a messenger of Jehovah in a flame of fire, out of the midst of the bush, and he seeth, and lo, the bush is burning with fire, and the bush is not consumed.


Although the Hebrew article is frequently used in a manner that is similar to the English definite article, there are certain contexts where this parallel breaks down. One such case when the Hebrew definite may correspond to an English indefinite is summarized by Waltke and O'Connor:1

The article may also mark nouns definite in the imagination, designating either a particular person or thing necessarily understood to be present or vividly portraying someone or something whose identity is not otherwise indicated.

Other examples provided include (formatting mine):

  • Gen 42:23: hammēlı̂ṣ bênōtām = An interpreter was between them.
  • Gen 18:7: wayyitēn ʾel-hannaʿar = He gave (it) to a servant.
  • Gen 14:13: wayyābōʾ happālı̂t = One who had escaped came.
  • 2 Sam 5:13: wayyābōʾ hammagîd = A messenger came.

In each case, the referent has not been previously mentioned so is best expressed using an indefinite construction in English. In Hebrew, the article is present because, within the context of the story, the person or thing can be pointed to, a feature that probably points back to the article's historically demonstrative function.2

James Barr offers an enlightening parallel from colloquial English to this use of the article in story telling, using the English demonstrative this:3

"I was just walking through the woods, and this dog jumped out at me."
"What do you mean by 'this dog'? You haven't mentioned any dog."
"Well, obviously, the dog I'm going to tell you about, the dog in my story."

Similarly in Exodus 3:2, although the bush is not yet known to the reader, it is particular (definite) in the mind of the narrator. The use of the article to introduce such 'novel narrative elements' (p. 333) is a technique of story telling that elevates the vividness of the scene.

1. Bruce K. Waltke and Michael P. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, 1990), 243-244. See also the footnote 9 on p. 243 regarding the tolerance, in informal English narrative style, of "situationally understood definite articles", which I think corresponds to Barr's example.

2. Paul Joüon and T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Pontificio istituto biblico, 2006), 475.

3. James Barr. 'Determination' and the Definite Article in Biblical Hebrew. Journal of Semitic Studies, XXXIV/2, 1989, p. 312. Barr also expands on the many categories of Biblical use of the definite article that deviate from English usage patterns. His thesis, in part, is that the Hebrew definite article is "not strictly, but only loosely and generally, related to [the logical category of] determination".

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    In my (unsophisticated and possibly idiosyncratic) way of thinking, this is in the same category (narratively, not syntactically) as Biblical Hebrew's tendency to use participles in hineh scenes (as in this verse). It's not relaying a sequence of events to a detached reader in the future, but as if I'm there, and the narrator is pointing: look, that! – Susan May 20 '16 at 3:08
  • Yes, but this doesn't change the fact you can't translate it as "the bush" because it would confuse a large number of English readers. – Jay May 20 '16 at 3:17
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    Clearly, the translation "a bush" is correct. The question (as I understood it) is about why Hebrew uses a definite article where English doesn't. – Susan May 20 '16 at 3:19

This may not be true for all English speaking countries, but 'the bush' can take on a plural meaning, which you would want to avoid confusion. If you change the verse to this:

There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within the bush

It would be understood by at least some English speakers to mean "a group of trees/scrubs" is on fire.

(i.e. "Lets go to the bush" could mean "lets go to that bush", but at least where I am from, it would sound like "lets go for a drive to the countryside"

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  • I think "the bush" would only be understood in the singular if the context clearly demands it. And Ex 3:2a does not yet have any context that would demand it be understood in the singular. – Jay May 20 '16 at 2:01

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