Fire is fire, right?
Actually, in the Torah, there are different kinds of fire. And the differences illustrate some interesting lessons, as well as offering an explanation for one of the odder stories in the Torah – the one about the snake on the stick.
There is a word for “burning” – saraf. And there is a word for “fire” – eish. In the text they represent two different kinds of burning. The word saraf refers to the physical act of burning, while eish represents fire with a spiritual component. I know this sounds abstract, but if we look at the text, we’ll see that it is not abstract at all.
Saraf first appears in the Tower of Babel Story: “They said to one another, Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” The word saraf is repeated – while the word eish is not present. In this example, burning is used as a constructive tool! And I think G-d approves – He does not seem to have any problem with the brick-making itself – He only becomes involved when they decide to use the bricks to glorify themselves by seeking to reach heaven and achieve enduring fame.
Much later in the Torah, “the people” come together with a single voice, much as they had in Babel. But instead of proposing a constructive solution, they just want to complain:
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.”
G-d’s response is… odd.
G-d sent saraf snakes against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.
Then G-d reinforces the point, by having Moses make a saraf and when people looked at it, they were cured.
Then G-d said to Moses, “Make a saraf and mount it on a standard. And anyone who was bitten who then looks at it shall recover.”
There are many rich symbolic explanations for this episode, but it is intriguing to consider that there may have been a lesson in the choice of the word, saraf. It is a simple lesson: complaining is not productive. When the generation of Babel used their words, they used them to decide to build together, to use saraf productively. So when the Jews in the wilderness used their words to complain, they were sent a reminder of a preferable alternative: find ways to build, and to make things, instead of just complaining about them. When they looked at the saraf, then they could remember that saraf can be used for good.
Note that saraf is not about fire that aims for – or achieves – spirituality. When the Torah uses saraf it generally refers to simple, or even inglorious, application of fire. Judah planned to saraf Tamar for loose morals. Saraf is a technical burning, not a spiritual connection – so the red heifer is prepared with saraf, as it is not an offering itself. Saraf, like most things in the Torah, is not good or bad in itself – and as we saw with the bricks, even burning can be a positive tool.
Eish, on the other hand, is a spiritual fire, and it comes in two flavors.
Eish from G-d:
When G-d delivers eish, there is a distinctly destructive or at least power-projecting aura – G-d’s fire destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, the pillar of fire guiding and protecting the people, the fire on Sinai etc. (a representative sample is in the footnotes). When G-d wields fire, it is destructive, power unleashed – something that frightens us and makes us keep our distance.
Eish from Man:
It is well known that the letters comprising eish are the only letters that appear in both the Hebrew word for “male” and “female,” suggesting that there is some shared spiritual quality that mankind has. And so it is for every example in the Torah in which people bring eish:
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the fire and the knife; and the two walked off together.
And many, many examples of when we bring an offering, which the text identifies as: “a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to G-d.” Similarly, the Levites are meant to live on spiritual food – the offerings to G-d by fire. Even the golden calf is consumed in fire (to make it akin to a sin offering) before it was ground up.
In the hands of mankind, the fire is meant to reach upward, to create a spiritual link either with G-d or with false gods (through child sacrifice). Either way, eish is connected to our desire for a spiritual connection.
Verses with divine fire (every “fire” is, in the original Hebrew, the word eish):
When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a fiery torch which passed between those pieces.
G-d rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from G-d out of heaven—
A messenger of G-d appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.
And G-d sent thunder and hail, and fire streamed down to the ground, as G-d rained down hail upon the land of Egypt.
G-d went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.
Now the Presence of יהוה appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.
The people took to complaining bitterly before G-d. G-d heard and was incensed: a fire of G-d broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.
That place was named Taberah because a fire of G-d had broken out against them.
You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, dark with densest clouds.
G-d spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.
For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when G-d spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—
For your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God.
And a fire went forth from G-d and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.
Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?
From the heavens [God] let you hear the divine voice to discipline you; on earth [God] let you see the great divine fire; and from amidst that fire you heard God’s words.
Let us not die, then, for this fearsome fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of our G-d any longer, we shall die.
For a fire has flared in My wrath
And burned to the bottom of Sheol,
Has consumed the earth and its increase,
Eaten down to the base of the hills.