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20.7.02

The symbolism of fire in the Bible is interesting, taken in light of what fire ecology tells us about fire.

Fire plays a key role in ecosystems such as Australia's. Though it kills plants, their long-term survival as a species depends on fire. Fire takes plant growth -- a highly structured biological creation -- and breaks it down, reducing cells to chemicals. But those chemicals are then available to the next generation, fertilizing the soil and becoming the building blocks of more wood and leaves and flowers.

In this sense fire is both God and his antithesis. It is appropriate to use fire as symbolic of hell because it is the opposite of God, breaking down where his nature is to bind together, reducing when he is a creator. Fire seen this way parallels the Jewish understanding of Satan as the Advocate, drawn from the Book of Job. In Job, Satan is not simply an enemy of God, whose work is anathema to God's work, a rebel angel needing to be taught a lesson. Satan is instead one who opposes God as part of God's plan (playing devil's advocate, if you will), questioning God at every turn to test for weakness. While building up is good, there come times when the way we have built allows us to go no farther and we must tear down and build in a new and better way, much like fire consumes the old wood that inhibits new growth.

Yet it is also appropriate to make fire a symbol of God, as the Zoroastrians do. The thing we see when we look at fire -- the energy and light that are released -- is the tangible manifestation of the structure that the fuel once had. Carbon in wood is bound together in a complex structure that is more than just the sum of its atoms, and when that structure is lost in the transformation to ash we see the energy, which allowed that structure to exist, as fire.

All this seems to indicate why the burning bush that Moses sees in the beginning of Exodus is an appropriate symbol for God. It's not simply that the bush is a miraculous anomaly, which cannot exist except by divine intervention. The content of the anomaly -- that the bush burns yet is not consumed -- is relevant. For the bush to be consumed would be for it to break down, its constituent parts becoming dissassociated. But God cannot be consumed, because God is connective. So on one level we have a fire -- a force of dissassociation -- made impotent by God's nature as a builder. But on another level we can see the fire not as a foil against which God is defining himself, but as a projection of God in the Zoroastrian sense. The bush is filled and running over with connectiveness.

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