Moses on drugs, Jesus on ice

Some Israeli researcher has suggested that Moses was on drugs when he saw the burning bush that was not consumed (Ex 3:2-3). He bases his theory on his own experiments with ayahuasca in the Amazon region. Apparently ayahuasca has effects comparable to what recipes from the bark of the acacia tree can do to you. Acacia is a very common plant around mount Sinai.

It’s one of those theories that have had a recent boost in public attention, like the other guy who thought Jesus walked on a floating patch of ice instead of on water. Yesterday, biblical literalists were flooding my tag surfer. Scott W. Kay argues these kind of theories are only there because people aren’t willing to take into consideration the mere possibility that the biblical narrative might actually be true:

Anything but believe the Bible. Anything.

Well, contrary to what you might think Scott, these people do have a point. On this planet bushes don’t burn without being consumed, axes don’t float, donkeys don’t talk and seas don’t split. Even if these people happened to be wrong, they can very well be excused for not believing all those things, it’s fairly logical to say the least.

Shirley Buxton is actually emotional about it:

It grieves me to hear God’s Word so disdained, deprecated and ignorantly described

I agree with her. Treating the Bible in this way is disdaining, deprecating and ignorant. But I agree with her for totally different reasons: the Bible was not written to be taken literally, it is not a modern book. In the case of Moses’ burning bush this is easy to see.

The story happens in the desert near a mountain called Horeb in Ex 3:1. That in itself is an indication, because the same ‘mountain of God’ -as tradition has it- is called Sinai in Ex 19:11, a name reserved not for a mountain, but for a wilderness in Ex 19:1-2. Still, the biblical text is quite precise about the location of Horeb. It says: אחר המדבר behind the desert. It doesn’t say במדבר in the desert.

In the desert would be a geographical location, behind the desert is a place that has neither latitude nor longitude, it’s way off this planet. Here’s this Hebrew guy with no name, who isn’t even sure whether he’s an orphan or not. He’s adopted into the Egyptian royal court of a king who’s trying to eradicate the Hebrews. He doesn’t belong there. Neither is he accepted by his own people. Already it’s a hopeless story and it gets from bad to worse. He commits murder. He flees. Into the desert where he finds a meagre subsistence, but no life. He manages to survive, but he needs purpose, sense, a reason to live. This guy isn’t lost in the desert, he’s so lost he’s behind it. The people around the campfire who heard this story for the first time must have laughed about that: Moses is behind the desert, mister No Name is nowhere. He’s in Midian all right, but he’s really still in Egypt.

Moses should have been consumed, but wasn’t. That’s what he finds there, behind the desert. And that’s the point of this story: Moses was saved, something didn’t let him go astray and lose himself. Must have been God then, He’s the type that doesn’t let that happen, He’s the type that delivers you from Egypt. ‘How would I know?’ our storyteller thinks. Instead he talks about a messenger from God and a burning bush. ‘But that can’t be true!’ one of the younger ones at the campfire protests. ‘Of course it’s not true, but it really happened!’ says the storyteller, ‘Look: if it weren’t for this guy, we would still be living in the Gulag.’ And then comes the real story. The burning bush was just a prelude. Now comes the story about an entire people that should have been consumed, but weren’t…

Three millennia later someone reads the story that was once told at the campfire, totally misses the point and thinks: burning bush? Must have been drugs. We’ve all made that joke about biblical texts at least once so we don’t need researchers lacking in literary imagination to explain irrelevant details.

Three millennia later others read the same story, think: ‘Word of God; can’t be anything else but literally true; must rally to its defence.’ and flood other peoples tag-surfers. We’ve all been tempted to take the easy road and read things literally. It’s difficult not to, especially with pre-modern texts written -but first told- in societies that culturally weren’t so bothered about factual accuracy as our culture is.

Again I find myself in agreement with Shirley Buxton (ok, it’s partial agreement hence the “(…)”-s):

I love the Bible. It is dear, sacred and precious to me. (…) Wedged between the covers of our Bibles are the world’s greatest literature, the Song of songs, (…)

See? There it is: Song of Songs! I told you so!


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