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Friday, November 2, 2012

The Burning Bush

There you are, minding your own business walking down the street, when a man comes up to you and tells you this incredible story about how he had heard about a luminous green monster roaming around in the moonlight in a field outside of town. You’re understandably taken aback, but to humour him (which you might deem a safer option) you ask where the field is. You’re given specific directions, and you mention the idea of going to have a look for yourself. But now you’re told that it would not do any good, because this glow-in-the-dark monster made its appearance hundreds of years ago – and in any case, you would not have seen it, because it was invisible. Yes… now you know for sure that this guy is totally batshit, so you back away and quickly walk on.

Rewind. Same you, same man, same street. This time, instead of the green monster, he tells you a story all about this guy who saw a bush on fire in the desert, but the bush didn’t burn up, because it was really an invisible being in disguise who talked to him and told him to take off his shoes. As with that glowing monster, you say that you want to see this improbable non-combustible bush for yourself. But you’re told that you can’t because it happened thousands of years ago, and the guy in the desert was the only one who actually saw it anyway. Do you still think that this man telling you the story is crazy? No? Why not?

The only difference between the two stories, of course, is that one is secular, and the other is [1]scriptural. Even in the kindest of lights, and taken at face value (an important point, this), both stories are equally implausible, equally ludicrous. And yet, if you accept scriptural authority, you would – and do – accept with no further evidence the truth of the second story, and reject out of hand the first story as being the product of a deluded mind.

Rationality is something which we like to consider that we possess. Its qualities flatter us. But in doing my homework for this post I read up on a variety of beliefs from their own sources, both religious and [2]quasi-religious, and I am now more than convinced that there is no belief so irrational, so implausible, that someone, somewhere, will not commit their life to it, and use it to guide their personal moral compass. That a story comes with the religious tag is apparently enough in itself for us to be more than willing to suspend all disbelief, and switch off any normally-alert critical faculties. So the question would seem to be, not so much why we believe in this or that faith, but why we clearly are so willing to commit ourselves – to commit our very lives – to apparently-irrational and unproveable scenarios at all.

Evidently there seems to be a craving for the irrational within the human mind: a mechanism that is willing to commit itself to something for which there is no more tangible evidence other than what someone else has told us, or what someone else has written, or simply because it seems to give us a ‘feeling’ that it must be true. And this mechanism appears to be connected to religious belief. For why would we accept something which falls under the mantle of religion, when we would derisively dismiss that very same thing if it were told to us in a secular context by some hustling streetcorner huckster? I think I’ll throw in my lot with that glowing green monster. At least it’s more fun. J

[1] Exodus 3:1-5. Intriguingly, as suggested by *Professor Shanon of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, the possibility exists that Moses could have been under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance, such as that which can be extracted from acacia or wild rue (Peganum harmala), both of which are found (and whose use was and still is known) in the region of the story’s setting. Alternatively (and relating to my previous post about Biblical mistranslations), the famed burning bush might be no more than an error of language.

The original Hebrew word used is *seneh, meaning a bramble. In Hebrew this is so similar to Sinai, the fiery mountain, that the two words perhaps became confused with each other. Personally (and also in view of the decidedly weird staff-into-serpent and leprous hands episodes which immediately follow the burning bush verses), I’m going with the trippy Moses theory. In fact, I can almost see Moses shuffling back down from the high pastures (in both senses of the term) with wall-to-wall pupils and a serious case of the munchies. J 

Peganum harmala
[2] I’m sitting on my hands here struggling to resist the temptation to name them. But heck, I’m sure that with a little thought you can guess the ones I have in mind.

*B. Shanon: Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis, pub. in Time and Mind, March 2008
*Thomas Kelly Cheyne & J. Sutherland Black: Encyclopædia Biblica
Desert bush image adapted from a photo by Felagund, issued under a Creative Commons licence.
Peganum harmala photo by Kurt Stüber, issued under a Creative Commons licence.
Green monster © Hawkwood.

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