Some of us have a bible by our bed, and some of us literally never saw one. Some go by the 1st testament only, some by the 2nd, and some by both. Others aren’t involved in a religion that includes these books, and probably don’t care about them at all. We all know the story, though, even if only vaguely. There was a guy named Moses. At some point he encountered a bush which was burning, but not actually burning. Is the story real? Is it fake? Is it an allegory for something else? I can’t say for sure, but it is fun to think about the possibilities.
Moses and the burning bush story
Not everyone is up on their bible. Personally, I had to give myself a little recap of the story, so I’ll give one to the rest of you as well. The burning bush story takes place in the Book of Exodus, which is a part of the Old Testament; which means it applies to both Christians and Jews. This story takes place not around Christmas time, but around Passover; however I am including it as a question to think about this holiday season.
According to the story, at the time it all takes place, the Jews were enslaved in Egypt. Moses wasn’t out to do any godly deeds, but according to the story, while tending to a flock of sheep on Mount Horeb (apparently belonging to his father-in-law), Moses stumbled upon a bush consumed in fire, but which wasn’t visibly burning. I think we would all be caught off guard by that site. Moses was curious, and went closer to the burning bush, where he heard the voice of God speaking to him.
God was essentially unhappy with the treatment of the Jews by the Egyptians, and came down to save them, but wanted to do the deed through Moses. While we don’t know why God insisted on doing this through a proxy, we do know that Moses was first afraid, and didn’t want to do it, claiming his own inability for something so massive. God assured him that he’d accompany him in some form. When Moses asked God who he was, God responded that he was God, and essentially gave a formal introduction that Moses was to pass onto the Israelites.
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This is just one small scene in a much bigger story. God goes on to explain about the miracles he’d perform to get the Jews out of Egypt. And in response to Moses’s continued lack of faith in himself, God promised him his brother Aaron could join in, and even act as Moses’s voice. For anyone unfamiliar, Moses follows these instructions, and God performs miracles which are celebrated by Jews as the Pesach miracles, (or 10 plagues), and which include bringing on a case of lotus infestation, water turned to blood, and the death of the first born, among others. This was followed by a parting of the red sea, and the Jews leaving oppression in Egypt.
The bible is not without twists. Rather than a simple homecoming, the Jews instead spent 40 years wandering the desert, led by the same guy who had reservations about taking the job in the first place. Maybe Moses wasn’t the best choice after all… Anyway, regardless of where the story went, or what happened before, the scene with the burning bush is interesting because it encapsulates an idea we know of as scientifically impossible.
Like many other biblical happenings, we are left years later to try to interpret the story, and where it came from. Some take it as fact. Others take it as allegory. And still others see it for a historical value, whatever that is. When it comes to this burning bush, the controversy hits a fever pitch, and the question becomes, was the bush really burning, or was it Moses who was blazed?
Was the bush burning, or was Moses blazed?
Realistically, we’re not ever going to know. Maybe we’ll come across some kind of fire-retardant bush; but probably not worth holding the breath waiting. While the world of botany is always uncovering new things, there’s been no plant yet that can withstand fire. As biblical stories often rely on faith, there is no way to establish overall certainty, and we’re left to debate it out as much as we want. And as people, we want to.
One of the questions that comes out of the burning bush example, is whether the bush was on fire, or whether it was a drug-fueled illusion. According to some experts, its way more likely that Moses was blazed, not that the bush was blazing.
Israeli professor of cognitive philosophy Benny Shanon, as per a 2008 article in ABCnews, says “In advanced forms of ayahuasca inebriation, the seeing of light is accompanied by profound religious and spiritual feelings.” Shannon speaks of his own similar experience in the Amazon back in 1991, saying “I experienced visions that had spiritual-religious connotations.” He also says “Encountering the divine is one of the most powerful experiences associated with high-level Ayahuasca inebriation.” In fact, he goes as far as to say that Moses experienced “radical alteration in the state of consciousness.”
Shanon believes that much of the bible was conceived through the use of drugs, “As far as Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don’t believe, or a legend, which I don’t believe either, or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effects of narcotics.”
This idea is certainly not taken up by everyone, and is heavily frowned on the higher up the religious chain you get. The orthodoxy of Israel was less than impressed with this interpretation, with Rabbi Yuval Sherlow saying on the radio (and recorded by Reutiers) that “The Bible is trying to convey a very profound event. We have to fear not for the fate of the biblical Moses, but for the fate of science.”
Some believe these events were related to magic mushrooms or DMT, others point to a psychedelic component in the manaa given by God to the people. Now-deceased theology professor Dan Merkur brought this up, theorizing that something in the manna is comparable to psychedelics. Other people believe it was as simple as inhaling marijuana. Today, some Jews have taken to mixing psychedelics with prayer for a more spiritual experience; and the thought is that the Jews of old, might have done the same.
What’s that manna stuff?
Once again, we don’t get a formal answer to this, and everyone believes in their own specific ideals, making it difficult to form a consensus. Those who don’t believe, probably won’t be swayed to, and those who do, are unlikely to be argued away from their beliefs. So, the best we can do is examine the situation.
In terms of whether its possible that drugs were the impetus for the burning bush, and other stories in the bible, it certainly doesn’t seem unlikely. There was no Western medicine to compete with plant medicine at the time, and plants were used for many purposes. Plus, we know that plenty of plants cause people to hallucinate. According to a 2019 paper entitled Getting high with the most high: Entheogens in the Old Testament, “ancient Israelites had a profound understanding of synergism, and the way they are consumed and the taboos around them are highly suggestive of their use as psychoactive agents.”
Manna is spoken about in a way that relates to something more than standard food. It was given to the Israelites by God while wandering through the desert, but we never get a firm answer on what plant its supposed to be. It’s referred to as “angel food” in Psalm 78:25, but whether this means it comes from angels, or allows people to see angels, is not clear. No other food is spoken about as providing satisfaction in the same way as manna. In Exodus 16:32 Moses makes a statement about saving manna for future generations. Something never said about bread or meat.
We don’t know for sure what ‘manna’ refers to, but according to the bible it was given to the Jews in the desert, and is mentioned in the Koran as well. It’s thought this manna might have had the ergot fungus growing on it, which is the precursor to LSD. In the bible, it says of manna that they “ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar” before boiling or baking it, actions that can work to decarboxylate plant material, and bring out psychoactive properties.
Manna isn’t the only biblical substance theorized to have ergot in it. Something else called showbread, is also thought to have possibly contained the psychedelic fungus. Its referred to here, like this: “In [High Priest] Simeon the Upright’s time… every priest who received only the size of an olive became satiated, and some was left over… But after him, these things were cursed, and every priest got only the size of a bean. And the delicate priests refused to take it altogether, but the voracious ones accepted and consumed. It once happened, one took his own share and his fellow’s: he was nicknamed “robber” till his death.”
While it’s not 100% clear this refers to a drug, the idea that they were measuring out tiny doses makes it sound more like drugs, than food. Such is also the case with the Tabernacle wine. Though wine already creates a psychoactive response, back then it was common practice to extract psychoactive alkaloids from plants into the wine. If the ergot fungus was used for psychoactive effects, it may have been put in the Tabernacle wine too.
As people from all time periods were using the plants around them to gain higher spiritual experiences, its certainly not weird to think the folks of biblical times, did as well. Manna, showbread and Tabernacle wine, might be indications of psychedelic use in these times.
Was the bush burning or was Moses blazed? We don’t know. And we’re not going to. But its interesting to think that psychedelic drugs may have shaped whats considered by many to be the holiest book in the world.
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