The NYT touts Moses’s “burning bush”

January 2, 2022 • 9:30 am

Once again we see the New York Times printing an article that, it says, “bolsters a claim” from the Bible. The claim? The bit in Exodus 3 where Yahweh appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush, telling him that he will set the Jews free from bondage in Egypt. King James version:

Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.

And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.

And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;

And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them.

10 Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.

According to the Times, people have been trying to follow up on this for centuries, most notably looking for the mountain where this all occurred. But how would you know? No bush would be alive after all these millennia, and the Tablets would have long since become pebbles. The NYT, however, gives a clue of what Moses might have seen. The funny but sad part is that it’s not a bush at all, but a cave that gets lit up by sunlight on the day of the winter solstice.

Here’s the article, which poses three questions in a way that they could have been answered “yes”. In fact, by saying the new data “bolster the claim” of Moses and the burning bush, they’re implicitly answering “yes”. (Click on screenshot to read.)

Before I go further, the Biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter and a popular writer) answers the questions in a terse five words.

But she added a tweet. (She is, by the way, an atheist.)

So for years people have been looking for Mount Sinai, the reputed site of the burning bush and proffering of the Ten Commandments. Many mountains have been the subject of this clam.  Now, however, the Bible-believers are turning to Mount Karkom in Israel’s Negev Desert. That’s because, in 2003, a guide happened to be there on the Winter Solstice and saw this:

Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

A closer view of sunlight reflecting off the walls of the cave:

Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Yes, the Sun’s angle is such that it lights up the cave entrance on that one day. This of course isn’t a new type of phenomenon: lots of ancient people built structures to help determine when the solstices occurred.

The tsunami of credulousness began:

It was sunlight reflected at a particular angle off the sides of a cave, but the discovery soon made its way to Israeli television and was fancifully named “the burning bush.” Perhaps this, some said, was the supernatural fire that, according to the Book of Exodus, Moses saw on the holy mountain when God first spoke to him, and where he would later receive the Ten Commandments as he led the Israelites out of Egypt.

The burning bush, never consumed by the fire, is symbolic in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths including Baha’i.

But decades before this accidental astronomical discovery, Mount Karkom was already captivating some archaeologists with hints that the site had played an important spiritual role thousands of years ago.

Yes, there are petroglyphs there, too: signs of ancient inhabitants, along with burial sites nearby and migration trails. (The mountain was rich with flint—useful hard stones at a time when there was no metal.) The date-able sites are around the third millennium BCE.

Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

But is a lit-up cave entrance justification for the Biblical story? Of course not! At best, it gives a clue to what might have inspired the Biblical story, but that clue isn’t very convincing. Worse, there’s not a smidgen of evidence for the basis of the whole story: the captivity of the Jews in Egypt and their subsequent Exodus, when, apparently without any GPSs, the Israelites wandered for forty years before settling down. But all that the article says about the Exodus is this:

The Exodus, if it happened, is generally dated to sometime around 1600-1200 B.C.

If it happened? Could the paper possibly have apprised us that there’s no evidence for such an exodus?

But never mind: people who believe that the Bible is true are hell-bent on finding evidence, even though they claim that their beliefs aren’t based on evidence. And so, on weekends, the Israeli Army allows thousands of people to see the site, which of course is packed during the Winter solstice. (Because the area is a few miles from Egypt, and lies on an Israeli Army firing and training area, and because of the danger of terrorist attacks, access is limited):

So, on Solstice Day, the crowds pack in, Christians, Muslims and Jews all seeking evidence that there was some empirical basis for Moses’s “burning bush” story. There are also helicopter flights.

Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

At the end, there’s just one smidgen of doubt expressed by Shahar Silo, “a researcher who manages the Negev Highlands Tourism cooperative”:

Whether this is Mount Sinai and the winter solstice phenomenon the burning bush “is in the eye of the beholder,” Mr. Shilo said.

“But,” he added, “it’s a great myth, you have to admit.”

Meh; no greater than the myth of Peter Pan or Paul Bunyan.

Dr. Stavrokopoulou was right: it’s a big pile of “nopes.” Religion not only poisons everything, but dupes nearly everybody. And I claim once again that religious faith rests on certain factual assertions, which believers seek to confirm to buttress that faith. When confirmation fails, they revert to the familiar and misleading mantra: “The Bible is not a textbook of science.” Our faith isn’t based on “scientific” evidence.

It doesn’t help that the New York Times, with its penchant for touting woo, runs a puffball piece on The Bush That Was Really A Cave.

31 thoughts on “The NYT touts Moses’s “burning bush”

  1. To me it is exactly the same as the Trump cult today. It was early truth that people can be made to believe anything with absolutely no evidence. Never underestimate the stupidity of people in large numbers.

  2. That’s a beautiful lighting phenomena! Must be true.

    It’s lucky it wasn’t raining when Moses saw the bush. Otherwise, no burning bush. Unless it was a meteor. Or a pack of bad Boy Scouts who didn’t exercise care with fire.

      1. Well, I’ve always thought that biblical myths are that age’s alien abduction stories. I mean, alien abduction tales started in what, the 19th century?

  3. Surely Moses knew the difference between a cave and a bush? If it had happened, is there any reason to doubt that it was a bush? Moses not generally trusted when it came to this sort of thing? Do “cave” and “bush” sound similar in Hebrew? I’ve seen some bad biblical exegesis, but this is something. I’ll give you this, though: if it had been a cave, that would be a perfect way for some Jewish comedian to put one over on Moses. All he had to do was hide in back and say, “Psst. Moses. Moses. Here I am.”

  4. This is the author’s hedge sentence: ”The Exodus, if it happened, is generally dated to sometime around 1600-1200 B.C.” If it happened is dubious and Moses even more so.

  5. Seems to me that the “burning bush” story was inspired by a traveler’s tale about seeing a distant active volcano:

    Smoke was seen rising from a mountaintop. What could be burning? There’s nothing combustible up there but a few scrubby bushes. But the smoke was seen for days and days! So it must have been a really special bush.

    But let’s say these people are right — this trick of sunlight on a particular cave really was the origin of the Moses story. So what? These “proof that the Bible is historically accurate” episodes always seem to end the same way, “Oh, so there was no miracle after all.” So how does that bolster their faith?

    1. Hmmm, Does the Sinai Peninsula (or the SW edge of the Negev) have a history of volcanism? For that. I’d have to go an check a geological database. I know there was Pleistocene volcanism up in Anatolia and towards the N end of the Jordan valley, but Sinai? I’d have to go and check.
      Mind you, with the 40 years of travel from somewhere in Egypt to start massacring the inhabitants of Canaan, possibly Moses did do a detour through Babylonia and up to the Jordan-Syria border country. Why not? Makes as much sense as any other route.
      Whenever I see archaeoastronomy claims – and this “solstice lighting up a cave entrance” is an archaeoastronomy claim – I always want to know if the claimant properly accounted for 3500-odd years of precession of the equinoxes. Just basic “have you dotted your i’s” competence in the field.
      Is there actually a “this is my professional reputation and I stand by it” paper on this claim? There is no point reading journalism for this sort of detail because most of the time the journalists either don’t understand the actual science and leave it out, or don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their readers and leave it out.

  6. Was the cave carved by people? If so, is it old enough?
    Actually, any semi-isolated sun-lit face on a rocky crag, near sunset or sunrise, would stand out pretty obviously and inspire the imagination of credulous fools who had been out in the desert too long.

  7. I am confused by your reaction. The NYT isn’t touting the “bush” as a supernatural miracle, it’s touting a natural phenomenon that may have inspired the story in the Bible. This is a common approach to interpreting the Bible as a metaphor. Clearly no one who believes in the “cave” hypothesis is taking the story of the burning bush literally (unlike millions of Americans). In childhood I had a book which was explaining the Bible’s “miracles” through natural events. I believe its explanation for the burning bush was that some plants in the desert can spontaneously ignite in dry weather.

    1. Sorry, but people aren’t flocking to see the cave just because it might have inspired fiction; they think that the story of Moses conversing with God is true, and that the cave lighting might have been woven into that story. Yes, it could be metaphor, but people aren’t going to see a lit-up cave entrance unless it in some way buttresses the Bible. These people don’t think that Moses and Mt. Sinai are fictional, for crying out loud!

      Note how the NYT accepts the possibility that there might have been an Exodus of Jews in bondage, while nearly all historians reject it.

      1. Sure but no biblical literalist will be content to be fobbed off with a lit-up cave entrance as the burning bush from the Bible. And I see no problem with going to see a myth that was so crucial to the formation of our people. In London people go visit 221B Baker Street or platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross despite Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter being fictional.

        1. Okay, we differ, then. If you think those people are going to the cave thinking the entire Bible was a complete work of fiction, like Harry Potter, you’re badly mistaken. Can we stop this discussion now?

  8. The old germanic pagans believed this time of the year was a time when the veil to the afterlife, and its realms of spook were particularitly thin. Still today the Twelve Nights from Winter Solstice onwards are a time “between the years” and called the Rauhnächte (nights of smoke). These beliefs undergird pretty much all customs from Halloween to New Years’ Eve and still poke through today. Christians have tacked on their own customs, from Epiphany to Easter, but failed to replace the old ones.

    Winter Solstice was Yule, and a time of veneration of Odin. He is in my understanding a deity of thresholds, in whom the Romans recognised Hermes; a deity that can move between the worlds, and naturally watches over the passing of a year into a new one.

    The beginning of the new year was not universally fixed and the range was from Winter Solstice up until spring, i.e. Easter. The edges of that range are suspiciously the two thresholds of birth and death of Jesus, and his symbology is suspiciously a “new year” symbolism of another day, year, cycle, another opportunity, attempt, and so on, that is the superposition of various cycles into one another with the threshold to the next as an important moment (it became fixed with the reform of the calendar to our Gregorian, which sets solstice on December 25th, and New Years’ Eve onto the date of the death of Pope Sylvester in 335).

    Odin inherited his domain from the older veneration of Hulda, a female deity looking over a house of luxury for souls in the afterlife (she shows up in the folklore and Grimm’s fairytale of Frau Holle). Under Odin’s new management, the house became rather a drinking hall where the horns never dry of met. The task to guide the souls moved onto the Valkyries, who in some names and features are related versions of Hulda and Norns. They are said to ride over the sky following Winter Solstice. The ancient Greeks had a similar deity in Hekate, a triple deity associated likewise with crossing thresholds, and the fates. If you look into it, you find traces of the same folklore from Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” to Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and of course riding over the sky informed both the imagery of Santa Claus (a partially Odinesque character) and witches on their brooms (note, a household item).

    I could geek out forever about this, but what does it have to do with this topic? I hope its interesting, and seasonal, but also to show something: to keep the spook at bay during the twelve days between years, one had to light giant fires, make terrrible noise and smoke, leading to the name “nights of smoke”, which are now still the customs of scaring the pets, setting up firecrackers and fireworks.

    When I hear about Christian Winter Solstice, of burning and smoke rising, of talking to the god on a mountain at exactly that time, or even Jesus myths, I have to think of the obviously forged, and tacked on Christian customs, and how they continually embarass the Christian apologists.

  9. My Goodness, has even WEIT succumbed to populist science? No bushes over 3000 years old? Stone tablets eroding to pebbles in the same time a la Mt St Helens usage? /s

  10. I know it’s probably just my smutty teenage mind, but magical caves and (ahem!) bushes all sound a bit, well, vulva-ish to me.
    So was Yahweh originally a mother Goddess?
    🙂

  11. What I liked most about this post was presumably only a typo, to wit: “Many mountains have been the subject of this clam.” I am particularly fond of clams, and in younger days spent a good deal of time
    clamming on beaches of the NW, although rarely on a mountain.

    1. Amused by that typo because, on first reading PCC’s first line, some strange (atheistic?) form of dyslexia said to me that the NYTimes article “lobsters a claim.” Then the typo! Too much. Religion certainly poisons everything but this poison just produced hoots of laughter here.
      I also admit to having smutty teenage thoughts along the lines of neil at #11.

  12. This seems like a good opportunity to draw WEIT readers’ attention to Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s excellent book “God: An Anatomy”, in which she traces the origins of the deity of the Abrahamic religions as one of seventy “children” of a much father deity named El. It’s a fascinating study in which Professor Stavrakopoulou makes serious scholarship (this is her field of expertise) accessible to a general audience. She also has a wonderful sense of humour — as evidenced by the tweet that PCC(E) quoted — and it’s in the book too.

    1. This explains, among other things, a linguistic oddity that puzzled me starting in childhood. One of
      the standard terms for God in Hebrew is אלוהים (Elohim) , which is a plural form. The grammar alone implies the origin of monotheism growing out of multitheism.

      1. Yes, WEIT reader Dom is currently reading God: An Anatomy and was saying how good it is when he visited for New Year’s Eve.

    2. to draw WEIT readers’ attention to Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s excellent book “God: An Anatomy”

      Oh, I heard a couple of episodes of that book abridged on Radio 4 a few months ago. Maybe it’s still on iPlayer?
      Nope, it seems to have evaporated.
      The contents made less impression on me than the title. Something about how ideas of anatomy were reflected in how people imagined “God”. I filed it mentally next to “the angels dancing on a pin head – were they doing the Foxtrot or the Charleston?” There may well be historical scholarship to be done there, but I’ve got more interesting things to read (like – the volcanic history of the Sinai peninsula).

      1. There’s an amusing section about G*d’s feet giving his detailed instructions to the Israelites on how to bury their excrement bec “your G*d walks amongst you in your camp”.

  13. According to an unsourced claim in Wikipedia, “The Rastafari believe that the burning bush was cannabis” – which would explain a lot….!

  14. Religious people, meh. Their fear and terror at the fact that they, like all living things,are going to die and cease to exist drives them insane, hence they making up stories about sky-fairies that have super powers and will save them.

    1. And they had no pain or suffering until the day they were born, so why do they think that will happen when they go back to the place before they were born? Oh yeah, some “soul” thing…silly religionists. Religious faith is interesting but sad.

  15. There’s at least one “oil company” operating in Israel who assert that their exploration strategy is guided by passages in the Bible that might indicate seeps of hydrocarbons. This “burning bush” being high on the list of things they mention. At least, that’s how the present themselves to American Bible-Belt investors on their website. They also had a selection of other documents on their website describing tracking current and historical surface seeps, using conventional mapping to reconstruct basins’ sediment volumes and burial histories and other conventional basin-analytical hydrocarbon search techniques.
    The last time I had any contact with them (which was rolling around in their car park, helpless with mirth, when I recognised their name on a poky little industrial unit ; I was on the way back home from a major discovery that substantially changed Israel’s energy budget and the taxi driver had a parcel to drop off), they still hadn’t found anything commercially significant. But that’s exactly average for an aspiring oil company.

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