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.

For Bible Week: MSN News claims that bits of the Bible are scientifically true

November 24, 2021 • 10:00 am

It’s National Bible Week, which extends from Nov. 21 through the 27th. (Started by Franklin D. Roosevelt, it always occurs the week of Thanksgiving.)

Reader Ginger K. pointed out that the amusing bit of hokum below, honoring Bible week by celebrating the world’s best-selling work of fiction, appeared on the MSN “lifestyle” site in its entirety. And it was taken from the Stars Insider site, a celebrity and entertainment “news” venue.

Being on MSN News brings it a lot of attention, as that site is touted as “the world’s #1 desktop news servic , reaching over 500M users every month in 180 countries and 31 languages across MSNBing NewsMicrosoft Edge, Microsoft Launcher, the Windows lock screen, apps for Windows, iOS, and Android, and popular third-party mobile OEMs, mobile carriers, and browsers”.  MSN News is also the #2 news and media website in the U.S.—the 31st most popular among all websites in the U.S. That means that this craziness reaches a lot of people.

Click on the screenshot to read.  The Intro first:

Like any other religious texts in history, the Bible is open to interpretation and it’s not confirmed by science to be factually accurate in every account. This, however, is not the case for every bit of text in the best-selling book of all time. In fact, some of these verses have been proved by science to be true.

Intrigued? Click through the following gallery and discover the parts of the Bible that have been confirmed by science.

Okay, let’s see which parts science has confirmed.

The quotes from the piece are indented. There are 23 of these; I’ll just pick ten or so.

1.) Earth is round 

While some conspiracy theories might say otherwise, science has confirmed the shape of our planet as round. This is also mentioned in the Bible: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22).

Are you starting to note that what “science confirms” might be a wonky interpretation of Scripture? I interpret this to mean that the Earth is either a torus (doughnut) or a disk. A circle is not a sphere. Let’s move on:

2.) The great flood likely happened 

The Great Flood and Noah’s Ark is one of the most popular stories of the Bible. And according to geological evidence, the Noachian flood might have actually happened.

Short answer: no, it didn’t. There may have been local floods, even big ones, but no flood that drowned humanity and all the Earth’s creatures.

3.) The ark would have worked 

According to Genesis 6:13-22, God’s instructions to Noah were as follows: “The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.”

It couldn’t have worked for a gazillion reasons, and you could figure some out yourself. A wooden boat that large without metal would be unstable. How did the animals get to the Ark? Where did they house all the animals? What about giraffes and dinosaurs? What did they feed them? What did they do with the poop? How did the marsupials get from Mount Ararat to Australia? And so on. . . .

The best analysis of why the Ark couldn’t work is found on the National Center for Science Education’s website (click on screenshot); the article is pretty funny, too:

4). The universe is made of invisible particles 

Hebrews 11:3 reads: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”

Umm. . . the interpretation of this is dead easy, and doesn’t at all imply atoms. It states clearly that God created the Earth from nothing. But a “Universe from nothing may be true from physics”, too, if you accept Krauss’s argument that “nothing” is unstable and particles could spontaneously arise from a quantum vacuum. But even if you don’t buy that, the assertion in Hebrews 11 doesn’t say anything about invisible particles.

5.) David could have actually defeated Goliath 

A slingshot might not be the most powerful weapon, but the stones from Elah Valley were made of barium sulphate, which is extremely dense and these would have easily hurt Goliath.

Note that now they’re arguing that science suggests that parts of the Bible could be true in principle, not necessarily true in reality. For what is the evidence for David and Goliath, who, according to the Bible, was 6 feet nine inches tall?  I couldn’t find out much about the geology of the Elah Valley, but I seriously doubt that all the stones there are made from barium sulphate.

But wait, there’s more here!

David could have actually defeated Goliath 

But there’s more. Being a giant, Goliath likely suffered from acromegaly (overproduction of growth hormone). This can cause problems with vision, and peripheral vision can be limited, which would have been handy for David.

Jebus, but these people are really stretching things here. Maybe Goliath had acromegaly (unlikely given that he was a warrior and given he existed, for which we have no evidence), and it’s more likely that Goliath was facing David, not looking to the side.

6.) The Sun actually stopped moving 

Because an eclipsed occurred. Joshua 10:12 reads: “On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.'”


The Sun actually stopped moving 

This was most likely an eclipse, which researchers have dated back to October 30, 1207 BCE.

First of all, the Sun is always moving, rotating slowly around the center of the Milky Way. And it doesn’t stop moving during a solar eclipse, though the page with this “prediction” shows a solar eclipse.

7.) Creatures can’t live without blood 

Most of us are familiar with the Adam and Eve story of the Bible. Humans have, in fact, a female biological ancestor called Mitochondrial Eve, which precedes our species (Homo sapiens). There is, however, one thing that connects all us living creatures: blood.

Everything about this claim is wrong. First, not every animal has blood, for example flatworms, nematodes, and cnidarians (jellyfish and their relatives). This is also true of protozoans. Second, “Mitochondrial Eve” did not precede our species. This maternal ancestor of all present-day humans lived about 150,000 years ago, well after Homo sapiens arose in Africa around 300,000 years ago.

But wait! There’s more!

Creatures can’t live without blood 

“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Leviticus 17:11).

God apparently didn’t know about flatworms and jellyfish.

8.) Sanitizing is really important 

Leviticus 11:28, for instance, says: “Anyone who picks up their carcasses must wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening. These animals are unclean for you.”

What about your HANDS? But if you read two verses earlier, “cleanliness” refers to which animals are considered by God to be off limits, not decaying animals that carry germs (unknown in Biblical times):

Leviticus 11:26-27:

The carcass of any animal which divides the foot, but is not cloven-hoofed or does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Everyone who touches it shall be unclean.

And whatever goes on its paws, among all kinds of animals that go on all fours, those are unclean to you. Whoever touches any such carcass shall be unclean until evening.


This all reminds me of the old version of “scientific creationism”, in which the facts of science were supposed to confirm the creation stories of Genesis.  Muslims, too, sometimes use wildly misinterpreted passages of the Qur’an to vouch for its scientific truth as well as its history (see discussion in Faith Versus Fact.).

Finally, what about all the parts of the Bible that science does not support at all but refutes: an instantaneous creation, simultaneous existence of Adam and Eve as our original ancestors, the slavery in Egypt and Jews wandering about in the desert for four decades, and the Census of Quirinius, which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. I could go on and on, but if you’re going to imply that the Bible is true because bits of it are true (and yes, some of the historical figures existed), you have, as Hitchens said, “all your work before you.” That’s because for every bit that’s true, there’s two bits that have been shown to be false.

Salon deletes an article pointing out that the Bible is not divinely inspired or written, and is full of flaws as well

February 9, 2018 • 11:30 am

The name Valerie Tarico rings a bell with me; I suspect I’ve heard her name around secular or atheist meetings. And yes, her website confirms that she’s a secularist:

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She completed her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Iowa and postdoctoral studies at the University of Washington. . . .

As a writer Valerie tackles the intersection between religious belief, psychology and politics, with a growing focus on women’s issues and contraceptive technologies that she thinks are upstream game changers for a broad range of challenges that humanity faces.

Valerie is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, and Deas and Other Imaginings: 10 Spiritual Folktales for Children. She currently writes for the Alternet, and occasionally for Huffington Post and Truthout.

According to the Daily Wire, Tarico wrote an article for Salon called “Why is the Bible so badly written?”, and, after it was up for a while, there was sufficient pushback from readers that the piece was pulled. Here’s the evidence from Twitter, plus you can see the vestigial remnants of the piece on this page, with its URL and title remaining. Otherwise, the page is blank.

Why was the article pulled? Well, it’s still up on Alternet in what appears to be its original form (I’ve also archived it here), and I’m not sure why it didn’t meet Salon’s abysmally low “editorial standards”. There are parts of it that aren’t written particularly well, but they’re no worse than the fare you usually get at Salon.

No, the article was pulled because it points out something that every rational person knows: the Bible is a human-made document; contradicts itself (e.g., the conflicting two creation stories as well as the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection); is subject to translation errors (e.g, Mary being a “virgin”); is poorly written and tedious (something I’ve always maintained, contra Dawkins; and was cobbled together over hundreds of years, with the Gospels that we have being a selection from a greater number.

Her most damning accusation is that there’s no evidence that the Bible was dictated by God (or written by Moses et al.). Her argument that God would have produced more beautiful language is a bit weak, but this part, a version of Carl Sagan’s critique, is telling:

 As a modern person reading the Bible, one can’t help but think about how the pages might have been better filled. Could none of this have been pared away? Couldn’t the writers have made room instead for a few short sentences that might have changed history: Wash your hands after you poop.Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to.Witchcraft isn’t real. Slavery is forbiddenWe are all God’s chosen people.

At the end, Tarico made a fatal mistake: she compares the Bible to her friend’s collection of pigs, which, like my own collection of penguins, was a grab-bag of various effigies given by friends and acquired at thrift shops.  As she says, “The texts of the Bible are a bit of a pig collection.”  Oy! Pigs!  She should have used another simile, for that one—and the rest of the article—brought out the termites. Here are a few objections reproduced by The Daily Wire:

It goes on.  Have a look at Tarico’s piece, which would surely be enlightening to Biblical literalists with an open mind (is that an oxymoron?) who didn’t know the evidence for its human origins. Tarico’s is not the greatest piece in the world, but it’s no worse than most of the stuff on Salon (and is better than some); but it was apparently deep-sixed because it criticized the Holy Bible.

Salon, of course, has a deep history of damning atheists (including indicting us for sexual malfeasance), going after Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and so on. It’s no surprise that they’d excise an article revealing that the Bible isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

The only issue is why The Daily Wire revealed this. The site is a right-wing venue run by an orthodox Jew, Ben Shapiro. The editors are surely sympathetic to at least the Old Testament, but Tarico goes after that, too. All of their articles have an ideological agenda, and I suspect that what they’re doing is simply gloating about Salon having removed Tarico’s piece.

More tinder: Bart Ehrman’s speech on Jesus at the FFRF regional convention

September 7, 2014 • 10:49 am

At the regional Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) convention in Raleigh, North Carolina in early May, Bart Ehrman received the Emperor Has No Clothes Award for plain speaking about religion, one of which resides in my office as well. I was thus especially interested to see what he said in his acceptance speech, as I am not completely down with his views on atheism and agnosticism, or with his almost cocky assurance that there was a historical figure on which the myth of a divine Jesus was based.

And, sure enough, in the talk below, which is largely about his new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, I was intermittently peeved.  In general, the talk was good, and I like hearing from an “agnostic” Biblical scholar who can tell us his view on how historical and psychological forces turned a renegade preacher into a God figure. But Ehrman also seemed he seemed a bit preening and arrogant in the talk, seeing himself as someone superior to both the religious and the atheists. And the last bit of the talk, in the Q&A, will certainly re-ignite our debate about Jesus’s historicity. (After this I’m not going to post on that for a while.)

Here’s the hourlong talk and Q&A:

And here are a few of my impressionistic notes:

One of the bits that bothered me (and perhaps I’m being overly petulant) is Ehrman’s distinction between “agnostics” and “atheists,” with the former saying they don’t know, while the latter say they don’t believe. Since Ehrman claims that he neither believes nor knows, but prefers to see himself as a “scholar emphasizing knowledge”, he says he’s an “agnostic.”  I wonder if he’s also an agnostic about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or the Tooth Fairy. From what he says, I suspect he has as little belief in a God or a divine Jesus as he does in Nessie. But I doubt that Ehrman would call himself an agnostic about Nessie.

I also suspect his self-characterization is also a bit self-serving, because saying he’s an “atheist” would alienate much of his constituency: those who buy his books, many of whom are believers. “Agnostic” is a far safer term.  But in fact, all scientists are agnostic about all knowledge if you take Ehrman’s “scholarly” tack seriously.  I would have to say, for instance, that I’m an agnostic about evolution, because I don’t know it’s true with absolute certainty. But I’m as certain that evolution is true as I am that there’s no God. (NOTE TO CREATIONISTS: those who take the next-to-last sentence out of context to imply that I have serious doubts about evolution, read this comment below.)

Ehrman clearly accepts the existence of historical Jesus, but says he didn’t think Jesus thought he was God because neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke say that. The Jesus-as-God part was added by John, and Ehrman argues that Jesus would have been stunned to hear that he was God.

Ehrman further notes that “Faith is not a matter of smarts,” for “smart people” (his wife is an example) can be religious. He sees only fundamentalists as stupid, and decries both religious and atheistic fundamentalists, the latter apparently on the grounds that they “don’t have enough ‘mental'” and are harsh and overbearing.  Here Ehrman shows signs of the xkcd Syndrome. So Ehrman rejects fundamentalists, but, as I always say, every believer is a fundamentalist (or a literalist) about something. Why reject Genesis but accept the Resurrection? Is that a lot better than buying the whole hog?

Ehrman repeatedly says throughout his talk that he is not trying to convert people to nonbelief, but merely to educate them so they can have a basis for deciding what they believe or don’t. That’s fine, but he says it so often that he starts sounding smug and arrogant.  Ironically, he then takes it upon himself to tell people how to sway believers toward nonbelief: you do it not by using “hate or harsh, browbeating rhetoric,” but through love. Apparently we atheists always use hate. But Ehrman’s advice on how to convert the faithful conflicts with his claim that  “If we don’t want religion forced on us, then we should not cynically or hypocritically force our atheism on others.” I don’t quite get that, for if we think (as does Ehrman) that religion does bad stuff, what’s wrong with trying to eradicate it? Granted, I wouldn’t require or ask others to do so, but I think that doing so effectively is a good thing for this world.

Finally, Ehrman raises the old idea that nonbelievers won’t make headway unless we “replace the good that religion does in the world” with some secular alternative. He asserts that a leading goal of humanist organizations should be to provide the same social goods as does religion.

What he doesn’t seem to realize is that these statements completely undercut the very organization, the FFRF, that is giving him this award. While the FFRF does try to keep religion out of the public sphere, there’s no doubt that it works actively against religion, what with its many atheist billboards and “you-can-be-good-without-God” campaigns. And the FFRF is not, in general, in the business of providing secular alternatives to religion.

The first listener’s question, at 51:15, is about the existence of a historical Jesus. Ehrman says this is “an issue for scholars of antiquity”. Hie evidence for Jesus in the talk is simply that no such scholars doubt that a historical Jesus existed. He admits that that is not really evidence, but says that there is plenty of evidence in his books for a Jesus-figure, and if you want to claim otherwise, you have to muster some “evidence.” I would have thought that what we need to do to doubt Jesus’s existence is emphasize the lack of evidence, and critically examine the evidence that is offered. And that in fact is what the “mythicists” are doing.

Ehrman claims, and I quote, the evidence for a historical Jesus is “abundantly attested in early and independent sources.” He says (and I’m not sure who he’s referring to) “One author knew Jesus’s brother and his closest disciple Peter.” I am not sure what the “independent sources” are, but as far as I know there are not abundant and independent sources. Finally, Ehrman ticked me off by saying, “Atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism. . . It makes you look foolish to the outside world.”

Too bloody bad! What we want is evidence for a historical Jesus, and we suspect that many Biblical scholars tout a historical Jesus because to question that would deeply offend many believers, even if we didn’t see Jesus as divine. I haven’t come down completely on one side or the other, but I must say that I don’t see the “abundant and independent sources” that Ehrman claims.  Until I do, I will continue to be a historical-Jesus agnostic, and if that makes me look foolish, so be it. There’s been no smoking gun for me supporting a historical Jesus, unlike the genuinely abundant and independent evidence for someone like Julius Caesar.

Finally, Ehrman did a short interview during the convention, which I present below but haven’t had time to watch. The notes on YouTube say this:

Bart provided Scott Burdick an opportunity for a short interview about his personal beliefs and religious experiences. Recorded at the FFRF (Freedom From Religion’s) Raleigh Regional Convention 2014 conference held in the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel, Raleigh N.C. on May 2-3, 2014. The interview will be part of FFRF and the Dawkins Foundation’s Openly Secular coalition campaign. Presented by Triangle Freethought Society.