Media: Just say no ... to Moses

friberg mosesandburningbushIt usually happens during Holy Week each year -- a new rash of media pieces attempting to undermine miraculous stories about Jesus and his life. Some of them have been very bad, but the media find it difficult to miss this annual rite of passage. Well, it's not Holy Week yet and it's not Jesus, but this year the media are engaged in a special Torah-era debunking. I'll let our good friends at Agence France-Press explain:

High on Mount Sinai, Moses was on psychedelic drugs when he heard God deliver the Ten Commandments, an Israeli researcher claimed in a study published this week.

Now, AFP doesn't exactly have the best reputation in mainstream media, but they're not alone in this story. The British papers as well as Reuters and MSNBC have already jumped on the story.

I just find it so interesting that the mainstream media always have so much time and resources to devote to these stories. But maybe there's something to this story. Let's hear the Israeli researcher -- a cognitive psychologist, of all things -- out. Benny Shanon of Hebrew University says the acacia tree mentioned in the Bible contains one of the most psychedelic substances known to man:

The professor, who came up with his theory after experiencing firsthand the effects of a hallucinogenic brew used in religious rituals in Brazil, said the story of Moses and the burning bush also had the hallmarks of a psychedelic experience.

The account in the Book of Exodus of the bush's ability to burn without being "consumed" is generally attributed to the presence and power of God.

But to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Professor Shanon, who freely admits to having experimented with mind-bending substance "about 160 times in various locales in contexts", it is evidence of the power of drugs.

So I guess there's no need to make a joke about his thesis having been developed while he was high. And yes, in case you were wondering, the hallucinogenic brew referenced is none other than ayahuasca! Anyway, Shanon also noted that drug-induced visions included a loss of sense of time, seeing bright lights or fire, the blurring of the senses and profound religious and spiritual feelings.

The thing I find so interesting about these stories is that they rarely do anything more than raise the question. Very few of these accounts include any substantive critique from Biblical scholars or even other cognitive psychologists or botanists. crossing the red sea Now I don't expect Christians and Jews to start any riots or anything, but it might be interesting if they had the opportunity to ask a few questions. If God wasn't involved in what happened at Mt. Sinai, how did the drug hallucinations create tablets with the Ten Commandments carved in stone? And for nothing more than drug-induced hallucinations, those Ten Commandments have staying power, don't they!

It reminds me of a story I heard about a Sunday School teacher explaining to her class that the miracle of Moses parting the Red Sea wasn't really that miraculous. It turns out, she explained, that a better translation for the body of water crossed by Moses and the Hebrews fleeing persecution in Egypt would have been Sea of Reeds, so called because it was a shallow body of water that wasn't even deep enough to obscure reeds growing up.

"That's amazing!" responded one of her young charges. She explained that actually it wasn't amazing -- crossing such a shallow body of water wouldn't be that difficult and didn't require any miraculous parting of the water. "Wow! That's the most amazing thing I've ever heard!" the child insisted. Exasperated, the teacher asked the boy how it was amazing that Moses led his people across this shallow pond. "It's amazing that Pharaoh's entire army drowned in a body of water so easy to cross!"

The point of this story is that so many of these debunking stories are presented uncritically. No one is brought in to ask all of the obvious follow-up questions. And it's getting somewhat tiresome.

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