The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Top Ten: Burning Bush

June 25th, 2007 · No Comments · history

Now was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. — Exodus 3:1-6


  1. Flammable Sap
  2. The volatile oils produced by the Dictamnus albus, also known as “Burning bush”, have been known to spontaneously combust in hot weather. Unlike the Biblical account, these do not remain unburnt, but are, in fact, consumed in the flames.

  3. Lava fountain
  4. I suspect this is most unlikely simply because of the lack of active volcanoes in the region, but the idea that the ‘burning bush’ was some kind of persistent lava fountain makes for an awesome sight.

  5. Thermal vent (with noxious fumes!)
  6. A la Delphi, maybe a thermal vent below a bush looked like flames, or perhaps the exhaust sparked a flame. Maybe the fumes added to the effect?

  7. Meteorite
  8. The explosive debris and cloud field of a meteorite hitting the top of a mountain may resemble a bush, or could be described that way. Perhaps the encounter revealed uranium or lava, or a thermal vent.

  9. Aurora Borealis
  10. From a bit of a distance, maybe from below, a bush might look like it was on fire if the aurora just happened to appear. It would be a very rare thing and darkness plays tricks on depth perception. Maybe it helps if your eyes are bad.

  11. Surface petroleum
  12. This is something that does appear naturally in the Arabian desert, so what if there was a bush growing over a lighted pool of surface petroleum? Or perhaps a sacramental bush was coated in the goo so that it would provide taller flames. It’s difficult to imagine how this would have been effective without some foresight.

  13. Exposed uranium
  14. My favorite speculation is that what Moses found on the top of the mountain was a seriously radioactive bush — glowing! At the very least, he discovers an exposed chunk of glowing, radioactive material and carts it down. Maybe some or all of it goes into the golden calf. Perhaps this is why Moses is later described as disfigured, retiring, and sensitive to light. If the Ark was really some kind of uranium-powered radiation ray, then aiming it at their enemies may actually have been more than simple superstition.

  15. Hallucinogenic berries
  16. This isn’t entirely unlikely, but it’s just slightly more photogenic than simple heat exhaustion, which seems a more likely candidate.

  17. Kabbalistic Imagery
  18. As a literary rationale, I could do a lot worse than this. The letters of scriptural Hebrew are sometimes referred to as being in a flaming script, and a diagram of the Tree of Life, especially in the earliest forms, looks very much like a flaming bush. In this way, the story becomes instructive for those who wish to contact deity.

  19. World Tree
  20. In a further stretch, this may have been a reference to a ‘World Tree’ or axis mundi. There’s value to this theory in that many of the Moses tales were likely appropriated from heroes of other local cultures — why not this, too?

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