6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'

Biblical miracles can be explained with (wildly unlikely, but still technically possible) science.
6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'

Last year, we sat down with the Bible -- not to learn how to be better (or indeed, even slightly less terrible) people, but rather to see if any of the miraculous events in its pages could be explained by good ol' buzzkilling science. There was no shortage of material. The Bible is full of insane anecdotes, like your friend who's always telling big fish stories (though none as big as the time that Jesus fella turned two fish into like a million fish). It's hard to believe that friend after a while, but it's even more incredible when one of their insane stories turns out to be plausible, after a fashion. Here are six more biblical miracles that could be explained with (wildly unlikely, but still technically possible) science.

Manna From Heaven Was Probably Beetle Cocoons

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'
James Tissot

Wandering the desert can be a real pain in the ass, especially when you have a bunch of furious Egyptians chasing you on horseback and you're running on an empty stomach. None of that is recommended in any of our hiking guides. God, in his mercy, decided to address the latter complaint, and served up a heaping helping of manna: a sweet, edible substance described as "a fine, flake-like thing" which rained down daily from heaven and served to sustain the Israelites during their long journey in the desert.

Hendrick de Clerck

"Well, I prayed for falafel, but close enough, I guess."

The Non-Miraculous Explanation:

Manna was less likely some sort of floating baklava and more likely trehalose -- a naturally occurring, sweet, edible crystalline carbohydrate that's created by a whole slew of organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, plants, and a parasitic beetle called Trehala manna (named after the Biblical manna). These beetles are found in Middle East, and their cocoons are highly nutritious, containing both carbs and protein (and a little bit of love!). In fact, this so-called manna is readily available in deserts even today, and is used by the Bedouin as a sweetener. Sure, the reality of it doesn't change the fact that it saved the Israelites. We're just saying you should picture it less like an arid Willy Wonka reboot and more like an extended episode of Man vs. Wild.

The Burning Bush Might Have Been An Acacia Bush Sitting Over A Volcanic Vent

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'
Gebhard Fugel

According to Exodus 3, Moses saw a bush on Mount Sinai that was on fire, but didn't burn up. Yeah, that's why he was up there for so long and came back smelling like smoke. The bush also proclaimed that Moses was destined to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, with the full authority of Heaven behind him. Ugh, don't you hate when shrubbery gives you tasks?

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'
Sebastien Bourdon

"Moses! This is God! Take out the garbage! Bring me a burrito! Walk the dog! Moses! No cilantro!"

Moses descended the mountain to tell everyone "There was a bush on fire that made some great points!" and it somehow worked.

The Non-Miraculous Explanation:

Know what else burns forever without disintegrating? Charcoal! Not your average Kingsford bag (half-used from last summer, in the shed, full of earwigs), but a more exotic, naturally occurring kind of fuel. The burning bush may well have been a bunch of acacia plants, which are known for making great charcoal. In all probability, the framework of the bush stayed in place, making it seem like it was burning endlessly.

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'
wikimedia/Mark Marathon

"Moses! Do ... do 20 jumping jacks! I don't know! I'm running out of tasks! Moses! Shave the cat!"

Why did it spontaneously burst into flame in the first place? Well, scholars have long claimed that Mount Sinai (Moses' favorite hideout) was an active volcano back in the day, which is generally a pretty flammable place. Is the idea of an acacia bush sitting on the mouth of a volcanic vent that far-fetched?

As far as how the bush was able to verbally introduce itself, Benny Shanon, a researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, posits that there are two plants near Sinai -- including our friend the acacia -- that have the same psychoactive molecules as ayahuasca, which is known to produce overwhelming religious experiences, like hearing voices and meeting God. Yep, that's right: Moses was maybe just high. Look who's surprised! It's our good friend, Nobody.

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'

When he finally came down, we guess Moses doubled down and rolled with it.

The Star Of Bethlehem Was Probably A Triple Planetary Conjunction

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'

We all know the story of the first Christmas. Jesus' birth was announced by angels and attended by three wise men, while a bunch of farm animals kind of chilled on the periphery, all thanks to a magical star that acted as the GPS pointing to our newborn king.

The Non-Miraculous Explanation:

The Three Wise Men were more than scholars. They were also astrologers, who would be expected to interpret a rare astronomical event as some sort of significant omen. In 6-7 BCE, there were three separate conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn. This means that the two planets lined up with Earth and the Sun on three separate occasions. This would have looked like a single large, bright star in the sky (much like 2015's Venus-Jupiter conjunction), and all three together would portend something major.

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'

If only Neil deGrasse Tyson was around back then.

As for how the star "led them" to Jesus, the Star of Bethlehem was most likely the collective name for three different conjunctions taken together. The Magi likely saw the first conjunction from their homeland in Babylon, then left for Jerusalem to tell King Herod that a competing king was on his way, only to see the second conjunction there, then another when they were arriving in Bethlehem. So rather than following a roving, mysterious star to see where it led them, the Magi were probably seeing the same remarkable event occurring over and over in different places.

It's also possible that the phenomenon was a nova. There were reports of one in the Far East in 4 BCE that could have happened right over Jerusalem. Some also claim that it could have been a comet, and there were a few around during that time, but comets are usually interpreted as portents of doom, not bitchin' new holidays on which you wake up early to unwrap a fire truck.

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'

The Reversal Of Hezekiah's Sundial May Have Been Down To Overcast Skies And Refraction

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'
Matthaeus Merian the Elder

King Hezekiah needed the prophet Isaiah to prove to him that God would heal his sickness and help him fight off an enemy army. Instead of being all, "Oh, you want to speak to my manager? Well I am the manager," Isaiah simply asked the Almighty to oblige. And instead of turning Hezekiah into a pillar of salt or threatening to kill his only son, or any of the other awful things that happen to people who have issues acknowledging God's power, God was like "That's literally no problem. I am happy to help," and obliged by sending the Sun's shadow back ten steps. It was crazy.

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'
via Bible Walk

"No way!"

The Non-Miraculous Explanation:

Sundials work not on the basis of the sun's position, but that of the brightest point in the sky. Usually, the brightest point in the sky is the Sun, but there are exceptions. On an overcast day when the sun is hidden behind clouds, the brightest point in the sky is not the area directly behind the cloud where the sun is but the edge of the cloud, because that's where the light can get through. So it's quite possible that a sudden onset of clouds while the Sun was heading toward the horizon caused the shadow on the sundial to move backwards temporarily, since the light could only peek past the back half of the cloud.

On witnessing the shadow turn backwards, Isaiah and the gang probably fell to their knees crying, "Praise the Lord!" when they really should've looked down over their nerd glasses and said something like, "It appears we are observing a meteorological phenomenon wherein the clouds move toward the hori-" and then the king would have totally tuned the rest out.

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'

"You know what? Have your fun."

"Fire From Heaven" Might Have Been Anvil Lightning

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'

The prophet Elijah called upon God to burn the offerings he had set on an altar atop Mount Carmel, which God did by sending "fire from heaven." God did this not just because he was a jerk and thought the offerings were dumb, but also to prove his own glory in the face of the false deity Baal. Because even God knows that nothing is worth doing unless it's in somebody's face. Elijah's feat was made even more difficult when he insisted on having twelve pails of water poured on the offerings first. Afterward, a tiny cloud appeared on the far horizon, and much later, it began to rain.

The Non-Miraculous Explanation:

Let's get the easy bit out of the way first: Fire from heaven probably definitely refers to lightning. The real question is, how on earth can lightning hit out of a clear sky?

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'
Marvel Studios


Well, there's a perfectly sound meteorological explanation, and it's not even an uncommon occurrence. Bolts from the blue, also known as anvil lightning, are a natural phenomenon wherein lightning travels huge horizontal distances from its origin point, thereby appearing to come out of a clear sky. Instead of negative lightning, which accounts for 95 percent of all strikes, anvil lightning is a positive bolt which generates from the top of a cloud, causing it to travel horizontally for miles, gathering more charge and speed along the way. In some instances, lightning bolts traveled an insane 25 miles from their place of origin, as this poor unlucky girl discovered one bright, sunny day.

And sure enough, the biblical account backs it up by stating that a tiny cloud appeared over the horizon soon after the incident, which eventually led to rain.

And when it's lightning we're talking about, pouring gallons of water on the offerings wouldn't make them harder to burn; it would actually make the task easier, as the water would turn otherwise bad conductors of electricity (wood, stone, other cheapo offering materials) into good conductors (i.e. a wet pile of stuff).

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'

Kinda like the reason you don't do this in the shower.

Combine all that with the fact that this took place on the highest point around, the top of Mount Carmel -- which is still known today for its whimsical weather which leads to violent and sudden thunderstorms out of nowhere -- and suddenly this "miracle of God" seems much more reasonable. Of course, there's still the matter of Elijah commanding the lightning to strike on cue, but we're not here to explain that part. We're here to explain the easy part, and then duck out before the harder followup questions.

Moses' Parting Of The Red Sea Might Be Possible With Strong Winds

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'
Nicolas Poussin

With a staff, some wind, and a little help from his brother Aaron, one socially awkward stutterer managed to command the tides aside and bring an entire race of people into the Promised Land. Well, first they wandered for 40 years, but hey -- better than being enslaved!

The Non-Miraculous Explanation:

In 2010, scientists carried out a whole bunch of elaborate computer simulations and found that the fleeing Hebrews could have benefited from a freak natural occurrence wherein strong, sustained winds over a stretch of the Red Sea at the right location could have momentarily caused the water to bend backwards and expose a land bridge that could be crossed on foot, thus allowing the Israelites to flee.

Another similar argument is that the stretch of water in question was shallow and covered an underlying reef that could have been exposed by strong, but not impossible, winds of around 67 miles per hour.

6 Scientific Explanations For Famous Bible 'Miracles'
Marten Pepyn

The "Moses was gassy" theory failed to gain mainstream support.

Of course, the more astute among you have noticed we once again run into the Elijah problem, where we've answered how it could have been possible, while completely ignoring the larger theological question of whether or not these things truly happened, much less if there was an intelligent God behind them guiding the wind, lightning, manna, and other natural phenomenon. Good on you for noticing! You're so observant! We have a great answer prepared, and it's--

Oh hey, what's that over there just behind you?

Which Sci-Fi Trope Would You Bring To The Real World, And Why? Every summer, we're treated to the same buffet of three or four science fiction movies with the same basic conceits. There's man vs. aliens, man vs. robots, man vs. army of clones, and man vs. complicated time travel rules. With virtual reality and self-driving cars fast approaching, it's time to consider what type of sci-fi movie we want to be living in for the rest of our lives. Co-hosts Jack O'Brien and Adam Tod Brown are joined by Cracked's Tom Reimann and Josh Sargent and comedians David Huntsberger, Adam Newman, and Caitlin Gill to figure out which sci-fi trope would be the best to make a reality. Get your tickets to this live podcast here!

For more concepts science is just being such a drag about, check out 5 Weirdly Satisfying Scientific Explanations For Superpowers and 15 Famous 'Paranormal' Photos (Explained By Science).

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