I’m pleased to publish this Platinum Guest Post by Doug Wadeson, long time platinum members, retired physician, and, ergo, expert on, well, drugs. Now *here’s* a topic we haven’t addressed on the blog before! What do you think?
Moses is clearly one of the most significant figures in the Bible. Most people know that he is the one who received the Ten Commandments directly from God while up on Mount Sinai, even if they only know it from watching Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses. I am going to assume you know the Moses story and that his first encounter with God (Yahweh) was while living as a shepherd among the Midianites. While tending his sheep on Mt. Sinai (aka Horeb) he sees a burning bush and God speaks to him from the bush and gives him his mission to free the Hebrew people from Egypt. To the faithful this is a literal description of a historical event. However, it is possible this story is legendary and incorporates the kind of “religious” experiences known in the ancient world that were facilitated by psychoactive drugs.
Let’s look at the story as told in Exodus 3. On the mountain Moses sees “the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not being consumed.” Moses hears God’s voice from the bush, giving him a great mission to perform. Moses is cautious, or scared, so God gives him some demonstrations of what he can do. First, Moses’ shepherd staff turns into a snake, and then back into a staff. Next Moses puts his hand inside his robe and when he takes it out it is white with leprosy. He puts it back into the robe and it comes out normal again. Eventually Moses is convinced to proceed with God’s plan.
What most people totally overlook when reading this story (or seeing it on film) is that it contains the classic attributes of a drug trip. When Moses was high on Mt. Sinai, was he literally “high?” Consider the elements of the story:
- There is a perception of bright light, in the form of the burning bush, which might represent the heightening of senses common with drug use, or dilation of the pupils.
- There is a distortion of time perception, as the bush keeps burning without being consumed.
- His staff appears to turn into a snake. Hallucinations involving wavy or wriggling images (worms, snakes) are common during drug trips (or delirium). If accompanied by the sensation of crawling on the skin it is called formication.
- His hand turns white. Altered perception of body parts (and other things) is another common effect seen during drug use.
- Profound religious or spiritual feelings. In this case Moses feels like he is talking with God Himself, and is given a special purpose, a grandiose one. Some drugs (e.g., MDMA or “ecstasy”) are particularly noted for this effect, whether it be communing with God, or the world, or the universe.
Am I suggesting that Moses was simply experiencing a drug trip on Mt. Sinai? Not really. Historians question if there even was a Moses, or if he was a legendary creation developed later to serve as the authoritative lawgiver for the Israelite people. Rather I am suggesting that the details of the story may have originated with the experiences ancient people had with various drugs. This is not my original idea. Many scholars have looked into this. One of them is psychology professor Benny Shanon of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has written extensively on this and other aspects of drug use in religious experience. A more recent effort to explore drug use in ancient religion is the book The Immortality Key by Brian Muraresku. I mention such scholars to suggest this is not an outlying crazy idea, but it is given serious consideration.
Most Christians are probably offended by the idea that Bible stories could be inspired by drug use, but drug use was very common in ancient religions. It is possible that drug use was in fact the origin of many religious experiences and rituals that led to the religions we know today. Native Americans have used peyote and mushrooms in religious ceremonies for over two millennia. In the Olmec civilization in Central America priests were buried with toads known to contain psychoactive secretions. There are cave paintings at Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria thought to be over 6,000 years old that appear to be showing shamans (medicine men) holding potentially hallucinogenic mushrooms during their rituals. Some ancient Greeks used alcohol in their religious rites, particularly the cult of Dionysus, the god of both wine and religious ecstasy. The Oracle at Delphi may have entered her trances with the aid of petrochemical fumes. Hindu mystics continue to use cannabis (marijuana) as a spiritual aid, and the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, speak of a drug called soma which was used in religious rituals. In the Middle East cannabis and its derivative hashish were used. Eight-thousand year-old hardened Sumerian clay-tablets contain the earliest prescriptions of opium. The Pazyryk burials are Scythian Iron Age tombs in Siberia in which the dead were buried with cannabis (marijuana) seeds. Pacific islanders used kava in their ceremonies. So, essentially every area of the world used psychoactive substances in their ancient religious rites. That should not be surprising, given that drugs create sensations and perceptions that might lead one to think they have entered a spiritual dimension or are communing with heavenly beings and are having mystical experiences. But not in the Bible, right?! Not in the Judeo-Christian tradition!
There is more in the Bible than the burning bush episode. Acacia wood is mentioned numerous times in the Bible and the shrub is known to have psychoactive properties. Perhaps the burning bush was in fact acacia wood putting off psychedelic fumes? Perhaps it is no coincidence that the altar used for burning incense in the tabernacle, and later the temple, was supposed to be made specifically out of acacia wood (Exodus 30:1). When you combine drugs you get a greater effect, and what kind of incense was to be burned on this altar of acacia wood? There is a recipe given for incense to be burned in the tabernacle.
Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty… Exodus 30:23
“Fragrant cane” in the Hebrew is “qaneh besem,” and it is perhaps not a coincidence that the phrase sounds like the word, “cannabis.” No wonder the priests thought they were communing with God in the temple! They were as high as kites! And of course, there was a strict law that only priests could burn this incense. Talk about keeping a good thing to yourself.
Here is a passage from one of the most poetic and romantic books in the Bible:
I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride;
I have gathered my myrrh along with my balsam.
I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey;
I have drunk my wine and my milk.
Eat, friends; Drink and imbibe deeply, O lovers.” Song of Solomon 5:1
The word translated “honeycomb” is usually translated as timber or forest when otherwise used in the Bible, but the Hebrew word (“ya’ar”) is thought to mean to thicken with vegetation, per the standard Bible reference Strong’s. Some think that this is a reference to combining another plant with honey, possibly cannabis. Even today it is popular to combine cannabis and honey: just do an online search and you can find recipes (only advisable where it is legal!). I doubt Bible translators are thinking of this association when they translate the word “ya’ar.” Cannabis resin can be scraped off the plants and then used by ingestion or smoking or combined with other substances, like honey. Cannabis was known and used in the Middle East and North Africa, so the Hebrew people would have been familiar with it. There is no general prohibition in the Law of Moses against the use of such mind-altering substances, except, as mentioned above, the special oil with “qaneh besem” was strictly for use by the priests (Exodus 30:33).
King Saul may not have been a stranger to drug use. Saul was said to be subject to mood swings, as described in 1 Samuel 16:14-23. He also developed extreme paranoia, at one point hurling a spear at his protégé David (1 Samuel 18:10, 11) and later hunting him (1 Samuel 18:6-9). Mood swings and paranoia are classic symptoms of drug abuse. Just sayin’…
Furthermore there is an incident described with Saul which sounds very much like a drug party. To set the stage, in 1 Samuel 10 the prophet Samuel tells Saul to seek out a group of prophets:
“…you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and a lyre before them, and they will be prophesying. “
I Samuel 10:5
I think in this passage it means high as in elevation, but coming down from a high makes for an interesting play on words in our current context. Prophets were those associated with inspired oration, poetry and song, not necessarily fortune-telling, which is what many people think of with that term. It seems like they were the artistic community within Israel. And they wouldn’t be the first or the last artists to use drugs for inspiration! So, “when they came there to the hill, behold, a group of prophets met him (Saul); and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, so that he prophesied among them.” But a later similar passage gives us more detail of what happened when Saul hung out with the prophets: It’s kind of humorous, actually.
First Saul sends some messengers to a group of prophets, but the messengers end up hanging out and “prophesying” themselves (again, think of singing and telling stories). He does this twice more with the same result. So finally:
[Saul] proceeded there to Naioth in Ramah; and the Spirit of God came upon him also, so that he went along prophesying continually until he came to Naioth in Ramah. He also stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” I Samuel 19:23, 24
Tell me that doesn’t sound like a drug party to you! Lying around naked all day, while singing and reciting poems and telling stories.
Have you ever read the book of Ezekiel? Now, if some of that doesn’t sound drug-inspired I don’t know what does! I mean, he describes flying wheels within wheels with eyes all around, and beings with four faces and four wings, three of the faces being animals (Ezekiel 1). He had a vision of a valley full of dead bones that all came back to life (chapter 37). Ezekiel also performed some outrageous stunts (performance art?) during his preaching ministry. At one time he lied down on his left side for 390 days, then his right side for another 40 days. He publicly baked his food over cow dung. He shaved off his hair and beard and burned it in front of the people (chapters 4 & 5). The dude was a little extreme.
In Ezekiel 27:17 he refers to “cakes [pannag], honey, oil.” Some word scholars believe that the Hebrew word “pannag” used in the book of Ezekiel is connected to the origin of the word “cannabis,” and the Sanskrit word “pannaga” refers to an aromatic plant, which fits. And we even see the association with honey and oil again. I realize that this is all very circumstantial, but given the widespread use of psychoactive drugs in ancient religions it is something that needs to be considered.
This sounds like a lot of speculation, but there is some hard evidence accumulating about drug use in ancient Israel. Paleochemistry is a new field that analyzes substances found in ancient relics, and archaeobotany investigates evidence of how the ancient used various plants.. Consider this find: ‘In the Negev desert known as Tel Arad, archaeologists excavating an ancient Jewish shrine have found traces of burnt cannabis and frankincense on a pair of limestone altars… “This is the first time that cannabis has been identified in the Ancient Near East; its use in the shrine must have played a central role in the cultic rituals performed there,” says Eran Arie, an archaeologist with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and lead author of the new research, in the statement.’ Brian Muraresku’s book goes into additional detail about such research, which has the potential to connect drug use with early Christianity, too.
What about drug use in early Christianity? I will discuss that in Part 2 of this post.
 My father went to school with Heston at Northwestern University and one of our family heirlooms is a photo of my dad on stage with Heston during a play. (Heston was the main character, of course.)
 Mt. Sinai and Mt. Horeb are generally thought to be the same place, but that is not universally accepted.
 Via natural gas vents in the area.
 Is “soma” mentioned in the New Testament? You’ll have to wait for Part 2!
 As well as for medicinal and recreational purposes.
 Wikipedia has a good section on the word origins if you will look up ”Etymology of cannabis.”
 You’d think a god that forbade eating catfish might also remember to outlaw drugs, if He really thought they were a bad thing.
 Where would jazz and rock and roll be without the influence of drugs?!
 Ancient alien theorists love to use this passage as a description of a visitation by spaceship piloted by strange beings, but I think drug effects are more likely.
 Technically, he burned a third of it, cut a third with his sword, and scattered a third to the wind.
 “Archaeologists Identify Traces of Burnt Cannabis in Ancient Jewish Shrine” by Alex Fox at www.smithsonianmag.com, June 4, 2020.
 Was it just wine used in the Lord’s Supper, or wine spiked with other substances? Muraresku thinks that is likely – see part 2 of this post.