Flashback Friday: The Burning Bush

Did the ancient prophets use psychoactive plants to achieve mystical insight?
Flashback Friday: The Burning Bush
High Times

For the June, 2002 issue of High Times, Chris Bennett examined many deep-seated beliefs about the true nature of Judaism and Christianity.

Psychedelic experience undoubtedly led to the formation of many of the world’s great religions. Although the real story has frequently been obscured, a careful reading of the Bible shows evidence of hallucinogenic substances.

Few preachers talk about it, but a number of Biblical heroes are depicted as getting drunk on alcohol, and the use of the powerful aphrodisiac and hallucinogen mandrake is mentioned twice (Genesis 30:14-16, Songs 7:13). Likewise, the encyclopedic Jonathon Ott suggests that the Old Testament “Strong-Drink” (Hebrew shekar) was “distinct from wine; probably a… visionary infusion… of one or many psychoactive plants” (Ott 1995).

Slightly less known are ancient Hebrew references contained in the original texts from which the Old Testament was translated. For over 150 years, these have been independently identified by anthropologists, botanists, etymologists, Biblical scholars and other researchers as referring to hemp.

Taken individually, these references don’t add up to much, but like all the pieces of the puzzle that began to turn up when the suppressed history of industrial hemp began to be unraveled, they present a fascinating new interpretation of the Biblical story.

Was Moses a Stoner?

The first reference to cannabis appears in the books of Moses, who, as the story goes, originally saw the angel of the Lord “in flames of fire within a Bush.” In 1936, an etymologist working at the Institute of Anthropology in Warsaw, Sula Benet, noted that the Hebrew words kaneh and kaneh-bosem (cane and fragrant cane)—mistakenly translated as “calamus” in the Old Testament—were in fact a reference to our modern word cannabis. That identification was based upon similar words used for cannabis by the neighbors of the ancient Jews, such as kanna, qunubu and kunubu, as well as the Indo-European root word canna.

In Exodus 30:23, the Lord commands that Moses make a holy anointing oil that includes “250 shekels of kaneh bosem” (i.e. cannabis) to be mixed with a “hind of olive oil”—a recipe that equals about 9 pounds of cannabis being added to about 7 quarts of oil. Although it is not widely known, this reference to cannabis gained some acceptance in scholarly and theological circles. The well-known anthropologist Weston La Barre concurred with this identification (La Barre 1980), as did botanist William Emboden (1972), and in 1980 the Hebrew University of Jerusalem confirmed the etymological identification of kaneh bosem with cannabis (Latimer 1988).

Christian and Hebrew commentators responded that the preparation in Exodus 30 was merely to be applied externally, so the prophets and kings who received it weren’t getting stoned. But THC is fat-soluble and the skin is but a big porous organ. Thus such cannabis anointing oils have been reported to indeed be psychoactive, and references to lotions containing marijuana appear in the contemporary literature of Egypt, Canaan and Assyria, as well as much later among Buddhist monks in medieval Tibet, the witches of Europe and 19th-century occultists.

Moses likely also received effects from burning this cannabis oil, as the Lord commanded him to anoint the “altar of incense” with this THC-rich ointment. As well, the term frankincense that appears in the Bible was originally a generic term meaning “pure incense,” and only later came to signify the gum resin of the North African boswellia tree. Further, elsewhere in the Old Testament, when the term kaneh is used, it is as incense.

Finally, according to Immanuel Low in his German work, Die Flora Der Juden (The Jews’ Flowers), the Hebrews of later times, when celebrating their successful invasion and takeover of the land of Canaan with the holy day Passover, utilized a preparation including cannabis. Low referred to a recipe for the Passover altar incense that included a hasisat surur (revered essence), and claimed that surur was a secret name for the resin of cannabis sativa (Low 1926/1967).

Indicating classic elements of shamanism, when Moses was to question the Lord on behalf of the Israelite tribe, he drenched himself in this THC-rich holy oil, entered the small enclosure of the Tent of the Meeting—which apparently was made from hemp (de Waal 1994)—poured more holy oil on the incense, burned it, and then questioned the Lord, who replied to Moses from the pillar of smoke rising over the incense altar! Just like shamans have since the dawn of time, Moses received the psychoactive effects of a sacred plant, and interpreted its influence as containing divine advice and even possession by the Holy Spirit itself!

This exclusive shamanic relationship between Moses’ priesthood and their holy oils and incenses lasted many generations. All who dared to make an imitation of these preparations were “cut off from their people.” Centuries later, when the prophet Samuel anointed the first king of Israel, Saul, he took the liberty of extending the use of the holy oil to the sovereigns of Israel as well. The account of the event gives us a quite laughable description of how set and setting can be used to manipulate a trip and exploit the experience of an unwary drug taker, as well as demonstrate the psychoactive nature of the ointment used.

Saul’s Bad Trip

Poor, unwary young Saul first meets Samuel when he goes to see the prophet to inquire about some lost donkeys. Samuel recognizes the youth as Israel’s future king, and acts as if he had long been expecting him, informing him not to worry, as the donkeys have already been found. Then, to Saul’s surprise, Samuel holds a celebratory meal with him as the guest of honor.

When Saul gets ready to leave the next day, Samuel tells him to send his servant on ahead, for Samuel has a message from God for him. “Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, ‘Has not the Lord anointed you leader over his inheritance?'” (I Samuel 10:1). After anointing Saul, Samuel tells him that shortly “The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power… and you will be changed into a different person” (I Samuel 10:6)—a statement perhaps indicating that the magical (entheogenic) power of the ointment will shortly take effect. Samuel tells Saul that when this happens, he will come across a band of prophets coming down from a mountaintop, “with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them prophesying” (I Samuel 10:5), and that Saul will join them.

“After Saul’s anointing, as Samuel foretold, the spirit of Yahweh came mightily upon the new king and he prophesied among them. The verb prophesy in this context meant not to foretell the future but to behave ecstatically, to babble incoherently under the influence of the Spirit. This bizarre conduct associated with prophesying is apparent when in a second burst of such activity, Saul stripped off his clothing and lay naked all day and night, causing the people to ask, ‘Is Saul among the prophets?’ (I Samuel 19:24).” (Cole 1959)

We’ve all heard the classic psychedelic horror stories about someone being dosed unknowingly and thinking they have gone insane. Imagine poor, primitive Saul. The local witch doctor tells the youth that after receiving a “holy oil” and hearing some mumbo-jumbo, he will be possessed by the “Spirit of the Lord.” Undoubtedly feeling the effects we moderns refer to as getting high, the experience is magnified tenfold for poor Saul, who believes he is being possessed by the tribal deity, as suggested by Samuel.

The next day, when they go looking for Saul, they find him temporarily mentally disabled from his unexpected psychedelic initiation, afraid and shaking, “hidden… among the baggage.” (I Samuel 10:22).

Stay Out of My Stash!

Further into the story of Saul, an event occurs that shows that the prohibitions against the average tribal Joe sampling the holy kaneh-bosem were still in effect. One day, when Saul’s son Jonathan was off slaughtering the hated Philistines, Saul binds the people with an oath, “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies” (I Samuel 14:24). Later, Jonathan is in the woods with the army, and the story describes some sort of honey oozing out of the wood. Although all the men were famished after a day of battle and fasting, none of them “put his hand to his mouth, because they feared the oath. But Jonathan had not heard that his father had bound the people with the oath, so he reached the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it into the honeycomb. He raised his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened” (I Samuel 14:25-27).

In 1903, Dr. C. Creighton suggested that Jonathan’s sin might have gone a little further than just eating honey, and that this was an ancient account of the infamous finger-hash! “The theory is, that both Saul and Jonathan were hashish-eaters; it was a secret vice of the palace, while it was strictly forbidden to the people. The incident is thus described: ‘…he put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand and dipped it in a honey-comb (‘yagarah hadebash’), and put his hand to his mouth: and his eyes were enlightened.’ It is clear from the powerful effect of a minute quantity of it, and from the kinds of effect… that the honey-wood was the hemp plant with the resinous exudation.” (Creighton 1903)

In 1913 this hypothesis was referred to in the well-respected and annotated The Ballinger’s Companion Bible: “The Hebrew ya’ar never means honeycomb, but “wood.” It is rendered ‘forest’ 38 times, ‘wood’ 19 times, ‘honeycomb’ only here [I Samuel 14:25-27) and Songs 5:1. It points to a dense growing wood or thicket, and it has been suggested that it was the cannabis indica, or hemp plant…. This would produce an effect on the eyes” (Bullinger 1913). Apparently Jonathan had stumbled upon the priesthood’s field of sacred kaneh-bosem, and sampled some of the sticky resins of the herb destined for holy anointing oil and sacred incense—a transgression harsh enough for his own father to call for the death penalty against him.

Hot-Boxing the Temple

The ancient Hebrews’ love of kaneh-bosem continued to grow, and considering the cloud in the following verse was a cloud of incense smoke, we can see the ancients took the term “hot-box” to a whole new level. “The cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud” (I Kings 8:10). Like the references to the smoke in the story of Moses and the Tent of the Meeting, the cloud of incense smoke “was the palpable sign of God’s presence in Solomon’s temple” (Patai 1967). When there was no incense smoke, the Lord’s voice grew fainter. As the grandmaster of hemp, Jack Herer, explains, “The incense burners of the Jewish temple filled with cannabis, hash, oils, etc., would swing back and forth into parishioners’ faces, causing them to perceive things much differently” (Herer 1995).

Incense of the Goddess

Unfortunately, Solomon did not limit his use of incense to the temple of Jehovah or the Lord’s worship. “Solomon loved Yahweh… except that he offered… incense on the high places” (I Kings 3:3). Here reference is made to Solomon’s worship of Astarte, who was worshipped on mountains and hilltops. The Old Testament itself testifies to this fact, telling us that Solomon’s “foreign wives led him astray,” and that through them the king had begun “following Astarte, the goddess of the Sidonians” (I Kings 11:3-5). Not so surprising, as “the worship of Astarte was often associated with the ritual use of cannabis in the ancient world” (Sumach 1997).

As well, the worshippers of the closely related Canaanite goddess Asherah (mother of Astarte), sometimes to as the wife of Jehovah in ancient Near Eastern inscriptions, “anointed their skins” with a cannabis preparation “as well as burned it” (Emboden 1972). The name of this particular goddess was used in association with cannabis up until medieval Arabic times (Rosenthal 1971). In his marvelous commentary on Solomon’s Songs, Marvin H. Pope compared the incense references of the Biblical hymn to similar literature in honor of the marriage of the God and Goddess that commands the worshippers to “‘sit before her… and… ease her mind with (incense of) ‘sweet reeds.’ The ‘sweet reed’… with which the Goddess’ innards are soothed, is presumably the same aromatic cane of Exodus 30:23 and the ‘sweet cane’ of Jer 6:20; Isa 43:24; Ezek 27:19 and simply ‘cane’ in Canticles 4:14’’ (Pope 1977).

Unfortunately Pope was unaware that these same references to cane, “kaneh,” are the ones that Sula Benet first identified in 1936 as cannabis. As qunubu (cannabis) was one of the main ingredients in the Near Eastern sacred rite described above (Waterman 1930), we can be sure that the reference to how the fumes of the incense “ease her mind” identifies the entheogenic properties of cannabis smoke.

In light of Pope’s connection of the fragrant incense used by the cult of the Goddess with the Biblical references to kaneh (cannabis), it is interesting to note that the next direct Biblical reference to cannabis by this name appears in the Songs. (The poetic imagery of this verse always brings to my mind the sweet, seductive scent of Lebanese hashish):

Come with me from Lebanon, my bride,
come with me from Lebanon.
How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much more pleasing is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your ointment than any spice!
The fragrance of your garments is like that of Lebanon
Your plants are an orchard with henna… nard… saffron,
kaneh and cinnamon,
with every kind of incense tree.” (Songs 4:8-14)

In the Songs, we see marijuana not only as incense, but also as the anointing oil, described in the above verse in the form of the fragrant “ointment.” The preference of intoxication from the oil over that which comes from wine also occurs in Songs 1:2-4, “Pleasing is the fragrance of your precious ointments… We shall inhale thy love rather than wine.” It should also be noted the powerful visionary drug mandrake appears in the Songs (7:14), indicating that by this time, it was being used with hemp in the holy anointing oil, as it was much later in medieval witches’ ointments.

Rather than referring to an incense or anointing oil, the word that Dr. Creighton saw as a cannabis reference in the Songs occurs as a delectable—”I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey” (Songs 5:l)—giving evidence that hemp was also eaten. “In the Hebrew text, the phrase reads: ‘I have eaten my wood (yagar) with my honey (debash).’ The meaning… is clear enough… ‘I have eaten ‘my hemp’ with ‘my honey’… which is the elegant way of taking hashish in the East to this day” (Creighton 1903).

In relation to these references to cannabis in the Songs, it is interesting to note an inscription regarding the related Assyrian sacred rites records that “the main items for the rites are fine oil, water, honey, odorous plants [and] hemp (qunubu)” [as translated] (Waterman 1930).

Dr. Creighton saw another account of an edible cannabis preparation in Ezekiel 3. The ancient prophet tells us that the Lord told him: “‘Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat…. So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth… The Spirit then lifted me up and took me away” (Ezekiel 3:4-14). Referring to Creighton’s research, Dr. Lester Grinspoon commented that the account in Ezekiel “does sound like a description of an intense cannabis intoxication—an almost psychedelic experience” (Grinspoon 1971). Interestingly, Ezekiel also refers to kaneh in lists of wares purchased from the merchant town of Tyre (Benetowa\Benet 1936,1975).

The House Was Filled With Smoke!

Art excerpt from Isaiah indicates cannabis incense hadn’t decreased in popularity among the prophets, and that once again there was a Holy Hot-Box in the Temple: “And the posts of the door moved, and the house was filled with smoke…. Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from off the altar. And he laid it upon my mouth and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (Isaiah 6:4-7). Here we can imagine the shamanic initiation of this ancient prophet, in which he is taken into a smoke-filled chamber of the temple, surrounded by shamans dressed in elaborate costumes, and one of them reaching into the altar of incense with tongs and picking up a burning coal of hashish, then lifting it to Isaiah’s lips. Imagine that scenario for your first hit!

And the Lord Said, “Where’s My Weed?!”

Unfortunately, the popularity of cannabis with the temples of competing deities led to hemp’s eventual prohibition among the ancient Jews. In the Book of Isaiah we read the Lord’s lament, “You have not brought any kaneh for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses” (Isaiah 43:23-24). At this time throughout the Holy Land, the people, including the kings and royal family, were worshipping the Goddess alongside Jehovah. One of their main offenses was offering the sacred cannabis incenses and oils at the Goddess temple instead of exclusively at the temple of Jehovah. The Lord was angered because his holy stash was being stolen and burned in honor of other deities!

Those sentiments are echoed in the book of Ezekiel, where Jehovah condemns the Israelites who “offered my oil and incense” to other gods. Ezekiel reports a scene in one of these competing temples, and is infuriated when the participants all held censers, “and a thick cloud of smoke went up and lo, they put the branch to their nose” (Ezekiel 8:13-17). This is an obvious example of inhaling the smoke straight from burning the branches of cannabis, and the Lord is driven to anger by this idolatrous use of his holy kaneh bosem.

The Holy Prohibition

By the time of the prophet Jeremiah, who rose to popularity when Jerusalem was falling to an invasion from Babylon, the use of cannabis had become associated so fully with “idolatrous worship” that it had fallen completely out of use among the Hebrew priestly caste. In the Book of Jeremiah we find no reference to the holy anointing oil, and he himself apparently did not use it. This was due to its content of cannabis, which Jeremiah, speaking for the Lord, condemns by name. “What do I care about incense from Sheba or kaneh from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me” (Jeremiah 6:20).

Much of the populace saw Jeremiah’s prohibition against cannabis in the name of the Lord as the empty words of a pseudo-prophet, and his condemnation of cannabis incense as the prohibition of a
corrupt regime that would likely have completely lost its hold over the people, if it had not been for the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Similar to the way Dubya has been trying to link the Drug War with the war on terror, Jeremiah, the dour grandfather of prohibition, tried to blame the fall of the Israelites on their use of cannabis incense in the foreign temples!

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: ‘You saw the great disaster I brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Today they lie deserted and in ruins because of the evil they have done. They provoked me to anger by burning incense and by worshipping other gods… Again and again I sent my servants the prophets, who said, ‘Do not do the detestable things I hate!’ But they did not listen or pay attention; they did not turn from their wickedness or stop burning incense to other gods. Therefore my fierce anger was poured out; it raged against the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem and made them the desolate ruins they are today” (Jeremiah 6:21).

Then all the men which knew that their wives had burned incense unto other gods, and all the women that stood by, a great multitude, answered Jeremiah, saying, “As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken unto thee. But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the city of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then we had plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink offerings to her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by sword and by famine” (Jeremiah 6:22).

The women added, “When we burned incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink offerings unto her, did we make her cakes to worship her, and pour our drink offerings to her, without our men?” (Jeremiah 6:23)

From the description given we can see that the populace viewed Jeremiah with contempt. They likely saw him as a traitor for siding with the Babylonians, who themselves liked the prophet enough not to kill him upon his capture, and even rewarded him with release from prison and right of free access. In this telling passage, we learn much about the Biblical roots of prohibition. Jeremiah’s reference to the previous kings and princes who burned incense to the queen of heaven can be seen as referring to King Solomon and most of the other Biblical kings and apparently, from the Bible’s own records, most of the populace.

Since the use of cannabis was an integral part of the combined worship of God and Goddess as equals, hemp had to be prohibited by the Jehovah-alone cult of monotheists, and the references to cannabis in the Old Testament all but disappear. But it goes deeper than even this. In the story of cannabis in the Old Testament, we see the experiential, entheogen-induced shamanic spirituality of Moses and other prophets give way to a political religion based on commandments and edicts recorded in a book and used to control the unruly masses. Such a politically based religion left no room for the hemp-induced revelations of competing shamans, and thus the voice of the Lord through his prophets fell silent.

What About Jesus?

Could the most celebrated individual in history have been a cannabis lover? When one takes a look at non-Biblical historical documentation about this mysterious individual, everything from his name (originally Yehowshua) to his personality begins to fall apart, and the pious ascetic sage offered us by the Catholic documents of the New Testament begins to give way to the portrayal of a rebel leader and mystic, more analogous to gods of love and ecstasy like the Indian Shiva or the Greek Dionysus—a figure which would horrify the orthodox believers of our own time as much as those of Yehowshua’s own!

Interestingly, in Hebrew the person who received the anointing oil, the Anointed One, was termed the Messiah. In Greek this was translated as Christ, and the name referred to the kaneh-bosem anointing rite instituted by Moses. Jesus did send out the apostles who “anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:13). But still, after the uproar that surrounded kaneh-bosem’s prohibition and strictly limited its use to an elite priesthood, you might think if someone was going to rekindle such a heresy and offer it to the common folk, maybe they would have been crucified?

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