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Evidence of Cannabis Use in Ancient Israel

A new discovery at the ruins of a Judaic temple outside of Jerusalem validates historical theories on the sacramental use of cannabis in Biblical passages and rituals.

Temple of Tel Arad, Israel (Sarah Murray)
Temple of Tel Arad, Israel (Sarah Murray)

Recent archeological evidence emerging out of Arad, Israel is confirming what a number of scholars have been suggesting for over a century: that the ancient Hebrews utilized cannabis for ritual purposes.

In a paper recently published in The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University entitled “Cannabis and Frankincense at the Judahite Shrine of Arad,” researchers Eran Arie, Baruch Rosen & Dvory Namdar wrote about the analysis of unidentified dark material preserved on the upper surfaces of two limestone altars that were used for burning incense at the Tel Arad Jewish temple site, located around 60 km south of Jerusalem. These residues were submitted for analysis at two unrelated laboratories that used similar established extraction methods, and the results were clear: the larger altar, they determined, was used for burning frankincense—the tree resin known for its rich fragrance which is still widely utilized in temples and churches today. What did they find on the other, you ask?

“On the smaller altar, residues of cannabinoids such as Δ9- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and cannabinol (CBN) were detected, along with an assortment of terpenes and terpenoids, suggesting that cannabis inflorescences had been burnt on it... ”

Two altars at Tel Arad: frankincense (left) & cannabis (right).  (Laura Lachman / The Israel Museum)
Two altars at Tel Arad: frankincense (left) & cannabis (right). (Laura Lachman / The Israel Museum)

That’s right—the second altar was used to burn some form of cannabis product that was free of seeds and stems. Researchers believe that the cannabis was likely burned to induce shamanic ecstasy and inspire the temple priests, while the frankincense was burned for purely aromatic purposes (though there is increasing evidence indicating that in some cases it may have been psychoactive as well).

Tel Arad, which dates back to the 8th century BCE, is believed to be a smaller version of Jerusalem’s iconic Holy of Holies temple, and the practices indicated in the Arad site are likely copied from those at the main temple. This indicates that at least some of the ancient Hebrew priests and prophets of the Old Testament period may have, like the entheogen-ingesting shamans of other spiritual traditions, been receiving their revelations via powerful plant teachers.

High priest offering incense on the altar, as in Leviticus 16:12; illustration from Henry Davenport Northrop, "Treasures of the Bible," published 1894
High Priest offers incense on altar in ancient Jerusalem Temple. ("Treasures of the Bible," 1894).

This astounding realization has led to international headlines and is rocking both the scientific and religious worlds. But while this news may come as a shock to many modern Jews and Christians, there are some for whom this comes as no surprise. I myself have been looking deeply at linguistic evidence indicating the use of cannabis by the ancient Jews and in the Near East for over three decades, but I am far from the first to suggest this.

In his 1903 essay “Indications of the Hachish-Vice in the Old Testament,” British physician Dr. C. Creighton concluded that several references to cannabis can be found in the Old Testament. Creighton points to the ‘honeycomb’ referred to in the Song of Solomon, 5:1, and the ‘honeywood’ in I Samuel 14: 25-45, writing that in “the O.T. there are some half-dozen passages where cryptic references to hachish may be discovered... But that word, which is the key to the meaning, has been knowingly mistranslated in the Vulgate and in the modern version, having been rendered by a variant also by the LXX in one of the passages, and confessed as unintelligible in the other by the use of a marginal Hebrew word in Greek letters” (Creighton 1903).

" least some of the ancient Hebrew priests and prophets of the Old Testament period may have, like the entheogen-ingesting shamans of other spiritual traditions, been receiving their revelations via powerful plant teachers."

Creighton’s material, however, was pure speculation. Much more convincing was the work of Sula Benet (a.k.a. Sara Benetowa), a Polish anthropologist and etymologist from the Institute of Anthropological Sciences in Warsaw, who based her claims on the Hebrew term “kaneh bosm.” Creating a controversy that has increased ever since, Benet claimed that, “In the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament there are references to hemp, both as incense, which was an integral part of religious celebration, and as an intoxicant” (Benet 1975: 1936). Through comparative etymological study, Benet documented that in the Old Testament (and in its Aramaic translation the Targum Onculos), hemp is referred to as kaneh bosm (also translated as kaneh bosem, kaniebosm, q’neh bosm and other variations) and is also rendered in traditional Hebrew as kannabos or kannabus. The root “kana” in this construction means “cane~reed” or “hemp”, while “bosm” means “aromatic.” This Hebrew word “kaneh” occurs many times in the Bible, and in some instances, it can simply mean “reed”, “cane”, or “stalk”, but Benet stated that in certain Biblical passages (i.e. Exodus 30:23, Song of Songs 4:14, Isaiah 43:24, Jeremiah 6:20, Ezekiel 27:19) the word specifically refers to cannabis.

Soil samples from the time period suggest that cannabis was not grown in the region during that time; rather, it was likely a rare and precious commodity imported along the ancient spice routes. This theory fits with other emerging archeological finds of quality cannabis being traded on the ancient spice trade routes that extended into China, where female cannabis flowers have been found at a number of equally ancient tombs. Statements released by the researchers indicate they plan to test more religious sites to get a better understanding of the extent of this use. The archeologists behind this study cannot be considered cannabis advocates, and they have stated how surprised they themselves were to find proof that cannabis was burnt in a religious context in ancient Israel. Nevertheless, the evidence they’ve uncovered at Tel Arad unquestionably elevates the claim of Biblical cannabis use from mere linguistic theory to a scientifically proven fact.

The implications of this discovery are sure to set both the archeological and theological worlds alight with debate for years to come. One might even view it as a challenge to the foundation of religion itself, indicating that the Bible may have grown out of the natural progression of spiritual experience through plant-based shamanism, or that the cannabis plant itself contains a divine and holy spark. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in-between?

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