July 18, 2021
A few weeks ago, I wrote to you about the concept of temperancy.
In that article, I highlighted 1 Corinthians 9:25-27, in which the Apostle Paul, one of the leaders of the first generation of Christians and a missionary, philosopher, and author who is often considered to be the most important person (after Jesus) in the history of Christianity, says,
“And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
Paul knew that if he opened himself up to temptation towards excesses of food, drink, drugs, sex, money, and other worldly pleasures, if he did not practice self-control, self-discipline, and temperancy, and if he let his body get the upper hand, he was going to be lost, because he could not accomplish his epic journey in a broken, a lazy, an unfit, or an unhealthy body. He knew that he couldn't let his body simply “go to sleep,” that to support his soul he must keep his flesh awake and watchful because, as Mark 14:38 says, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The state of temperance that Paul describes denotes a virtue prevalent in both Greek and Christian ethical thought that is associated with moderation and self-control, especially with respect to desires and appetites, particularly related to the restraint of desires and the mastery of passions. The Greek philosopher Plato actually considered temperance to be one of four cardinal virtues and spoke of it as the virtue of self-control. He described temperance as the use of reason and will in the mastery of appetites and passions. Philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas viewed temperance as both a general and specific virtue. In the former sense, as a general virtue, temperance moderates the other moral virtues, whereas in the latter, as a specific virtue, it controls bodily pleasures. So temperance is associated with both proportion and moral discernment.
Although Paul did speak favorably of using wine for medicinal purposes (1 Timothy 5:23), he also repeatedly warns against drunkenness and lack of sobriety as one particular example of insufficient temperancy. For example, a candidate for the office of deacon was warned not to be addicted to much wine (1 Timothy 3:8). He also admonished members of the church at Corinth not to keep fellowship with a church member who was a drunkard (1 Corinthians 5:11).
But lately, I've been wondering how this advice on temperancy and sobriety jives with the history of “altered states of consciousness” (perhaps more appropriately, in many situations, more accurately described as an elevated state of consciousness) found throughout Hebrew and other religious literature, including the Bible. Certainly, Paul's counsel (and other commandments and advice from the Bible that I'll cite later) were set in place to encourage sobriety as a general rule that ensured that irresponsible and distempered drunkards weren't wandering about society, but it seems that certain elements of the plant kingdom, including wine, spices, cannabis, and other psychoactive substances, were simultaneously used as a way to enhance one's spiritual experience and connect with God on a deeper level. Should we, and especially those of us who are Christians, completely swear off anything that tweaks our neurotransmitters, from breathwork to coffee to energy drinks to herbs to pharmaceuticals to plant extracts? Should these types of compounds only be reserved for a select, chosen few who are ordained to enter into altered states for healing, calling upon God, seeing visions, and the like?
After all, in the past, in many articles and podcasts, I've mentioned that I personally never get drunk, but have certainly discovered a great deal of personal insight, spiritual growth, healing, energy, and productivity from turning up or turning down my levels of neurotransmitters via the use of plant medicines and other compounds. So in this article, I'll describe what I think it means to be sober, where one should draw the line with substances, and the fascinating history of the use of psychoactive compounds in religions including Judaism and Christianity.
What Does It Mean To Be “Sober”?
As I mentioned above, it seems that certain elements of the plant kingdom, including wine, spices, cannabis, and other psychoactive substances, were simultaneously used as a way to enhance one's spiritual experience and connect with God on a deeper level. I'll be addressing that, and the evidence for it, later in this article.
But first, I'm sure you must be wondering: isn't a shift into an altered state of consciousness the complete opposite of sobriety?
Furthermore, doesn't the drug caffeine, found in two of the world's most widely consumed beverages—coffee and tea—shift you into an altered state (just ask anyone who has quit drinking coffee for a month and then begins again)? Heck, you can buy pre-workout caffeine powder on Amazon that is strong enough to kill you with just a few scoopfuls. Tobacco, such as that we find in cigars and pipes, contains multiple consciousness-altering compounds, including, most notably, nicotine. Pretty much all essential oils are drugs that significantly affect neurotransmitters upon inhalation or oral consumption. So are most commonly used herbs, such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Even breathwork and sexual intercourse shift one into an altered state of consciousness, often more powerfully than many drugs.
So if you drink coffee and tea, smoke a pipe, diffuse lavender essential oil, sprinkle cinnamon in your smoothie, practice breathwork, and have sex…
…are you an unsober drunk?
Well, let's take a look at what sobriety and drunkenness actually mean and the likely intention of the sage advice for caution with brain-spinning compounds that can shift one into an altered state of consciousness.
Although I think the message of sobriety extends beyond, say, wine, spirits, and beer (these days, we often speak of someone who is not drunk with alcohol but also someone who is not high on drugs as being “sober”), I'll begin with alcohol as an example. As I alluded to earlier, several sections of the New Testament speak of being sober-minded (such as 1 Peter 4:7; 5:8; Titus 2:2, 6; 1 Corinthians 15:34). In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul exhorts Timothy to be “sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” The literal translation of sober-minded here literally means “free from intoxicating influences.”
The term intoxication or drunkenness most often refers to inebriation with some type of strong, ethanol-containing spirit. Drunkenness, intoxication, or inebriation all indicate a state in which a person is overwhelmed or overpowered with “spirituous liquors,” dictating that rational, logical reason becomes disordered, as do many elements of physical function, such as the stereotypical stagger-walk of a drunk. Emotionally, this type of state typically renders some people stupid, others brazen, stupidly bold and loud, others sullen, others furious, others simply downright plain silly, and others excessively outspoken, opinionated, disagreeable, and unreasonably passionate (excess passion is often referred to as a “drunkenness of the mind”). Generally, drunkenness is associated with an altered state of consciousness or loss of control of one's senses or actions that result in not being in control of or in possession of one's faculties, such as:
“He deprives the leaders of the earth of their reason; he makes them wander in a trackless waste. They grope in darkness with no light; he makes them stagger like drunkards.” (Job 12:24-25)
“Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, that dwellest in the land of Uz; the cup also shall pass through unto thee: thou shalt be drunken, and shalt make thyself naked.” (Lamentations 4:21)
“With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” (Revelations 17:2)
When it comes to this type of state, along with the health issues and social repercussions alike brought on by heavy drinking, the Bible typically associates drunkenness with other immoral behaviors, and often warns against it, including in passages such as:
“Wine is a mocker, and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.” (Proverbs 20:1)
“For the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness clothes one with rags.” (Proverbs 23:21)
“Do not gaze at wine when it is red when it sparkles in the cup when it goes down smoothly! In the end, it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper.” (Proverbs 23:31-32)
“It is not for kings, Lemuel—it is not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer. For they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.” (Proverbs 31:4-5)
“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to reckless indiscretion. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” (Ephesians 5:18)
“Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.”(Romans 13:13)
The Bible also recommends that if one's drinking is upsetting or offending someone else who finds it immoral, or is perhaps tempting someone who has a personal history of alcoholism, trauma related to the presence of alcohol (e.g. abusive, drunk parents or an angry, drunk spouse who beat them), then one also shouldn’t drink when in the presence of such people:
“It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything to cause your brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:21)
Deleterious actions, states, or physical manifestations of alcohol abuse are often associated with drunkenness in the Bible, such as staggering, shaking, and vomiting. Psalm 107:27 says “They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end.” Actions or states unrelated to alcohol are also sometimes mistaken for drunkenness in the Bible, such as in 1 Samuel 1:13: “Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken.”
So Scripture seems to generally warn against the dangers of alcohol due to the potential of making immoral or stupid choices because of it, deleteriously affecting one's health due to excess consumption of it, and negatively affecting the lives of others who may not have a history of responsible use or positive associations with alcohol. Of course, when the Bible refers to these states, it should be understood there is an important distinction drawn between drunkenness and drinking. When drinking for health or medical reasons or celebration (or when using alcohol, and drugs too, for ceremonial purposes, a concept I'll explore later), drinking seems to be acceptable and is referenced in passages such as:
“Stop drinking only water and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (1 Timothy 5:23)
“Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7)
“He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the labor of man, So that he may bring forth food from the earth. And wine which makes man’s heart glad, oil to make his face shine, and the bread that sustains his heart.” (Psalms 104:14-15)
Of course, there is a point at which one passes from drinking for joy or celebration to a state of full-on drunkenness, and these should be recognized as two entirely different states. The Bible even speaks of “drunken” but alludes to levels of drinking that may exceed that state. For example, 1 Samuel 25:36 says, “And Abigail came to Nabal; and, behold, he held a feast in his house, like the feast of a king; and Nabal's heart was merry within him, for he was very drunken.”
So Scripture definitely permits responsible, moderated use of alcohol, enjoyed in good faith, and when not associated with loss of control of one's senses or actions or temptation of others towards sin or discomfort. Interestingly, related to this last point, “loss of control,” or at least, altered or elevated states of consciousness do not seem to be forbidden in the Bible, and are often portrayed positively, such as being controlled by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18 “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit”). I'll write more on these states below, but ultimately, not being in control or possession of one's faculties due to abuse of alcohol is a state of non-sobriety that is certainly something I can guarantee is frowned upon in the Bible as a sin.
What About Cannabis?
So as you have seen, the Bible does indeed permit the moderate use of alcohol, even though alcohol has known psychoactive effects and, even at lower dosages, several toxic side effects. So does God, then, also permit the recreational use of cannabis? This seems like an important issue, considering the increasing legality and availability of cannabis, with dispensaries and pot-shops in locations such as my hometown of Washington state as prevalent and easy-to-access as any wine bar or liquor store. Should we treat cannabis like alcohol, meaning that it's perfectly OK to take a hit on a vape pen and sip a cup of cowboy coffee around the campfire as others perhaps partake in a cigar and a glass of Scotch, so long as you remain in control or possession of your faculties and aren't causing others to sin? Is there something special about cannabis and caffeine in such a scenario that would make it a sin compared to nicotine and alcohol?
Perhaps it would be helpful to begin by taking a look at the similarities and dissimilarities between alcohol and cannabis.
For example, cannabis, like alcohol, is an organic substance. Like alcohol, it has the potential to intoxicate and distort reality. Like alcohol, the delivery mechanism of cannabis can be highly concentrated and potent, such as a high-THC vape pen, or quite mild and subtle, such as dry smoking of bits of cannabis mixed with tobacco leaves and essential oils (there are recipes for things like this in my book Boundless). Like alcohol, cannabis use can produce tolerance, meaning that it has less noticeable effects on someone who uses it regularly than someone who uses it occasionally. Like alcohol, cannabis has been a dietary, cultural, and religious staple in cultures all around the world for use in celebrations and ceremonies (a topic I discuss in my recent podcast with Josiah Hesse about the use of cannabis in sport).
However, unlike alcohol, it is somewhat impossible to blackout or die from an overdose of cannabis (the “LD” or Lethal Dose is incredibly high for cannabis). The same could be said when comparing most drugs to alcohol. As a matter of fact, professor David Nutt published research in the medical journal the Lancet in 2007 that rated the most dangerous drugs. The top five most dangerous drugs were heroin, cocaine, barbiturates, street methadone, and—you guessed it—alcohol. Cannabis was much farther down on the list, along with compounds such as LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA (you can also view a helpful and quite interesting chart here that breaks this down based on another body of research, this time with alcohol on the top of the list of most dangerous drugs). In addition, cannabis, compared to most forms of alcohol (aside from a complex, mixed alcoholic cocktail with bitters, roots, plants, tinctures, etc.), contains a far more complex chemical makeup due to the hundreds of cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Unlike alcohol, and partially due to pharmaceutical lobbying and the war on drugs (e.g. Reefer Madness), cannabis is rife with cultural associations with rebellion, laziness, and crime. Perhaps most interestingly, cannabis is not specifically named in the Bible. This means that, unlike alcohol or honey or food, since the Bible does not refer to cannabis, we don't exactly have a clear and certain direction for the proper use of substances like cannabis, or kava kava, or kratom, or ibogaine, or ayahuasca, or San Pedro cactus (or microwaves, planes, and computers for that matter)—aside from the general warning to avoiding tempting others towards sin or entering into a state of socially problematic “drunkenness” when using such compounds.
Interestingly, as a recent BBC article reported, a new archeological study has found that ancient Israelites burned cannabis as part of their religious rituals. One well-preserved substance found in a 2,700-year-old temple in Tel Arad was identified as cannabis (including its psychoactive compound THC). The substance was discovered on two limestone altars that had been buried within the temple shrine, and due to the dry climate and the burial, the remains of burnt offerings were preserved on top of these altars. Researchers concluded that cannabis may have been burned in order to induce some kind of a psychoactive effect among worshippers. Frankincense was also found on one of the altars, which, as you'll learn later in this article, can have psychoactive effects as well, and holds prominence in several holy texts. The article reports that this discovery suggests that cannabis also played a role in worship at the Temple of Jerusalem, because at the time the shrine in Arad was part of a hilltop fortress at the southern frontier of the Kingdom of Judah, and it is said to match a scaled-down version of Biblical descriptions of the First Temple in Jerusalem. Just because the Bible doesn't specifically name cannabis, doesn't mean that cannabis didn't play a role as one of the many plants and herbs and spices described later in this article and used in temple worship (heck, hummus, tahini, tzatziki, and falafel aren't mentioned in the Bible either, as far as I know, but I ate plenty of that the last time I was in Israel).
Ultimately, we do know that both alcohol and cannabis come with both blessings and curses, and this makes sense since the Greek term for drug (pharmakon) actually means both remedy and poison. This seems to be quite an accurate interpretation of the potential for alcohol, plant medicines, psychedelics, and the like to be either a blessing or a curse, depending upon how they are used and for what purpose. Both alcohol and cannabis have great potential to cause one to violate the value of sobriety, and when it comes to self-mastery of passions and desires or losing control of one's senses or desires, a mind-numbing, reality-distorting cloud of cannabis can be just as problematic as a few too many glasses of wine at a dinner party.
There's a reason that God made everything that He made, and a reason that He declared it good (e.g. 1 Timothy 4:4: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving”). For example, in my article on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I wrote of God's creation of that tree as likely a means by which to grant Adam and Eve free will, but also to “test” their desire to be fully satisfied in God alone as the ultimate object of their desire. In my articles “Honey” and “My Father's World,” I wrote of the immense joy we can harness from savoring all of God's creation, with responsible use and moderation, after which point the overconsumption or misuse of food, drinks, herbs, spices and other enjoyable elements of creation can become a sin.
But particularly relevant to this article, when it comes to the type of altered state of consciousness that any compound, from coffee to cannabis to marijuana to psilocybin can produce, rules, training, guidance, and boundaries are of absolute necessity, for two primary reasons. First, it's important to understand that an altered state can render a human being more susceptible to predation (ancient man picking away at magic mushrooms under an ungulate's dung could easily have been eaten by a tiger while tripping on shrooms out in the middle of nowhere), accidents, poor and regrettable mistakes, bad memory (e.g. leaving an oven burner on while hitting a vape pen while cooking dinner and subsequently starting a house fire), and the like. These types of compounds are therefore dangerous and require a highly protected set and setting when used for “journeying” purposes. I'm going to unpack that quite a bit as I delve into the traditional and religious uses of plant medicines later in this article.
Second, combining, stacking, or otherwise blending such compounds—as many modern-day “psychonauts” and self-experimenters are prone to do—is a practice rife with risk and often void of understanding or application of the original sacred intent of these compounds, which I'll also visit below. In other words, as Michael Pollan dictated when being interviewed recently on the Joe Rogan show about his new book This Is Your Mind On Plants (well worth a listen and a read if you're interested in this topic), the increasing legality of compounds such as high-potency THC and legal psilocybin dictates that young, poorly informed adults are often wandering into dispensaries and having at their immediate disposal the same type of chemicals traditionally combined and used as a “gateway to God.” That's not a good thing. These are not party drugs and need to be taken quite seriously. When used in amounts that cause an altered state of consciousness, these were originally intended for very specific, sacred purposes, and not to simply pop as a fun way to check out and spin a few dials in the brain once the school or workday has ended.
So I think it's perfectly reasonable to—provided that it is not being used as an escape, an attachment, or a denial of trust in God, and that it is not drawing others into misuse or abuse of any substance—to relax at the end of the day with a mug of foamy beer or a hit on a vape pen, or to address an irritable stomach issue with a glass of wine or an Indica edible, or to gather at a dinner party around cocktails, a hookah, a vaporizer, a bong, a keg or anything else of the like, provided that moderation, responsibility, personal discretion, and awareness of one's environment and company are all taken into account.
What About “Altered States Of Consciousness”?
Now here's the rub…
…I've discussed above the responsible and moderated uses of alcohol, cannabis, coffee, and any other plant that has the potential to significantly shift one's state of consciousness…
…but what happens if those compounds are indeed actually used to elevate or alter one's perceptions, senses, insights, visions, neurotransmitters, experiences, etc.? Is that the same thing as being drunk?
I'm not entirely convinced that there is not a precedent that demonstrates the use of such compounds in a controlled and often religious and ceremonial set and setting, specifically for a purpose that utilizes yet another reason God may have created such elements of the plant kingdom—namely, an enhanced spiritual experience and heightened connection to God.
Danny Nemu, author of Neuro-Apocalypse, Science Revealed, and perhaps most notably, the paper “Getting high with the most high: Entheogens in the Old Testament” and a YouTube video by the same name, is one fellow who has dug into this topic quite a bit, (I really wish that paper had been named differently, as I think the term “getting high” is rife with negative implications related to drunkenness), along with Brian Muraresku in his recent book The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name and Michael Pollan in his new book This Is Your Mind On Plants.
For example, Danny describes in his paper how in the book of Exodus, there’s a psychoactive preparation of four herbs and resins that may have been used to encounter the divine on earth, and is yet to be surpassed in complexity in the centuries that have passed since. Exodus 30:23-24 says:
“Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, 250, and 250 of aromatic cane (in other translations, this would be called kaneh-bosm and also sweet calamus, and was most likely cannabis), and 500 of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil.”
Just so you understand the measurements here, 500 shekels is about 12 1/2 pounds, 250 shekels is about 6 1/4 pounds, and a hin is about 1 gallon. To understand why this is quite an interesting mix, you need to wrap your head around how enzymes work. I'll explain, and also give a head-nod to Danny for this paper, which really digs into the science of how this relates to ancient religious practices, where I learned much of what I'll share with you below. One function of enzymes within your body is to act as a biological catalyst for the breakdown of molecules. When an enzyme's attachment site on a cell is blocked by some kind of enzyme inhibitor, that enzyme can no longer work on its target molecule. This means that certain molecules can persist in higher amounts or for longer periods of time in the body if the enzyme that breaks down those molecules is being inhibited. For example, many SSRI antidepressant medications work via this mechanism, by specifically inhibiting the enzyme that breaks down serotonin (as the name Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor implies). As a matter of fact, in the US, five of the most prescribed psychiatric drugs, including Zoloft and Prozac, act as antidepressants by inhibiting enzymes.
One of the first such modern enzyme inhibitors discovered in the 1950s during research on tuberculosis drugs was “isoniazid,” which was found to produce a notable euphoria caused by enzyme-blocking that resulted in serotonin persisting in the synapses of the brain. Serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline are all classified as monoamines (MAs), which are broken down by monoamine oxidase enzymes (MAOs). MAOs are blocked by MAO inhibitors (MAOis), which would include an early example of an SSRI like isoniazid. This type of MAOi action can cause profound changes in neurotransmitter concentrations, mood, and mind.
Mastery over how to use this type of enzyme alteration to flood the brain with specific neurotransmitters or other chemicals is something human beings appear to have studied for quite some time, from the vines of Amazonia to the deserts of Persia to the ancient Israelites. You've no doubt heard of ayahuasca, which is an MAOi mixture brewed from the chacruna shrub (Psychotria viridis) and the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). The chacruna shrub normally has no notable psychoactive effects because the DMT in it is broken down by MAOs in the gut. But when chacruna is consumed along with the MAOi's found in the ayahuasca vine, the DMT passes into the bloodstream and brain and persists for significant periods of time, resulting in a plant-based, psychedelic “journey.”
Now refer back to that passage of Exodus above, which describes pure myrrh, sweet cinnamon (Ceylon cinnamon), kaneh-bosm, cassia (another species of cinnamon), and olive oil used to produce an anointing oil, something very much like massage oil. It appears that based on this recipe, the Israelites were using enzyme inhibition to produce a quite similar enzyme-inhibition-based mixture even more complex than ayahuasca. I'll explain how.
Take the liquid myrrh, for example. Myrrh acts on opioid receptors, very much like an opiate-based painkilling drug. It causes pupil constriction (a common side effect of heroin) and according to many users, a “euphoria that grows in intensity by the minute”. This may also be why the Romans infused myrrh into wine for their feasts, and also why this ancient painkiller was offered to Jesus on the cross, and in Proverbs 7:17-18 used as an aphrodisiac (“I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love.“).
As I mentioned earlier, there is evidence to support the theory that sweet calamaus, aka aromatic cane, aka kaneh-bosm was actually cannabis—the same herb I described earlier that was recently discovered in an 8th century BC shrine in Israel. The fact that frankincense, which is a psychoactive compound that acts on the GABA neurotransmitter pathways and has many synergies with these other ingredients makes this an even more interesting theory. The research “Burning incense is psychoactive: New class of antidepressants might be right under our noses” describes how a blend of cannabis and frankincense would allow for amplification of dopamine levels, specifically because cannabis acts at the final terminals of a neuron, where incoming electrical pulses are translated into chemical signals that travel across a neuronal synapse to the neurons ahead. In the case of THC binding CB1 receptors, this chemical signal is propagated by a large release of dopamine. Meanwhile, frankincense activates ion channels called “TRPV3's” that make cell receptors more responsive to dopamine, thus synergistically amplifying the effects of cannabis.
The two members of the cinnamon family named are also mildly psychoactive when consumed alone, but can also act on other enzyme pathways to make anything consumed along with the cinnamon have a much more powerful psychological effect. Cinnamon also contains eugenol, which can increase the transdermal absorption of topicals, along with cinnamaldehyde, which dilates the skin capillaries and would also allow for better absorption of this anointing oil into the bloodstream. This is likely why in traditional Persian medicine, Ceylon cinnamon is used in “convoy medicine,” a practice in which a convoy such as cinnamon allows other components of a blend to produce the desired effect. These convoys seem to act as enzyme inhibitors too. For example, ayahuasca acts on MAO, but cinnamon inhibits several enzymes of a system called the cytochrome system.
The majority of medications and pharmaceuticals we use are broken down by six different enzymes known as cytochrome enzymes (CYP3A4, CYP2C9, CYP2C19, CYP1A2, CYP2E1, and CYP2D6). Ceylon cinnamon actually inhibits the first five of those enzymes and the sixth is inhibited by cassia cinnamon. This means that the combination of these two cinnamon varietals can deactivate the body’s drug breakdown system, thus increasing the concentration and duration of psychoactive components co-ingested or co-applied with cinnamon, but can also activate other chemicals in an oil or incense that would normally be broken down. For example, when combined with cytochrome inhibitors such as cinnamon, β-caryophyllene makes cell receptors more sensitive to the THC in cannabis. It turns out that both myrrh and cinnamon contain ample amounts of β-caryophyllene. Other relatives of MDMA (e.g. “ecstasy) that are present in the transdermal mixture described in Exodus include safrole, elemicin, and estragole (estragole supposedly acts as an LSD-like psychedelic in the presence of these inhibitors).
In Biblical Hebrew, this oil is referred to as shemen ha-mishchah, derived from the word mashach, which means to wipe or paint. The word Mashach is also the root of mashiyach, which means “an anointed one”, often used to refer to an anointed king. This king was considered to be an intermediary between God and His people, and this connection was forged by an anointing that initiated his reign, such as in 1 Samuel 16:13, which says, “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of God came upon David from that day forward.” Exodus 30:30 says that the priesthood was also anointed in order to minister unto God in the priest’s office, and in both the Tabernacle tent and the Temple of Solomon, anointing was the first stage of a priest’s divine encounter.
In addition, it appears that these same types of compounds may also have been burnt and inhaled as incense during temple worship. For example, in Exodus 30:34-35, God says to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.” The Talmud (the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law) adds to this ingredient list saffron, cassia, cinnamon, mastic, costus, spikenard, and agarwood.
In the paper alluded to earlier, Danny Nemu (who I should be interviewing on my podcast soon, by the way) describes how during Jewish temple worship, and after being anointed with the oil described earlier, a High Priest would then proceed to the Holy of Holy, which was the inner sanctuary of the temple Tabernacle, and commune with God while burning the spices listed above in large doses. Leviticus 16:12-13 says, “…then he must take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense, and take them inside the veil. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the cloud of incense will cover the mercy seat above the Testimony…”.
This incense blend (which I tried and reported on here, using all ingredients that can be purchased on websites such as this, many of which also sell the anointing oil discussed above), like the topical anointing oil, turns out to be quite an interesting mix. The saffron acts on opioid receptors, while the agarwood and spikenard impact neurotransmitters such as GABA, acetylcholine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Several of these same components also seem to protect the nervous system synapses from the effects of too much dopamine, while others assist with memory formation. If inhaled, this incense had the potential to be quite the psychoactive mix, and in his article on Biblical entheogens, author Benny Shannon hypothesizes that the reason the High Priest had a chain tied to him was so that the other priests outside would know if he passed out!
While the High Priest was immersed in the smoke of this incense in the Tabernacle or later, at the Temple in Jerusalem, other priests would partake in a different preparation called the showbread, which was served with frankincense. The description of this showbread in the Talmud indicates that this was no normal bread, as “every priest who received only the size of an olive became satiated, and some was leftover”, and that “The delicate priests refused to take it altogether, but the voracious ones accepted and consumed…”. The minuscule dose of the showbread suggests that it also produced some type of psychoactive response, and, as I'll describe later in this article, may actually have been derived from an ergot fungus rich in LSD-like compounds. Related to sobriety, these Israelite priests, in Leviticus 10:7 are forbidden from leaving the setting of the Tabernacle (“And ye shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you“) and in Leviticus 10:9, warned not to consume strong drink (“Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations“), possibly due to the potential of alcohol to quite deleteriously interact with these other psychoactive substances, since there is a much higher risk of liver toxicity and mental debilitation when high amounts of ethanol are metabolized along with these type of compounds.
Traditionally, sacred objects in the Tabernacle such as the table on which the showbread was placed, the altar of incense, and the seven-branched candelabrum (menorah), were anointed along with the priests, and the constant evaporation of these volatile oils would have made the air rich in psychoactive chemicals. As anyone who has taken a hit on a vape pen, cigarette, or even an essential oil vaporizing device knows, the inhalation of terpenes such as α-pinene and limonene within many plants produces a high bioavailability via pulmonary uptake. It is for this reason that many forms of aromatherapy utilize nebulizers and oil diffusers to produce calming, stimulating, motivating, focusing, drive-enhancing, and other effects, and research has validated that simply breathing in these chemicals produces noticeable shifts in mood, memory, and cognition.
Interestingly, the very design of the Tabernacle, with four layers of fabric drawn tightly over a frame and pinned into the ground, was constructed similarly to other smoke chambers of the ancient world and configured to trap such chemicals, very much like an ancient “hotbox.” It also featured a censer, which is a container in which incense is burned, typically during a religious ceremony. The outermost layer of this fabric was actually a type of leather that was quite strong and fairly impermeable, which would have allowed all the fumigated materials from the finely ground incense in a small, well-sealed chamber to remain densely concentrated in the air for longer periods of time. This inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle was referred to as the “Holy of Holies,” and was used most notably by the High Priest for communicating with the Divine.
Before entering the chamber, the High Priest was anointed with the anointing oil described earlier, which mean that his cytochrome P450 enzymes would already have been inhibited and would have allowed for the inhaled psychoactives to remain active for a longer period of time (Leviticus 16:12-13“…then he must take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense, and take them inside the veil. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the cloud of incense will cover the mercy seat above the Testimony…”).
When this thick veil was drawn back during entering or exiting this chamber, smoke would have been able to pour out of the Holy of Holies and through the Tabernacle to the entrance. As Exodus 33:9-11 says, “As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent. The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.”
This cloudy pillar of smoke could very likely have been the guiding pillar given to the Israelites and described in Exodus 13:21, which says, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” Like the Israelite High Priest, the Oracle at Delphi, who was high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece, prophesied following fumigation in a similar type of chamber, in this case burning frankincense, myrrh, laurel, olibanum, and henbane in her cave. This was a mixture that contained many of the same ingredients and chemicals as the incense used in the Tabernacle. In addition, Egyptian priests burned kyphi incense in the Temple of Edfu, and this blend likely contained frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, mastic, saffron, and spikenard.
Now, I'm not saying that there is evidence in the Bible that the Levite priests experienced a heightened ability to prophesy or communicate with God by ingesting or topically applying mind-altering plants, herbs, and spices, but the psychopharmacology and setting of the ingredients described in Leviticus would certainly have been conducive to such a scenario. Furthermore, modern research has demonstrated that people who take psychedelics for spiritual purposes score higher on what is called the “Mysticism Scale” compared to atheists out partying on the same drugs in an entirely different set and setting, and divinity students given psilocybin in church have reported mystical experiences that they still described more than two decades later as highly formative to their religious experience as a whole.
There's even a field that studies these types of mystical and spiritual experiences triggered by exogenous or endogenous chemicals, which I first mentioned in my article here on prayer. The field is called “neurotheology,” and blends the existing fields of biology, neurology, psychology, and theology. One basic premise of neurotheology is that mystical and spiritual experiences can be triggered by exogenous or endogenous chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, GABA, etc. Although some students of neurotheology have proposed that the ultimate source of spiritual experiences is, therefore, the brain, others—including Rick Strassman, who is a well-known clinical psychopharmacology researcher—propose instead that “entities from transcendent realms” communicate to us via our brain and our neurotransmitters, arguing that a neurotheological approach that is based upon spiritual experiences being created entirely from within via a soup of human neurochemicals actually denies or disrespects the divineness and mystery of the spiritual world, and risks shoving all spiritual experiences into the bucket of logical, rational, explainable scientism. I would tend to agree with this more “theoneurological” approach and have a hunch that the ointment and incense I've been describing are not just psychoactive but also entheogenic, meaning that they can cause one to become spiritually inspired or shift one into a state of a highly mystical or religious experience and that these entheogens can even reveal powers, including divine beings, that already exist, and allow for a deeper level of communication or connection to those powers.
There are plenty of other examples of entheogens mentioned in the Bible, referenced in Jewish religious texts, or even displayed upon religious garb. One is mandrake, a potent hallucinogen referenced in sections such as the Song of Songs 7:13 and Genesis 30:14. Another is syrian rue (peganum harmal), known as the “Ayahuasca” of North Africa and Eurasia, which contains the same monoamine oxidase (MAO)-inhibitor harmaline as is found in ayahuasca, prepared by brewing one of the DMT-containing acacia species with the rue. Interestingly, peganum harmala is translated as harmal in Arabic, related to the word haram that means both “taboo” and “sacred,” and is similar to the word cherem, which means “taboo” in Hebrew. Henbane, which contains the hallucinogenic compound scopolamine, grows as at least five different species in Israel, the most common being Hyoscyamus aureus, which can be found on the Western Wall in Jerusalem, is mentioned in the Bible in Joshua 15:11 (Shikrona there is the Hebrew word for henbane) and was pictured as an actual henbane flower on the Jewish High Priest’s ceremonial hat.
In the well-known love poem of the Bible, Song of Songs 4:13-14 says, “Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices.” Aside from pomegranate and henna, all of the plants mentioned here contain known psychoactive or aphrodisiac-like compounds, but when consumed in large quantities, pomegranate would have been able to contribute to the conscious-altering potential of the other substances (this might explain why such a large quantity of pomegranates is mentioned). Like grapefruit, pomegranate can act as a cytochrome enzyme inhibitor and can also alter the expression of genes that code the cytochrome CYP1A2 and CYP3A enzymes. CYP1A2 activity is also enhanced by THC and breaks down coumarin, making the mix described in the Song of Songs a potentially synergistic, mind-altering blend indeed.
Perhaps most notably, author Dan Merkur, in “The Mystery Of Manna: The Psychedelic Sacrament Of The Bible,” argues that the manna consumed by the Israelites in the Old Testament was a compound known as “ergot.” Ergot is a fungus that produces the substance ergotamine, which is used nowadays in the production of D-lysergic acid amide (LSA) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). The book The Road To Eleusis: Unveiling The Secret Of The Mysteries describes how “the separation of the hallucinogenic agents by simple water solution from the non-soluble ergotamine and ergotoxine alkaloids was well within the range of possibilities open to early man.”
Numbers 11:8 in the Bible describes how the manna was prepared by grinding it in mills or beating it into a mortar, then boiling it or baking it, a process that would have been able to extract the psychoactive alkaloids from ergot. Exodus 16:31 and Numbers 11:7 describe how manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin, and tasted like wafers made with honey. The honeydew ergot produces actually does taste like honey and dries on the plant as small, resinous, white pellets about the size of coriander seeds. In Exodus 16:19-20, Moses says, “Let no man leave of it till the morning.” Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and stank…” and in Exodus 16:23-24 “He said to them, “This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’ So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it.” This rapid decay, and the ability of heat to slow the decay, supports the idea of manna being an ergot-like fungus. As I described earlier in this article, the showbread used in the temple may also have been ergot, and Merkur also cites a few references in the Talmud and elsewhere to support this idea.
Finally, in his recent book The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name, author Brian Muraresku describes plenty of other examples of visionary plants, herbs, and fungi passed from one generation to the next for eons of time, including in the spiritual capital of Eleusis, where he proposes that a holy beverage unleashed heavenly visions for two thousand years, that the original sacraments of Western civilization were spiked with mind-altering drugs, that the constantly advancing fields of archaeobotany and archaeochemistry hint at the enduring use of hallucinogenic drinks in antiquity, and that there is scientific data evidencing the ritual use of psychedelic drugs in classical antiquity. While I don't agree with the entirety of Brian's book, nor do I feel that communion in churches needs to include mind-altering substances, I do think it was an interesting read nonetheless, and worth looking into if you find this topic interesting.
Whew! I realize that's a lot to digest.
But as you can see, from cannabis to frankincense, from mandrake to pomegranates, from henbane to ergot and beyond, the Bible and religious literature, in general, is rife with references to the use of specific compounds that can shift, alter, or elevate one's state of consciousness upon topical administration, inhalation, oral consumption, or all three. As I alluded to in the introduction to this section, this means that we may indeed have precedent that demonstrates the use of such compounds in a controlled and often religious and ceremonial set and setting, specifically for a purpose that utilizes yet another reason God may have created these fascinating elements of the plant kingdom—namely, to allow human beings, in a proper, controlled, and ceremonial set and setting to achieve a deeper spiritual experience and heightened connection to God.
Furthermore, I really don't think that when compounds are used for this type of purpose—as a deliberate initiation with the divine—one can describe the subsequent altered or elevated states of consciousness as the equivalent of just “getting drunk.”
Think about it this way, using the simple example of alcohol. If I handed you a bottle of wine at a nightclub or bar, and you quaffed the entire contents of the bottle, then proceeded to become ornery, bust out a bunch of silly dance moves, lose your car keys, get in a fight, and get kicked out of the venue…
…or you down a six-pack of beer at the kitchen table dinner with your family and begin verbally abusing your spouse, kicking the dog, and neglecting your children…
…that's definitely a violation of sobriety. That is drunkenness, and that is what Paul and others in the Bible warn against, and that would be the equivalent, in my opinion, of sniffing paint to get high because, well, God made paint ingredients so it must be OK. Context is everything, and I'm not aware of any religious cultures that developed themselves spiritually in any significant way by sniffing paint.
But let's say I seated you in a private room, had you sit cross-legged on a cushion, gave you an eye mask and pleasant music, led you through breathwork, then had you drink that same amount of wine while in a highly protected and controlled environment, for the purposes of introspection, self-reflection, and meditation…
…or you were to consume on your wedding anniversary night, while locked away in an intimate hotel room with your lover, several consciousness-shifting martinis accompanied by sweet incense, romantic music, and passionate love-making…
…would you also classify those scenarios as the same type of socially problematic drunkenness, or rather as the intentional use of mind-altering compounds for the purposes of an enhanced spiritual or sexual experience?
I personally think these two examples are entirely different.
Furthermore, I think it should be acknowledged and emphasized that in many cases of the examples of entheogenic and psychoactive substance use described in this article and used traditionally in human history, it is often only a select, chosen few (e.g. a priest, a shaman, an oracle or, I suppose, a secret CIA MK-ULTRA participant) who partake in the use of such substances in the proper set and setting; rather than LSD, psilocybin, cannabis, and the like simply being unprotected, unceremonialized (if that's even a word) and unleashed upon an entire population who has no clue, education or working knowledge of how these compounds have been traditionally or appropriately used, how they should be used and how potentially serious and dangerous they can be when used improperly. In that case, once again, we return to the potential for any such creation of God to be either a blessing or a curse, and unfortunately, it seems that the manner in which these substances are now being popularized is producing a higher risk of the latter, sinful neglect of sobriety and, well, just more drunkenness, albeit with a range of options that now go way beyond a few too many shots of tequila.
Finally, when it comes to altered states of consciousness, it's not as though plant medicines are the “only route” to achieve such states. For example, in his books Meditation & The Bible and Jewish Meditation, Aryeh Kaplan, an American Orthodox rabbi, author, and translator known for his knowledge of physics and kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), presents a highly radical interpretation of the Bible, demonstrating the methods of meditation used by the Prophets to attain altered states of consciousness. Aryeh presents ample evidence that meditative practices were widespread among Jews throughout Jewish history, and highlights references to meditation found in major Jewish texts in every period from the Biblical to the premodern era.
One reason that these ancient “secret” forms of attaining an altered state of consciousness has not been universally recognized is that the vocabulary of meditation has been lost to a large degree, especially during the last century. Aryeh points out that until the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment, mysticism and intellectualism had equal status within Judaism, but that the Enlightenment raised the intellectual level of Judaism, and, as positive as this may have been, it was often done at the expense of other Jewish values, including Jewish mysticism in general and meditation in particular, which became denigrated as superstition and occultism and deemed unworthy of serious study. So most references to meditation vanished from mainstream Jewish literature about 175 years ago.
However, the Bible states explicitly that the prophets used chants, meditation and music to attain higher states of consciousness, and from the Hebrew literature, it seems evident that a prophet would almost always experience his first prophetic experience while in a meditative state, and later, it would become possible for him to experience prophecy without meditation. All this changed with the the dispersion of the Jewish people beyond Israel. Around this time, these more advanced forms of meditation were hidden from the masses and made part of a secret teaching, and now only the most qualified individuals can be party to the secrets of advanced prophetic meditation that Aryeh discusses in his books, and also in a few videos you can watch here and here.
Oh: one last thing – you should know that a few months after writing the original version of this article, I took a deep dive into what “Pharmakia” in the Bible really means, and you can read about that here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).
But I think I've given you quite enough rabbit holes on this topic for now. So let's move on to a discussion! What do you think? Do all drugs, plants, herbs, and spices that have the potential to shift your mental state classify as pathways to drunkenness and simply tools for violating sobriety, and should be avoided as such, and classified as a sin? Or this there a proper intention, set, and setting for the responsible use of such compounds? I'd love to hear your thoughts, comments, questions, and feedback. I read them all.