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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The biblical Israelites may have been high on a hallucinogenic plant when Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, according to a new study by an Israeli psychology professor.
Writing in the British journal Time and Mind, Benny Shanon of Jerusalem's Hebrew University said two plants in the Sinai desert contain the same psychoactive molecules as those found in plants from which the powerful Amazonian hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca is prepared.
The thunder, lightning and blaring of a trumpet which the Book of Exodus says emanated from Mount Sinai could just have been the imaginings of a people in an "altered state of awareness," Shanon hypothesized.
"In advanced forms of ayahuasca inebriation, the seeing of light is accompanied by profound religious and spiritual feelings," Shanon wrote.
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Wildo, the presence of two hallucinogenic plants on Sinai borders on the interesting.
I think it would rise to the level of significance if there were, in the vicinity of the account of Moses' ascent/descent, mention in the narrative of the plants being brewed up.
As it stands, one has a necessary but not sufficient condition for a Sinai-as-Woodstock interpretation, vis., the presence of hallucinogens if properly prepared. A sufficient condition for at least a suspicion would be a biblical or contemporaneous extrabiblical account of the consumption of said plants.
A much stronger case could be made as regards Revelation 10:8-11, particularly given the presence on Patmos (where John wrote) of a variety of wild mushrooms, many hallucinogenic:
10:8 Then the voice which I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, "Go, take the scroll which is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land"." (9) So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, "Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth." (10) And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I head eaten it my stomach was made bitter. (11) And I was told, "You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings."
In the case of Revelation, we have the consumption of the suspected hallucinogen, the presence of the hallucinogen on the island, and the expected result of the hallucinogen, all in one place.
Of course the Greek bible, or "new testament," is chock-full of allusions to the Hebrew bible, and the case of John is no exception. We find in Ezekiel 3:1-3 the following:
(1) And he said to me, "Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel." (2)So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. (3) And he said to me, "Son of Man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it." Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.
What is immediately evident is that John of Patmos intends to mimick Ezekiel in this passage. What is far from certain is that the mushrooms are involved in John's (or Ezekiel's) prophesies. What is repeated verbatim from Ezekiel in John is that the taste of the "scroll" is sweet as honey; the innovation in John is that the scroll is bitter in his stomach.
This bitterness in the stomach, of course, is consistent with the consumption of the type of mushroom in question. So we have a few possibilities:
Possibility one: there is a good deal of coincidence going on here, and the mushrooms known to carpet Patmos (but not Alexandria, where we think Ezekiel wrote,) are just a curiosity.
Possibility two: Both figures ate hallucinogenic mushrooms as an aid to their visions. This is consistent with the practice of plenty of cultures, particularly preindustrial ones. It is a coincidence that John mimics Ezekiel as to the taste of the scroll, but innovates as to the effect on the stomach; or, the innovation is an arch commentary on the effect of prophesy in both his own case and that of Ezekiel.
Possibility three: John eats the mushrooms, building his description of his source of prophesy using the preexistent rhetoric found in Ezekiel, but adding the bitterness in the stomach so that we all get his allusion. A bit cheeky, but not out of the realm of possibility.
Regardless, both of these biblical passages, in combination with other existing points of reference, give us more of a reason to believe in the part played by the hallucinogen, than the Sinai speculation.
Since the Patmos/Mushroom connections have been out there and talked about for decades, and since this Shanon character has himself imbibed the concoction in question "160 times", according to the article, it strikes me that he was quite impressed with the Ezekiel and John speculations, and was eager to add his own Sinai speculations, despite the paucity of evidence at his disposal.
Drug use during prophecy would certainly be one of the least eggregious mismatches between the times of these writers and our own. I would be much more concerned about other gaps between the ancient theocracy and a modern liberal democracy, such as communal stonings or condemning a child to death for disobedience (just off the top of my head.)
A caveat: In many cases the "new" ancient theocracy was far and away more compassionate than surrounding cultures.
That is why I find following the spirit of the book rather than its letter so much more compelling.
No better illumination of the part the ancient theocracy played can be found, than the famous words, "an eye for an eye."
We read this often as a portrayal of stern justice, when, in fact, it is a portrayal of clemency. The practice was to kill for a loss of an eye; "an eye for an eye" is a limitation on such cyclical internecine violence.
Even more interestingly, the Israelites, from early on, developed "blood money" rates that accorded to such infractions, particularly in the event of accidental losses. That is to say, one did not lose one's eye, but the "price" of the eye. It brings to mind modern day disability insurance payouts.
And, in the course of meandering on that particular misunderstood topic, I've touched on the term "blood money," which, I believe, has its origin in such arrangements.
Look, obviously I can't use the lack of evidence as evidence that they took hallucinogens, but I don't believe that the lack of biblical or contemporaneous extra-biblical commentary on the use of such substances is necessarily a reason to be overly skeptical.
We know how well religious narratives are controlled and manufactured by those who promote it, and we also know that actual historically viable information about religious characters has been hard to come by and difficult to verify due to the "memory hole" manner in which religious history is written. The gnostic gospels, the dead sea scrolls etc. were integral parts of religious history that until relatively recently were simply mythology, as was the induction of pagan symbolism into the Christian psyche.
He said one of the psychoactive plants, harmal, found in the Sinai and elsewhere in the Middle East, has long been regarded by Jews in the region as having magical and curative powers.
It's seems to me that there's a little more extra-biblical anecdotal evidence here that leads me to think that the first possibility, coincidence, is somewhat unlikely. That is compounded by the similarities between a DMT trip and what has been described in the bible. I don't want to digress into a theological discussion of all of the ways that Judaism and Christianity were hijacked (for lack of a better word) and used right off the bat to promote certain ideals (i.e. who texts were authored by and how they were selectively put forward as "orthodox" and not "heretical.") But it would make sense to me that if temperance was to be promoted by those in charge of Christ's or Moses' memory, then it would serve to downplay and perhaps make the use of substances taboo, as has been done with sex, feminism, homosexuality etc. and other arbitrary staples of religion that serve to distinguish certain sects from each other by codifying a unique set of morals divorced from the more general ones shared by human beings of all walks (murder, theft etc.).
Nevertheless, you are correct in that this is still speculation at this point, and I'd be quick to point out that this doesn't inherently diminish the alleged religious event that took place. Many religions, especially the more tribal ones (which these people were at his time) have a ritualistic psychedelic practice that is innate to their spiritualism. Amazonian tribes, for example, undergo DMT trips when they drink Ayuhasca tea leaves.
So I really think their are two likely options here. Though I obviously can't rule out the possibility of coincidence, and I'm probably fairly biased in this assertion,I find it unlikely that there was any plant grown near or around a generally large civilization that the people didn't interact with in some form or another.
1) taking hallucinogens was a commonplace spiritual practice for the people of that time period and has been erased from the written and oral history by religious dogmatism. I find this to be somewhat unlikely though, as Moses' experience would be somewhat commonplace amongst anyone who took the drug and thus not something to ponder over and write about.
2) Moses went on a journey of self exploration through the desert, in a sort of early Thoreau-esque impulse that is exhibited by numerous humans over the course of our history. He was most likely hungry and thirsty most of the time and not too discerning about what he consumed, as he didn't have that luxury. In the process of drinking and eating whatever he could scavenge, he unknowingly ingested (ala Into The Wild) a non-lethal hallucinogen that didn't make him sick or nauseous and had delayed effects so that he didn't connect the eating to the visual hallucination. If you were walking down the street, having not consumed any drug, and had a visual hallucination, you'd be inclined to believe it. The creative section of his brain caused him to come up with the idea of a codified set of morals that would assist with societal cohesion (the ten commandments). I find this notion highly plausible.
This is all real great ... people for centuries worshiping and killing over the writings of many stoned people. Well then, that would make Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Curt Cobain to name a few our modern prophets.