Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Did the Israelites See the Sounds at Sinai Because of Psychedelic Drugs?

An interesting suggestion, but proposed by a professor of cognitive psychology rather than of Biblical studies or archeology.
High on Mount Sinai, Moses was on psychedelic drugs when he heard God deliver the Ten Commandments, an Israeli researcher claimed in a study published this week.

Such mind-altering substances formed an integral part of the religious rites of Israelites in biblical times, Benny Shanon, a professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in the Time and Mind journal of philosophy.
This is somewhat surprising to me. While there were indeed schools of prophets, with benei neviim participating, and trying to reach mind-altered states using music, the impression I got from reading Mari and the Bible by Abraham Malamat was that the Israelites in general eschewed mantic methods of reaching prophecy, and this was distinct from the neighboring nations. It could be I misunderstood this, or that other research shows that the Israelites did. Or perhaps not.

Also, this is funny:
Moses was probably also on drugs when he saw the "burning bush," suggested Shanon, who said he himself has dabbled with such substances.
Also, he writes:
"The Bible says people see sounds, and that is a clasic phenomenon," he said citing the example of religious ceremonies in the Amazon in which drugs are used that induce people to "see music."
This is a midrash, not pashut peshat in the pasuk, and he should have mentioned it. It is based on Shemot 20:14:
יד וְכָל-הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת-הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת-הַלַּפִּידִם, וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר, וְאֶת-הָהָר, עָשֵׁן; וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ, וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק. 14 And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off.
That is a hyper-literal reading, and thus midrashic, reading of וְכָל-הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת-הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת-הַלַּפִּידִם, וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר, וְאֶת-הָהָר, עָשֵׁן, though. Peshat reading of it is that they "perceived it," and that Roim has a wider possible semantic meaning that the simplest and most common.

There is an interesting point he makes, though:
He mentioned his own experience when he used ayahuasca, a powerful psychotropic plant, during a religious ceremony in Brazil's Amazon forest in 1991. "I experienced visions that had spiritual-religious connotations," Shanon said.

He said the psychedelic effects of ayahuasca were comparable to those produced by concoctions based on bark of the acacia tree, that is frequently mentioned in the Bible.
But is acacia wood {atzei shittim} used in any "concoction" described in the Torah? We see it used for construction of vessels, but not for concoctions which are burnt or quaffed. Is it one of the ingredients in the ketoret? One thing that did strike me, though, was that the mizbach haketoret, the incense altar, was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. Would burning incense on it twice daily release some of this acacia bark and induce some psychedelic high? I would imagine the gold covering would prevent this.

Still, very interesting theory.

(hat tip: Eliyahu)

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