Cannabis in the Bible
Signs of the Rival Goddess and the Divorce
My new book is called “A History of the Goddess” but the book did not begin that way. I did not know anything about goddesses, it was all fresh knowledge to me.
My book was originally about cannabis. I was looking into the references to marijuana in the Bible and I stumbled into the story of the Goddess which is a much bigger story. The original title for my book was, “Cannabis and the Goddess.”
So let’s talk about cannabis in the Bible.
People have been joking and speculating about marijuana in the Bible for a long time, the Burning Bush and the Forbidden Fruit make obvious metaphors for weed, but could there be any truth to it?
The words cannabis or hemp do not appear in contemporary versions of the Bible, but modern scholarship indicates there are five direct references to cannabis in the original Hebrew text that are mistranslated as calamus, a different plant, or else the meaningless term, aromatic cane.
These claims are controversial and not accepted by all scholars, but if true, there are significant theological implications since cannabis was an ingredient in Moses’ holy anointing oil (Exodus 30:23), a recipe delivered directly from God.
Cannabis must have lost its sacred use along the way as the originally pagan Hebrews embraced monotheism and became the Jews. How and why that happened tells us a lot about our cultural history and today’s culture wars.
First, some background on cannabis in the region of the Holy Land.
Cannabis has grown in the Ancient Near East since the Neolithic and thrives today in Turkey, Persia, and Lebanon where it has been grown variously for both hemp fibers and drugs. The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon is near the Holy Land and has been an agricultural breadbasket through all of known history, it’s wine industry is thought to be 5000 years old and is famous in the Bible.
His renown will be like the wine of Lebanon. - Hosea 14:7
The Bekaa Valley was the site of some of the earliest Neolithic settlements and is home to the remarkable temple sites at Baalbek. The Phoenicians had temples to Baal and Astarte, which the Romans rebuilt at a magnificent scale to Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus. The sexually riotous worship of Dionysus/Bacchus the god of wine, drugs, and ecstasy long had a home there.
Today the Bekaa Valley is one of the world’s most prolific producers of marijuana and hashish. I am personally of the opinion that this farming tradition goes back before Biblical times and could have provided all the cannabis needed for Biblical events, both fiber and drugs. The temple to Bacchus reportedly contains an engraving of a cannabis leaf (if anyone has the picture please share it).
The Phoenicians, Canaanites, and pagan Hebrews all worshipped the same pantheon of gods; El, Baal, Astarte, Asherah, Anat, and the rest. There was a common religious culture throughout the Levant and the monotheistic Hebrews, the Yahwists or followers of Yahweh, were the revolutionary exception. The temples at Baalbek were likely pilgrimage sites for all the Canaanite tribes, traditions the Yahwists rejected.
The ritual use of cannabis as a sacred incense and a burnt offering was probably common throughout the Levant and I contend it was also used by the First Temple Hebrews in the Bible. Sacred weaving was also foundational in Goddess traditions and hemp was one of their primary fibers.
We have explicit evidence of the ritual use of cannabis as an incense by the Assyrians from the Old Testament period. The Assyrians from Mesopotamia (Iraq) had intimate, ongoing relations with the Hebrews and they used cannabis extensively in religious rites and as a drug to induce ecstasy in the goddess temples.
In a letter written in 680 BCE to the mother of Assyrian king Esarhaddon, in response to her question, “What is used in the sacred rites”, a high priest named Neralsharrani responded that “The main items for the rites are fine oil, water, honey, odorous plants, myrrh, and qunubu (cannabis).”In another letter from the same library, qunubu was among a list of spices, and as an ingredient in a perfume recipe, as a name used for girls, and as a term of endearment.
In 2020, we got the first archeological confirmation of cannabis being burned on an altar in Israel during the First Temple period. Archaeologists working at the Israeli site of Tel Arad in the Negev Desert discovered that a shrine contained residues from burnt cannabis and frankincense on a pair of limestone altars. This research is the first conclusive evidence that intoxicating cannabis resins were used ritually in Hebrew worship, though cannabis use has been suspected for a long time.
Tel Arad was a Canaanite city going back to the third millennium BCE and was an Israelite fortress from the 10th to 6th centuries BCE. This is the exact same period when the First Hebrew temple in Jerusalem was active and suggests that similar rituals were practiced there.
Evidence of cannabis used for midwifery was found in a tomb from the 4th century CE, in Beit Shemesh, Israel, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Inside the tomb was the skeleton of a pregnant 14-year-old girl who died late in her term or while giving birth. The full-size fetus was still in her mother’s womb and was too large for a safe birth. Inside of her abdominal area, scientists found a gray material that upon analysis showed the chemical remains of cannabis. Scholars believe that cannabis was used medicinally to assist the doomed mother to give birth, but in this case, the midwives were not successful.
Modern scholars believe that cannabis is mentioned by name five times in the original text of the Hebrew Bible as the word qaneh, or qaneh bosm. Qaneh is generally taken to mean branch, stalk, cane, or reed, and hemp fits that etymological context. Bosm means sweet-smelling or aromatic.
The mistake translating cannabis was originally made in the Septuagint, the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the third century BCE, and was transmitted to subsequent translations.
The etymology of qaneh bosm was first identified by Polish etymologist Sula Benet (aka Sara Benetowa) in her 1936 PhD thesis from Columbia University, and again in a 1975 paper. The name qaneh bosm has clear similarities to the Assyrian qunubu and in many ancient languages, including Hebrew, the root qan(kan) had a double meaning, both hemp and reed.
Though not all scholars are convinced of Sula Benet’s work, modern-day Israelis and Hebrew scholars don’t seem troubled by the revelations. Even the skeptics admit that the precise definition of qaneh in these passages is ambiguous.
Ellicott's Bible Commentary for English Readers from 1905 states that the identity of qaneh in the holy anointing oil and four other verses is uncertain but may have come from Mount Lebanon in Syria which borders the Bekaa Valley and is home to cannabis production.
Sweet calamus.—There are several distinct kinds of aromatic reed in the East. One sort, according to Pliny (H. N., xii. 22), grew in Syria, near Mount Lebanon; others were found in India and Arabia. It is quite uncertain what particular species is intended, either here or in the other passages of Scripture where “sweet cane” is spoken of. (See Song of Solomon 4:14; Isaiah 43:24; Jeremiah 6:20; Ezekiel 27:17.)
In all five instances where qaneh, or qaneh bosm, is mentioned, cannabis fits the context while calamus or aromatic cane does not. The instances are Exodus 30:23; Song of Solomon 4:14; Isaiah 43:24; Jeremiah 6:20; and Ezekiel 27:19. Cannabis is described as a sacred ingredient in Moses’ holy anointing oil, a valued spice, a ritual offering, and as an object of trade.
Cannabis had been widely used in the ancient Near East for thousands of years as a drug and fiber before the arrival of the Hebrews. It did not grow much in Canaan but the fiber and drug products were traded. Hemp was used for ropes and shipbuilding, nets and bowstrings, and canvas for tents, sails, and sackcloths, while fine hemp was used as linen.
Cannabis drugs were burned as incense in temples, used as a ritual intoxicant, aphrodisiac, and as a medicine, particularly for midwifery. Cannabis can be mixed with wine and other drugs like myrrh in strong drink and other mystery potions, that were typically made by women.
Hemp fibers were common and ritual weaving was an important practice in Goddess worship across many cultures, including in King Solomon’s temple where the women wove tapestries for Asherah.
Cannabis would certainly have been appreciated by the Goddess worshippers since it is the only plant that provides such a diversity of products. These were openly sexual cultures that used sex in agricultural rituals. Christians call them fertility cults because they believed that life begets life and sex makes the flowers grow.
My position is that the Jews purged the ritual use of cannabis in the transition to formal monotheism because cannabis was sacred in the rival Goddess traditions. But cannabis was being used in earlier times by the pagan Hebrews and was presented as an offering to Yahweh in the First Temple, though not in the Second Temple.
Let’s take a closer look at the references in scripture.
Song of Solomon 4:14
In the romantic Song of Songs, King Solomon compares his beautiful bride to a garden filled with cannabis and all the finest spices. Cannabis is mentioned alongside myrrh, with which it was commonly combined to make incense as well as strong drink.
You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, cannabis [qaneh], and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices. - Songs 4:12-14
King Solomon was a pagan Goddess worshipper, and the Song of Songs is drawn from an ancient tradition of ritual love poetry.
Cannabis was presented as an offering in Yahweh’s temple. The prophet Jeremiah preached in Jerusalem at the time it was destroyed by the Babylonians. Jeremiah mentions “cannabis from a distant land” as among the offerings the Hebrews made to Yahweh that were no longer satisfying.
“What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet cannabis [qaneh] from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me." - Jeremiah 6:20
Cannabis appears in Isaiah 43, which comes from the time of exile in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem. Israel had offended Yahweh with their lack of offerings, and fragrant cannabis is included among the offerings that Israel had failed to bring.
"You have not bought any fragrant cannabis [qaneh] 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 43:24
The prophet Ezekiel mentions cannabis in his lament for Tyre, in a list of products traded from Lebanon.
"'Damascus did business with you because of your many products and great wealth of goods. They offered wine from Helbon, wool from Zahar and casks of wine from Izal in exchange for your wares: wrought iron, cassia and cannabis [qaneh]. - Ezekiel 27:18-19
Cannabis appears most prominently during the career of Moses. Cannabis is explicitly identified as an ingredient in the holy anointing oil as instructed directly by God. These same ingredients were thought to have been used in the sacred incense as well. God would visit Moses at the Tent of the Meeting in a cloud of smoke, quite possibly an intoxicating smoke.
"Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant cannabis [qaneh bosm], 500 shekels of cassia - all according to the sanctuary shekel - and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil.” - Exodus 30:23-25
This a potently medicinal recipe that people make today, it requires over 6 pounds of cannabis to be infused into around 1.5 gallons of olive oil plus the other spices. The holy anointing oil was used to sanctify all the sacred objects in the temple, as well as anointing all the priests and kings.
Every high priest and king in the House of David was anointed with the sacred cannabis oil. Jesus Christ, the anointed one, presumably was as well, so there are serious downstream theological implications to cannabis being in the recipe.
I am going to go out on a limb here and make textual interpretations that show additional portrayals of cannabis that are also theologically important.
I make the case that cannabis is both the burning bush of Moses and the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden.
I argue that cannabis was ultimately rejected by the Jews as part of the Divorce of the Heavenly Father from the Earthly Mother in the rise of monotheism. We still feel the effects of this today in the War on Drugs.
Cannabis can be seen as the burning bush through which God first spoke to Moses. The Rastafarians believe this to be the case. Cannabis has been burned in heaps in religious ceremonies for thousands of years prior to Moses so it is not difficult speculation to make, though people have suggested many different plants.
The menorah offers more supporting evidence of cannabis. The burning bush is said to be the inspiration for the menorah, the sacred seven-branched candle stand that is decorated in a floral motif and whose branches are made of qan. Here we see where the word qan can mean branch or hemp. Qan is used repeatedly in the instructions for fashioning the menorah which has the appearance of a field of cannabis buds.
The buds and branches [qan] shall all be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold. - Exodus 25:36
These interpretations indicate that Moses was something of a desert shaman whose practices were still close to the paganism of the early Hebrews and much different from the practices of formal Judaism many centuries later. In my view, Moses is the one who introduced the concept of monotheism to his thoroughly pagan community.
The original stories of Moses must have been very old because there are important symbolic details that shift by the time of the Deuteronomists some 600 years later who edited his stories and introduced the harshly monotheistic laws found in the book of Deuteronomy. This speaks to how cannabis could have been valued by Moses and rejected centuries later.
The serpent was a powerful symbol for Moses and in the Goddess traditions. The serpent symbolizes wisdom, divination, and the cycle of life. Moses had a staff given to him by God that could turn into a snake that Moses used repeatedly, particularly in a confrontation with Pharaoh in the Exodus from Egypt. Moses then later created a bronze snake on a pole that healed the Hebrews from snakebites. In the Garden of Eden which was written later, the serpent would be made into a villain.
So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. - Numbers 21:9
Centuries later during the monotheistic reforms of King Hezekiah around 700 BCE, where they cut down the poles of the mother goddess Asherah, the bronze snake was broken down and smashed by the king because the people had been burning incense to it. Perhaps they were burning hashish to it.
He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) - 2 Kings 18:4
Moses had issued instructions to make the curtains of the tabernacle from linen and wool.
All those who were skilled among the workers made the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim woven into them by expert hands. - Exodus 36:8
But the Deuteronomists issued the shatnez law that forbids linen and wool from being combined.
Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together. - Deuteronomy 22:11
Linen and wool are symbolic of animal and vegetable, farmer and shepherd, like Cain and Abel. The Hebrews were shepherds and the Goddess worshippers were the farmers. Once upon a time the farmers and shepherds came together in peace, but the monotheistic shepherds saw the farmers as their great rivals and made Cain the farmer into the first murderer in their mythology.
The Garden of Eden story has never been formally dated and there are indications it was written late, possibly post-exile. The symbolism of the serpent makes a compelling case that the story was written after the reforms of Hezekiah, and presumably in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple.
I believe this story represents a condemnation of Asherah and the Goddess traditions with Eve symbolizing the goddesses. After all, Eve is the mother of all living, the mother goddess. Serpents had long been symbols of goddesses and divination which was generally a woman’s activity.
Yahwist priests wrote the Garden of Eden story as mythical propaganda against their rival priestesses of Asherah, Astarte, and Anat. It is the divorce papers signed, sealed, and delivered.
Cannabis can be seen as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit eaten by Eve and Adam. Genesis 3:6-7 makes a clear and precise description of cannabis, it’s healthy seeds, intoxicating resins, and useful fibers.
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. - Genesis 3:6-7
The Tree of Knowledge can be seen as cannabis; the plant is attractive to the eye, the fruit is good to eat, and when eaten it creates a mystical, mind-expanding experience. The first thing Adam and Eve do after eating the fruit is to sew clothes using hemp fibers, and then they became farmers.
The plant was sacred in the Goddess traditions because it was valued as a fiber, food, and drug, in a religion that celebrated nature, sexuality, ecstatic intoxication, and weaving. Sacred use of the plant is forbidden by the Yahwists precisely because it was important and sacred in the rival Goddess traditions.
To the woman he said, "I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." - Genesis 3:16
Eve is punished by God by being given painful childbirth, this is another clue because cannabis is a midwifery medicine. Eve was also told to be monogamous to Adam, the Canaanites were not monogamous in their culture since they had public sex rituals, temple prostitution, and used cannabis as an aphrodisiac.
My thesis is that the Bible tells the story of the divorce of the Heavenly Father from the Earthly Mother so that the Heavenly Father could rule alone. The traditions and symbols of the Goddess that could not be utilized by God had to be expelled from the new traditions of monotheism.
The serpent, cannabis, and the shatnez all reflect the changing symbolism from the time of Moses to the later writers of the Bible. Serpents were symbols of divination and goddesses. Linen and wool were joined in a marriage of farmer and shepherd, but the monotheists demanded a divorce, leading to the shatnez.
Modern monotheism rejects sex, drugs, and nature worship, and cannabis is wrapped up in all of it. Cannabis is sacred in many religious traditions, including thousands of years of Hinduism and modern-day Rastafarianism, but not in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
Cannabis is sacred to the Goddess, but the monotheistic God does not want a mate, and can’t tolerate the traditions that put us in touch with her. This is core to the reason why Christian authorities reject cannabis drugs even though they tolerate alcohol and tobacco which are toxic and more destructive to life, while cannabis causes no death or disease and is good medicine.
Cannabis has been important throughout all of history. Hemp fibers were a backbone of civilization and cannabis drugs long played a role in nature-based religion. Today, cannabis is the backbone of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, we just don’t realize it is a religious war being waged on the people and Mother Nature that echoes the spiritual warfare of the Old Testament.
Chris Bennett has done the most to illuminate the role of cannabis in worldwide religion and the Bible in his books and articles.
Russo, Ethan B., History of Cannabis and Its Preparations in Saga, Science, and Sobriquet,
Article in Chemistry & Biodiversity, November 2007, DOI: 10.1002/cbdv.200790144, Royal Correspondence at Kouyunjik, letter 368.
Fox, Alex, Archaeologists Identify Traces of Burnt Cannabis in Ancient Jewish Shrine, smithsonianmag.com, June 4, 2020. www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/cannabis-found-altar-ancient-israeli-shrine-180975016/