They don’t teach you in Sunday school that cannabis appears in the Old Testament but modern scholarship shows that cannabis was used sacramentally by Moses and the ancient Israelites. Cannabis appears by name five times in the original Hebrew text of the Bible according to research by Polish etymologist Sula Benet, whose work Chris Bennett later expanded on. The Hebrew word “kaneh bosm” is cannabis but was later mistranslated as other plants including calamus or aromatic cane.
The Old Testament tells the story of Jewish history and how over a thousand-year period the worship of the single Israelite god ultimately took hold over the indigenous polytheistic culture. The ancient Israelites at the time of Moses in 1500 BCE lived in the land of Canaan (modern day Israel and Palestine) among the broader Canaanite culture that worshipped the Mother Goddess and many gods.
Cannabis was well established in the region and had been used for thousands of years as fiber, food, ganja, and incense. In the early centuries of the Bible the Lord favors cannabis as the Hebrew culture was still Canaanite, but over time as the worship of the Mother Goddess is purged practices such as burning incense to her in the temple are purged as well.
The first and most significant reference to cannabis is in the story of Moses, where God gives him specific instructions for how to properly set up the Tabernacle for worship and includes a recipe for holy anointing oil that includes cannabis. The holy anointing oil was to be used to anoint the temple and the priests and is sacred, the recipe not to be shared.
Exodus 30: 23-25: 1446 BCE
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus [cannabis], 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.’”
Converted into today’s measurements:
Liquid myrrh 500 shekels 5.75 kg (12.68 lbs)
Cassia 500 shekels 5.75 kg (12.68 lbs)
Cinnamon leaf 250 shekels 2.875 kg (6.34 lbs)
Cannabis flowers 250 shekels 2.875 kg (6.34 lbs)
Olive oil 1 hin 6.5 liters (1.72 gallons)
As you can imagine, an oil that contains more than 6 pounds of ganja steeped in less than 2 gallons of olive oil is going to be very potent. In ceremonies the oil would be poured over the head and body of the priest, drenching them. The skin readily absorbs THC and the effect of soaking in this oil would be very psychoactive, offering some serious communion with the Lord.
The second reference to cannabis is in the court of King Solomon, who ruled in the 10th century BCE. Solomon was known for his great wisdom and he built the first Hebrew temple in Jerusalem. But unlike his father, King David, Solomon fell out of favor with the Lord because King Solomon worshipped Asherah, the Canaanite goddess of his wives and he burned incense to her.
Solomon also wrote the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon), a love poem that is considered the most beautiful text in the Bible and unique for being explicitly sexual. In chapter 4 the man describes the beauty of his lover, comparing her to the most beautiful flowers, including cannabis, among other flattery.
Song of Songs 4: 10-15 950 BCE
“How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume more than any spice! Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon. 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, calamus [cannabis] and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices. You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon.”
As the tale of Jewish history moves on to the 8th century BCE and the prophet Isaiah, cannabis once again makes an appearance. Isaiah warned about the sinfulness and faithlessness of Israel and preached reform. Cannabis is referenced in the text as one of the offerings the Israelites have failed to bring to the Lord.
Isaiah 43:24 711 BCE
“You have not bought any fragrant calamus [cannabis] 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.”
The fourth reference to cannabis comes in the book of Jeremiah, where God is angry with the Israelites for their greed and deceit. Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet who foresaw the coming destruction of Israel. In the passage, cannabis is referenced as among the offerings God rejects, reflecting a definitive shift in worship practices.
Jeremiah 6:20 627 BCE
“What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus [cannabis] from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me.”
In 586 BCE comes the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. This is one of the most traumatic and important chapters in Jewish history. Tyre, in modern day Lebanon, was the wealthy capital city of Canaan and also besieged by the Babylonians. Cannabis is listed among the items of trade that passed through the great city in the fifth explicit reference to the plant.
Ezekiel 27:18-19 586 BCE
“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 calamus [cannabis].”
Cannabis is ultimately rejected by the Israelites once and for all during the time of Babylonian exile along with the worship of the Mother Goddess Asherah, the Queen of Heaven. There is a long passage in Jeremiah where the prophet rails against Asherah while the women defend their practice of burning incense to her. I think we all know who won that conflict.
Jeremiah 44:15-23 588 BCE
“Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, ‘We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.’”
The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?”
Then Jeremiah said to all the people, both men and women, who were answering him, “Did not the Lord remember and call to mind the incense burned in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem by you and your ancestors, your kings and your officials and the people of the land? When the Lord could no longer endure your wicked actions and the detestable things you did, your land became a curse and a desolate waste without inhabitants, as it is today. Because you have burned incense and have sinned against the Lord and have not obeyed him or followed his law or his decrees or his stipulations, this disaster has come upon you, as you now see.”