Moses: Talking with God, or on Hallucinogens?

on March 8, 2008

A controversial new paper in the philosophy journal Time and Mind posits that Moses’s interactions with God—including the Burning Bush, the Ten Commandments, and many of the events in the Book of Exodus—can be chalked up to drugs.

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The paper comes from Hebrew University psychologist Benny Shanon, who admits extensive familiarity with multiple psychoactive substances. Shanon writes that not only Moses, but all the Israelites, could have been high on a hallucinogenic plant during many of Exodus’s key events.

For example, Shanon suggests that the thunder, lightning, and trumpets from Mount Sinai, recounted in Exodus, could have been the imaginings of the Israelites while in an “altered state of awareness.” Shanon relies on his own experience with hallucinogens in the Amazon, adding that “in advanced forms of ayahuasca inebriation, the seeing of light is accompanied by profound religious and spiritual feelings,” even making one feel he or she encountered God.

Shanon also said two plants in the Sinai and the Middle East have such psychoactive properties and have been regarded by Jews as having “magical and curative powers.”

According to the Agence France-Presse story on the paper, Shanon said on Israeli public radio that

As far Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don’t believe, or a legend, which I don’t believe either, or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effect of narcotics.

Writing on, Ofri Ilani shares that Shanon’s paper adds:

I have no direct proof of this interpretation, [but] it seems logical that something was altered in people’s consciousness. There are other stories in the Bible that mention the use of plants: for example, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.

Only one of the two plants Shanon hypothesizes as the source of the visions is mentioned in the Bible: acacia, whose wood is used to construct the Ark of the Covenant and parts of the Tabernacle. Shanon claims he drank a potion made from a species of acacia that produced hallucinogenic effects.

Orthodox rabbi Yuval Sherlow told Israel Radio, “The Bible is trying to convey a very profound event. We have to fear not for the fate of the biblical Moses, but for the fate of science.” We’d have to echo the rabbi’s words, especially when we examine the situation: a professor who claims to have used hallucinogenic substances more than 150 times—and who presupposes that the Bible’s supernatural accounts in Exodus (and elsewhere, presumably) couldn’t have been supernatural nor even exaggerated legend—declares that an entire nation was under the influence (and apparently all having the same hallucination at the same time) merely because psychoactive plants grow in the region—yet that the Israelites never knew enough corporately to recognize their group “highs” for decades.

The Israelites never knew enough corporately to recognize their group “highs” for decades.

In fact, the stories in Exodus only need some sort of natural “explanation” (even a ridiculous explanation) if one presupposes, like Shanon does, that supernatural events are impossible. With the presupposition that there is a God (the only other presupposition), the events in Exodus need no such “explanation.” And when one starts from the worldview of the Bible, the events in Exodus make total sense as recorded history that fits in with God’s plan for His creation, leading from the Garden of Eden all the way to Calvary and beyond!

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