Moses and Ayahuasca

Beware of any article published in the first issue of the first volume of a new scholarly journal.

Scholars and researchers are not going to risk placing their breakthrough career-making articles in an untried journal that may, within a few issues, sink into oblivion. Rather, they often see the newly founded journal as a place to publish pieces that they had previously tossed into a drawer, in order to get the article out of the drawer and onto their curriculum vitae.

Benny Shanon

I think this may be what happened with Benny Shanon's article Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis, which appeared in issue one of volume one of a new journal called Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture. Shanon is a professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, best known for his well-received book Antipodes of the Mind, a comprehensive phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience in the Santo Daime church. His article on Biblical entheogens is clearly labeled, in both the title and the abstract, as a "speculative hypothesis," and bears every sign of being the sort of article a respected researcher will pull out of a drawer and send off to a new journal.

It is also probably also true that Shanon was taken aback at the kerfuffle that ensued. Newspaper headlines were unkind to his hypothesis. High on Mount Sinai?, asked the Reuters News Agency. Moses was stoned when he set Ten Commandments, researcher claims, said The Guardian. Moses was high on drugs: Israeli researcher, said Breitbart. Hebrew University researcher: Moses was tripping at Mount Sinai, said the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Part of the interest was no doubt due to the novelty of the claim itself, but part may also have been due to the fact that such a transgressive claim was made by an Israeli — and presumably Jewish — researcher.

And the claim is, in fact, a very weak one. Shanon is speculating that the experience of the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai was the result of ingesting a mixture of two plants that constituted an ayahuasca analogue — an Acacia species to supply the hallucinogenic dimethyltryptamine, and Syrian rue, Peganum harmala, to supply the MAO-inhibiting β-carbolines that allowed the dimethyltryptamine to be orally effective. Such plants were presumably available to the Hebrews at the time, but the argument for their use is based entirely on analogy. There is simply no evidence that such plants were ever actually used in the way Shanon describes.

Archeologist Thaddeus Nelson, in his blog on archeology and pseudoscience, Archaeoporn, has a lengthy critique of Shanon's hypothesis, which is worth a careful read. He concludes that

there is no chemical analysis or archaeobotanical evidence to suggest Shanon’s entheogens theory. Shanon also fails to explain why we should not expect that these supernatural events which fit so well within the Near Eastern traditions we know of, must be the effects of entheogens, and not just mythic beliefs.... I certainly do not mean to say that there is no possibility that the Israelites used entheogens, but that there is at present no archaeological evidence and textual evidence is questionable at best.

What I find most problematic, however, is that Shanon argues his claim as one of exclusion. Shanon writes:

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.

What this means is that Shanon is ideologically committed to the idea that the encounter on Sinai actually happened, since it is not a legend; but, since he is a secularist, that there must be a naturalistic explanation for it, which of course could only be that the participants were under the influence of a hallucinogen. I am reminded of Immanuel Velikovsky, who also believed in the literal truth of the events described in the Bible, and, as a naturalist, invented a series of global natural catastrophes to account for them — for example, that the sun standing still at Jericho could be explained by the close passage of a comet that then settled into orbit as the planet Venus.

What such explanations have in common — and here I include the whole complex of theories that see the origins of human religiosity in the use of psychoactive plants and fungi — is a distrust for the innate spiritual creativity of human beings. We need to be believers in neither theism nor hallucinogens to account for the story — whether myth or history — that Moses had an experience that the Hebrew tradition characterized as meeting God. There is every reason to believe that human beings can have such transcendent experiences all by themselves.


  1. I have spent a little time in deserts, including the Sinai. I think the emptiness and the majesty of the extremes can help open people to spiritual experience without any substance abuse.

    Part of the Havdalah ritual at the end of the Jewish Sabbath is to inhale fragrant spices. Maybe that has an older origin.

    There is an interesting book, “The Magic of the Ordinary” by Gershon Winkler, a former orthodox rabbi, which seeks to recover the shamanic roots of Judaism. He has a website at

  2. Thank you for the book reference, and especially the thought about the Havdalah ceremony. I have done vision fasts in Death Valley, and I agree with you completely: there is something about the desert that cleanses and opens the heart to the great mystery. The use of sacred plants certainly can be part of powerful spiritual traditions, but powerful spiritual traditions can certainly grow without it.

  3. Sorry, I was in such a hurry this morning that I forgot to say thanks for the blog. Only recently found you. My really enjoying it.