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Culture History
Culture: Was Moses on Drugs?
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Wednesday, 26 March 2008 Written by Henry Midgley

Professor Benny Shanon of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has written a paper arguing that Moses, the Jewish prophet, was on drugs. Shanon argues that Moses was on Ayahuasca, a mixture of the Acacia tree and harmal plant in conjunction. He argues this based on some very easily obtainable facts. In South America, shamans take a mixture of chemicals as Ayahuasca, a different mix than available in the Middle East, to generate mystical experience. The writer, Professor Shanon, a professor of psychiatry, himself has experienced the kind of highs that are obtainable from this particular drug and in conjunction with other anecdotal evidence, he suggests that lots of the experiences of this type of drug convince those who take it that they are speaking to God or to approaching death. This particular drug creates an impression which is incredibly impressive for the taker but the point is that Shanon doesn't produce any evidence within literature or from studies for this, just the evidence of anecdotal impression.

The anecdotal quality of his research persists though as soon as he turns to the historical side of his argument. A word about the biblical text is neccessary here. The Biblical text is incredibly complicated. It was compiled and put together at different points from 700 onwards. Furthermore it has been subject to the vagueries of historical time- many of the terms in the bible, especially terms for plants and places and things like that which have vanished, have lost their original meanings. The Bible itself was in historical time translated several times: despite knowing Hebrew, Professor Shanon uses the King James Bible translation which was done in the 17th Century and obviously has imperfections. Again Professor Shanon seems to be relying on this translation to make some rather subtle points about what the text said and I'm not sure that I would like to use that translation.

I am also unhappy with Professor Shanon's other evidence. He likes to take examples from modern traditions or from twelfth century accounts of Jewish life. The problem here is that the events described in Exodus happened thousands of years before his modern traditions were formed: its quite likely that those traditions grew up since the time of the Book of Exodus. That Jews today regard one of the components of this mixture- harmal as medicinal- doesn't tell us anything about how they regarded it three thousand years ago.

When we turn to the idea of Moses taking drugs, the strongest part of the argument is a comparative one. Its that people in South America use these drugs to provoke religious experiences and that one could infer that in similar cultures, where this drug is available, similar shamanic practices may happen. And that some of those practices may have got recorded in the Bible- which afterall records a culture which is incredibly different from the culture of modern Christians and Jews today. So it may well be true. But the textual evidence is not strong enough to bear it out: ok there is evidence that suggests that some of Moses's visions look like the visions of someone on Ayahuasca and there is evidence that the Jews particularly revered one of the possible constituents of this drug- the Acacia tree.

Did Moses take drugs? The idea that he did isn't out of this world- we are looking at a culture that might well have had shamanic elements similar to South American cultures over the last couple of hundred years. But beyond that I'm not sure what this article proves. The historical evidence is sometimes suggestive- some of the episodes sound like they were induced by Ayahuasca, but we have a text that has been reflected several times and distorted several times by commentators and translators down the century. Furthermore quoting traditions of what has happened over the last couple of centuries gives us little idea about what people did millennia ago. The point about this article is that its a suggestion- there is no proof here- its a thought. That Professor Shanon stretched out the thought to twenty pages is more testiment to his abilities to make something out of nothing, than to his argument. This should be a five page suggestion, not a twenty page paper and there is no way that we can say anything for sure about whether Moses took drugs based on Professor Shanon's findings.