Cannabis used for religious rites at biblical site in Israel, study finds

Cannabis and incense at the Jewish sanctuary of Arad

Sacred smoke: The children of Israel used cannabis as a temple offering, according to this new study. Traces of cannabis were found on one of the altars that once stood in the temple of Tel Arad, in the Negev Desert in Israel. The researchers concluded that the cannabinoid substance was probably burned so that the faithful could deliberately consume the psychoactive compounds.

It is the frontal view of the stone of the sanctuary of Arad, reconstructed in the Israel Museum from original archaeological finds

Two limestone monoliths, interpreted as altars, were found in the Jewish sanctuary of Tel Arad. Unidentified dark materials stored on their upper surfaces were subjected to organic residue analysis in two independent laboratories using similar extraction methods. On the small altar, cannabinoid residues such as Δ 9-teterahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) were detected, as well as an assortment of terpenes and terpenoids, suggesting that cannabis inflorescences were present been burned. Organic residue attributed to animal feces was also found, suggesting that the cannabis resin had been mixed with dung to allow gentle heating. The largest altar contained a collection of indicative triterpenes such as boswellic acid and norursatriene, which is derived from frankincense. The additional presence of animal fat in related compounds such as testosterone, androstenedione and cholesterol suggests that the resin has been mixed to facilitate evaporation. These well-preserved residues shed new light on the use of Arad altars from the XNUMXth century and on the incense offerings in Judea during the Iron Age.

Analysis of the altar remains shows that the faithful burned cannabis in a sanctuary in the Judean Desert and perhaps did the same at the First Temple in Jerusalem. The Israelites used cannabis in their religious rituals, archaeologists were amazed to learn it by analyzing charred remains on an altar 2700 years old.

While many religions around the world use or have used psychotropic drugs to induce states of ecstasy, hallucinations or other effects, this is the first evidence that this practice was part of the beginnings of the history of the Judaism.

The study, published Friday in Journal of the Institute of Archeology at Tel Aviv University, opens a rare window into the religious customs of the Israelites during the First Temple period. Archaeologists suggest that cannabis may also have played a role in the Jerusalem Temple rituals. Here's why. The sanctuary of Arad was part of a fortress at the top of a hill which guarded the southern border of the kingdom of Judea from about the XNUMXth century BC to the beginning of the XNUMXth century BC, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple.

The citadel was excavated in the 1960s and the discovery of the sanctuary was a master stroke for Israeli archaeologists, as its layout was a reduced version of the biblical descriptions

The burnt residue on top of this altar contains compounds found in cannabis

Today, the Muslim holy places at the top of the Temple Mount make this site inaccessible to archaeologists, so that Arad, as well as other similar shrines on the other side of the Levant, functioned as a sort of relay so that researchers can study and understand the structure and functioning of the first incarnation of the Temple, of which there is practically no extra-biblical evidence.

The temples of the Iron Age in the Levant were built according to a fairly standard plan on an east-west axis and were mainly composed of a courtyard, a main prayer hall and a small raised interior hall: the saint of saints.

Inside the sanctuary of Arad, archaeologists have found a “matsebah”, a worked standing stone, which is commonly associated with ancient Levantine cult activities and which probably represented the presence of the deity in the sanctuary. On the steps leading to this stele, they dug up two limestone altars that had been placed on the side and deliberately buried before the temple was out of use.

Thanks to this burial and the dry desert climate, the encrusted remains of the burnt offerings were well preserved on the top of the two altars.

In the 1960s, the analysis of these organic remains was inconclusive, but experts assumed that altars were used to burn incense or were perhaps used for the sacrifice of small animals, explains Eran Arie, Curator for Iron Age and Persian Period Archeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which today houses the ancient artifacts.

With Dvory Namdar, chemist and archaeologist of the agricultural research center of Volcani, Eran Arie endeavored to verify this hypothesis by applying more modern scientific techniques. Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, the researchers identified the remains of the tallest altar, which was 52 centimeters high, as incense.

It is the first time that incense has been identified in an archaeological dig in the Levant, notes Arie, although its presence was not entirely surprising given that the Bible and other sources describe the ritual burning of the incense resin (for example, in Leviticus 2: 1-2). The real shock came from the smallest altar, which was 40 centimeters high and was discovered to be covered with chemicals, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) - all substances found in cannabis.

Cannabis was offered as a sacrifice on this small altar in the temple of Tel Arad Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection / The Israel Museum

They were very surprised, say Arie and Namdar to Haaretz. By the way, when the study started four years ago, Namdar had just started his current work in a research laboratory on medical applications of the weed, so they first feared that '' she inadvertently contaminated the sample. But when another sample was tested by a second independent laboratory, the results were confirmed.

Other chemicals identified by residue analysis have shown that frankincense and cannabis have been mixed with animal fat and excrement, respectively. The fat would have made it possible to reach the high temperature of around 260 degrees Celsius at which the frankincense releases its aroma, while the excrement would have burned the cannabis at a lower temperature, below 150 degrees Celsius, which is necessary for activate the psychoactive compounds of the drug. If you burn it more, you will only get soot.

“To induce a high, you have to an adequate temperature and they clearly knew it! just as they knew which fuel to use for each substance, ”says Namdar.

This indicates that the ancient worshipers of Arad deliberately consumed and did not burn cannabis solely for aromatic purposes.

Frankincense and cannabis imported by the king

Although today Israel has become a global hub for the production, sale and research of medical cannabis, there is no evidence that the plant was grown in the Levant in the Iron Age, notes Arie . This suggests that the offerings from the temple of Arad had to be imported at great cost from afar, probably in the form of a dried resin, that is, hashish, he said.

The same goes for incense, which is collected from Boswellia trees and which could have been brought by traders from southern Arabia.

"If they just wanted to make the temple smell good, they could have burned sage, which grows in the Jerusalem area," says Arie. "The importation of cannabis and incense was a big investment that could not be done by an isolated group of nomads, it needed the support of a powerful state entity".

We know that Arad was a Judaist fortress because the archaeologists who dug there found archives of Hebrew inscriptions dating from the beginning of the sixth century BC, shortly before the kingdom was invaded by the Babylonians. These texts written on shards of pottery, also called ostraca, detail part of the administration of the citadel and its allegiance to Jerusalem. One of the ostraca, also exhibited today at the Israel Museum, mentions “the house of YHWH”, that is to say a place of worship dedicated to the God of the Hebrew Bible.

Experts are divided as to whether this inscription refers to the local sanctuary of Arad or the Temple of Jerusalem, but it at least clarifies the religious and political affiliation of the local garrison.

As Arad was inhabited by Jewish soldiers under the control of Jerusalem, the use of cannabis in their sanctuary probably would not have been a local custom, but was probably a common practice officially sanctioned and funded by the monarchy, according to Namdar. This means it is possible that the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem also burned cannabis on their altars, adds Arie.

"This may reflect the cultivation activities in Jerusalem, in Judea and perhaps in the wider region," he says. “If the sanctuary of Arad was built according to the plan of the Temple in Jerusalem, then why should the religious practices not be the same?

The Philistines knew how to party

About fifty other altars similar to that of Arad were discovered in the Levant, mainly in the territories which sheltered formerly Judah, the north of the Kingdom of Israel, Moab, in the current Jordan and the philistine city-states of the littoral Mediterranean, note the two researchers. If residues can be found on some of these artifacts, it might be possible to confirm the extent of cultic use of cannabis among the Israelites and neighboring peoples, says Arie.

An extensive presence of cannabis would not be entirely surprising, since the use of drugs for cultural, recreational or medicinal purposes has been attested in human cultures since the Neolithic. If we consider only the Levant and its immediate surroundings, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans were stoned with opium for their ecstatic cults and this drug was commonly used in ancient Greek medicine. Traces of psychoactive compounds have also been found in chalices used by the Philistines, neighbors and frequent opponents of the Israelites.

So if the ancient Israelites joined the celebration, why doesn't the Bible mention the use of cannabis as a substance used in rituals, as it does many times for incense?

One possibility is that cannabis appears in the text but the name used for the plant is not recognized by researchers, says Arie, adding that it is hoped that the new study will open this question to Bible scholars.

Researchers do not agree at all on the date when the first biblical texts were put in writing, but many believe that the process did not start until the end of the seventh century BC, under the reign of King Yoshiyahu in Jerusalem.

However, most archaeologists believe that the temple of Arad was no longer used at that time. If the fortress survived until the end of the era of the First Temple in 586 BC, the sanctuary was only used from 760 to 715 BC, about a century before the time of Josiah.

A scent from the past

Researchers have long debated the reasons why the temple of Arad was abandoned and its ritual objects, like the two altars, carefully buried. Some believe it was a way to protect the holy place before the Assyrians' invasion of Judah around 701 BC, triggered by a failed regional revolt led by the Judaic king Hezekiah. However, the closure of the sanctuary seems to precede the Assyrian assault by a few years, notes Arie, which means that it is more probably linked to the religious reforms that were carried out by Hezekiah at the beginning of his reign, just around 715 BC.

According to the biblical account, which finds some support in the archaeological archives, Hezekiah attempted to centralize worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and ordered the destruction of competing holy sites throughout his kingdom. Acting on his orders, the Israelites "demolished the high places and altars throughout the territories of Judea, Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh, until they were all destroyed." (2 Chronicles 31: 1)

We may never know for sure when and why the sanctuary of Arad was closed and the practice of burning cannabis as incense was stopped among the Israelites. But the researches of Arie and Namdar are certainly crucial to shed light on Judah's trade ties with Arabia and on the religious practices of the early Israelites, says Yifat Thareani, archaeologist at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and expert on the Negev. in the Iron Age.

Thareani, who did not participate in the study, agrees with the authors that cannabis may have been part of religious rituals far beyond this provincial desert fortress.

"We have no remains of the First Temple, so we can only assume what kind of cult activity was going on there," she said. "But there are enough indications from Arad to give us an idea, or in this case a smell, of how the rituals in Jerusalem were practiced."

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