Pot was Used in Temple Service in Ancient Judea Archaeologists Reveal

May 31, 2020

5 min read

A new technique revealed that an altar tp YHWH in southern Israel from the First Temple period was used to burn marijuana. The researchers suggested that marijuana was used to get high as part of the ritual and though some jumped to the conclusion that this necessarily meant that the Kohanim in Solomon’s Temple did the same, a closer look shows that this was probably not the case.

In 1962 and 1967, archaeologists were digging at a “fortress mount” near Arad in southern Israel which they dated to the 8th Century BCE. They discovered two limestone monoliths which they identified as altars that had been intentionally laid down on the second stair in front of the inner chamber.  The two altars were similar in construction and history but one was significantly larger than the other. The upper surfaces of both altars had a shallow depression. In the center of both of these depressions, round heaps of black solidified organic material was preserved. At the time, there was no technology available to determine the composition of organic matter found in hollows on the tops of the altars. Researchers Eran Arie of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Baruch Rosen, and Dvora Namdar published an article on Thursday in “Tel Aviv,” the academic journal of Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology describing their results from liquid chromatography (HPLC) and gas chromatography (GC) to determine the composition of the residues. The tests revealed that the material on the altars included frankincense and cannabis, commonly known as marijuana. 

The smaller altar (40 cm high; 20 × 21 cm on its top), believed to have been used around 760-715 BCE, had residues of the cannabinoiods tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN), active elements that are only found in marijuana or, more specifically, cannabis sativa. The marijuana was mixed with dung from an unspecified animal which was probably added to help the plant burn.  

The researchers theorized that the cannabis was not burned as incense but was used ritually for its psychoactive effects.

“As the terpenoids detected are not unique to cannabis and may be found abundantly in many other local plants, it is likely that the cannabis burnt on the altar was not imported for its smell or therapeutic virtues but for its mind-altering abilities, expressed only by heating. Cannabis sativa L., popularly known as marijuana, has long been appreciated for its ability to produce psychoactive effects on humans.”

“It seems feasible to suggest that the use of cannabis on the Arad altar had a deliberate psychoactive role. Cannabis odors are not appealing and do not justify bringing the inflorescences from afar. The frequent use of hallucinogenic materials for cultic purposes in the Ancient Near East and beyond is well known and goes back as early as prehistoric periods…These psychoactive ingredients were destined to stimulate ecstasy as part of cultic ceremonies. As shown in this study, 8th century Judah may now be added to the places where these rituals took place.”

The article noted that a ceramic jug containing cannabis residue was found in a cave dated to the 4th century CE in Jerusalem alongside the remains of a 14-year-old girl who died during labor with the skeleton of a 40-week fetus trapped in her pelvis. Researchers concluded that the purpose of burning the cannabis was for the girl to inhale the smoke in order to increase the force of uterine contractions and to reduce birth pain.

 Haaretz daily published an article on the find on Friday suggesting that the presence of cannabis residue on the First Temple-era altar in Arad suggested that marijuana was used as part of the ritual in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. 

“Today, the Muslim holy places atop the Temple Mount make that site inaccessible to archaeologists,” Haaretz wrote. “So Arad, as well as other similar shrines across the Levant, have functioned as sort of proxies for scholars to study and understand the structure and functioning of the first incarnation of the Temple, of which almost no extra-biblical evidence is known.”

Haaretz also notes that the citadel in Arad is known to have been a  part of the Kingdom of Judah. One of the many inscribed pottery shards, called an ostraca, mentions “the house of YHWH.” Haaretz suggests that this indicates the temple in Arad was used to serve the God of Israel

“This means that it is possible that the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem would also burn pot on their altars, Eran Arie told Haaretz.

“This may reflect the cultic activities in Jerusalem, in Judah and possibly in the broader region,” he says. “If the shrine at Arad was built according to the plan of the Temple in Jerusalem, then why shouldn’t the religious practices be the same?”

Though it is unfortunately accurate that due to political realities and Muslim violence there is no archaeology being done on the Temple Mount, Dr. Gabriel Barkay’s Sifting Project has managed to recover countless Temple artifacts that illegal digging by the Waqf removed from the Temple Mount, dumping outside of Jerusalem as refuse. More than any other archaeologist today, Dr. Barkay understands the archaeology of the Temple.

“Saying the architecture of the Arad Temple and the Temple on the Temple Mount are the same is an assumption,” Dr. Barkay told Breaking Israel News. “To say that since they used cannabis in Arad means they used cannabis in Jerusalem is a wild guess.”

“The Bible describes the Temple service in great depth and even though some archaeologists do not consider it to be a source, with all due respect to those archaeologists, it is the only source we have for the Temple service,” Dr. Barkay said.”They cannot say there is no source for the Temple service in Jerusalem. They may not accept the Bible but it is the only source we have.”

Dr. Dvora Namdar, one of the researchers,

“We cannot make assumptions about the Temple service in Jerusalem from our findings in Arad,” Dr. Namdar told Breaking Israel News. “We are suggesting that this was not a practice specific to and limited to Arad. Arad was a significant site and it is doubtful that is was an outlier with unusual rituals. A new technique was used to identify the elements and this should be done in other sites as well.”

The residue on the larger altar  (52 cm high; 29.7 × 29.7 cm on its top) contained triterpenes such as boswellic acid and norursatriene, which derives from frankincense. Frankincense resin, also known as olibanum oil, is a yellowish to red oleogum-resin produced by several types of Boswellia trees and was quite expensive. The researchers noted that Frankincense was not only used for cultic purposes but it also served in mortuary rites, medical treatments, cosmetics, and mundane household uses. The additional presence of animal fat suggested that resin was mixed with it to facilitate evaporation. 

According to the article, the temple in Arad presents the earliest known identification of frankincense in a clear cultic context.

They also noted that since wood was scarce in the area of Arad, it was reasonable to use animal-based sources to aid in the burning of frankincense and cannabis.

The research suggested that the intentional burying of the entire site may have been part of a cultic reform in Judah under King Hezekiah.

Another interesting conclusion of the research dealt with a previous theory that the presence of two altars implied that the temple was used to worship two deities, possibly a divine couple. 

“In light of our results it is clear that the number of altars does not echo the number of deities worshipped in the shrine,” the researchers concluded. “But rather it indicates the different kinds of incense used in it.”

“The very high price of frankincense, and presumably that of cannabis, reinforces the assumption that the fort of Arad was an official institution, owned by the Kingdom of Judah. Being part of the kingdom administration, the residents of the fort could have had the resources to obtain such precious materials.”

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