The Tabernacle of the Israelites is the dwelling place of Yahweh on Earth and is the hot-box and stash-box of the priestly caste. Exodus devotes five chapters to detailing instructions on how to construct it. The Bible doesn’t waste words, generally. The Tower of Babel story is over in half a chapter and the snake gets only one adjective, but the Tabernacle is described in minute detail. To the uninitiated, it makes for some of the most boring verses in the Bible:
“And the remnant that remaineth of the curtains of the tent, the half curtain that remaineth, shall hang over the backside of the tabernacle. And a cubit on the one side, and a cubit on the other side of that which remaineth in the length of the curtains of the tent, it shall hang over the sides of the tabernacle on this side and on that side, to cover it [yawn]. And thou shalt make a covering for the tent of rams’ skins dyed red, and a covering above of [some other] skins. And thou shalt make boards for the tabernacle of shittim wood standing up” (Exodus 26:12-15).
The frame is constructed of Vachellia seyal wood, which is interesting to the psychedelically inclined as this acacia species has the highest concentration of DMT in any plant from the region. DMT is the tryptamine responsible for the psychedelic effects of the powerfully visual and revelatory ayahuasca brew, and acacia also contains the “spatial hallucinogen” NMT. Both can be simply extracted with alcohol to make crystals that would be mind-shattering if burned and inhaled as smoke.
People play fast and loose at the fertile border between scripture and psychedelia, raising armies of melting Nazis and mushroom messiahs with reckless abandon. I’m going to save my speculation for a later article, or the super-keen can check out my academic publication on the matter here. Sticking with the facts for now, and despite researcher Benny Shanon’s ‘speculative hypothesis’ about Moses using acacia in combination with Syrian rue as an ayahuasca analogue, there is absolutely no evidence of acacia being used for its psychoactive potentials. The incense that was burned was indeed compounded from many ingredients that were plenty psychoactive enough, as we shall explore in the following article. Regarding acacia, however, all we can say with confidence is that acacia boards were pinned into the ground as part of a tent that would have functioned as an excellent smoke trap. Indeed, it seems to have been constructed for that very purpose.
The innermost chamber of the Tabernacle was a 4m3 chamber called the Holy of Holies. It was sealed beneath four sheets of material drawn tightly over the frame and extending to the ground, where the second and fourth were pegged into the ground. The innermost layer was linen, then goat’s hair, ram skin and finally an unidentified leather also used for shoes (and therefore strong and presumably impermeable).
The chamber was separated off by a veil (poreketh), but this veil was different to the hanging (macak) at the entrance to the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:36). That hanging was made of normal linen, while the material of the inner veil was “one handbreadth thick” (in the time of the first temple, at least, and we may speculate that this custom dates from the original Tabernacle). Why would it be so thick? Surely no veil would keep Yahweh in if He wanted some fresh air.
A thick screen would, however, keep perfumed air in, and make the chamber a perfect smoke trap.
The High Priest would enter this Holy of Holies alone to commune with the angels before the Ark of the Covenant, carrying only an incense burner with which he burned large quantities of incense:
“He shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before Yahweh, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before Yahweh, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony” (Leviticus 16:12).
This is not a little stick of nag champa in a New Age shop — he burns handfuls of finely ground psychoactive resins in a small, well-sealed chamber. There was evidently some concern that the High Priest might get too high because a chain was tied to his robe so people outside the veil would know if he stopped moving. Perhaps they could have dragged him out if he passed out.
Back in the days before the pipe had been introduced, psychoactive smokes were administered by constructing a smoke chamber and burning them in quantity inside it. The Scythians to the north of Judah seemed to do it for fun, at least in the ritual described in the 5th century BC by Greek historian Herodotus. He reports that they would peg down the flaps of their tents and throw ‘kannabis’ on red-hot stones:
“Immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy” (Herodotus, Book 4, G. Rawlinson translation, page 74).
Evidence for this custom is widespread, from Chinese mediums contacting departed sages by burning cannabis in cells to the oracle at Delphi burning henbane, frankincense, myrrh and laurel in the enclosed confines of her cave before prophesying on military tactics. The sages and the oracle performed these rites for the purposes of divination. While Herodotus seems to have stumbled on a party, the fact that the Scyths also performed this rite at funerals suggests that it was a means of communicating with the dead, which is another form of divination.
The previous article [link] in this series discusses the evidence that cannabis is an ingredient of the Holy Anointing Oil, and the following article will explore the pharmacology of the resins. I have experimented with hot-boxing these resins, including once after a talk I gave using modest quantities of the few I could source in a poor quality chamber. When prompted, the audience members sluggishly slurred that they were feeling very tranquilized indeed.
My private experiments offering incense to the LORD are yet to supply me with auspicious dates for launching an invasion, but I was surprised on one occasion to see a symbol that I am not particularly interested in behind my closed eyelids. I was even more surprised when I looked it up later to discover that it was the glyph of a pagan abomination who was worshipped with frankincense centuries before Yahweh came on the scene.
This is Part 4 of the Drugs in the Bible series. The other installments include Getting High with the High Priest of Israel, Psychoactive Synergies in the Holy Anointing Oil of the Ancient Israelites, The Lesser Priests and the Lower Dose: Psychoactive Secrets of the Israelite Priesthood and The Science of Psychoactive in the Bible.
Follow Reverend Danny Nemu on Twitter here, and check out his book Neuro-Apocalypse (with 5-star reviews) here. His peer-reviewed academic article on the psychopharmacology of drugs in the Bible can be found here. Photo credits: Public Domain via Holman Bible/Wikimedia.