Ecstasy – being so overwhelmed by faith that one loses oneself – has always been a part of religious devotion. The question is: how do you reach that state? A recent find in Arad shows how cannabis may have helped the devout to achieve this level of piety.

During the First Temple era, Jerusalem was the center of religious expression for Israel. However, those who desired to feel close to God but were physically distant, erected alternative sites for worship. The idea of local worship was supported by the surrounding pagan cultures, but the lack of idols and the similarity to the structures in Jerusalem mark these distant spots as being aimed at the one God of Israel.

One such site exists on a hilltop outside of the modern city of Arad. The ancient Arad was a sprawling Canaanite city from the 2nd millenium BCE which was abandoned. The topographical advantage over the surrounding countryside led to its being reestablished in the 9th century BCE as a hilltop fortress guarding the southern frontier of Judah. In this compound have been found mentions of the house of God, showing that those stationed here were Israelites and not pagans. Within this military garrison, was a small shrine which, apparently, the soldiers used to feel part of the centralized religious practice in Jerusalem. The shrine included a small inner room, a “Holy of Holies”, incense altars and a standing stone.

All of this was found by the excavations in the 1960’s. But, it was not found standing in place nor destroyed by conquerors, but rather deliberately buried. Analysis shows that the altars were in use from 760-715 BCE – only a few decades. Clues to their burial can be found in Hezekiah’s reforms described in II Chronicles.

When all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out into the towns of Judah and smashed the pillars, cut down the sacred posts, demolished the shrines and altars throughout Judah and Benjamin, and throughout Efraim and Menashe, to the very last one. Then all the Israelites returned to their towns, each to his possession. II Chron 31:1

The burial of these items combined with the dry climate means that the encrusted remains of the burnt offerings which were placed on these altars is preserved. Science in 1960 could not determine what had been sacrificed on the altars but new techniques in gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy have elucidated what these sacrifices were.

On the larger altar (52 cm high), remains of frankincense and animal fat were found. This is the first positive identification of frankincense in the archaeology of the Levant – so quite an exciting discovery! The smaller altar (40 cm high) was covered in of teterahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) – all found in cannabis. The smaller altar also had traces of animal dung.

Holy of Holies in Arad

Neither frankincense nor cannabis was grown in Israel so both of these had to be imported at high cost. It’s thought by researchers that perhaps cannabis was imported as a dried resin – hashish. If the cost of weed was high, it would not have been affordable to some poor soldiers sitting on a mountaintop over Arad for their recreational use. Most likely this was part of a governmental acquisition and points to its possible use for religious use in the entire area, including perhaps the Temple in Jerusalem.

Another interesting part of the discovery, is the presence of accelerants. Animal fat burns at 260 degrees centigrade, the high temperature necessary to release the aroma of the frankincense. This high temperature, however, would simply create ash from cannabis. The psychotropic qualities of weed are released at a lower temperature. This is why the presence of animal dung is important because it burns at a lower temperature, reaching a maximum temperature of 150 degrees centigrade. Each element would have been burned separately to achieve the desired effects from each.

We know that the surrounding cultures used various psychotropic agents in their religious service so it makes sense that Jews would have also. Modern science has revealed this practice and shown that in the ancient world, they also knew how to use science to achieve the maximum effect.

Tel Arad is an amazing place to visit and now that the weather is getting a bit cooler, walking through its ancient streets is truly uplifting – even without the cannabis.

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