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Overview of Drugs Usage in the Scriptures (Bible)

Note: This is an abridged, text version of the Podcast episode on Drugs and the Bible. I have a lot of friends who have an interest in this particular topic. To make it easier for them, I am publishing this alongside the full podcast. It follows on from the Podcast episode on Drugs in Babylon and Assyria.

About the Bible

The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books. Some, or all of these are regarded as sacred text by followers of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Rastafarianism, Samaritanism, and other faiths. While the internet is full of debates over the authorship of some of the books, such discussions are beyond the scope of this podcast. Our interest is in what the Bible reveals about the historical use of drugs in the Near East. We shall take the Bible at face value since the stories it presents tell us something about the beliefs and lifestyles of the authors and the communities in which they were based.

Connection with Babylon and Assyria

Assyrian statue

We find the first connection between the Bible and Babylon or Assyria in the book of Genesis[1]. This identifies Abram (later Abraham[2]) as having been born and brought up in Ur of the Chaldeans. Abraham is estimated to have lived around the second millennium BC[3]. He is the acknowledged forebear of Jews[4], Muslims[5] and Christians[6], whether in a physical or spiritual sense.

Chaldea was a region of the Persian Gulf, around the second millennium BC, that overlapped what was to later become Assyria and Babylon[7]. Abraham left the land of Chaldea and settled in the region around modern Palestine and Israel[8]. The rest of his family only made a partial journey and settled in Haran[9], which was likely part of the Assyrian empire[10].

Abraham had a monotheistic religion, which appears to have been a strong driving force behind the departure from Mesopotamia in the first place[12]. However, those who remained in Haran retained some polytheistic beliefs[13]. Interestingly, both Abraham’s son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob, got their wives from Haran[11]. We can therefore reasonably ask if Assyrian culture influenced the culture and medical practices of Abraham’s descendants.

Plants with drug-like effects

Mandrakes

As we look at plants with drug-like effects in the Bible, we come across two unusual examples: the trees of life and of knowledge of good and evil[14]. The first of these is said to have possessed remarkable repair and regenerative powers, to the effect that it would make humans live forever[15]. The book of Revelation also references its unparalleled healing properties[16]. This is also likely the same tree referenced by Ezekiel in his vision in Ezekiel 47:12.

It appears that eating the fruit of the second tree results in massive harm, not so much from the tree itself but from the act of disobedience. Sadly neither plant is currently available for science to evaluate the secrets behind its properties.

The next plant we come across, used as a drug, are mandrakes. They are mentioned in Genesis 30:14-16 as well as in Song of Solomon 7:13. They were believed to be aphrodisiacs, fertility drugs as well as used for their fragrance. It appears that the Jacob’s wives and his descendants, many years later, shared this view of mandrakes held by other cultures[17].

Other examples of drug use

The 30th Chapter of Genesis also reveals what may either be seen as a misinformed attempt at drug therapy or as another superstitious belief in plants[18]. Jacob tries to use fresh sticks from the poplar, almond and plane trees to change the coat colour of livestock. He later learns the true reasons behind the outcomes, in terms of homozygous or heterozygous genotypes and phenotypes[19].

Other examples of drugs used in healing, diagnosis or otherwise include the following:

  1. Moses using a branch from an unnamed tree to purify some drinking water (Exodus 15:24-25)
  2. Use of hyssop as a cleansing an antiseptic agent. (Leviticus 14:4-6, Psalm 51:7).
  3. Holy water and dust as a diagnostic test (Numbers 5:11-31).
  4. Using a poultice of figs to heal a cancerous boil on a terminally ill king (2 Kings 20:1-11).
  5. Using ashes, containing charcoal, to alleviate the pain from painful sores (Job 2:7-8).
  6. The positive presentation of the benefits of medicine[20].
  7. The many references to the use of “balms” in the Old Testament. You can find these in Genesis 37:25, 43:11; Jeremiah 8:22, 46:11, 51:8 and Ezekiel 27:17. The ancients used balms in trade as well as for a variety of medical conditions, including pain management. They also gave them as gifts [21]. Furthermore, we derive the word, “embalm”, from the word, “balm,” thus acknowledging the chemical properties of the drugs in the embalming agents. (Genesis 50:2, 3 and 26).
  8. Jeremiah gives a figurative reference to ineffective medicines (Jeremiah 30:13, 46:11).
  9. Jesus uses clay made with his saliva alongside one of his healing miracles (John 9:1-7); which is perhaps an acknowledgement of the poultices that were sometimes used in healings.

Alcohol in the Bible

Alcoholic drinks

Having gone through the list above, it would be remiss of us to not mention another drug that appears several times in the Bible, right through from Genesis to Revelation. This, you might have guessed, is alcohol. In fact, one can argue that this appears more than any other drug in the Bible. A rudimentary count of the number of occurrences of the word, “wine,” in the King James Version shows that it appears a minimum of 267 times. As such, we would need a whole series to look at the subject of wine and the Bible.

If you search online, you will also find many sites dedicated to either the condemnation or support of alcohol consumption based on selected Bible references. However, it appears that many of these sites give arguments based on a superficial reading of the texts, mainly based on the English translations of the original languages. Scholarly research suggests that the term “wine” in the Bible was used both for alcoholic beverages and for unfermented grape juice[22]. In general, it appears that the favourable references relate to the unfermented juice, while the unfavourable references relate to the alcoholic beverages.

Among the deleterious effects highlighted as caused by alcohol are drunkenness, poor decision-making, poor behaviour, numbing of the mind, alcohol addiction and being a symbol for apostasy, spiritual confusion and slavery.

However, there are positive references to (unfermented) wine as being useful for pleasurable consumption and treatment of some medical conditions.

There is also a reference in the Book of Proverbs[23] to the use of strong wine for those who are perishing, most likely referring to the pain-numbing properties of alcohol in an age when there were no general anaesthetics or palliative drugs for those in terminal pain. Having said all this, one may note that many Jews and Christians seem to enjoy a tipple or more every now and then. We may, in future, return to the discussion of the use of alcohol in the Bible.

However, it is useful to remember the current recommendation of the National Health Service[24] and a Medscape review[25] that argue that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption,” with alcohol being associated with higher risks of various cancers, neurotoxicity and cognitive decline such as with dementia. We shall cover this in a future episode looking at the history of alcohol.

[1] Genesis 11:27,28,31

[2] Genesis 17:5

[3] https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/3603/when-was-abraham-alive

[4] John 8:33

[5]https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/history/ibrahim.shtml#:~:text=Abraham%20is%20called%20Ibrahim%20by%20Muslims.%20They%20see,%28Isma%27il%20in%20Arabic%29.%20The%20Muslim%20story%20of%20Ibrahim

[6] Romans 4:12

[7] https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4213-chaldea

[8] Genesis 12:1

[9] Genesis 11:31, 12:4

[10] https://www.britannica.com/place/Assyria

[11] Genesis 24; 27:43; 28:1-5; 29:1-29

[12] Genesis 18:17-19

[13] Genesis 31:30-35

[14] Genesis 2:9

[15] Genesis 3:22

[16] Revelation 22:2

[17] https://www.gotquestions.org/mandrakes-Bible.html

[18] Genesis 30:37-43

[19] Genesis 31:10-11

[20] Proverbs 17:22

[21] Genesis 43:11

[22] Bacchiochi, S (1989). Wine in the Bible: A Biblical Study on the Use of Alcoholic Beverages, An Abridged Edition. Signal Press & Biblical Perspectives

[23] Proverbs 31:6

[24] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/the-risks-of-drinking-too-much/

[25] https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/965387?uac=166631AR&faf=1&sso=true&impID=3911689&src=WNL_infoc_211229_MSCPEDIT_Alcohol.Brain#vp_1

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