High on Mount Sinai, Moses was on psychedelic drugs when he heard God deliver the Ten Commandments, an Israeli researcher claimed in a study published this week.
Such mind-altering substances formed an integral part of the religious rites of Israelites in biblical times, Benny Shanon, a professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in the Time and Mind journal of philosophy.
"As far Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don't believe, or a legend, which I don't believe either, or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effect of narcotics," Shanon told Israeli public radio on Tuesday.
Moses was probably also on drugs when he saw the "burning bush," suggested Shanon, who said he himself has dabbled with such substances.
The description in The Book of Exodus of thunder, lightening and a blaring trumpet, according to Shanon, are the classic imaginings of people under the influence of drugs.
"The Bible says people see sounds, and that is a classic phenomenon," he said citing the example of religious ceremonies in the Amazon in which drugs are used that induce people to "see music."
He mentioned his own experience when he used ayahuasca, a powerful psychotropic plant, during a religious ceremony in Brazil's Amazon forest in 1991. "I experienced visions that had spiritual-religious connotations," Shanon said.
He said the psychedelic effects of ayahuasca were comparable to those produced by concoctions based on bark of the acacia tree, that is frequently mentioned in the Bible.
"In advanced forms of ayahuasca inebriation," he wrote, "the seeing of light is accompanied by profound religious and spiritual feelings."
The initial reaction to this controversial theory from Israel's religiously orthodox community and the powerful rabbis who lead it was less than enthusiastic. Orthodox rabbi Yuval Sherlow, quoted by Reuters speaking on Israel radio, said: "The Bible is trying to convey a very profound event. We have to fear not for the fate of the biblical Moses, but for the fate of science."
Find more from Benny Shannon in a downloadable PDF called Ayahuasca & Creativity. HTML version is at MAPS.
Get his book called The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience.