Question from a Site Viewer
I have come across the question of marijuana use in the Bible. There are a lot of people claiming to be Christians that are using Scripture to justify the use of marijuana. How do you defend that subject?
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You state that there are Christians who use Scripture to justify the use of marijuana. There are also people who claim to know Christ and use Scripture to justify everything from racial hatred towards others to turning a deaf ear to the cries of the immigrant and the poor. Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 7:21).
Paul tells us in Titus 1:16 that there are people who profess to know God but in their works they deny Him. I say this, not to state that everyone who uses marijuana is going to hell, but to say that people have long twisted the words of Scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).
There are two fundamental ways of approaching Scripture. The first way is to seek to find in Scripture support for what we want to do. The second way is to seek to find in Scripture how we should be changed (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). For those who follow the first way, I suspect there is nothing that I or others can say to change their minds. For those who follow the second, I offer the following.
Scripture never mentions marijuana directly. You will not find it on the pages of either the Hebrew or the Greek texts. But then, neither are oranges, bananas, peaches, asparagus, spinach, artichokes, potatoes, tomatoes, rosary peas, castor beans (perhaps the most poisonous plant known to man), yews, poison ivy, poison oak, and numerous other plants both good and bad for health.
There are some who see Exodus 30:23 as a direct reference to marijuana. They cite Sula Benet, an etymologist from Poland who concluded in 1936 that the Hebrew words “q’nah-bosem” found at Exodus 30:23 were etymologically related to “cannabis” and then reached the further conclusion that the anointing oil included marijuana. She noted the similarities with words from other Middle Eastern language groups. She noted that the word could be used to reference a reed plant or a hemp plant, but she reached the definite conclusion that in the Exodus passage it meant the hemp plant. (I realize this was not the main point of her treatise, but it is the point that most impacts the present debate.) Others have stated that the Hebrew University supports this view, although no one apparently has been able to come up with a definitive source at that university for this statement. If you check out the Wikipedia article on cannabis (etymology), Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University suggests a different etymology for the word “cannabis.” [Please note that people differ on the way to transliterate the relevant Hebrew words (to show the Hebrew word using English characters). I use "q'nah-bosem" for the passage in Exodus (the only place where the basic Hebrew word "qaneh" appears with the Hebrew word "bosem") and "qaneh" elsewhere. Some might use "kaneh" or other transliterations. The underlying Hebrew word "qof," "nun," "hey" (the three letters of the Hebrew alphabet used for "qaneh") remains the same.]
In my view Dr. Benet’s evidence falls far short of proving the conclusion that “q’nah-bosem” was marijuana. The problem with her conclusion is at least seven-fold. First, there are no clear references that I have been able to find to cannabis in ancient Hebrew before the time of the Mishnah. The word “qaneh” is not associated with traditional aspects of hemp, either as rope, medicinal use, food use, or narcotic use in any of the ancient Hebrew texts, at least that I can find. Given this paucity of evidence, I do not think that anyone is able to reach a definite conclusion that the Hebrew word “q’nah-bosem” was a reference to cannabis.
Second, the fact that the Mishnah used a different word spelled with different Hebrew characters to reference marijuana lends support to a conclusion that the rabbis did not think that the word “q’nah-bosem” was a reference to marijuana. This is not a situation where the words “qaneh” and “bosem” ceased to exist and were replaced by “qanabos.” The words “qaneh” and “bosem” continued to be used by Hebrew writers at the same time that “qanabos” came into the Hebrew vocabulary. And the words “qaneh” and “bosem” in post Biblical writings are not associated with hemp. Dr. Benet’s thesis that “q’nah-bosem” over time became “qanabos” is undermined by this continued use of “qaneh” and “bosem” to mean something other than “qanabos.”
Third, the support for linking “qanabos” to “q’nah-bosem” is not particularly strong. Of the six letters in the two Hebrew words “q’nah-bosem” (Hebrew words do not include the vowels), that is, the letters “qof,” “nun,” “hey,” “bet,” “shin,” and “mem,” only three of them appear in the word “qanabos.” The letters shared are qof, nun, and bet. The letters hey, shin, and mem are not shared. Further, the word “qanabos” contains the letters “vav” and “samech,” letters not contained in the earlier “q’nah-bosem.” Given that three letters from the earlier word are left out and two letters are supplied, in a five letter word, does not provide great confidence to me that the source word for “qanabos” is “q’nah-bosem,” even if the sounds are somewhat the same. While I acknowledge that the loss of the “hey” and the inclusion of the “vav” may be due to shifts in spelling, and while I acknowledge that the letters “shin” and “samech” sometimes cross over into each other’s territory, I am at a loss to explain the loss of “mem.” The “mem” in “bosem” is not a plural or other additive to a stem as it is in “elohim,” as some sites wrongly state. It is the basic stem of the word.
But an even bigger problem exists when one realizes how shaky the historical connection really is. Once, in the 15th century B.C., if one accepts a traditional dating for Moses, or in the 5th or 6th century B.C., if one accepts a post-exilic view of the dating for the Torah, the term “q’nah-bosem” is used. This is the only use of this term ever cited. The term does not appear again in ancient Hebrew. Somewhere around 200 A.D., in the Mishnah the word “qanabos” appears in the tractate Kil’ayim and in the tractate Nega’im. There is no evidence that the term “q’nah-bosem” or any intermediate forms of the term were ever used by the Hebrews during the intervening 7 to 17 centuries between the time the term was used in Exodus and when the new term appeared in the Mishnah. But we are asked to believe that the similarities of sounds in a word used centuries before supports a conclusion that it was the derivative of the word “qanabos.” Borrowing from the prophets, this is a shaky reed. To make matters worse, Dr. Benet ignores the most obvious source of “qanabos,” that is, the Greek word “cannabinos” widely used at that time to mean “hemp” (Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, published by Oxford press). The Mishnah was composed when the prevalent language in the area was Greek. Speculation this thin is hardly the stuff to warrant hard conclusions.
Fourth, as a general rule, one can spot foreign words in ancient Hebrew by the number of letters in the stem of the word. The Hebrew language is marked by words with three letter stems. Both “qaneh” and “bosem” have three letter stems. the word “qanabos” is a five letter stemmed word. As such, the possibility of a foreign origin for the word must be seriously explored. Given that the word in the surrounding culture for marijuana was “cannabinos,” it seems more likely to me that the Hebrew “qanabos” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word into the Hebrew language, rather than a derivative of an older Hebrew form.
Fifth, cannabis or hemp has long been a source of rope and yet the words for rope or cord in the Hebrew have no correlation to the term “qaneh.”
Sixth, Dr. Benet’s speculation is perhaps the best an etymologist can do, but it is hardly “proof” of the conclusion that “q’neh-bosem” is the source for “qanabos.” Several web sources state that Dr. Benet’s conclusions were confirmed by the Hebrew University in 1960; but no one seems to be able to say who at the Hebrew University provided the confirmation. Hebrew University is a big place. Unverifiable facts do not build credence to claims. As stated above, Raphael Mechoulam of Hebrew University suggests a different etymology, though he is far more cautious in asserting that his conclusion is the definitive statement on the issue (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannabis_(etymology)).
Seventh, even if the modern word “qanabos” should be properly traced back to the words “q’nah-bosem,” a position I do not accept for reasons stated in this article, the conclusion that the ancient meaning of “q’nah-bosem” was cannabis is a leap. This is especially true given the continued use of “qaneh” in Hebrew to mean something different than “qanabos.” Word etymology is interesting, but hardly conclusive as to what a word meant in ancient times. Our modern word “dynamite” comes from a Greek word “dunamis,” but one should never read “dunamis” in the New Testament and think the ancient author meant “dynamite.” Even within languages, the meanings of words change. One would be foolish to transpose the modern usage of the word “gay” to its intended meaning in 18th century documents. The modern word “matzpun” in Hebrew means “conscience,” but the ancient Hebrew word meant “treasure.” The word did not slowly change into another meaning. The modern word meaning “conscience” entered the Hebrew vocabulary in the Middle Ages as a new word, displacing the old word of the same spelling. This and other examples of changes in meaning in Hebrew words can be found in an article by Professor E. Y. Kutscher, Professor of Hebrew Philology at Hebrew University (http://www.adath-shalom.ca/hebrew_words_history.htm). Even if one were to accept Dr. Benet’s conclusions as the etymological source for the modern word “cannabis,” which I do not, I have found no evidence, outside of what I see as a weak conclusion drawn from etymology, that the word “qaneh” ever meant hemp in ancient Hebrew. However, the fact that the word can mean the reed plant seems to be admitted by all, including Dr. Benet.
Outside of these seven reasons to question Dr. Benet’s conclusion, the ace in the stack of evidence continues to be the Septuagint. In the third century before the time of Christ, the Hebrew Torah was translated into the Greek in Alexandria, Egypt. The Jews who did the translation used the word “calamou” to translate the words “q’nah-bosem.” If the Jews who did the translation thought that the anointing oil was made of “cannabinos,” the word at that time that meant “hemp,” (Liddell and Scott), they would not have used “calamou.” “Calamos” (the nominative form of the word “calamou”) is a reed plant. Later scholars in the second and first centuries before Christ, as they translated out the remainder of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, also continued to use “calamos” to translate the word.
Moreover, a second factor against the Benet hypothesis is that Josephus, who lived in the first century A.D., also refers to the spice as “calamus,” which he calls a sweet spice. Again, Josephus clearly does not see the spice as “cannabinos,”” the Greek word for hemp.
Dr. Benet addresses this argument by stating that the translators of the LXX mistranslated the word. This conclusion has no support, except that their translation does not fit with the argument of her paper. The Jewish scholars who translated the LXX certainly had reason to know whether the word referenced “cannabinos” or “calamos.” For the translation of the the Torah, which included the Exodus passage in question, Ptolemy (Philadelphus II) wrote to the Jewish chief priest, Eleazar, in Jerusalem, and asked for six translators from each of the twelve tribes to do the translation. The collective outcome of this massive work was the Torah written in Greek. That these seventy-two people chose to use the word “calamus” rather than “cannabinos” was not something lightly done by one person in a corner. Their choice of words provides compelling direct evidence of what the term meant in the third century B.C. and what the term continued to mean in the first century A.D., when Josephus wrote. If the plant used in the holy oil was “cannabinos,” the seventy-two scholars could have easily used this word. Cannabis was readily available in the world of the Middle East, as Dr. Benet notes. Calamos would most likely have had to be imported (see Jeremiah 6:20; Ezekiel 27:19). The fact that the Jews before and after the time of Christ did not think that the Hebrew word “q’nah-bosem” constituted “cannabinos” is the only direct evidence we have of what the word actually meant in ancient Hebrew. Dr. Benet’s later reconstructions of possible etymological sources is a weak reed compared to the compelling direct testimony of the contemporary meaning supplied by Jewish scholars at a time when the oil was still being made and by people drawn from the tribes of Israel , appointed by the high priest of Israel, who had every reason to know what the Hebrew word meant. I accept the collective opinion of 72 Jewish scholars who lived when the actual meaning of the term would have been known over the speculation of scholars 2,000 years after the fact.
Besides this direct evidence of the meaning of the words, there are supporting evidences arguing for a meaning of reed for “qaneh.” The same word, “qaneh,” is also used to describe a measuring reed (Ezekiel 40:5-8; 42:16-19, etc.). If there is any linkage between the use of this word in these passages and the use in the passages Dr. Benet cites, such would further undercut her claims. The reed used for measurement would not have been a hemp plant, but a reed plant. Hemp plants are not known for making measuring rods. (I acknowledge that there may be no connection between the two words, just as there appears to be no connection between the words “bank” in the phrase “bank vault” and “bank” in the phrase “stream bank.”) However, I think more likely that there is some connection and that the same sort of plant was in view. The fact that “qaneh” has a strong correlation to marshland is another supporting reason to translate the word as “calamos,” as the LXX translators did (Job 40:21; Isaiah 19:6 where the word “qaneh” is linked to marshes). Even today, in Hebrew, the words meaning “reed” begins with the word “qaneh.”
Dr. Benet states that Solomon purchased hemp cords for construction. However, this claim also is not supported by Scripture. She cites Professor Saltzberger as the source for this conclusion. There is no Scriptural support for Professor Saltzberger’s conclusion. Even if there was, it does nothing to show that “qaneh” means “cannabis.” There is at least one apocryphal story of Solomon forcing a demon to spin hemp (Testament of Solomon, 4:12). But this work also mentions the hill of Golgotha and the cross of Christ. Most scholars agree that it is not of Hebrew origin. And it certainly was not written during the days of Solomon. Finally, it is a fantastical piece, not grounded in truth or reality.
Likewise, some make the argument that there was a requirement to bury the dead in garments of hemp. Again, this is not supported by Scripture.
You can take the Strong’s concordance and look at every instance of the word “qaneh” in Scripture, or you can go to e-Sword and do the same thing. You will see that the word fits best as a reed plant. The one place where it may not be a reed plant is in Genesis 41:22 where it is translated “stalk.” It cannot be seen here as a reference to marijuana as marijuana does not have heads of grain and having seven heads on a marijuana plant would not be a sign of super-abundance required by the passage. There is NO evidence that I have been able to uncover that “qaneh” ever was used for marijuana in Scriptures or in ancient or modern Hebrew.
I further note that even if the conclusion of Dr. Benet and others was true, their conclusion about “qaneh” does not support a claim that Jesus used marijuana. The anointing oil was made for specific purposes and other uses were strictly forbidden. It was for anointing the tabernacle and the furniture and utensils, and Aaron and his sons (Exodus 30:32-33). It was not to be used for other purposes (Exodus 30:32-33). Others could not even make it (Exodus 30:33). So how can people possibly argue that Jesus and His disciples used it? The last time I checked, Jesus was not a Levite or of Aaron’s descent (Hebrews 7:14). This oil could not be used to anoint kings, or wounds, or in any other type of anointing. This oil could not be poured on man’s flesh (Exodus 30:32).
Further, even if it was used in anointing oil, that is a far cry from present day inhalation. The oil was used for anointing, not burning. The incense that was burned did not contain “qaneh.” You can check this out for yourself at Exodus 30:34-35, where “qaneh” (sometimes translated “calamus,” or “cane”) is not included in the ingredients of the incense like it is in the ingredients of the anointing oil.
Some will argue that calamus itself is a powerful narcotic. However, as those who study Scripture know, the anointing oil of the priests was not ingested or burned. So unless someone is willing to believe that merely inhaling the scent of the raw calamus is a narcotic, the point that it can be used as a narcotic in other ways is lost to me. The Bible never supports its use as a narcotic.
Many have tried other arguments. They argue that marijuana is an herb and and God says in Genesis 1:29 that He has given man every herb that yields seed which is on the face of the earth. Both of these statements are true. But we cannot run too far in our conclusion from these truths. Crownvetch yields seeds and is poisonous. Nightshade yields seeds and is poisonous. The poinsettia yields seed and is poisonous. Hemlock yields seeds and is poisonous. Every day, we have to choose between plants that are good for us and those that are not. God is not commanding us to eat of every poisonous plant.
The statement was made when there was no curse on the ground. Humans could eat of everything except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In a good world, such as existed before the fall of man, I do not suspect that there were poisonous plants or poisonous animals. I suspect that when God made the statement, it was literally a true statement.
But after the fall of man, the ground was cursed and no longer was everything good (Genesis 3:17-18). Scripture makes this abundantly clear in 2 Kings 4:38-41 where a certain person found a wild vine with wild gourds and sliced them into a pot, not knowing that they were poisonous. God did a miracle to cure the pot of the poison. Not every herb was good for eating, as even ancient Israel understood. Any interpretation of Genesis 3:17-18 supporting the use of marijuana equally can be used to support the use of hemlock. It is a bad argument.
Some will turn to 1 Timothy 2:3-5 to state that we should not abstain from marijuana. But the same people will abstain from other foods they may not like, such as broccoli, eggs, milk, sardines, etc. Again, the logic falls apart. Further, the passage talks about foods “which God created to be received with thanksgiving.” Not every plant, as noted above, has God created to be received with thanksgiving. Moreover, most would see the context of the passage as not being about plants at all, but about meat. In verse 4, Paul uses the Greek word “ktisma,” a word generally understood in the New Testament to reference the animal kingdom (see James 1:18; Revelation 5:13; 8:9 for the other uses of this word in the New Testament). Even if it is taken to represent also the plant kingdom, the argument that it supports the use of marijuana and not the use of cocaine, hemlock, poison ivy, etc. is weak.
The bottom line is that there is no evidence that I have been able to find that supports a conclusion that marijuana is found in Scripture. Dr. Mechoulam postulates there may be one reference to marijuana in Ezekiel 27:17, translated sometimes as “millet,” and he may be right. He is wise enough not to make the claim definitively. The word used in Ezekiel 27:17 appears nowhere else in Scripture and its meaning is unknown.
I think the bigger problem is that people are looking more to justify their desires than they are to die to self, take up their cross, and follow after Christ. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 6:12 that all things are lawful but not all things are helpful. I suspect that few can make a cogent argument that the use of marijuana is helpful to preparing our physical lives to be fit vessels useful to the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 5:18 we are told not to be drunk with wine but to be filled with the spirit. What wine in excess can do, affecting our ability to think, so marijuana can do.
Further, in most States in the United States, the use of marijuana is against the law. How does one reconcile a violation of the civil law in this matter with passages such as Romans 13; Titus 3; 1 Peter 2? Certainly, this is not a situation where we must choose between the laws of God and the laws of men. We can honor both by not using. And if we are free to violate the law in this area, then what laws of the realm are Paul and Peter addressing? If I read Romans 13 correctly, God will hold us guilty for violating the civil authority.
Some will say that we violate the law all of the time when we speed, and the use of marijuana is no different. I will not argue this point. But I will note that if violation of the law is wrong, then why would we want to compound the error? If it is not wrong, then what do these passages mean? Are they open to anyone’s interpretation or does God have a standard that He has set by which we will be judged?
Finally, in Hebrews 12:1, we as God’s people are told to lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. There are both weights and sins. Even if one does not see the use of marijuana as being a bad thing and therefore a sin (James 4:17), it is a weight that easily ensnares people. People become addicted to marijuana. Long term use has deleterious effects on the cognitive function. It also appears to have a dramatic effect on the rate of testicular cancer, as well as on heart attacks and paranoia and depression. I do not see how it can be seen as a general good.
I do not argue for or against legalization. That is not my role. Marijuana may have some positive aspects to go along with the negative ones. I am not one to take up the argument for society as to whether its good outweighs its bad. But as believers, I call each of us to focus on advancing the kingdom of Christ in the brief time we have on this earth. We need to devote our life to learning to love Christ with all of our hearts and to love others in a life filled with good deeds. We should always be preparing ourselves for service, that we might be fit for His use. Ultimately, only those treasures we lay up in heaven will count.
There is one other aspect to this debate that often goes ignored. We have societies south of us in Mexico and other countries that are falling apart because of the drugs this country consumes. Our use of drugs is funding the murder and destruction of many people in other lands. We can wash our hands and say that it is not our fault that drugs are illegal here. However, I have a strong suspicion that when we stand before God, He will call us to account for our direct role in the slaughter of innocents by funding drug cartels. Whether we buy drugs or we fund terrorists by giving money to them, we share in the evil deeds that such people do.
Marijuana and other drugs are not necessary for life. People may use them because the drugs make them feel good, or they think they get some medical benefit from them. I suspect few people actually use them because they believe the drugs are drawing them into a deeper study of God’s word, a deeper concern for others, or greater self-control, which is one of the marks that the Spirit of God is truly in control of one’s life (Galatians 5:23).
I hope the above information provides you some helpful information. As always, we as followers of Christ want to point people to Him. At some point, we move away from seeking our rights to focusing on what will make us the best vessels possible for His purposes and kingdom. I would encourage those who think that marijuana use is proper to pursue the knowledge of God through the disciplined study of His revealed word (2 Timothy 2:15) and to prepare (1 Timothy 4:7) with sobriety (1 Peter 1:13; 5:8) the lives He has given us to be used for His kingdom purposes. I would encourage those who reject the use of marijuana to do the same. And always, may we have grace one to another.
a fellow pilgrim,