The Bible on Drugs

Exodus 22:

18 Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

(King James Version)

St. James implored Christians to fix their attention on the “perfect Law of Liberty.” Meanwhile, the United States, a Christian nation, leads the world not in liberty, but in number of prisoners. Not only that, the political party which launched the program of mass incarceration is the major party which most loudly proclaims allegiance to Christ. We have a contradiction.

I am referring, of course, to the War on Drugs began under Nixon, and massively relaunched under Reagan. Since Reagan took office, the total population behind bars has gone up by more than a factor of four. This leaves us with the following question: was St. James’ Law of Liberty some abstract spiritual concept having nothing to do with real world liberty? Or did the Christians who supported the Reagans’ tough crusade against getting high make a mistake, as Pat Robertson recently suggested? If St. James was referring to the Law of Moses, the latter question boils down to this: is smoking marijuana a form of witchcraft?

If so, Christians might have permission to wage a war on drugs, or even a mandate if Christians are supposed to invoke the might of the state to enforce the Law. Whether they are supposed to depends on how you interpret Jesus’ calls for peace, mercy, forgiveness, etc. Elsewhere I make the case that Christians should focus on their own behaviors, that religious freedom is part of the New Covenant – forgiveness from God in return for putting up with sinful neighbors.

But let us put aside the lesson of the Narrow Gate for the moment and be theocrats at least for a time. As Christian theocrats, should we wage the War on Drugs? The answer depends on whether recreational drug use constitutes witchcraft. If it is, then yes, selling recreational drugs should be illegal along with selling ham, bacon, religious icons (idols), or selling anything at all on Saturdays.

On the other hand, if smoking marijuana is not witchcraft, waging a war on this herb is itself a sin, a violation of the Old Testament Law:

Deuteronomy 4:

2 Do not add a thing to what I command you nor subtract from it, so that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I am delivering to you.

(NET Bible®)

For those who think that this particular commandment is obsolete and not applicable to Christians, may I suggest you contemplate these New Testament scriptures:

Matthew 5:

17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.

18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.

Matthew 23:

4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them.

(NET Bible®)

Notice how Jesus referred to letters of the Law. By Jesus’ time the Pharisees had accumulated a huge body of oral traditions on top of the written Law, traditions which later were written into the Talmud. By way of analogy, consider the difference between the written Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution as currently interpreted by the courts. The difference is enormous. Likewise is the difference between accumulated Jewish traditions and the written Law of Moses, the Law of Liberty. Keep this in mind when looking at New Testament passages deprecating “legalism.” This legalism, by the way, is a violation of the written Law, that is, Deuteronomy 4:2 cited above.

So, is smoking marijuana a form of witchcraft? Or is outlawing marijuana “adding to the Law?”

Marijuana can indeed be used for witchcraft. Over the course of my political activism I have met a fair number of self-proclaimed witches, far more than the average American will encounter. We met because we had a shared interest in ending the Drug War. And yes, they used an assortment of illegal drugs as part of their neo-pagan religion.

But long before I became a serious political activist, I went to a preppy university and witnessed a great many instances of recreational drug use of a most un-magical nature – unless enjoying TV sitcoms to excess or laughing repeatedly at stupid jokes constitutes some sort of demonic invocation.

The history of the War on Drugs makes me doubt it was meant to be a War on Witchcraft. Witchcraft in general is legal. We have that First Amendment thingy. New Age bookstores dot the land. New Age gurus openly sell spells (cf. the Law of Attraction) to the masses by the megabuck. Nancy Reagan herself consulted astrologers even as she promoted mass-incarceration.

Deuteronomy 18:

10 There must never be found among you anyone who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, anyone who practices divination, an omen reader, a soothsayer, a sorcerer,

11 one who casts spells, one who conjures up spirits, a practitioner of the occult, or a necromancer..

(NET Bible®)

I thus suggest that the War on Drugs is not a Christian war, or at least shouldn’t be. It is a violation of the Law of Liberty, and because of this war the United States is no Sweet Land of Liberty. It is a land of persecution, mass imprisonment, homosexual rape, police turned into storm troopers, and gunfire terrifying our poorer neighborhoods. Behold the statistics. See what Nancy Reagan hath wrought:

Number of persons under correctional supervision [source]:

Year Probation Jail Prison Parole Total
1980 1,118,097 182,288 319,598 220,438 1,840,400
1985 1,968,712 254,986 487,593 300,203 3,011,500
1990 2,670,234 403,019 743,382 531,407 4,348,000
1995 3,077,861 499,300 1,078,542 679,421 5,335,100
2000 3,826,209 613,534 1,316,333 723,898 6,437,400
2005 4,166,757 740,770 1,448,344 780,616 7,045,100

The Bible on Getting High

Genesis 30:

14 At the time of the wheat harvest Reuben went out and found some mandrake plants in a field and brought them to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, "Give me some of your son's mandrakes."

15 But Leah replied, "Wasn't it enough that you've taken away my husband? Would you take away my son's mandrakes too?" "All right," Rachel said, "he may sleep with you tonight in exchange for your son's mandrakes."

16 When Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, "You must sleep with me because I have paid for your services with my son's mandrakes." So he had marital relations with her that night.

(NET Bible®)

Perhaps I cheated. Holding up Nancy Reagan as a negative example is not in itself proof. Perhaps our War on Drugs is a stealth attempt at a War on Witchcraft, wrapped in a veneer of secular reasoning in order to bypass the First Amendment. For better evidence let us consult scripture more deeply, and look at what the Bible has to say about using mind altering chemicals for fun.

So just what does the Bible have to say about recreational drugs? For most drugs, not all that much.

Mandrake, a hallucinogen, gets a couple of mentions, but as an aphrodisiac. No sin is implied. Jacob’s wives use it to bear more children [Genesis 30:14-16]. The Song of Songs gives mandrake a brief mention [7:13] as part of a romantic getaway. (Perhaps there is a translation error, as suggested in this Wikipedia article.)

The anointing oil worn by the priests when serving in the Tabernacle may have included what is now a more popular recreational drug:

Exodus 30:

23 "Take choice spices: twelve and a half pounds of free-flowing myrrh, half that — about six and a quarter pounds — of sweet-smelling cinnamon, six and a quarter pounds of sweet-smelling cane,

24 and twelve and a half pounds of cassia, all weighed according to the sanctuary shekel, and four quarts of olive oil.

25 You are to make this into a sacred anointing oil, a perfumed compound, the work of a perfumer. It will be sacred anointing oil.

26 "With it you are to anoint the tent of meeting, the ark of the testimony,

27 the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and its utensils, the altar of incense,

28 the altar for the burnt offering and all its utensils, and the laver and its base.

29 So you are to sanctify them, and they will be most holy; anything that touches them will be holy.

30 "You are to anoint Aaron and his sons and sanctify them, so that they may minister as my priests.

31 And you are to tell the Israelites: 'This is to be my sacred anointing oil throughout your generations.

32 It must not be applied to people's bodies, and you must not make any like it with the same recipe. It is holy, and it must be holy to you.

33 Whoever makes perfume like it and whoever puts any of it on someone not a priest will be cut off from his people.' "

(NET Bible®)

Just what was that “sweet-smelling cane” in Exodus 30:23? The King James Version calls it “sweet calamus.” The Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge (window in my copy of E Sword) claims this is a “reed growing in Egypt, Syria, and India, about two feet in height, bearing from the root a knotted stalk, quite round, containing in its cavity a soft white pith. It is said to scent the air while growing; and when cut down, dried, and powdered, makes an ingredient in the richest perfumes.” This same box transliterates the underlying Hebrew words as “kenaih bosem.” Strong’s Concordance has “qa^na^h” for the King James “calamus” and “bes´em” for “sweet-smelling.” If the Hebrew word order is noun-adjective (vs. the English adjective-noun) then you have a phrase which sounds suspiciously like cannabis, the Latin word for marijuana. Whether this was in fact cannabis is controversial even in stoner circles. (See this discussion.)

Even if this was cannabis, however, the passage above does not make a clear case for legal marijuana, were we to run this country as a theocracy. On the contrary, the [possibly] THC containing oil was restricted to priests. Laity who used it were to be “cut off” -- whatever that meant.

The Levitical priesthood, however, was clearly superseded according to the New Testament. The book of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus has taken over the role of high priest:

Hebrews 4:

14 Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.

15 For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.

16 Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.

(NET Bible®)

Exodus 30:30 states that Aaron and his sons were to be anointed, so the priestly oil was not limited to just the high priest. Does anyone else qualify as priest today? Here is what Peter wrote:

1 Peter 2:

5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

6 For it says in scripture, "Look, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and priceless cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will never be put to shame."

7 So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,

8 and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 You once were not a people, but now you are God's people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.

(NET Bible®)

Denominations vary on how they interpret this passage. Was Peter addressing all Christians or just the leadership? If the former, these words seem to imply that all Christians are in some sense priests. John had similar words in his opening chapter of Revelations:

Revelations 1:

4 From John, to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from "he who is," and who was, and who is still to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,

5 and from Jesus Christ — the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood

6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father — to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen.

(NET Bible®)

And note finally how the veil of the Temple was torn in two when Jesus died [Matthew 27:51]. Mysteries that were limited to a narrow priesthood have been opened up to many.

So perhaps the restrictions on the anointing oil have been lifted. For times of reverent prayer, this oil may be permissible to all Christians.

But what of non-Christians? What of secular uses of cannabis? What of watching Battlestar Galactica while getting stoned?

What of cinnamon toast?

The priestly ointment also contained cinnamon, myrrh, cassia and olive oil. Just because the combination was restricted to religious ceremony, does that mean the individual ingredients were restricted?

My analysis is admittedly ambiguous. I do hope I have inspired some humility on the part of drug warriors here – especially those who call for treating the body as a temple [1 Corinthians 3:16]. The anointing oil in question was sprinkled about the original Temple. Clearly “sweet cane,” whatever it was, did not defile the Temple.

When faced with ambiguity, I suggest that Christians should default to forgiveness of others regardless of how they discipline themselves. Jesus had many good things to say about the merciful. Putting people in cages for decades for getting high or selling the means to do so is not merciful. (Sending those who clearly cannot handle their high to forced rehab may be another matter. And since drug abuse is far more detectable than responsible use, you don’t need a police state to carry out such a policy.)

For purely recreational uses of mind-altering drugs, the Bible has little to say, save for one drug: alcohol. On that subject the Bible says a great deal! Perhaps we should look at what the Bible says about alcohol as a model for dealing with recreational drugs in general. I intended to conclude this chapter with coverage of the subject of alcohol, but I am already past 2000 words, and I could easily add another 2000 just quoting the Bible on alcoholic beverages.

Homework Assignment

For more on the subject of incense, and who can use it study the following passages.

  • In Numbers 16 a group of rebels demands the right to burn incense before the Lord. They get swallowed up by the earth.
  • Exodus 30:34-38 gives a particular recipe for a sacred incense, and specifically prohibits using that recipe for other purposes.
  • Leviticus 10:1-3 gives an example of priests burning "strange fire" before the Lord, and being killed as a result.

I leave it to the reader to figure out whether the first passage is still relevant given the New Covenant. For the second, I suggest looking for examples of the individual ingredients used for other purposes. As for the third, does "strange fire" apply to non religious use? If so, what of tobacco?

Hat tip to reviewer Andrew Babbitt who pointed out these relevant scriptures.