A few years ago, I was listening to Outer South (2009) by Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, and I was particularly intrigued by Oberst’s lyrics in “To All the Lights in the Windows”. Oberst is always lacing religious pictures and allusions into his lyrics, and this one mentioned the stories of Moses, Jesus, Joseph, and Solomon. Verse 1 goes:
Moses up on a mountainside, what a place to meet
He brought his pad and his pencil, poured himself some gypsy tea
And all the world’s multiplicity, they turned his brain and his soul to stone
He drew his face on a tablet, and carried it back home
At the time, I thought it was kind of strange that he would envision Moses having a cup of tea on the mountain. Fast-forward to this past December. I begin to read reviews of Exodus: Gods and Kings where everyone is weirded out by a scene where a God-boy pours Moses a cup of tea while he inscribes the Ten Commandments. Immediately the lines from the above song spring to mind. I think, What are the chances that both Oberst and Scott would invent a very odd and yet specifically identical scene?
I doubted that Conor Oberst served as the muse for Scott’s blockbuster film, so I had to assume that both Oberst and Scott were somehow drawing from some common extra-Biblical source…
From the Book of Mormon? From ancient Jewish folklore? From a gnostic scroll or recently discovered manuscript? I started to do some searching, and found this Reuters article: “High on Mt. Sinai?” It gave me the name of a Psychology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and pointed me to an article published in the British journal Time and Mind. It turns out that Benny Sharon’s article “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis” (Full PDF Here) had made a splash especially in British media outlets in 2008 when the article was originally published–the year before Oberst’s lyrics had been released on Outer South.
In the article, Sharon confirmed my suspicions when he claimed, “Some of the findings noted here are new, and the bringing of the different elements together is originally mine” (56). BINGO. Here it was. The source of this bizarre episode–Moses drinking gypsy tea with God on Mt. Sinai while inscribing the Ten Commandments. Oberst and Scott were both drawing inspiration from Sharon’s hypothesis. But what is Dr. Sharon’s hypothesis? And what the heck is an entheogen?
Sharon’s article seeks to compare his experiences drinking the Amazonian hallucinogenic brew Ayahuasca to various experiences of Moses’ life as narrated in the Pentateuch. Entheogens are “psychedelic (mind-expanding) or hallucinogenic…agents that bring one in touch with the Divine within” (52). Sharon cites numerous religions that made use of mind-altering herbs to heighten religious experience and to promote a hallucinogenic state of transcendence. He then catalogues his own experience with Ayahuasca, an extremely powerful psychedelic tea which he claims, “I have partaken of it about 160 times in various locales and contexts” (55).
Now what does an herbal tea in the Amazon have to do with Moses on Mt. Sinai? Well, Sharon asserts that a tea similar to Ayahuasca can be made on the Sinai Peninsula by combining harmal, a shrub, and acacia leaves. (On a side note, Sharon mentions he found an entire field of harmal outside the caves of the Qumran community–“Intuitively, it seemed to me evident: The Essenes must have made use of this psychoactive plant. I did not have an empirical proof for this but found the coincidence most powerful” (58)). Basically, Sharon’s is postulating that Moses was high on herbal tea for most of his time in the desert.
Sharon’s study presents five occurrences in which he sees similarities between his own hallucinations–or those of others on Ayahuasca–and events in Moses’ life. When drinking this entheogen, one tends to encounter the Divine, experience sensations of light, see serpents, fear death, and have visions of figures who hide their faces. Often those who drink this tea are reported to have a shining countenance, “the skin of their face is smooth, their eyes are full of light, and they appear to be especially beautiful” (63). One of the primary experiences where Sharon believes Moses was high on tea was the encounter with God at Mt. Sinai–hence the scene in Exodus: Gods and Kings where boy-God pours Moses a cup of tea (Also, did you notice this same hallucinogenic tea element in Aronofsky’s Noah??).
If you have watched any law or crime drama, there is a line that gets thrown around all of the time, “That evidence is merely circumstantial!” What it means is that just because you can postulate a plausible storyline doesn’t make the suspect guilty. You have got to present concrete evidence to get a guilty verdict. And that is exactly what Sharon’s article lacks. In fact, this piece published in–I assume–a scholarly journal lacks any evidence of real scholarship. It reads like a History Channel expose.
It’s in the title, folks: “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis.” Throughout the article the word speculative appears multiple times: “I am here proposing still another entheogenic, admittedly speculative, hypothesis” (56). At one point in the article, Sharon speaks of finding evidence while “surfing the internet” (58). In another place he references a source with “various (uncited) investigators” (59). Sharon openly admits in a footnote that his hypothesis is “non-orthodox, iconoclastic [in] nature” (70).
Essentially, Sharon is presenting a plausible framework in which to read and re-interpret the entire Moses narrative. He wants us to read hallucinogenic tea into every Divine encounter and experience in the life of Moses. Nothing is as it seems, because well, Moses is high on some gypsy tea. Do you buy his argument? This is Scott’s way of rewriting the story of Moses in his Exodus movie. The divine is absent. All the flash and smoke is actually a drug-induced hallucination.
I will finish this article with the words Sharon’s used to finish his: “I leave it to the reader to pass his or her judgment” (70).
*Note: I also noticed that many of Sharon’s sources on psychedelic drugs were from writings published in the 1970s…I’ll let you pass judgment on that one too. (Far out, man…)