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Dan Merkur, The Mystery of Manna: The Psychedelic Sacrament of the Bible Park Street Press, 2000. www.InnerTraditions.com

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


I know I’m going to be sorry I wrote this if I ever happen to meet Professor Merkur, but here goes. Let me first say that I do not regard as implausible the suggestion that biblical prophets and psalmists (“Thus have I beheld thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and thy glory”…) might have employed psychedelic drugs for visionary purposes. Such usage is well known among the ancient Vedic priests, whose hymns to Soma, the sacramental hallucinogen, are among the most strikingly beautiful of ancient hymnody. In fact, it would make a lot of sense. But is there any reason, any evidence to make us think they did use hallucinogens (specifically, Merkur suggests ergot, a psychoactive wheat rust or mold)? I cannot see that The Mystery of Manna provides the least whit.

Merkur adduces two Old Testament texts which he considers explicit in their reference to hallucinogens. The first is Exodus 16:6-7a, 8b-10. Basically, the Israelites eat the manna, and it is said that they then behold a vision of Yahve. Here we have a classic instance of the post hoc ergo(t?) propter hoc fallacy: nothing at all is said to connect the eating of the manna with the vision, as if the first caused the second. It would have been quite easy to say that the manna induced the vision, but no such thing is said. Besides, what about all the other stories in which the Israelites behold God—were they all tripping every time they saw the pillar of fire? Nothing is said of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out in any of those passages. Add to this the problem, like that long recognized in Acts 2, of Moses and his staff being able to distribute sufficient of the hallucinogen to all of the children of Israel! How could Peter have baptized all those thousands on the Day of Pentecost, either? I am reminded, too, of Bishop Colenso’s hilarious computations of how many lambs a second the priests of Exodus must needs have slaughtered given the population statistics.

The second perspicuous hallucinogen text is Isaiah 30:20: “And my Lord will give you the bread of hardship and the water of affliction, and your teacher will no longer hide himself, and your eyes shall see your teacher.” Well, this is just ridiculous. Need the text mean more than that Israel will “see” (experience) their God only once they have been thoroughly chastised? If you want to see what explicit references to sacred hallucinogens in scripture would look like, take a look at the Rig Vedic hymns to Soma:

I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey. When you penetrate inside, you will know no limits… We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods… The glorious drops that I have drunk set me free in wide space… Inflame me like a fire kindled by friction; make us see far; make us richer, better. For when I am intoxicated with you, Soma, I think myself rich. (8:48:1-2a, 3a, 5a, 6a, Wendy O’Flaherty trans.)

Wouldn’t it have been easy enough for the biblical writers to have said something like that? That’s all I’m asking. But if Merkur’s pair of “explicit” texts are such poor proofs, the rest of the book offers us a mass of citations, some discussed at pointless length, from various Church Fathers, Philo, famous Rabbis, Christian mystics, Kabbalists, and others whom Merkur feels must have been familiar with the psychoactive sacrament of manna, though even he admits the insinuation is to be discovered only by a reader, like himself, who is already “in the know.” He has shouldered an impossible hermeneutical burden: taking as his evidence texts which he himself admits never deal with the supposed subject matter in direct speech. He admits the desired significance may only be read into the texts. But that means the whole argument is circular. There is no way in from outside. A “public” reading will not yield the key. And that is the sort of reading scholarship requires. Otherwise the “exegete” finds himself on the same level as teenage potheads confusedly imagining drug allegories in Hey Jude. We may agree, however, that in this one case, the Bible has caused Professor Merkur to hallucinate.


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