Cannabis Incense in Ancient Israel?

June 26th, 2020
The shrine at Tel Arad, rebuilt from original finds and displayed at the Israel Museum. The two altars are shown, one with frankincense residue (left) and one with cannabis residue (right). Credit: Laura Lachman

The shrine at Tel Arad, rebuilt from original finds and displayed at the Israel Museum. The two altars are shown, one with frankincense residue (left) and one with cannabis residue (right). Credit: Laura Lachman

Cannabis, of course, is well-known for its psychoactive effects, and was possibly used in Japan as early as 8000 BCE. Frankincense, to a lesser extent, also seems to have certain mind altering effects, although these are currently not well understood. The existence of both in a religious environment, perhaps paints a picture where the priests used these substances to commune in their minds with the deity being worshipped. read more

Who was Moses the Man?

October 27th, 2019

Moses is undoubtedly one of the most complicated individuals in the entire Hebrew Bible. A great leader, prophet, and lawgiver in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and several other Abrahamic religions, Moses’ legendary status sometimes overshadows the very human (and flawed) individual actually described in the biblical text.

Moses the man and his multifaceted identity is explored in a recent article by Dr. Amanda Mbuvi for Biblical Archaeology Review, which carefully considers the ramifications of Moses’ intricate background and can be read here. Long-time readers of this blog will also remember a similar article published previously, Another Look at Moses, which wonders why this hero had such a humble (or even humiliating) end, and can be read here. read more

Clues from Chernobyl

May 4th, 2019

In the past century, no technology has held such potential for both wonder and terror as nuclear power. Whether it is used for ill or good, the underlying physical mechanism presents an inherent danger to those constructing, handling, and ultimately living with the device and its constituent parts (and waste). As a symbol of the atom’s destructive power if things go wrong, no event resonates more than the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

In the Sunday, April 7 New York Times Book Review, Robert R. Crease reviews two books on this nuclear subject: Midnight In Chernobylby Adam Higginbotham, and Manual For Survivalby Kate Brown. According to Crease’s review, Higginbotham recounts in his book the mistakes made that caused the nuclear reactor explosion, “the world’s greatest nuclear disaster,” in what is now Ukraine. Brown’s book is “an exposé of the attempts to minimize the impact of Chernobyl.” In her work she “sought measurements of radioactivity in such things as wool [and] livestock.” read more

Once Upon the Doorposts

August 15th, 2018


Read the original article at Medium

The season of Passover celebrates the freeing of the Hebrews from their years of slavery in Egypt.

There was only one reason they were able to make a safe exodus from their onerous servitude. The Bible says the Lord instructed them to smear the blood of lambs on the doorposts of their houses. The purpose was to protect them from a contamination, often called “plague,” that was passing over the land and killing those who did not have that protection. (This was the final warning to the Egyptian Pharaoh to free the Hebrews, which he then hurriedly did.) read more

Another Look at Moses

January 12th, 2018

As characterized in the Hebrew Bible, Moses was a giant but anguished character. The Lord’s commission to lead the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of Canaan, in effect, caused Moses to sacrifice most of his adult life.

After the meeting at the miraculously Burning Bush, Moses spent almost all his existence in a totally barren, inhospitable Wilderness. He had not one minute of respite since leaving the luxury of the Egyptian royal court and tending his father-in-law’s sheep. And, given the Israelites’ constant rebellions and recalcitrance, he really had not one minute of happiness. In fact, having almost entirely forsaken family life, he was unable to experience a satisfactory life of his own. It is possible that he felt some contentment or pride in his encounters with the Lord, but nothing in the Bible indicates that this was the case. read more

The Language of the Ten Plagues

April 10th, 2017

As we enter the Passover season, millions of people around the world are telling the story of the Hebrews’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt and remembering a series of remarkable events that define the Jewish people and faith. As part the Seder (the celebratory Passover meal), Jews recount the Ten Plagues that ravaged Egypt and finally convinced Pharaoh to release the Hebrews from bondage. The historicity of the Exodus has been debated, analysed, rejected and rethought countless times. While large scale archaeological evidence has not yet been uncovered, clues do indeed exist. Outside of archaeology, are there any hints that there was an Exodus and that it did indeed occur at the time reported in the Bible, rather than being a later invention as some scholars assert? One way to approach the answer is to determine if there are similar words in both Hebrew and Egyptian that might have required interactions between the two peoples in order to develop. A scribe creating a fictional narrative during the Babylonian Captivity and Post-Exilic Period would have been far less likely to use these types of words than words arising from the Babylonian and later Persian culture that surrounded him.

In studying the textual material over the years I (and others) have come across remarkable similarities between the Biblical Hebrew text and the Egyptian language that far pre-date the Captivity. Whether these words are cognates or loans (and, in turn, which way the word was loaned) is unclear at best, but it does provide a tantalizing glimpse into the interactions of the two peoples.

In reference to the account of the Ten Plagues there are some words these languages would appear to have in common. I have used the generally accepted Hebrew transliterations below, and provide the Egyptian transliteration along with an approximated phonetic rendition for ease of reading.

The first plague, where the waters of the Nile are turned to blood, brings us our first Hebrew word: dam or blood. It has been convincingly shown elsewhere that dam is cognate with Egyptian dmꜣ (dema) which means “to clot [blood]” (whose usage is limited to medical texts from around 1550 BCE or earlier) and similar words exist across the Berber, Omotic, and West Chadic languages. Clearly, this is a particularly ancient word with a shared heritage.

A more tentative correlation can be seen with the third plague – lice or gnats, which in Hebrew is kenim. Although generally taken to be the plural of ken it has some similarities with the Egyptian word ḫnms (khenemes), which means mosquito or gnat. From my research, its occurrence seems restricted to the New Kingdom during the reigns of Seti II (c. 1200-1194 BCE) and Rameses IV (c. 1155-1149 BCE), a period throughout which increased contacts with the Eastern Mediterranean meant an uptick in cultural and linguistic exchange. The exact texts in which ḫnms are mentioned include “The Misery of Being Stationed Abroad”, which quite specifically talks about the annoyance of mosquitoes when in foreign lands. One difficulty with this comparison is that Hebrew kaf, which begins kenim, is not identical to Egyptian ḫ. Nevertheless, the common characteristics do mean that a shared lineage for the words should at least be investigated. Should we be reading lice and gnats in the Hebrew text as mosquitoes? We cannot know for sure, but it is a possibility.

The sixth plague, when boils sweep through Egypt, has an almost identical word in Egyptian. In Hebrew shechin is a boil or eruption on the skin, meanwhile in Egyptian sḫn (sekhen) refers to a swelling or gathering of material and is found exclusively in medical texts (specifically the Ebers Papyrus, dating to around 1550 BCE, but probably derived from earlier sources). The similarity seems striking and, given the date, lends the possibility of another word shared with similar meanings between these two civilizations.

Finally, there is an extremely interesting comparison in Egyptian to be made with Hebrew maror, referring to the bitter herbs that the Passover sacrifice was to be eaten with (Exodus 12:8), which has cognates across several languages (think myrrh in English). In Hebrew, maror derives from marar which means to be bitter. The words mꜣr (mar), mr (mer) and mꜥr (mar) in Egyptian can mean misery, bitter and painful, the earliest of which dates from the reign of Djedkare Isesi (c. 2436–2404 BCE).

There is also a different use for the word in Egyptian – a type of unknown plant or wood mentioned only in Papyrus Harris I, dating from the reign of Rameses III (c. 1186–1155 BC). Given that the Hebrew text is also referring specifically to a plant, could this have meant a particular type of plant that would have been known at the time and whose identity is now lost?

In my own research, I’ve found around 100 words that show relational similarities, many of which shed new light on traditionally difficult or bizarre translations of the biblical text. These are just a few examples of words that may be cognates or loans between the two languages that suggest a deeper cultural link than might previously have been thought and can contribute to answering the question as to whether or not the is any validity to the stories to which they relate.

Adam Hemmings is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he specialized in Egyptian and Near Eastern studies, as well as archaeological and heritage law. He is currently engaged in research for his PhD regarding the repatriation of Egyptian antiquities removed during the colonial period.

The Ophel Inscription Debate

March 18th, 2014

Last year’s discovery in Jerusalem of an inscription on a broken piece of a ceramic jar has been greeted with much excitement and the usual arguments within the archaeological community as to its significance. In an effort to clarify the various positions presently taken, I’ve asked Adam Hemmings, who is doing postgraduate work in archaeology at the University of London, to give his explanation of the background of this enigmatic find. Roger Isaacs


by Adam Hemmings

The practice of archaeology, and biblical archaeology especially, is a controversial one. The layers of history that lie beneath our feet are laden with interpretation, claims and counterclaims. When archaeologists unearth this history, it is no wonder that such a mix of emotions greet their discoveries: wonder, awe, curiosity and, judging by the number of times I’ve been asked about the Curse of the Pharaohs, fear. Mysteries fascinate humans sometimes more than the hard work it takes to unravel them—but for this work we need an interdisciplinary toolkit that covers many subjects, from ancient literature and philosophy to radiocarbon dating and palynology.

I am often caught between two groups: sensationalists and minimalists. We saw both of these groups at work recently when Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa announced that an inscription uncovered on a fragment of a ceramic jar in 2013 was in Hebrew and most probably dated to the second half of the 10th century BCE. As soon as the news of this translation was made public, the two opposing armies staked their positions: sensationalists claimed the find was incontrovertible evidence for the biblical veracity of King Solomon; minimalists declared that great caution was needed before making any romanticized assertions. But the facts of this case are more subtle and sophisticated than the headlines would have you believe.

The artifact concerned, dubbed the Ophel Inscription, was discovered near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar. Scratched upon the clay are the remnants of an ancient language, the identity of which has been hotly debated. Why such concern over a simple labeled jar? Mazar has dated the jar based on its composition and location to the 10th century BCE, a dating that would place the inscription within the biblical time period of David and Solomon.

The letters have been variously described as Proto-Canaanite script (and thus predating Israelite rule) by Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University and Early Alphabetic (proto-Sinaitic) by Christopher Rollston of Johns Hopkins. Each has rendered different translations. The new interpretation by Galil posits that the text is Hebrew and labels the jar as containing low-quality wine from a king’s twentieth or thirtieth regnal year, suggesting it may have been for consumption by conscript labor. So many possibilities, but what facts can we actually glean from the discovery?

Clearly, if we take Galil’s translation, wine was being brought to the Jerusalem area through official channels and marked as belonging to the reign of a particularly long-ruling king. The fact that the wine is labeled means that a certain amount of bureaucracy must have existed, and its low quality might suggest it was intended to be handed out to lower class citizens, as in other ancient cultures. Archaeologically, this is about as much as we can learn, and it does not seem to explicitly link the artifact to Solomon or any biblical truth. Then again, if with further study the inscription is shown more positively to be Hebrew, minimalists would have a hard time maintaining that no biblical-era state existed. In the end, we are left with a less clear-cut situation and must be prepared to accept that there may never be one answer.

At this point, we must deploy our interdisciplinary toolkit and move beyond archaeology and the study of language. The Bible was the driving force behind many archaeological endeavors for centuries, with excavators and patrons keen to prove the accuracy of the biblical account. Unfortunately, this occasionally led to less-than-scientific conclusions, and archaeologists determined that it was best to solely dig without being influenced in interpretation by legendary texts. Yet, such a fundamentalist position relegates vital information beyond the archaeologist’s grasp, a situation that no discipline should perpetuate.

Taken as a whole, the Bible is a collection of accounts that act as a repository for cultural memory. Is not this memory valid for our investigation of history? Can we not find buried within such accounts, whether from the Bible, the Odyssey or the Ramayana, true voices of those civilizations that bring light to those places which seem impenetrable?

The Ophel Inscription’s true significance is yet to be seen, but the investigation must continue both in the ground and in the library. Only through a measured, all-encompassing study of the past can we hope to learn its secrets and begin to better understand ourselves.

It is this type of penetrating investigation that makes Roger Isaacs’ Talking With God so important for the field. Similarly using an interdisciplinary method, words of obscure origin and meaning are thoroughly analyzed to provide important new interpretations. Such theoretical procedures are essential if we are ever to have a more fully comprehensive view of the past.

Adam Hemmings, of the University of Chicago and School of Oriental and African Studies, London, is doing post graduate studies in Egyptian and Near Eastern studies, as well as archaeological law. He is currently engaged in research regarding the repatriation of Egyptian antiquities removed during the colonial period.

To learn more about Talking With God: The Radioactive Ark of the Testimony. Communication Through It. Protection From It. by Roger D. Isaacs, order your copy at

Incense Protected Biblical Israelites from Radiation Burn

July 1st, 2013

Today, the sweet, smoky fragrance of incense is used in mystical rites, but the ancient Israelites used it for a completely different purpose. For them incense had a very practical, protective function relative to the Ark of the Testimony.

Urim and Thummim

April 20th, 2012

In biblical times there was a peculiar apparatus that the Israelite High Priest wore. It consisted of a robe to which was attached to an apron-like garment called an ephod. Fastened on the ephod was a breast-piece, which contained twelve precious and semiprecious stones in front and two more at the shoulders, abnay zeekawrone in Hebrew. In a pocket of the breast-piece were two items called the urim and thummim.

There are many ideas about the purpose and function of the ephod’s urim and thummim, but the Bible says little. The urim are mentioned a grand total of four times in the Five Books of Moses and only three more times elsewhere. (I distinguish between the Five Books and the others because there is no evidence that the ephod operated after King David‘s reign.) The thummim are found three times in the Five Books, twice elsewhere.

The first two mentions, Exodus 28:30 and Leviticus 8:8, are simply directions to put the two objects into the breast-piece. As we go through the references, note the recurring theme of talking with God.

“And you will put in the breast-piece of judgment the urim and thummim, and they will be on Aaron’s breast when hegoes in before the Lord; and Aaron will carry the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the Lord continually.” (Exodus 28:30) read more


The first Passover and 4 clues to its existence

April 4th, 2012

Was the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt after years of slavery history or myth? Were there really 10 plagues that became so progressively terrible that they forced the Pharaoh to finally release all the Israelite slaves? Was there really a leader named Moses, and did he guide this “mixed multitude” for 40 years in the wilderness of the Sinai desert? These questions have puzzled biblical scholars, archeologists, and all those interested in solving one of the Old Testament’s most intriguing mysteries.

Passover is the Jewish festival that celebrates the flight of the Israelites out of Egypt. During this Passover season it is particularly pertinent to wonder, did the Exodus really happen?

Clues and speculations abound regarding alleged items of evidence discovered for the Exodus, and nearly all have their champions and detractors. It seems that every time a theory is proposed and the Exodus mystery appears to be solved, it is quickly shot down for one reason or another.

Nevertheless, ongoing archeological and etymological investigations into the Exodus have produced some tantalizing items and scholarship. Presented for your consideration are Exhibits 1–4. Read and wonder…

Exhibit 1: The Ipuwer Papyrus. How could plagues described in an Egyptian papyrus be so similar to those found in the Bible?

In the early 1800’s, a papyrus was found in Egypt called The Admonitions of an Egyptian. It is now in the Leiden Museum in Holland. An Egyptian named Ipuwer wrote it at the end of the Middle Kingdom, around 1650 B.C.E.; scribes copied it in the 19th Dynasty, in the 1200’s B.C.E. Below are some of the amazingly similar plagues described in both the Ipuwer papyrus and the Bible. (The biblical plagues befell the Egyptians at the time of Moses and the Exodus, which has been dated sometime between 1570 to 1290 B.C.E.)

The river is blood. All the waters of the river were turned to blood. (Exod. 7:20)
Men … thirst after water. The Egyptians dug around the river for water to drink. (Exod. 7:24)
Gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire. And fire came down to earth. (Exod. 9:23)
Everywhere barley has perished. And the flax and the barley were smitten. (Exod. 9:31)
The cattle moan because of the state of the land. The hand of the Lord is … on the cattle, which is in the field. (Exod. 9:3)
Men are few, and he who places his brother in the land is everywhere.

The children of princes are dashed against the walls.

At midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh … to the firstborn of the captive who was in prison. (Exod. 12:29)
Pestilence is throughout the land. I have sent forth my hand and smitten you and your people with pestilence. (Exod. 9:15)
The land [was not light or bright]. (This is a guess of translators. It’s actually blank on the papyrus.) There was thick darkness (or darkness of gloom) in all the land or Egypt. (Exod. 10:22)
Hair [has fallen out] for everybody. He whose hair has fallen out.* (Lev. 13:40)
Gold, lapis lazuli, silver … are strung on the necks of maidservants. And they asked of the Egyptians articles of silver and … gold … and they plundered Egypt. (Exod. 12:35)

*Admittedly this biblical reference about hair falling out occurs after both the writing of Ipuwer and the flight out of Egypt. However, I include it here because in my book, Talking With God: The Radioactive Ark of the Testimony., I explain that the cloud that settled on the ark was radioactive, and one of the effects of close contact was hair loss. Mysteries abound!

The disparity of the dates between the Ipuwer and Exodus documents is enough to convince many scholars that no relation exists between the two. In addition, prevalent theory now claims the papyrus is simply ahistorical. Be that as it may, the similarities are striking, and why they are remains a mystery. Could it be that the scribes who copied the document at the time of the Exodus were experiencing similar calamities to the earlier ones and were using Ipuwer’s words to warn the present-day Pharaoh?

Exhibit 2: The Israelites’ Travel Itinerary and the Egyptian Maps. Did the cities the Israelites camped in on their way to Canaan really exist?

One of the most contentious problems regarding the Exodus investigation is the fact that there is no archeological evidence for various places mentioned in the biblical travel itinerary of the Israelites as they fled Egypt for the Promised Land, Canaan. In an article in the September/October 1994 issue of Biblical Archaeological Review, Charles R. Krahmalkov, then Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the University of Michigan, points out that various scholars have used this explanation to “reject the entire story” of Israel’s origins, and therefore the Exodus.

However, Krahmalkov discusses a number of biblical sites that appear to be corroborated by Egyptian sources. Among them are Dibon (Numbers 13:45), a city where the Israelites’ camped on their way to invade Canaan, and Hebron (Numbers 13:22), another city targeted for invasion.

Krahmalkov concedes the lack of archaeological evidence, but he points out that the Egyptians thoroughly mapped these sites, as well as a number of other regions mentioned in the Bible. The mapping was done in the Late Bronze age, in Dynasties XVIII and XIX (according to his dating, 1560–1200 B.C.E. He dates the Exodus in the range of 1400–1200 B.C.E.). Also include are the cities of Iyyn and Abel (biblical Abel Shittim) both in Numbers 13: 45–50; Yom haMelach (Numbers 34:3); and Athar (Hebrew Atharim) (Numbers 21:1). The maps survive in list form, and they are found on the temple walls of ancient Egyptian kings. Since they are documented in the most important extra-biblical source—Egypt—the evidence is strong that these cities indeed existed at the time of the Exodus.

Exhibit 3: Aper-el’s Tomb. Was there a Hebrew advisor to Egyptian kings at the time of the Exodus?

In 1987, searchers rediscovered a tomb in the Saqqara region of Egypt belonging to a man they call Aper-el. They say his name is an Egyptian version of a Hebrew name. Aper-el was vizier to the famous Amenhotep III (1370–1293 B.C.E., 18th Dynasty) and later to his son, the monotheistic king Akhenaten. They dated the tomb around 1353–1335 B.C.E., but there is something of mystery here.

The tomb was originally discovered by the legendary archeologist Sir Flinders Petrie in the 1880’s. He copied an inscription that spells the vizier’s name Aperia. I don’t know if the 1987 team found other inscriptions with the -el ending, but -el would be the equivalent of Elohim, one of the terms for God in the Bible. The ending -ia would indicate Ya, short for YHWH or Yaweh, the other biblical name for God, generally translated “Lord.” (Think the familiar Halleluya, Hebrew for “praise the Lord.”)

It is tantalizing to wonder if Aper-el/Aperia was indeed a Hebrew advisor to the young king Akhenaten. If so, did Aper-el/Aperia influence Akhenaten’s thinking toward monotheism? In any case, it would place a Hebrew advisor to the kings within the range of years claimed for the Exodus just as Joseph was to an Egyptian king hundreds of years earlier. In the book of Genesis, Joseph rose from captive to be second only to the Pharaoh, and he was empowered to save Egypt from starvation during a seven-year drought. It isn’t known how Aperel/Aperia got there!

Exhibit 4: Is the name of the Hebrew midwife in Exodus the same as that of a slave mentioned in an ancient Egyptian papyrus?

The Brooklyn Museum has a papyrus, possibly from Thebes, with a list of slaves from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, about 1740 bce. It includes a slave named Shiphra and others with Semitic names. In the Bible, a Hebrew woman with the same name, Shiphra, was one of two midwives the Pharaoh commissioned to kill all the male Hebrew children at the time Moses was born (Exod. 1:15). She didn’t. Since by that time all Hebrews had been put into servitude by the Pharaoh, the midwife Shiphra would also have been a slave. The fact that the name Shiphra is found in both the Bible and the papyrus indicates that the name and the woman’s condition of slavery were familiar to both Israelites and Egyptians.

The mystery continues


Although the comparisons between the Ipuwer Papyrus and the Bible are tantalizing, Ipuwer alone does not provide absolute evidence for the Exodus and the Passover. For that matter it can’t even account for the existence of the Israelites.

While there is little tangible archeological evidence and until the mystery is finally solved, we are left to rely on the venerable Passover service to connect us to our past at this holiday season. We must be content to repeat the most pertinent of the famous “Four Questions,” which the youngest at the table asks on the first night:

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Facts about what really happened to the Israelites can be found in the new book Talking with God. The Radioactive Ark Of The Testimony. Communication Through It. Protection From It. by Roger D. Isaacs. Available at Amazon. Join our ongoing investigation of Old Testament mysteries at


Praise for The Golden Ark

Praise for The Golden Ark

Rabbi Robert Marx

"You continue to confound the "biblical establishment" even as you offer creative insights into our ancient religious literature. You offer a naturalistic explanation to what others insist upon calling supernatural. Or perhaps, more accurately, your work might be described as supra-natural. At any rate, it represented innovative, if inevitably, controversial thinking. And we need that."

Robert J. Marx, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Hakifa, Glencoe, IL, Founder and a past president of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

Francesco Licheri

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Francesco Licheri, Archaeologist & Sociologist

Robert Wolf

"'s an excellent exposition of your thesis. The text is concise and clear, the illustrations are bold and inviting."

Robert Wolf, Author and Executive Editor, Free River Press

Praise for Talking With God

Praise for Talking With God

Rabbi Jacob Milgrom

"An enormous, imaginative work. I think I would call it a modern midrash."

The Late Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, Biblical Scholar, U.C. Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies

Dr. Byron Sherwin

"This work…represents a novel and substantive approach to biblical study and understanding."

Dr. Byron Sherwin, Distinguished Service Professor, Director of Doctoral Programs, Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.

Robert Wolf

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Robert Wolf, Author and Executive Editor, Free River Press

Peter Gingiss

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Peter Gingiss, Associate Professor of Linguistics Department of English, University of Houston