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Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav

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The Facts about Kaneh Bosem

By Jeff A. Benner


Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred and fifty, and of aromatic cane two hundred and fifty. (Exodus 30:23, RSV)

The passage above lists the ingredients in the “holy anointing oil” that was to be used by the priests to anoint the tabernacle and the priesthood. This topic may be a little controversial, but I think it is an important one as a lot of people have asked me over the years if the Hebrew phrase קנה בשם (qaneh bosem, often spelled kaneh bosem), translated as “aromatic cane” in the verse above, is a Biblical Hebrew phrase for cannabis, also called marijuana or hemp.

When I am studying a subject in the Bible, I always attempt to do so from a purely objective viewpoint, without taking on the role of a supporter or a detractor. This way, I will not be tempted to enter my own personal bias into the study. So, with this approach to Biblical interpretation in mind, let’s dig into the language and culture of the Bible to get at the truth of kaneh bosem.

The Hebrew word קנה (k’neh, Strong’s #7070) literally means, according to Strong’s and Brown-Driver-Briggs, “reed” or “stalk.” This noun is derived from the root קנה (Q.N.A, Strong’s #7069) meaning “to acquire, purchase or buy.” This verb is derived from the parent root קן (qen, Strong’s #7064) meaning “nest.” The connection between all of these words is a bird’s nest, which is made my “acquiring” branches, leaves or “reeds.”

The Hebrew word בשם (bosem, Strong’s #1314) means, also according to Strong’s and Brown-Driver-Briggs, “spice” or “balsam” (an aromatic resinous substance). This noun is derived from the root word בשם (B.S.M, this Semitic root is not used in the Hebrew Bible) meaning “to be fragrant.”

There is no question that the Hebrew phrase qaneh bosem is similar to the term cannabis, but is this a coincidence or the origin of the name of this plant? Notice that in Exodus 30:23 is the word “cinnamon,” which is not a translation of the Hebrew, but a transliteration. In the Hebrew, the word is קנמון (qinamon, Strong’s #7076), which is the origin of the Greek word kinnamonon, the Latin word cinnamomum and the English word cinnamon. Therefore, just as the Hebrew word qinamon is the origin of “cinnamon;” it is possible that kaneh bosem is the origin of the word “cannabis.”

Cannabis and hemp (a form of cannabis) are indigenous to the Middle East and was used for food, medicine and clothing for thousands of years in the Middle, Near and Far East. According to historical records the Indo-Iranian people introduced Cannabis (qunubu in their language) to the Assyrians, Scythians, Thracians and Dacians. The plant was also introduced to the Greeks and the historian Herodotus mentions it. Therefore, it is conceivable that the Hebrew people were familiar with this plant.

In conclusion, this is what we can say about the term qaneh bosem.

  1. The Hebrew phrase qaneh bosem can be defined as “an aromatic resinous reed plant” and is descriptive of the cannabis plant.
  2. Just as the word “cinnamon” is derived from a Semitic origin; it is possible that “cannabis” is also of Semitic origin.
  3. Cannabis was known and used in the Near East at the time of the Hebrew people.

These are the facts concerning the Hebrew phrase qaneh bosem and as you can tell, there is no way to definitively say that it was, or was not, Cannabis. All that can be said is that it is possible.




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