Pharmakeia, False Worship and Warfare
Following the terrorist atrocity in Israel, many rightly asked how people could be so barbaric and act so inhumanely against another person. In the first instance, we must recognise that terror groups like Hamas are being led and used by Satan in his desire to destroy the Jewish people. Secondly, we know that radical Islam has a burning hatred for the Jewish people, the Jewish state and for all who support them. But there is also a third and often overlooked reason that men and women are able to overcome their God-given conscience and commit unspeakable acts against another human being. The Bible refers to it, in the Greek, as pharmakeia.
In Galatians 5:19-21 we read: Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Our English word “sorcery” is the Greek word “pharmakeia”. We also see the same term used twice in the Book of Revelation. Firstly, Revelation 9:21: And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts. Then, in Revelation 18:23: The light of a lamp shall not shine in you anymore, and the voice of bridegroom and bride shall not be heard in you anymore. For your merchants were the great men of the earth, for by your sorcery all the nations were deceived.
When most people think of the word “sorcery”, what comes to mind is witchcraft, supernatural powers and spells. However, the Biblical use of “pharmakeia” does not fit well with such ideas and this is why it is important to understand cultural and Biblical context when studying certain passages. Ancient Greeks used words like “pharmakeia” to refer to an entire spectrum of drugs from medicines to psychoactives to poisons. Therefore, in the passages quoted, the term more so suggests various forms of drug abuse, particularly that which is used in pagan worship or as a poison to manipulate and control others. In fact, in the Galatians passage quoted above, the order in which Paul lists the various works of the flesh may be very telling. He begins with sexual sin before moving onto idolatry, sorcery, division, drunkenness and debauchery. His reference to “pharmakeia” is grouped closer to idolatry and sexuality than it is to drunkenness, which may suggest that the use of illicit drugs was common in ungodly spiritual and sexual practices.
According to historians, references to drug taking in the ancient world do exist, but they are few and far between. Where they do appear, drugs focus on medicinal and religious aspects, while seeming to avoid any reference to recreational use as is common today. There were more than a dozen ways of altering reality in the ancient world of the Mediterranean region but two drugs often dominated the scene – opium and hemp. And much like we experience today, the ancient world also seemed to have an extensive drug distribution network. In fact, ancient jars and capsules which have been analysed by scientists reveal that they contained opium and other psychoactive substances which were scattered throughout the Levant, Egypt and the Middle East.
By 440 B.C., Greek historian Herodotus was telling readers that Scythians would burn hemp seeds, inhale the smoke, and turn very, very happy in short order. While those plants started as wild strains with relatively low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC - the chemical compound in cannabis that produces a high), further strains appear to have been cultivated for deliberately higher concentrations of THC. By the time of the Roman Empire, they used an opium-based drink called “cretic wine” as a sleep aid. In Mesoamerican history, people also used a wide array of consciousness-altering drugs for both medicinal and ritual purposes. For Mayan worshippers in the period around 250 B.C. to A.D. 900, that meant downing a drink known as balché, a low-alcohol honey-sweetened beverage that also contained the hallucinogen ergine. Balché may have also been consumed with other psychoactive drugs, including plant-derived alkaloids that would have created more intense hallucinations. Combined with the fact that rituals could take place in underground caves with repetitive music and fasting, worshippers could have attained dramatically altered states.
Fast forward to the recent terrorist attack in southern Israel and we watched in horror as hordes of men pored over the border with a single intention – kill and kidnap Jews. Now, whilst we know they were inspired by a demonic hatred which is borne from Satan himself, The Jerusalem Post recently reported that Hamas terrorists were found to be under the influence of Captagon, a synthetic amphetamine-type stimulant. Even many of the dead terrorists were found to still have scores of pills in their pockets. This drug, known as “cocaine for the poor” allowed the terrorists to commit such heinous acts with a sense of indifference. At the same time, it kept them highly alert for extended periods, while also acting as an appetite suppressant. In poorer countries, the drug may be purchased for a dollar or two, while in wealthier nations, it may cost up to $20 per pill. In fact, it is reported that Captagon has now become a major source of income for Syria and is actively supported by Israel’s enemy in the north: Hezbollah. So lucrative is this trade that profits generated from the sale of Captagon exceed those of Syria’s legitimate exports. In 2020 alone it is estimated that exports of Captagon reached $3.5 billion!
Captagon was first manufactured in 1961 as an alternative to amphetamine and methamphetamine used at the time to treat narcolepsy, fatigue and the behavioural disorder “minimal brain dysfunction”. Dexamphetamine was reportedly being used in the military of some countries to enable soldiers to stay awake for long periods of time and to “enhance courage and bravado”. Captagon was supposed to be a milder version of these medicines. But by the 1980’s the US government declared it a controlled substance with no currently accepted medical use, leading to manufacturing of the drug being halted in the 1980’s. However, it is extremely popular in the Middle East and was used extensively by another terrorist group we are all familiar with: ISIS. However, the version used by ISIS (and probably Hamas) is far more potent than the Captagon of the 1980’s. This “new age” Captagon affects the brain circuitry of the user leading to irreversible changes in the brain that govern impulse control and judgement, therefore taking away a person’s ability to reason or think rationally.
How sad it is to think that a legitimate drug used to treat medical conditions has become known as the “drug of Jihad”. It not only produces soldiers with no fear or conscience, but also funds their activities with billions of dollars from sales. So, not only must Israel fight a kinetic and cyber war, it must also find ways to stop the drug which fuels and funds these terrorists since counterfeit versions of the drug are primarily produced in Syria and Lebanon. But although production is primarily centred in those countries, the largest consumers of the drug are located in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain with evidence of the drugs also making their way to Libya and Sudan.
What is most concerning for any soldier on the battlefield is that Captagon can keep an enemy fighter on their feet for days without taking a break. Lebanese psychiatrist, Ramzi Haddad, explained that after taking Captagon, “you’re talkative, you don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you’re energetic.” A Syrian police officer recounted his experience when dealing with anti-government protestors: “We would beat them, and they wouldn’t feel the pain. Many of them would laugh while we were dealing them heavy blows. We would leave the prisoners for about 48 hours without questioning them while the effects of Captagon wore off and then interrogation would become easier.”
To quote Revelation 18:23 again, For your merchants were the great men of the earth, for by your sorcery all the nations were deceived. In the modern day, pharmakeia is associated with false worship, with the funding of terrorism, with the act of terrorism and with the deception of the nations. But if we think this is bad, during the Tribulation Period it is only going to get worse. For it will be the sorcery of Babylon.