Balsam of Mecca
|Balm of Gilead|
(L.) C. Chr.
Balsam of Mecca (also called the balsam of Gilead or balm of Gilead) is a resinous gum of the tree Commiphora gileadensis (syn. Commiphora opobalsamum), native to southern Arabia and also naturalized, in ancient and again in modern times, in ancient Judea. The most famous site of balsam production in the region was the Jewish town of Ein Gedi. The resin was valued in medicine and perfume in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Thus Pliny the Elder mentions it as one of the ingredients of the "Royal Perfume" of the Parthians in his Naturalis Historia. In Latin the resin was technically known as opobalsamum; the dried fruit was called carpobalsamum, and the wood xylobalsamum.
The plant was renowned for the expensive perfume that was produced from it, as well as for exceptional medicinal properties that were attributed to its sap, wood, bark, and seeds.
When "balm" or "balsam" is mentioned in translations of the Bible this is probably the product that is intended. Its literary connection with Gilead comes from Genesis chapter 37 and from Jeremiah chapters 8 and 46 (quoted below).
Literary occurrence and symbolism
Translations excerpted from the JPS Tanakh:
"And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt." Genesis 37:25
"Go up into Gilead, and take balm, O virgin daughter of Egypt; in vain dost thou use many medicines; there is no cure for thee." Jeremiah 46:11
"Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered? Jeremiah 8:22
The obvious understanding for both; "my people" and "the daughter of my people" in Jeremiah 8:22 refers to the Jewish people living in the land of Israel. Rabbinic commentators like Rashi interpreted the balm as a metaphor for teachers, as if to say "Did they not have any righteous men from whom to learn so that they should improve their ways?"
Some Christians interpret this same passage as a prophetic allusion to Jesus. This symbol recurs in some Christian hymns and popular song lyrics. In the refrain to the gospel song "Healing" (1999), Richard Smallwood and his choir ensemble sing the assertion "There is a balm in Gilead".
In Act I of Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal (1882), King Amfortas bears a wound that will not heal because it was inflicted with his own holy spear. A wild woman called Kundry bursts in, and presents the king with an Arabian "balsam". She informs the Knights of the Grail present there that if the balsam does not stimulate the king's recovery, "Arabia does not hide anything more that might heal him."
Balm in Gilead is also the title of an early play by Lanford Wilson.
- "Medicinal properties of Commiphora gileadensis" (pdf). Retrieved 2013-02-11.
- "Jazz Musician | Discography | Blasé - Live at the Pan-African Festival". Archie Shepp. Retrieved 2012-08-30.