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Archaeologists discover rare depiction of Balm of Gilead

Amethyst stone with an engraving of the Balm of Gilead on it.
Credit: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David

Archaeologists working with Israel Antiquity Authority announced they have found an amethyst seal that has an engraving of the Balm of Gilead on it, a plant mentioned several times in the Bible.

It was found on the road that ran between the Shiloah pool and the Jewish Temple.

The discovery of the small amethyst, that was probably used as a signet ring, is extremely important.

Though there have discovered several references to the plant and depictions of other vegetation such as olives and vines, this is the first time they have discovered a depiction of the plant that was source of the Balm of Gilead.

In addition to an engraving of a Balm of Gilead branch with several fruit hanging from it, that Prof. Shua Amorai-Stark said was “unlike any of the fruits we have encountered to date,” there is also an image of a bird, believed to be a dove.

Archaeologists believe this was a signet ring that would impress an image on clay or wax verifying that a document came from the owner. It also suggests that the individual was wealthy and probably involved in the trade or production of the Balm of Gilead.

The plant was rare in Biblical days, and archaeologists believe the owner would have brought a branch of the plant, so the carver would know how to depict it.

Though mentioned several times in the Bible, it is uncertain exactly what plant the Balm of Gilead referred too, but it had multiple uses, primarily for medication and also for perfume because of its sweet smell.

The first Biblical reference to the balm is found in the Book of Genesis, when Joseph’s brothers sold the patriarch to a passing band of Ishmaelites. The group was travelling from Gilead, an area located east of the Jordan River, to Egypt to trade a cargo of balm, spices and myrrh (Genesis 37:25).

Later, when Jacob sent his sons to Egypt, they took with them a small quantity of the balm as a gift (Genesis 43:11). Ezekiel adds that Jewish merchants also sold the valuable commodity at the markets of Tyre (Ezekiel 27:17).

We know that the Balm of Gilead had strong medicinal purposes, as Jeremiah warns that Babylon will so crush Jerusalem that the people will be asking for the ‘balm of Gilead’ to heal their wounds.

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people? (Jeremiah 8:21-22)

The reference to it being used by physicians and people being unable to track down the balm reveals both its medicinal qualities and rarity.

But Jeremiah also seems to be mocking the Jew’s dependence on the Balm and later, the prophet writes that the healing they seek from the Balm of Gilead is not the healing they needed for their soul (Jeremiah 46:11).

In his book, Natural History, Pliny, a first century Roman historian and naturalist, wrote that the Balm of Gilead only grew in Judah and by Jesus day, its main production was limited to two small orchards near Jericho.

Pliny’s description also suggests that it was a shrub (about three to four feet high) and the balm was actually the resin of the plant and when mixed with other ingredients was used as an ointment for the treatment of wounds and even snake bites. It was also taken orally for several ailments.

When the Roman Emperor Titus quashed a Jewish rebellion in 79 AD, Roman Historian Tactius says that two major battles were fought near Jericho’s two Balsam groves to stop the Jews from destroying the plants. The two orchards were then put under Roman control and became a significant source of revenue for the Roman Empire.

READ: Rare biblical ‘Balm of Gilead’ engraving found on 2,000-year-old seal in Jerusalem AND Rare biblical ‘balsam tree’ found depicted on 2000-year-old amethyst seal

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