The Hebrew qa·neh’ is the original source of the English word “cane” (as well as of the word “canon”) and qa·nehʹ is often translated as “stalk” (Gen. 41:5, 22), ‘branch’ (Ex. 25:31, 32), or “reed” (1 Ki. 14:15). In certain texts, however, either the context or a modifying word indicates that an aromatic plant is referred to and qa·nehʹ is thus translated “calamus,” “cane,” “sweet cane” (Heb., qeneh voʹsem), or “good cane” (qa·nehʹ hat-tohvʹ).
Among the ingredients used in preparing the holy anointing oil was “sweet calamus,” the sweetness referring to its odor, not its taste. (Ex. 30:22-25) The Song of Solomon (4:14) includes “cane” among other odoriferous spices. Jehovah through his prophet Isaiah (43:24) reproved the spiritually weary Israelites for ‘having bought’ (Heb., qa·niʹtha) for his temple service no “sweet cane” (qa·nehʹ), thereby making a play on words in Hebrew. Jeremiah (6:20) refers to “good cane” received from a “land far away,” while Ezekiel (27:3, 19) includes cane among the products for which wealthy Tyre traded.
The English word “calamus” is derived from the Greek kaʹla·mos, used by the translators of the Septuagint Version to render the Hebrew qa·nehʹ. Like the Hebrew word, kaʹla·mos also has the basic meaning of reed or cane, whereas the English word calamus today is used principally to refer to the sweet flag (Acorus calamus) or its aromatic root. The sweet flag grows in wet places and along streams. Both the plant’s flat, sword-shaped leaves and its root have a sweet scent. Not all scholars or lexicographers, however, are agreed that the sweet flag is the plant referred to in the Bible. It is pointed out that sweet calamus (Acorus calamus) is not found in the Palestinian region nor in Syria at the present time. Nevertheless, the ancient Roman writer Pliny stated that “scented calamus, also, which grows in Arabia, is common both in India and Syria, that which grows in the last country being superior to all the rest.”
Many authorities prefer an identification of the calamus or sweet cane with an aromatic reed grass of India, such as Cymbopogon martini, a perennial grass whose leaves when crushed produce a fragrant oil known as ginger-grass oil. Other varieties of these Indian grasses produce citronella oil and lemon-grass oil. The view that one or more of such sweet-scented grasses is represented by the sweet cane or calamus of the Hebrew Scriptures is based mainly on Jeremiah’s reference to the product as coming from a “land far away,” which in this case would be India. Other areas, however, may have been producers of the aromatic “cane” or “calamus,” as indicated by Ezekiel’s prophecy. (27:19) Thus, while some kind of aromatic reed or cane is meant, the plant’s precise identification remains uncertain.