The Balsam of Gilead
“IS THERE no balsam in Gilead?” Thus asked Jeremiah some 2,500 years ago. What was this balsam of Gilead, and what meaning does it have for Christians today?—Jer. 8:22.
The word “balsam” comes from the Greek balsamon, which, in turn, comes from two Hebrew roots, baal (lord), and shemen (oil). Balsam was thus purported to be the finest of oils, the lord or chief of oils, used, not for eating, but for perfume and for its healing properties. “It was regarded with the utmost esteem among the nations of antiquity and to the present day is peculiarly prized among the peoples of the East.”—Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th Edition.
Just exactly from which plant the prized balsam of Gilead was extracted cannot be stated with certainty today. However, among the low-growing evergreen trees or shrubs having the most likely claim to it is the Amyris opobalsamum or gileadensis. To gather the balsam oil, incisions are made in the trees from which, according to one authority, at the most sixty drops of oil could be gathered in one day during a certain season of the year. It grew so plentifully in ancient Gilead that it was exported from there to Egypt and Tyre. According to Josephus, in later years Jericho was also noted for its balsam trees.—Gen. 37:25; Ezek. 27:17.
From the Scriptures as well as from profane history it appears that the three outstanding characteristics of the balsam of Gilead were its costliness, its scent and its healing properties.
The balsam trees were considered so valuable that they repeatedly aroused the greed of invaders, and it is recorded that Pompey exhibited a balsam tree among his spoils of conquest of the land of Israel. The costliness of balsam is further implied by its being included by the patriarch Jacob among “the finest products of the land” as gifts to the premier of Egypt. (Gen. 43:11) It is also to be seen in the fact that the queen of Sheba and other rulers included balsam oil in their gifts to King Solomon. (1 Ki. 10:2, 10, 25) When King Hezekiah wanted to show off the treasures of the kingdom of Judah to the emissary of the king of Babylon he showed him, among other things, his treasures of balsam oil.—Isa. 39:1, 2.
As for the scent of balsam oil, this caused it to be used for embalming and cosmetics. It is, therefore, not surprising to find it to be one of the ingredients of the holy oil used to anoint the high priest of Israel. (Ex. 25:6; 35:8) Its fine aromatic qualities are further indicated in that the final treatment of the candidates for queen for King Ahasuerus consisted of their being perfumed with balsam oil for six months.—Esther 2:12.
References to the healing virtues of the balsam of Gilead are common in ancient literature, chiefly as a cure for wounds, although the Egyptians considered it as a preventive of the plague. In the Scriptures the references to its healing properties are all made by the prophet Jeremiah. Thus in connection with the spiritual plight of his people he asked: “Is there no balsam in Gilead? Or is there no healer there? Why is it, then, that the recuperation of the daughter of my people has not come up?” Yes, there was literal balsam in Gilead, but no spiritual balsam, no spiritual healing, because, as Jeremiah himself observed, “the prophets themselves actually prophesy in falsehood; and as for the priests, they go subduing according to their powers. And my own people have loved it that way; and what will you men do in the finale of it?” No wonder there was no spiritual healing!—Jer. 8:22; 5:30, 31.
Jeremiah makes a similar reference to Egypt: “Go up to Gilead and get some balsam, O virgin daughter of Egypt. In vain you have multiplied the means of healing. There is no mending for you.” And in much the same vein he speaks to the daughter of Babylon: “Howl over her, you people. Take balsam for her pain. Perhaps she may be healed. We would have healed Babylon, but she has not been healed.”—Jer. 46:11; 51:8, 9.
The balsam of Gilead, being a precious, perfumed medicinal oil, well pictures the comfort that Christians can receive when they are spiritually discouraged or depressed, by resorting to prayer, to association with fellow Christians, to study of God’s Word and also as they themselves seek to bring the spiritual balsam of Gilead to others who may be depressed and spiritually ill. It is with this thought in mind that the new songbook of Jehovah’s witnesses, “Singing and Accompanying Yourselves with Music in Your Hearts,” has a song in it entitled “Balsam in Gilead.”