Balm of Gilead

By Sudhir Ahluwalia

This is one of the many sources of myrrh- a herbal constituent in the Holy Anointing Oil used to anoint the Tabernacle. C. gileadensis, also known as C. opobalsamum, was cultivated in the oases of the Dead Sea and surrounding regions of Israel and the eastern Mediterranean. Species distribution is now restricted to the hilly and rocky areas around the Red Sea, including Mecca Valley in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. It can grow to a height of five meters, and stem diameter can reach 40 centimeters. It bears white to cream flowers. The plant can be propagated through cuttings.

Another name for C. gileadensis is the Balm of Gilead or Balsam of Gilead, named after the area near the River Jordan. As Jeremiah 8:22 states, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” C. gileadensis is believed to be the first plant that the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba brought to Israel. It was highly prized. According to Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, Rome made large profits from the sale and trade of myrrh from plantations in and around Jericho. In fact, when Romans attacked the Jews of Jerusalem, the latter attempted (unsuccessfully) to destroy the myrrh plantations. Over time, the economic value of myrrh decreased as alternatives arose. Thus, cultivation of the species in the Dead Sea fell dramatically.

Myrrh from the Commiphora genus species is regarded as a cosmetic emollient. Its use in the cosmetic industry today is rare, although Himba women in Namibia still collect and store a mixture of myrrh and fat in cosmetic jars (Nott and Curtis, 2005).
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Figure 9 Commiphora gileadensis (listed as Balsamodendron ehrenbergianum)

by Petronella J.M. Pas, University of Amsterdam

Medicinal uses of Commiphora gileadensis. Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and later Islamic medical texts contain numerous references to C. gileadensis. All parts of the plant, including the sap, bark, root, leaves, and stem, were regarded as useful through the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The plant was used to treat a wide range of disorders: headache, stomach ailments, early-stage cataract, impaired vision and hearing, respiratory ailments, and gynecological ailments. It was also used as contraception. Jews and Romans mixed the sap with old wine or water to make a tonic, which was believed to restore strength and maintain health. In Unani, the plant was used to treat diseases of the nervous system, especially epilepsy. Current research has isolated beta caryophyllene from the essential oil of Balsam of Gilead (Amiel et al., 2012). This compound is found in citrus flavors, soaps, skin care products, and so on. Its anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, antifungal, antiproliferative, and cytotoxic properties have been tested in trials on rats (Iluz, 2010). Studies conducted on albino mice validate the anticonvulsant and neurotoxic properties of the fruit of C. gileadensis (Zaidi et al., 2010).