Solomon's Plant Life: Plant Lore and Image in the Solomonic Writings

by Lytton John Musselman*

Department of Biological Sciences

Old Dominion University
Norfolk, Virginia



Myrrh is the dried resin of several species of Commiphora (Burseraceae), shrubs or small trees of the arid and semi-arid regions of East Africa, Arabia, and the Indian subcontinent. Different species have different uses. Some are used medicinally43 and others for their fragrance.44 Recent work indicates that C. myrrha (Nees) Engl. has opiate qualities.45 This helps us to interpret Mark 15:23 where Jesus, on the cross, was offered vinegar mingled with myrrh but he refused the drug.

[The scented myrrh] permeates
the pages of Solomon's writings with more references than any other Bible author.

These two different myrrhs, medicinal and fragrant, are both translated from the same Hebrew word mor. The scented myrrh is probably Commiphora guidotti Chiov.46 It permeates the pages of Solomon's writings with more references than any other Bible author. Song of Solomon has seven references to myrrh.

In the sole reference in Proverbs, the harlot refers to her bed as having been sprinkled with "... myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon" (7:17). Myrrh is used in a similar way in Song of Solomon, that is, as a personal
perfume with erotic overtones (5:5; 5:13). A guild of plants is associated both with the harlot in Proverbs as well as with the lovers in Song of Solomon. These include cassia, aloes (not the bitter aloe of the New Testament), and myrrh. Myrrh is also linked with frankincense in other verses.

Sometimes people confuse myr
rh with the plant known as balm or balm of Gilead (Hebrew tesriy or tsoriy) in the Bible. Zohary47 and Hepper48 consider balm to be a species of Commiphora while Stol49 cautions against confusing tsoriy with basem. There is strong historical precedence for this confusion as Josephus suggests that the Queen of Sheba brought a plant of Commiphora when she visited Solomon.50 However, myrrh was used much earlier in Israel as a component of the sacred anointing oil (Exod. 30). Myrrh oil has been found at En Gedi. And several years ago, some shrubs were planted there where they appear to be thriving.51

Other plants have been translated as balm that are not species of Commiphora. A handbook for Bible translators equates balm with Balanites aegyptiaca (L.) Del. (Zygophyllaceae),52 perhaps because the oil from the seed was used in embalming in Egypt.53 However, the best candidate for balm of Gilead appears to be Cistus incanus L., including C. creticus and C. villosus, (Cistaceae). Cistus incanus is a common and widespread plant in the Mediterranean region.

The extract of C. incanus is ladanum, or labdanum. It was widely used in the Mediterranean for a variety of medicines. Recent research has documented the medical efficacy of some compounds in ladanum.54 There is also strong biblical evidence that balm of Gilead is C. incanus. The weeping prophet, Jeremiah, refers twice to the balm from Gilead (Jer. 8:22, 46:11). While this could be Commiphora that had been transported there, a more natural explanation is ladanum. Stronger evidence is found in Ezek. 27:17 regarding trade in balm between Israel and Minnith.

43A. Y. Leung and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2d ed. (New York: Wiley Interscience, 1996).
44R. R. Calkin and J. S. Jellinek, Perfumery: Practice and Principles (New York: Wiley, 1994).

45Science News 149:2 (1996): 20.
46M. Thulin and P. Claeson, "The Botanical Origin of Scented Myrrh (bissabol or habak hadi)," Economic Botany 45:4 (1991): 487–94.

47Zohary, Plants of the Bible.

48Hepper, Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Plants.

49M. Stol, On Trees, Mountains, and Millstones in the Ancient Near East (Leiden: Ex Oriente Lux, 1979).
50Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Philadelphia: Winston, 1936).
51Hepper, Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Plants.
52Anonymous, Helps for Translators.

53Hepper, Pharaoh's Flowers.

54A. Danne, F. Peterett and A. Nahrstedt, "Proanthocyanidins from Cistus incanus," Phytochemistry 34:4 (1993): 1129–33.

No comments:

New Perfume Blogs