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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Balm

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(for the original term, see below), a production more particularly ascribed to Gilead (Genesis 37:25; Jeremiah 8:2?). Balm or balsam is used as a common name for many of those oily, resinous substances which flow spontaneously or by incision from certain trees or plants, and are of considerable use in medicine and surgery. Kimchi and some of the modern interpreters understand the Hebrews word rendered "balm" to be that particular species called opobalsamum, or balm of Gilead, so much celebrated by Pliny, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Tacitus, Justin, and others, for its costliness, its medicinal virtues, and for being the product of Jud-ea only; and which Josephus says grew in the neighborhood of Jericho, the tree, according to tradition, having been originally brought by the Queen of Sheba as a present to King Solomon. On the other hand, Bochart strongly contends that the balm mentioned Jeremiah 8:22, could not possibly be that of Gilead, and considers it as no other than the resin drawn from the terebinth or turpentine tree. Pliny says, "The trees of the opobalsamum have a resemblance to fir-trees, but they are lower, and are planted and husbanded after the manner of vines. On a particular season of the year they sweat balsam. The darkness of the place is, besides, as wonderful as the fruitfulness of it; for, though the sun shines nowhere hotter in the world, there is naturally a moderate and perpetual gloominess of the air." Mr. Buckingham observes upon this passage, that "the situation, boundaries, and local features of the valley of Jericho are accurately given in these details, though darkness, in the sense in which it is commonly understood, would be an improper term to apply to the gloom. At the present time there is not a tree of any description, either of palm or balsam, and scarcely any verdure or bushes to be seen, but the complete desolation is undoubtedly rather to be attributed to the cessation of the usual agricultural labors, and to the want of a proper distribution of water over it by the aqueducts, the remains of which evince that they were constructed chiefly for that purpose, rather than to any radical change in the climate or the soil." The balsam, carried originally, says Arab tradition, from Yemen by the Queen of Sheba, as a gift to Solomon, and planted by him in the gardens of Jericho, was brought to Egypt by Cleopatra, and planted at Ain- Shemesh, now Matara, in a garden which all the old travelers, Arab and Christian, mention with deep interest. The balsam of Jericho, or true balm of Gilead, has long been lost (De Sacy).

Balsam, at present, is procured in some cases from the fruit of a shrub which is indigenous in the mountains between Mecca and Medina. This shrub was cultivated in gardens in Egypt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that this was also the case in Palestine, in very early times, appears from the original text in Genesis 43:11, and Jeremiah 46:11. The balsam of Mecca has always been deemed a substance of the greatest value; though it is not the only one possessing medicinal properties, yet it is, perhaps, more eminently distinguished for them than other balsamic plants of the same genus, of which sixteen are enumerated by botanists, each exhibiting some peculiarity. There are three species of this balsam, two of which are shrubs, and the other a tree. In June, July, and August they yield their sap, which is received into an earthen vessel. The fruit, also, when pierced with an instrument, emits a juice of the same kind, and in greater abundance, but less rich. The sap extracted from the body of the tree or shrub is called the opobalsamum; the juice of the balsam fruit is denominated carpobalsamum, and the liquid extracted from the branches when cut off, the xylobalsamum (Jahn, Bibl. Archaeol. 1, § 74). According to Bruce, "The balsam is an evergreen shrub or tree, which grows to about fourteen feet high, spontaneously and without culture, in its native country, Azab, and all along the coast to Babelmandeb. The trunk is about eight or ten inches in diameter, the wood light and open, gummy, and outwardly of a reddish color, incapable of receiving a polish, and covered with a smooth bark, like that of a young cherry-tree. It is remarkable for a penury of leaves. The flowers are like those of the acacia, small and white, only that three hang upon three filaments or stalks, where the acacia has but one. Two of these flowers fall off, and leave a single fruit. After the blossoms follow yellow fine-scented seed, inclosed in a reddish-black pulpy nut, very sweet, and containing a yellowish liquor like honey." A traveler, who as sumed the name of Al Bey, says that "there is no balsam made at Mecca; that, on the contrary, it is very scarce, and is obtained principally in the territory of Medina. As the repute of the balsam of Mecca rose, the balm of Gilead disappeared; though in the era of Galen, who flourished in the second century, and travelled into Palestine and Syria purposely to obtain a knowledge of this substance, it grew in Jericho and many other parts of the Holy Land. The cause of its total decay has been ascribed, not without reason, to the royal attention being withdrawn from it by the distractions of the country. In more recent times its naturalization seems to have been attempted in Egypt; for Prosper Alpinus relates that forty plants were brought by a governor of Cairo to the garden there, and ten remained when Belon traveled in Egypt, nearly two hundred and fifty years ago; but, whether from not agreeing with the African soil or otherwise, only one existed in the last century, and now there appears to be none. (See also Thomson, Land and Book, 2:193, 457.) (See GILEAD, BALM OF).

The word balm occurs frequently in the Authorized Version, as in Genesis 37:25; Genesis 43:11; Jeremiah 8:22; Jeremiah 46:11; Jeremiah 51:8; and Ezekiel 28:17. In all these passages the Hebrew text has צַרִי or צְרִי ( (tsori' or tseri', Sept. ῥητίνη ), which is generally understood to be the true balsam, and is considered a produce of Gilead, a mountainous district, where the vegetation is that of the Mediterranean region and of Europe, with few traces of that of Africa or of Asia. Lee (Lex. p. 520) supposes it to be mastich, a gum obtained from the Pistaccia Lentiscus; but Gesenius defends the common rendering, balsam. It was the gum of a tree or shrub growing in Gilead, and very precious. It was one of the best fruits of Palestine (Genesis 43:11), exported (Genesis 37:25; Ezekiel 27:17), and especially used for healing wounds (Jeremiah 8:22; Jeremiah 46:11; Jeremiah 51:8). The balsam was almost peculiar to Palestine (Strab. 16:2, p. 763; Tac. Hist. v. 6; Pliny 12:25, § 54; 32, § 59), distilling from a shrub like the vine and rue, which in the time of Josephus was cultivated in the neighborhood of Jericho and of the Dead Sea (Ant. 14:4, 1; 15:4, 2), and still grows in gardens near Tiberias (Burckhardt, Syria, p. 323). In Ezekiel 27:17, the Auth. Vers. gives in the margin rosin. The fact that the tsori grew originally in Gilead does not forbid us to identify it with the shrub mentioned by Josephus as cultivated near Jericho.

The name balsam is no doubt derived from the Arabic balasan, which is probably also the origin of the βάλσαμον of the Greeks. Forskal informs us that the balsam- tree of Mecca is there called abusham, i.e. "very odorous." The word basham, given by him, is the name of a fragrant shrub growing near Mecca, with the branches and tufts of which they clean the teeth, and is supposed to refer to the same plant. These names are very similar to words which occur in the Hebrew text of several passages of Scripture, as in the Song of Solomon 5:1, "I have gathered my myrrh with my spice" (basam); Song of Solomon 5:13, "His cheeks are as a bed of spices" (basam); and in 6:2, "gone down into his garden to the beds of spices" (basam). The same word is used in Exodus 35:28, and in 1 Kings 10:10, "There came no more such great abundance of spices (basam) as those which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon." In all these passages basam' or bo'sem ( בָּשָׂם and בֹּשֶׂם ), though translated "spices," would seem to indicate the' balsam-tree, if we may infer identity of plant or substance from similarity in the Hebrew and Arabic names. But the word may indicate only a fragrant aromatic substance in general. The passages in the Song of Solomon may with propriety be understood as referring to a plant cultivated in Judaea, but not to spices in the general sense of that term. Queen Sheba might have brought balsam or balsam-trees, as well as spices, for both are the produce of southern latitudes, though far removed from each other. (On the balsams of modern commerce, see the Penny Cyclopedia, s.v. Balsamineae et sq.) (See BALSAM).


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Balm'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/b/balm.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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