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"Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?"
Jeremiah 8:22
             
              
                        

Holy Sites -- Gila's Highlights

Let's talk about the Balm of Gilead...at En Gedi

In the popular mind, from the time of Jeremiah onwards, balm is automatically associated with Gilead.  But there is no evidence for balm-producing trees or shrubs having grown in Gilead, a territory inhabited by the Israelites east of the River Jordan.
 
In ancient days a principal international trade route called the King's Highway passed through Gilead which may account for balm being present there, as an item of commerce.  In the Book of Genesis, after Joseph's brothers threw him into a dry pit, they sat down to eat their falafel sandwiches (just kidding!) and as they looked up, they saw a company of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead with camels bearing spices, balm and myrrh, heading towards Egypt.  Seeing the caravan, Joseph's half-brother Judah then suggested it would be more profitable to take Joseph out of the pit and sell him to the traders.
But in the meantime Midianite traders had passed by the pit and heard Joseph's cries for help.  They rescued him and sold him to presumably the very same Ishmaelites. Thus Joseph ended up in Egypt along with the spices, balm and myrrh. When Joseph's brothers returned to the pit and saw it was empty, they concluded he was dead, carried off by a wild animal. (Genesis 37)

Painting of Joseph being sold off into slavery

Konstantin Flavitsky 1855 in the public domain

19th century painting of Joseph being sold off into Slavery

As years pass by and a famine intensified in Canaan, the patriarch Jacob had no choice but to send his surviving sons for a second time to Egypt to beg for food.  The brothers had already gone once and the governor in charge of dispensing food from the Egyptian warehouses (i.e. Joseph whom they didn't recognize) took Simeon as a hostage. 
The governor told them that if he ever saw their faces again without their younger brother (Benjamin) who had been left home he would imprison them all.  Thus Jacob had no choice but to send Benjamin along with his older brothers to redeem Simeon and buy grain for the family.
In order to sweeten the mood of the governor, Jacob told his sons to take a special present of "a little balm and a little honey, spices and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds." (Genesis 43:11)
If we fast forward now, to the time of Jesus, the balm tree of Judea (also called balsam) was praised by local and foreign writers such as Josephus, Pliny, Strabo and Tacitus.  Talmudic rabbis identified Jeremiah's balm of Gilead with this balsam, extolling its miraculous qualities.

Date palms at En Gedi oasis

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

En Gedi was renowned for its balsam...and date palms

Balm from En Gedi (and Jericho) was used as an ingredient in the holy oil for the Temple, as a healing agent for wounds and as an antidote to snake bites and scorpion stings.  It's said that Cleopatra even brought some balm plants back to Egypt for cultivation.

Coin with portrait of Queen Cleopatra minted in Ashkelon

Courtesy of the British Museum

Coin with portrait of Queen Cleopatra minted in Ashkelon

Black desert cobra mentioned in Isaiah 11

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The Balm of Gilead from En Gedi was a popular antidote to snake bites

The most notorious use of balm, however, was for perfume.  The pungent resin was extracted and squeezed from the balm plant to form an oil or paste.  Then by a highly guarded process, the balsam produced an exotic powerful fragrance, known and valued throughout the Roman Empire.
The rabbis complained about the daughters of Jerusalem who put myrrh and balsam in their shoes and walked about the marketplaces of Jerusalem.  "Coming upon the young men of Israel, the maidens would kick up their feet, spurting the perfume, thus instilling the men with passionate desire like with serpent's poison."  (From the Babylonian Talmud),
It seems that balsam or balm perfume was being produced in En Gedi for 600 years before the time of Jesus.  Excavations at En Gedi have uncovered a 7th or 6th century BC workshop complete with furnaces and clay jars, juglets and decanters used for the distillation of oils in the production of perfume.

Oasis of En Gedi above the western shore of the Dead Sea

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Oasis of En Gedi above the western shore of the Dead Sea

Ibex roam freely at En Gedi, even today

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ibex roam freely at En Gedi, even today

Some scholars believe that the balm tree was first introduced to En Gedi as seedlings brought by the Queen of Sheba.  In First Kings 10 we read that the Queen of Sheba presented Solomon the wise with 120 talents of gold and great quantities of spices and precious stones.  First century AD historian Josephus tells us in his Antiquities of the Jews that one of the most valuable spices was balsam.
But it is also possible that a species of balm may have grown wild in the En Gedi oasis along with other wild tropical trees.  And eventually residents of En Gedi began experiments to cultivate the plant so it produced its pungent resin.

Granddaddy ibex munching on an En Gedi shrub

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Granddaddy ibex munching on an En Gedi shrub

In the year 70 AD when the Roman army approached the balsam-producing areas of En Gedi, the Judeans tried to chop down the trees to prevent their falling into the hands of their enemies.  But in vain.  Along with the golden menorah looted from the Jerusalem Temple, Roman general Titus displayed branches of balsam trees in his triumphant victory parade in Rome.

Victory over Judea procession detailed on the Arch of Titus

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

"Victory over Judea" portrayed on the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum

The best place at En Gedi to tell the story of the medicinal and fragrant balm is in the quiet, off the beaten track, charming 4th century synagogue near the nature reserve. It is normally so uncrowded that in the springtime one can inhale the fragrance of the Judean oasis.

Two young ibex outside the ancient En Gedi synagogue

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Two young ibex outside the ancient En Gedi synagogue

Synagogue of En Gedi

Photo courtesy of Silvia Hess

Note how close the synagogue (under the canvas) is to the Dead Sea

 
Long after the Romans conquered the land, balsam was apparently still cultivated at En Gedi.  We know this from the mosaic floor of the synagogue with a long inscription in Aramaic.  Besides naming the signs of the zodiac and the genealogy from Adam to Noah's sons, there is a curse upon "whoever shall reveal the secret of the town to the Gentiles."
 

En Gedi Synagogue Inscription alluding to the secret of the town

Photo courtesy of Silvia Hess

En Gedi Synagogue Inscription alluding to the "secret of the town"

But what's the secret of the town?  We think it is the special method En Gedi farmers used to grow the balm so it produced the En Gedi brand of balsam perfume and medicine.  This trade secret was the source of tremendous profits for the community and guarded zealously, passed down from father to son.
And the curse?  That I will reveal when we visit En Gedi on your next pilgrimage.
In the meantime I will leave you humming,

there is a balm in gilead

"There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul."

Copyright 2019  Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

Gila Yudkin, who calls herself a Connecticut-born Yankee living in King David's court, has been asked about the balm of Gilead on every tour she has led in the past forty years.  She is happy to announce that she recently discovered that the excavated synagogue at En Gedi (complete with a Seat of Moses – see Matthew 23:2) is a perfect place to share this modern theory.
When Gila first began to guide in En Gedi, it was famous for its wild leopards. Unfortunately they did not survive into the twenty-first century.  The leopard is the only one of the "Big Five" that Gila, an avid safari-traveler, has not seen up close and personal.  She is hoping at least a couple will return to En Gedi before she retires!!!
When will Gila retire?  Well that depends upon whether modern science can find a worthy equivalent of the Balm of Gilead!
Last October on safari in South Africa, Gila spied a lion lying on the side of the road. She thought he was dead until he turned over, scratched his belly and yawned.  The lion reminded her of the amphitheater in Beth Shean where gladiators once fought lions. (See www.itsgila.com/highlightslions.htm)  Jeremiah, who told us about the balm of Gilead, also mentioned lions roaming in the thickets of the Jordan. (Jeremiah chapters 49 & 50)
Alas, just like the balm of Gilead, holy land lions are extinct today.

there are no more lions lying in the thickets of the Jordan

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Unfortunately today there are no more lions lying in the thickets of the Jordan!

But we still have poisonous biblical snakes in the holy land!  Read more about them in "Let's not get bitten by poisonous biblical snakes."   When Gila wrote the highlight, she had never seen a holy land poisonous snake.  But her good friend Miriam just last summer faced a Palestinian viper.  During an outrageous heat wave, the viper was coiled around a large clay pot on her porch in a Jerusalem suburb!  But not to worry.  She called a professional snake catcher who arrived within twenty minutes!

So holy land poisonous snakes are definitely not extinct!  Look at a photo of a swinging twenty-first century poisonous biblical snake.

There is more to see at En Gedi than the ancient synagogue with its mysterious inscription and seat of Moses.  There's a hike to a waterfall and there are lots of ibex and conies to scout out.

Waterfall at En Gedi oasis

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Waterfall at En Gedi oasis

Ibex of all sizes and ages roam the biblical oasis of En Gedi

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ibex of all sizes and ages roam the biblical oasis of En Gedi

"Let's talk about the Balm of Gilead...at En Gedi" (as text without the photos) is one in a series of free quarterly e-letters sent on request to tour leaders, pastors, clergy, teachers, Bible students, colleagues and friends.  If you'd like to receive "Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights" or to respond to a web article, please contact Gila. 

 

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GILA YUDKIN • TCHERNIKOVSKI 64A • JERUSALEM • ISRAEL
gila@itsgila.com

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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin