Sunday, October 29, 2017

On the Use of Balm

Balm (Balanites aegyptiaca) also known as desert date, soap berry and is a species of tree that is native to much of Africa and parts of the Middle East. There are many names for this tree that is mentioned Bible several times as the balm of Gilead. In Hebrew it is called tsori; in Egypt it is called myrobalan, Egyptian balsam or Zachum; in Arabic it is known as lalob, hidjihi, inteishit, and heglig (hijlij). In Hausa it is called aduwa, in Swahili mchunju and in Amharic bedena. It grows prolifically and can be found in many kinds of habitats and soil types from sand to heavy clay.  It survives arid and humid climates and is relatively tolerant of flooding, grazing, and wildfire. 

Balanites aegyptiaca has been cultivated in Egypt for more than 4000 years, and stones placed in the tombs as votive offerings have been found as far back as the Twelfth Dynasty. The yellow, single-seeded fruit is edible, and it is used as a food source during famine.  The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, but the seeds need to be boiled to make them less bitter.  The flowers can also be eaten raw or cooked.  It is especially valuable in arid regions because it survives drought and produces fruit even in the dry season. The fruit can also be fermented and brewed in an alcoholic beverage.

Desert date fruit is mixed into porridge and eaten by nursing mothers, and the oil is consumed for headache and to improve lactation. Bark extracts and the fruit repel parasites and snails.  The fruit can be used to treat worm infections, liver and spleen disorders.  The bark can be boiled to produce a natural abortifacient and an antidote for arrow-poison in West African traditional medicine.  However, exactly which plant is the one referred to in the Bible as the Balm of Gilead is not certain. Balanites aegyptiacaseems is one of the most likely contenders.  Other possibilities include Commiphora gileadensis or a Terebinth tree in the genus Pistacia.   

After having cast Joseph into a pit, his brothers noticed a caravan on its way from Gilead to Egypt bearing balm and myrrh and other spices (Gen. 37:25). When Jacob dispatched his ambassadors to Egypt he sent a little balm as a gift to the ruler (Gen. 43:11). During the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer. 8:22).  In Ezekiel 27:17 balm is listed as one of the commodities which Hebrew merchants carried to the market of Tyre. According to I Kgs. 10:10, balsam (Hebrew: bosem) was among the many precious gifts of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, but this may be a different plant since the Balm of Gilead is rendered tsori in Hebrew.

Commiphora opobasamum may also be the tsori referred to in Hebrew.  In Ezekiel 27:17, Judah and Israel traded wheat, confections, honey, olive oil and balm.  The balsam tree was cultivated prolifically in Judea and was native to southern Arabia and Ethiopia.  At one time the plains of Jericho were covered with balsam that was cultivated from the first roots of balsam given to King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba as recorded in 1 Kings 10:10. Balm was brought to Rome by Pompey as a sign of victory after the first conquest of Judea in 65 BCE.  Vespasian displayed it among the spoils of war after he destroyed Jerusalem in 69 CE.  It is an emblem of Palestine and guarded for its symbolic and medicinal uses.     

Pliny identified three different species of this plant.  One has thin, capillaceous leaves; the second is a crooked scabrous shrub; and the third grows taller than the other two and has a smooth rind from which balsam can be extracted and preserved.  A resin can be pressed from the seeds, the rind, and even from the stems (see Theophrastus, Hist. Plant. 9:6; Strabo 16:763; Pausanias 9.28.2).

Dioscorides (De materia medica) attributes many medical properties to balsam, such as expelling menstrual flow; being an abortifacient; moving the urine; assisting breathing and conception; being an antidote for aconitum and snakebite; treating pleurisy, pneumonia, cough, sciatica, epilepsy, vertigo and asthma.

In the Talmud balsam from the plains of Jericho produced an ointment that was highly praised (Shab. 26a).  Young women used it as a perfume to seduce young men (Lam. R. 4:18; Shab. 26b). After King Josiah hid away the holy oil with which the kings of Judah were anointed, balsam oil was used instead (Ker. 5b). In the messianic era, the righteous will “bathe in 13 rivers of balsam” (TJ, Av. Zar. 3:1, 42c).

The Christian rite of confirmation is conferred through the anointing with chrism which is traditionally a blend of olive oil and balsam.  Balm seems to have been used everywhere for chrism at least from the sixth century.

Balm was brought to Egypt by Cleopatra, and planted in a garden at Ain-Shemesh. The Egyptian town of Ain Shams was renowned for its balsam-garden, which was cultivated under the supervision of the government. During the Middle Ages the balsam-tree is said to have grown only here, though formerly it had also been a native plant in Syria. According to a Coptic tradition known also by the Muslims, Mary, the mother of Jesus, washed the swaddling clothes of her infant in the spring of Ayn Shams on her way back to Palestine after her flight to Egypt. The story is reminiscent of Christian legends about the Fountain of the Virgin in Jerusalem.

Some of the most impressive health benefits of Balm of Gilead include its ability to reduce 
inflammation, soothe the skin, protect the immune system, eliminates pain, speeds healing, soothe the stomach, and detoxify the body.

Although Balm of Gilead is used as a perfume, it has also been widely used throughout history as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and diuretic. It is derived from an Arabian shrub with the botanical name Commiphora gileaensis which bleeds a sap that can be collected, processed, and applied for a variety of medicinal purposes.  Balm is one of the oldest and most respected herbal remedies in the world, but it has dozens of common names depending on the region of the world.  There remains a question as to which plant the oil comes from, as there are many similar varieties throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

One of the most common applications for Balm of Gilead is as a topical ointment on inflamed areas of the skin. For example, it acts in a similar way to aloe when applied to sunburn, as it can quickly suck out the heat and itchiness due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds found within this powerful oil. Similarly, when it is applied to areas affected by arthritis, it can reduce inflammation, effectively eliminating pain as well.

Aside from effects like soothing sunburn, the antibacterial properties of Balm of Gilead also mean 
that it can quickly clear up skin infections or irritations, such as eczema, psoriasis, and even eliminating the appearance of scars and blemishes. For insect bites, it can be rubbed on the affected area for rapid healing and pain relief. This analgesic quality of Balm of Gilead can be used on the temples and neck as well, if you suffer from headaches or migraines.

Balm of Gilead can be applied to the chest in the form of a warm rub before sleep to help to clear up coughs and colds, both by absorbing into the skin and being inhaled as your skin naturally heats the oil. The expectorant nature of Balm of Gilead can help expel mucus and phlegm, which speeds the healing process.

 For men with enlarged prostates, urination can be a painful or even impossible endeavor. Fortunately, Balm of Gilead has certain diuretic qualities, that when combined with its anti-inflammatory ability, can help stimulate urination. This helps the body expel excess toxins, salts, fats, and even water that the body doesn’t need to retain, increasing overall health and reducing strain on the bladder and kidneys.  It has been known to reduce chronic diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome and other disorders of the stomach, as well as conditions like cystitis.