In my childhood days Christian soloists loved to perform for us a song about ‘a balm in Gilead’. Then it went out of fashion, but I can still recall the soothing couplet:
‘There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick so-oul;
There is a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole.’
In midsummer 2019 an article appeared on my mobile phone that revived my interest in this ancient medication – some seventy-odd years since those balmy, carefree days. Then the logical areas of my brain began instantly to protest. Whatever next? Would someone compose a new gospel pop-song:
‘There’s water in the Pool of Siloam to enhance your spiritual vision;
The water in Siloam’s Pool heals blindness of the heart.’ (See John 9:1-7)?
After all, each of these two products of the Holy Land is only referred to sparingly in Scripture; and poetic licence should never be overdone.
Let’s try to answer a few practical questions on the subject of biblical balm hinted at by a doubt once expressed by Jeremiah (8:22), ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ (All quotations are from the New International Version.)
- Balm – what is it?
The brief answer: it is a tree resin.
The more detailed answer: according to Collins English Dictionary it is a resin from any of several trees of the burseraceous genus Commiphora, especially Commiphora opobalsamum of Africa and Western Asia that yields a fragrant oily resin. [Gilead is a geographical region of W.Asia, being an area east of the River Jordan and south-east of the Sea of Galilee.] Balm is the oily substance used for soothing and healing wounds, and for its exquisite fragrance. Latin: balsamum. The tree is a gnarly evergreen related to the pistachio tree. Back in the 1300s and 1400s punishment for stealing up to ten pounds of this mastic resin was the loss of an ear, for 200 pounds you were hanged. So, it has always been something of a highly prized rarity.
- Balm – what can it do for us?
The anonymous writer of the blog on my phone, after extolling the wide-ranging curative power of balm, warned her readers against the human weakness of gullibility. She had just begun to have injections of the substance, hoping it would prevent any further deterioration of a damaged optic nerve; she was already blind in one eye due to a very rare condition known as Naion.
Her interest focuses on ‘balm from Chios’. Chios is a Greek island where mastic grows in abundance. She informs us that the mastic resin is a goo exuded when the bark of the tree is gashed. It has been used already in creams to reduce inflammation and heal wounds, as a powder to treat irritable bowels and ulcers, and as a smoke to manage asthma. She quotes Leandro Skalsounis, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Athens who, when she visited Chios in early July 2019, told her: ‘This tree has been selected by humans for 3000 years.’ Four-and-a-half thousand of the fifty-thousand islanders are involved in the mastic industry. It has been used in chewing gum, in a liqueur, and as a flavouring in sweets; for skin care and oral hygiene; but now as a medicine for such diverse conditions as diabetes, to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and for cancer treatment – all documented in a glossy booklet. Stroke sufferers and Alzheimer patients are also to be treated by this Mediterranean export. At the site of its source in Chios it is ‘cleaned meticulously by dozens of women in sterile garb who buff and sort small, ivory-coloured pebbles of it as delicately as if they were cutting diamonds.’
- Balm from Gilead – how can we get it?
In the far-off days of Israel’s patriarchs the balm of Gilead was traded in Egypt, brought there on the camels of travelling merchants. In Genesis 37:25, while young Joseph was held captive by his jealous brothers in a remote pit, ‘As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.’ They callously sold their young brother to these Ishmaelite traders.
Some time later, after Joseph had been surreptitiously sold to these traders and taken to Egypt, during that famous seven-year famine in the lands of the Middle East, his brothers were sent by father Jacob back to Egypt to buy food. The incident is mentioned in Genesis 43:11, where we are told that they took ‘some of the best products of the land’ including ‘a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds’ as a gift when they attempted to purchase corn for their sustenance out of Joseph’s supplies that had been stockpiled during those previous seven years of bumper harvests.
- How and why is balm mentioned by Jeremiah in the journals of his ministry?
In the six verses of this fragment of Jeremiah’s records – Jeremiah 8:18-22 – we find five sudden changes of speakers:
 First the prophet prays: ‘You who are my Comforter in sorrow, my heart is faint within me. Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away’ – some of them were already exiled in Babylon.
 The exiles, hoping to get back to their homeland, exclaim: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King no longer there?” that is, with the majority of Israelites who are still living there at this time. Interestingly, Daniel the exile prayed towards Jerusalem three times daily (Daniel 6:10).
 The Lord replies: “Why have they aroused my anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?” Their gross unfaithfulness was the very obvious reason why some were in exile, and the rest would follow e’er long. It was a no-brainer!
 The exiles, as well as their fellow-Jews back in the land being harassed by Egypt and threatened by Babylon, gasp: “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.” An atmosphere of doom and gloom prevailed.
 The prophet empathises with his listeners: “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me.” Then he poses the question: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people?”
 Actually, the prophet’s ministry extended for forty years, and in later life a new ministry of hope was granted to him – despite the current reality of the exile. He was able to prophesy the Lord’s gospel of recovery (Jeremiah 30:17): ‘But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the Lord, ‘because you are called an outcast, Zion for whom no-one cares’ (see Jeremiah 30:17-22; 33:6-9).
P.S. Here’s the reality of the Good News. Yes, ‘grace is free’, as we also sang enthusiastically in my childhood, but it is not cheap. It cost God everything, and we must empty out our selfish rubbish by repentance in order to have open hands with which to grasp that grace by faith. Jeremiah offered no hope to spiritually rebellious Egypt and Babylon.
 ‘Go up to Gilead and get balm, Virgin Daughter of Egypt. But you try many medicines in vain; there is no healing for you’ (Jeremiah 46:11).
 ‘Babylon will suddenly fall and be broken. Wail over her! Get balm for her pain; perhaps she can be healed. We would have healed Babylon, but she cannot be healed; let us leave her and each go to our own land, for her judgment reaches to the skies, it rises as high as the heavens’ (Jeremiah 51:8-9).