Jeremiah’s cry for balm of Gilead to soothe Judah and other nations is found in the book of Jeremiah in chapters 8, 46, and 51(New International Version (NIV) Study Bible, 2002).
Jeremiah’s ministry was from 626-586 B.C. He was described several ways to include the Prophet of Doom, and the Weeping Prophet. He ministered during the last half of Josiah’s reign, and during the reigns of Jehoahaz (3 months), Jehoiakim (9 years), Jehoiachin (3 months), and Zedekiah (9 years). Jerusalem was conquered by Babylon 586 B.C.; at that time elders and leaders of Judah and their families were killed or deported to Babylon.
Jeremiah was a Levite who was possibly from the priestly family of Abiather (David’s reign) and Eli. His home town, Anata, was a short three miles northeast of Jerusalem. Anata was located in a broad range of hills that overlook the Jordan valley to the East and the Dead Sea to the South. From a young age Jeremiah may have herded goats and/or spent time farming; his writings were filled with examples from nature and agriculture (Hareuveni & Frenkley, 1988).
God called Jeremiah to be a prophet when Jeremiah was 18 years old. At first Jeremiah demurred saying that he was a youth and inadequate to speak God’s word. Jeremiah agreed when God reached out and touched his mouth and told Jeremiah, “I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9). God commanded Jeremiah to not marry and raise children because the forthcoming divine judgment on Judah would sweep away the next generation. During the invasion by Babylon, Anata was used as a staging area for Babylon’s siege against Jerusalem. Much of Anata was destroyed and many citizens killed
Jeremiah used the plant “balm of Gilead” to describe healing in three of his prophecies. The first time Jeremiah foretold the destruction and exile of Judah. Jeremiah asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” (Jeremiah 8:22).
The second time Jeremiah prophesied against Egypt. Jeremiah advised Egypt to go to Gilead and get balm, yet there would be no healing for them (Jeremiah 46:11). The third time, Jeremiah used the exemplar of balm for healing was to predict Babylon’s fall. Jeremiah suggested obtaining balm to heal Babylon; yet, Babylon could not be healed because her sins reached to the skies (Jeremiah 51:8-9). Even though God used Babylon to exact judgment against Judah, in God’s time Babylon would be destroyed.
The land of Gilead was on the east side of the Jordan River. Early in the history of Israel, the mountains (up to 4,090 feet) and hills were heavily forested (Bible Places, 2012). The land was ideal for large herds and flocks of livestock. In the division of land among the 12 tribes Gilead was assigned to Gad and Rueben (Numbers 32:1-5). With terracing, the Gilead hills were farmed, e.g., olive trees and vineyards. On lower foot hills, wheat was planted. When the Ishmaelite traders (1898 B.C.) purchased Joseph from his brothers, they carried balm from Gilead to Egypt (Genesis 37:25-28). Balm of Gilead was prized by the Egyptians who used it to prepare the bodies of their dead for burial. Pilgrims to present day Jericho can purchase balm of Gilead in small tin boxes. The extract is from the B. aegyptiaca plant that grows in Jordan in the region called Ghor el Safi.
Balm of Gilead
Jeremiah’s balm of Gilead was probably the Balanites aegyptiaca, a small multi-branched spiny tree. The plant is also called the Ximenia aegyptiaca L, Jericho balsam, and desert date. Although widely distributed around the globe, B. aegyptiaca is thought to be native to Africa, India, and parts of the Middle East to include Israel. In Israel, it grows in in valleys, on river banks, and in depressions. Hasselquist who completed pioneering work on Holy Land plants described the gum of the B. aegyptiaca as yellow and light reflecting. Leaf stems and possibly roots produce a glutinous and tenacious resin. Sticking to the fingers, it can be drawn into long threads. Turkish surgeons used the gum to treat wounds. Supposedly, a few drops are applied to a fresh wound will cure it. Possibly wound edges could be connected by the glue-like property of the gum. Using Balm of Gilead to treat wounds is consistent with Jeremiah question of where was the balm of Gilead to heal the wounds of his people Judah (Jeremiah 8:22).
Medically, balms are healing or soothing substance, e.g., ointment, salve or cream. Balms can be analgesic and give pain relief. Figuratively, balms have the effects of calming, soothing and comforting, and providing solace and consolation. Jeremiah asked for pain relief for Judah which involved comfort and solace for their spirits as well as analgesia for their physical bodies.
In today’s society many individuals hurt spiritually. Much of the spiritual pain is the result of personal choices. When I left home as a young woman, I was determined to live life my way. I made a conscious decision not to follow God. One of my rationalizations was that I would consign God to Sunday at church, e. g., departmentalize him. The remainder of the week, I could live an egocentric and indulgent life. At one point, I even thought, “When I am older, I will turn back to God.” In retrospect, I am stunned at my thoughts and actions. As a teen in Youth for Christ and church fellowship, I did not anticipate that my outlook would change so radically.
The Israelites did not start out to reject God’s laws and turn to idols. They promised both Moses and Joshua to worship only God and to follow his covenants (Joshua 24:24-27). For many of them, the change occurred over years, over generations, or even as a result following the leadership of a godless king. Whatever the mechanism of each individual’s disregard, the outcome was that as a nation Judah rejected God.
Because God is just, Judah had to pay for his sins. Jeremiah’s book is a description of a prophet whose heart broke for his countryman even though they deserved their punishment. When Jeremiah’s predictions of calamity came true, Jeremiah never gloated; rather he wept for individuals and the nation. He longed to provide pain relief for their bodies, minds, and spirits; to soothe them with the Balm of Gilead.
God was not surprised by my rebellion or the apostasy of Judah. Both our rebellions caused great spiritual, mental, and physical pain to ourselves. At the time, it felt like nothing would calm, comfort, and console; however, God was there waiting for me and for Judah to turn from our individual idols to him. Do you remember the African-American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead?” The refrain goes something like this:
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.
Reflection. Have you ever experienced a sin-sick soul? The solution is God, our balm of Gilead.
I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/
Copyright October 24, 2012; carolyn a. roth