You don’t have to dig for long in the land of the Bible to unearth priceless artefacts, as last week’s discovery featuring the balm of Gilead confirmed! The excavations at the site of the City of David continue to produce treasures of all kinds. An exquisite jewel-like seal from the Roman era has been found, made of beautiful purple-toned amethyst, with a tiny engraving etched on the top. Experts tell us that the image is of a dove sitting on the branch of a plant known as the Balm of Gilead.
Archeologist Eli Shukron said, “This may be the first time that a seal has been discovered in the entire world with an engraving of the precious and famous plant”.
The seal was found nestled close to the area of the temple in Jerusalem, carrying history and secrets from 2000 years ago, the time of the Bible. The Balm of Gilead is prized and famous for good reason – there is a wealth of meaning behind its produce and the name Gilead itself.
Gilead in the Bible
The word Gilead first appears in the Bible in Genesis chapter 31 when Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban, finally catches up with him. Following a less than harmonious parting, they encounter one another in the mountainous area named Gilead, from which the tree bears its name. After discussing their discrepancy, Laban makes this proposal to Jacob:
So now, come, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me.” So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar, and Jacob said to his relatives, “Gather stones.” So they took the stones and made a pile. Then they ate there on the pile. Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha and Jacob called it Gilead.
Gilead here means “witness” or cairn, the pile of rocks to remember an important event. Ramot Gilead is in modern day Jordan, just over the border from Israel.
And Laban said, “This pile is a witness between me and you today.” That is why its name is Gilead, or Mizpah, for he said, “Let Adonai keep watch between you and me when we are out of one another’s sight. If you mistreat my daughters, and if you take wives besides my daughters, though no one is with us, look! God is the witness between you and me.” (Genesis 31:44-50)
This event speaks of broken relationships and hope of reconciliation – injustice and distrust, but places God in the center of the story: the ultimate arbiter, healer of all broken and wounded relationships.
THE BALM OF GILEAD
But the Balm of Gilead refers to a plant which was a famous ingredient for incense, perfume, anointing for kings and priests, medicines, and ointments in the time of the Bible. The precious and expensive plant was also known as biblical persimmon, bosem or balsam, as well as Balm of Gilead. The Hebrew word bosem means perfume, as the scent of the Balm of Gilead was part of its appeal. The Ishmaelites to whom Jacob’s sons sold Joseph were carrying the Balm of Gilead along with other precious spices as they traded their way through the desert.
Later, at the end of Jeremiah 8, we see God’s longing to heal the pain of His broken and wayward people, calling out for this Balm of Gilead as a healing remedy:
“Because of the brokenness of the daughter of my people,
I am brokenhearted.
I mourn—desolation grips me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Then why has no healing gone up
for the daughter of my people?
If only my head were water
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
then I would weep day and night
for the slain of the daughter of my people!
The fractured relationship between God and His people has broken God’s heart. Why? “Because they do not know me” laments the Lord (Jeremiah 9:3).
The Balm of Gilead is found not only in the Bible but in other ancient literature. However, it has only recently be cultivated again in Israel after many long centuries. Once again it is being used for healing and enjoyed for its perfume, and we need healing and balm more than ever in our days.
The symbols on the stone
This precious gemstone which had been attached to a ring is described as a “greeting from history”. It must have fallen into a drain while someone was on the way to the temple, and like so many discoveries unearthed in Israel, it has much to remind us of today!
Gilead was the place that witnessed the peace made between Jacob and Laban. The Balm of Gilead was carried by the Ishmaelites at the beginning in the story of Joseph – which ends with one of the greatest reconciliation stories in the Bible, and the Balm of Gilead is called upon by God Himself to heal broken hearts and broken relationships. It is amazing if it really is a dove perched on the branch of the precious, biblical plant that was etched into the gemstone. This new discovery from 2000 years ago reminds us that our God is a God of peace and reconciliation, the One who can heal hearts and restore relationships.
Why not take a moment to pray for any relationships that are fractured in your own life, and also for God’s heart to be reconciled with His people. May all Israel come to truly know their God and embrace Him with love!