What are Gall and Hemlock in the Bible?
Darkness, mystery, suffering, bitterness--these are some of the images that we conjure up when we think of wormwood, hemlock, and gall. Are these plants? Products of plants? These fascinating and often foreboding terms deserve some attention. Several words are translated as gall.
The word used in Job (mererah) is derived from the word for bitter and is similar to that translated myrrh in several Scriptures. Mererah is used two ways. In 15:13b it is the bodily fluid, gall (bile). "Without pity, he pierces my kidneys and spills my gall on the ground." A similar use is Job 20:25 while in the same chapter in verse 14 it is in reference to the venom of a poisonous snake.
The word rowsh is often translated gall. In Hosea 10, it is equated with the hemlock plant (Conium maculatum), discussed later. In at least one verse, rowsh is used in a general way for bitterness. Lamentations 3:5, "He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship."
In most cases, though, rowsh is more likely the product of a plant. This is implied through its association with other plants. For example, in Deuteronomy 29:18b, "make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison." and 32:32b, "Their grapes are filled with poison, and their clusters with bitterness." The next verse, Deuteronomy 32: 33 uses a different word for the poison of serpents.
Further evidence linking gall (rowsh) with a plant or plant product are the two references where gall and wormwood are mentioned together (Deuteronomy 29:18 and Lamentations 2:19).
In the New Testament, gall is mentioned in only two verses. In Acts the Greek chole is translated bitterness while in Matthew 2:34 it is translated gall. The root word implies a substance of a greenish hue, like liver bile, while in Matthew's account of the crucifixion it is a decoction of some product in wine, likely derived from a plant.
Let's consider some plants that fit the characteristics of gall. Obviously, it must be both bitter and toxic. It should also be possible to make it into a decoction (water solution of the plant). According to the New Testament account, it might have a narcotic affect. We can also assume that it is a plant familiar to readers of the original text. What plant or plants fit these features?
Unfortunately, there are many! Bitterness is widespread in plants. Many common plants like oaks can be very bitter. Bitterness can be a means of protecting the plant from grazing or in more specialized cases from predation by certain insects. Likewise, many plants in the indigenous flora are toxic.
One plant stands out in its toxicity, however--hemlock. (This should not be confused with the common tree known in English as hemlock which is not toxic but is used in making the original root beer! Early European settlers in North America likened the appearance of the tree's leaves to the poisonous plant.) Poison hemlock is widespread in the Middle East, Europe, and has been introduced to North America.
Poison hemlock flowers in the spring and prefers moist habitats. I have seen large numbers of these perennial plants in the Gutta region of Damascus, an irrigated area with intensive agriculture. Here hemlock formed dense stands along irrigation ditches with many heads consisting of masses of small white flowers similar to those of the wild carrot (Queen Anne's lace in English) which is a common weed in North America. Stems have a distinctive purple mottling hence the specific epithet in Latin, maculatum. The single seeded fruits ("seeds") resemble those of carrot, caraway, and cumin, all members of the Apiaceae or carrot family. Because of the resemblance of its fruits and of its odor to other members of the carrot family, poison hemlock has been accidentally ingested sometimes with fatal results.
Further supporting evidence that hemlock could be the gall of the Bible is its long history of use, well documented in ancient times. Best known is the suicide of Socrates who drank a decoction of hemlock. In the description of his dying, he notes losing the sensation of feeling in his extremities, his feet and his hands. This is due to the effect of coniine, a central nervous system poison. Thus, hemlock is a good contestant for gall of the Bible.
But we are left with a problem verse. In Hosea 10:4b rowsh is translated as hemlock (KJV) or "poisonous weed" (NIV). While Hepper equates this plant with hemlock, it seems unlikely due to the agricultural setting--"therefore lawsuits spring up like poisonous weeds in a plowed field." This can hardly be hemlock because of its relatively high water requirement. Even if the crop were irrigated, the hemlock, perennial or biennial plant, would die during the dry season when the field received no water. Hemlock is not found in agricultural conditions in the Middle East.
Again, there are several plants that are poisonous that occur in cultivated fields. The verse in Hosea does not require that a crop be present, only that the weed occur in an area that has been plowed. Perhaps the crop has been harvested and the weeds remain. We don't know. What is obvious is that there are many plants that could fit this situation.
Zohary suggests that an alternative to hemlock are species of Hyoscyamus, a group of often toxic plants r elated to tobacco and tomato. Here the problem is opposite that of hemlock as most species of this genus grow in very dry areas. One, Hyoscyamus reticulatus can be found at the margins of fields but at a very low frequency. Likewise, Delphinium peregrinum, a relative of the garden delphinium (also toxic), can occasionally be found in crops. Or, the plant could be one of many other toxic plants.
A less likely plant for gall is the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, which is apparently not native in the Bible lands we are considering but is grown on a large scale in Turkey and sometimes planted as an ornamental in Syria. The fresh latex is very bitter.
Conium maculatum Poison Hemlock
(Use the search function to find pictures of Virginia plants)
Hyocyamus aureus Henbane
Papaver somniferum Opium Poppy