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Bible Plants

Gum Tragacanth

Astragalus spinosa. Near Wadi Musa, Jordan. Fabaceae

The only place in the Scriptures where gum tragacanth is mentioned is Genesis 37:25 and Genesis 43:11 and the only translation to use this word is the New American Standard Bible. The same word is translated "spices" in the KJV and the NIV. The translation of J. N. Darby uses the very accurate term, tragacanth. Despite this confusion in translation, there seems little doubt that the word nakaad in Hebrew refers to a vegetable gum. The verses restrict choices to an extract of a plant that grows in the land and might also grow in Gilead, the area on the east side of the Jordan River. Therefore, it could be one of the gums known as tragacanth and harvested by making incisions at the base of several shrubby species of the genus Astragalus. While there are many species of Astragalus in the Middle East (Turkey has more than 300 species!), only A. gummifer and A. bethlehemiticus produce gum in large enough quantities to be marketed. The sap exudes, dries and is then ha rvested. The amount of labor involved in harvesting gum tragacanth makes it an item of great value.

Astragalus gummifer is frequent at higher elevations on Mt Hermon. It is a low growing, much branched shrub with long needle-like spines, inconspicuous flowers and bladderlike fruits which are borne in the middle of the summer.

Gum was an important item of commerce in Bible days and was used in making a diversity of products including ink, incense, confectionaries, medicines, and cosmetics. This value is indicated in the cargo carried by the Ishmaelites who were taking it to Egypt. Even today gum tragacanth is harvested on a very large scale and many tons are used every year in the candy, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries alone. At one time gum tragacanth was even used as a binder in Big Mac hamburgers!

It is not possible to state unequivocally which gum was used in the compounding of the incense in Exodus 30 (see gum mastic).

Astragalus sp. Fruits. Wadi Musa, Jordan. Fabaceae