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Commiphora sp. Ein Gedi, Israel. Myrrh

Myrrh is the dried resin of several species of Commiphora (Burseraceae). They are shrubs or small trees of the arid and semiarid regions of East Africa, Arabia, and the Indian subcontinent. All species are not used for the same purpose, some are used medicinally (Leung and Foster 1996) and others for their fragrance (Calkin and Jellinek 1992). Recent work indicates that C. myrrha (Nees) Engl. has opiate qualities [Science News 149(2): 20 1996]. This helps interpret Mark 15:23 where Jesus, on the cross, was offered vinegar mingled with myrrh but refused the drug.

These two different myrrhs, medicinal and fragrant, are both translated from the same Hebrew word mor. The scented myrrh is probably Commiphora guidotti (Thulin and Claeson 1991). Odor of myrrh permeates the pages of Solomon's writings with more references than any other Bible author. Song of Solomon has seven references.

In the single reference in Proverbs 7, the harlot refers to her bed as having been sprinkled with " . . . myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon" (7: 17). Myrrh is used in a similar way in Song of Solomon, that is, as a personal perfume with erotic overtones (5: 5, 5:13). There is a guild of plants associated both with the harlot in Proverbs as well as with the lovers in Song of Solomon. These include cassia, aloes (not the bitter aloe of the New Testament) and myrrh. Myrrh is also linked with frankincense in other verses.

There has been considerable confusion among Bible commentaries and dictionaries about the identification of the plant known as balm or balm of Gilead (Hebrew tesriy or tsoriy) in the Bible. Zohary (1982) and Hepper (1992) consider balm to be a species of Commiphora while Stol (1979) cautions against confusing tsoriy with basem. There is strong historical precedence for this confusion as Josephus (1936) suggests that the Queen of Sheba brought a plant of Commiphora when she visited Solomon. However, myrrh was used much earlier in Israel as it is a component of the sacred anointing oil (Exodus 30). Myrrh oil has been found at En Gedi (Hepper 1992). Commiphora shrubs have recently been planted there.

A handbook for Bible translators equates balm with Balanites aegyptiaca (L.) Del. (Zygophyllaceae) (Anonymous 1980) perhaps because the oil from the seed was used in embalming in Egypt (Hepper 1990). However, the best candidate for balm of Gilead appears to be Cistus incanus L. (including C. creticus and C. villosus) (Cistaceae). Cistus incanus is a common and widespread plant in Israel and the Mediterranean region.

The extract of C. incanus is ladanum, or labdanum. It was widely used in the Mediterranean for a variety of medicines. Recent research has documented the efficacy of some of the compounds in ladanum (e.g., Danne et al. 1993). There is strong biblical evidence that balm of Gilead is C. incanus as well. The weeping prophet, Jeremiah, refers twice to the balm from Gilead (Jeremiah 8:22, 46:11). While this could be Commiphora that had been transported there, a more natural explanation is the use of ladanum. Stronger evidence is found in Ezekiel 27:17 regarding trade between Israel and Minnith, apparently a region of Ammon east of the Jordan River, where one of the products of Israel is noted as being balm.

(Below) Myrrh purchased in the spice market in the old city of Damascus, Syria, April 2001. This is used by local people to compound medicines and incense.

Myrrh. Purchased in the spice market in the old city of Damascus, Syria

Other myrrh images

Myrrh References