Herbs in the Bible

use herbs in the bible
use herbs in the bible

Please note that the references below refer to the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible

Herbs in the Bible

Herbs This large group of plants were in abundant supply in Bible times. They were found growing on mountains, hillsides, along riverbanks, and in valleys. Herbs grew wild in fields and were sometimes cultivated in gardens. The existence of some herbs is well documented by the Bible, while others are rarely mentioned.

These plants were used for many purposes, including medicines, food flavourings, cosmetics, dyes, disinfectants, and perfumes. Often every part of the plant was used: leaves, branches, bark, blossoms, berries, and roots. Many of these herbs are still in use today.

The Latin word for herb is herba, meaning “grass,” “green stalks,” or “blades.” Some herbs grow as annuals and die soon after maturing. These usually multiply by reseeding themselves. Others are perennials, which multiply from the root; after a short period of winter dormancy, they sprout again when the spring rains begin. Psalm 37:2 and Matthew 6:30 mention herbs as symbols of a brief life. Sometimes the Bible refers to herbs by name (e.g., mustard, Mark 4:31-32). At other times, it alludes to them in general terms (Rom. 14:2).

Aloes  The King James Version often uses this word in reference to a large tree, known in Hebrew as “ahalim”.  Ahalim is not the true aloe of the lily family; instead, the Bible species had long lance-shaped leaves. The fragrant substance extracted from the wood of this plant was used to embalm the dead (John 19:39) and for perfume (Psa. 45:8; Prov. 7:17; Song 4:14).   The “Lignaloes” to which Israel is compared (Num. 24:6) was probably the true aloe plant (genus Aloe). Botanists believe this plant originated in India.

Anise
Anise

Anise The term anise mentioned in Matthew 23:23 is derived from the Greek word “anethon”. It refers either to the dill or to the true anise. Both plants are similar and of the same plant family. Both grow about 91 cm. (3 ft.) high with clusters of yellow flowers. The seeds, leaves, and stem are used for medicine and cooling, and were a part of the ancient temple tithe. (Jesus denounced the Jews of His day for carefully obeying small laws, such as the spice tithe, and forgetting the more important ones.) Anise was cultivated in ancient Egypt and other Mediterranean countries, and still grows there today.

Balm or Balsam. The balm mentioned in Genesis 37:25 is an extremely fragrant resinous substance extracted from the balsam tree. This was highly esteemed among the ancients (Jer. 46:11).  We do not know whether the balsam tree native to Arabia is the same one mentioned in Jeremiah 8:22 as the “balm of Gilead.” The Hebrew word has a variety of spellings – “tzari”, “sori”, and ”tsori” it literally refers to the fragrance of the plant.  The balsam was a bushy evergreen growing 3.7 to 4.3 m. (12 to 14 ft.) high. The pale yellow gum was used as incense (Exod. 35:28) and dissolved in water as an ointment. The oil obtained from the bark, leaves, and berries was used as medicine. This medicinal “balm” is referred to in Jeremiah 8:22, 51:8 as a symbol of spiritual healing.

Bay tree or Laurel The meaning of the Bay tree in Psalms 37:35 is obscure. The Hebrew word (ezrah) means “a green tree in its native soil.” The Septuagint, Latin Vulgate, and RSV render it “cedar of Lebanon.” But the NEB translated is to mean “a spreading tree in its native soil.”  Henry B. Tristram, author of Fauna and Flora of Palestine (1884), theorized that this word refers to the sweet bay tree or laurel. This evergreen is found in northern and western Palestine. It branches from the base, becoming an upright tree with fragrant leaves fitting the Psalmist’s description of the “spreading bay tree.”

Bdellium This term has two possible meanings:

1. An Aromatic Substance. The Hebrew word (bedolah) may refer to a gum resin, similar to balm or myrrh. Genesis 2:12 states that bdellium is a product of the Havilah region in Persia. Numbers 11:7 says that bdellium is the colour of manna. Some believe this substance came from a tree that produces a waxy, transparent substance that hardens and resembles pearls.

2. A Mineral. On the other hand, bdellium may refer to a mineral; but if so, we do not know which!

Bitter Herbs The people of Israel were commanded to eat the Passover lamb with “bitter herbs” (Exod. 12:8; Num. 9:11) to symbolize their Egyptian bondage. We do not know the kind of herbs or salad that is intended by this Hebrew word (merorim, “bitter”). According to the Mishna, these were lettuce, endive, coriander seeds, horehound, tansy, and horseradish.

Calamus
Calamus

Calamus This was a tall reed-like grass with hollow stems. The Hebrew term for this plant (Keneh bosem) means “reed of fragrance.” It is indeed a very sweet-smelling plant (Song 4:14).    The oil extracted from this grass was an ingredient in the anointing oil of Exodus 30:23.

Camphire The only mention of this plant in the Bible is in Song of Solomon 1:14; 4:13. Most scholars consider it to have been the henna. The Hebrew word for the plant is kopher.    This shrub grows approximately 3 m. (10 ft.) high. It flourished during Solomon’s time at En-gedi and is still growing there today.    The leaves and young twigs were ground into powder and mixed with paste and hot water to produce a reddish-orange dye, which women used to paint their fingernails, toenails, and the soles of their feet. Men also used this cosmetic to paint their beards.

Cassia The ingredients of the anointing oil referred to in Exodus 30:24 included the produce of the cassia tree. The bark of this tree is similar to cinnamon and is valued for its aromatic qualities. The spice was available to the Israelites during the Exodus, having perhaps come to them from India by caravan. The Hebrew word for the cassia is kiddah. Ezekiel 27:19 implies that the people of Tyre purchased this spice in Dan on the northern border of Palestine.   In Psalm 45:8, the Hebrew word translated as cassia is kesiah, meaning “fragrant.” It seems to be referring to another kind of plant.

Castor Bean Plant is thought by some to be The Gourd of Jonah 4:6.

Cinnamon A native of Ceylon, cinnamon is a member of the laurel family. The tree grows about 9 m. (30 ft.) high with clusters of yellow and white flowers. It’s very fragrant bark yields a golden yellow oil, which was used as one ingredient of the anointing oil (Exod. 30:23) and as perfume (Prov. 7:17).    The Hebrew word for this plant is kinnamon.

Coriander The coriander plant belongs to the parsley family. It is an annual that grows 60 to 90 cm. (2 to 3 ft.) high, producing pink or white flowers. When dried, the coriander seeds are pleasant to taste and are used to flavour foods. The Hebrew word for coriander is gad. This plant, known throughout Mediterranean countries from ancient times, was probably introduced to the Israelites in Egypt. When they saw manna in the wilderness, it reminded them of the white seeds of the coriander plant (Exod. 16:31; Num. 11:7).

Cumin
Cumin

Cumin The plant is also a member of the parsley family. The Hebrew word for it is “kammon”. Cumin is a low-growing herb with heads of white flowers. When the seeds are dried, they are used for flavouring foods.    Isaiah 28:25,27 says that, just as the farmer carefully plants his cumin, so GOD will deal wisely and justly with His people. Jesus used cumin to demonstrate the importance of keeping the whole law (Matt. 23:23).

Fitches Many botanists believe this was the black poppy, commonly known in Palestine. It has fine thin leaves resembling the fennel and is sometimes called the “fennel flower.” It grows 30 to 60 cm. (1 to 2 ft.) tall with yellow or blue flowers. Its black aromatic seeds are used for seasoning, and in Bible times they were usually beaten out with a rod (Isa. 28:25,27).

For the reference to “fitches” in Ezekiel 4:9, see the section on “Rye”.

Frankincense  also called Olibanum. It is a gummy resin found in small thorny trees called Boswellia Thurifera, growing in Africa, Yemen, and the Red Sea Countries. The sap from the trees oozes out forming small white peas, which harden in the air and turns yellow. These are burned for the aroma. The oil of Frankincense is calming and soothing and deepens breathing. The Hebrew word for this plant is “lebonah”, which means “incense” or “freely burning.” It is a large, pink-flowering tree, producing a white gum that hardens quickly and is very aromatic when burned. This was used in ceremonial offerings (Exod. 30:34; Lev. 2:1), as an article of luxury (son 3:6), and as a gift for the Christ child (Matt. 2:11).

Gall There are two meanings of the word gall in the Bible:

1. A Poisonous Herb. When the Hebrew word rosh was translated as gall, it was probably designating the hemlock or the opium poppy. Hosea 10:4 says that gall grew wild in the field. (In this passage, the word “rosh” is rendered hemlock in the KJV.) Punishment was sometimes likened to gall water (Jer. 8:14; 9:15; 23:15).

2. A Secretion of the Liver. The gall mentioned in Job 16:13 and 20:25 represents the Hebrew word “mererah”. It refers to the gall produced by the liver. The “gall of bitterness” in Acts 8:23 probably refers to the same thing.

Garlic This plant is known for its strong taste and aroma. It has flat, pointed leaves, and its bulbous root grows in sections called cloves.   Garlic grew abundantly in Egypt and other countries of the Mediterranean. The Israelites cherished memories of eating garlic in Egypt (Num. 11:5), where it was used to flavour breads.

Hyssop
Hyssop

Hyssop Many different plants may have been the hyssop of the Bible. The Hebrew word for this herb is “ezob”.   The common hyssop is a sweet-smelling plant of the mint family. Hyssop was often referred to as the herb used in purification:  Psalms 51:7. It was also used to prevent blood from coagulating which may explain why the Jews in Egypt were told to use it at the time of the Passover:  Exodus 12:22. The medicinal use of Hyssop can be found in John 19:29-30. Solomon must have been a very wise for proof of his wisdom: Kings 4:33. The biblical hyssop – the plant which is called Hyssopus Officinalis – is native to southern Europe but not to the Holy Land or to Egypt – therefore the hyssop that we grow is not the one from the bible. That one could have been – according to bible authorities – marjoram, the caper plant, sorghum, the maidenhair spleenwort or the wallrue. It was grown in Egypt and Palestine (Exod. 12:22), and was used in the ceremonial rituals of the Israelites (Lev. 14:4,6; Num. 19:6,18; Heb. 9:19). Psalm 51:7 refers to the hyssop as a symbol of inner cleansing. First Kings 4:33 shows that Solomon was aware of its vigorous growing habits. Some think the Bible uses hyssop to refer to marjoram. Both plants have similar qualities, and both grow in Egypt and Palestine.

Mallow This spice is mentioned in the Bible only once (Job 30:4). The Hebrew word for this plant is malluah (“salty”); it denotes a plant that has a salty taste or is raised in salty places. The mallow or saltwort fits this description.  The mallow bush grows abundantly in salt marshes along the Mediterranean and on the shores of the Dead Sea.   It reaches about 3 m. (10 ft.) in height and has tiny purple flowers. Its leaves are eaten by the poor when food is desperately scarce.

Mandrake is mentioned in Genesis 30:14-16.  The story tells of Rachael requesting the mandrakes from Rueben, it does not tell that Rachael believed in their magical qualities, although in those days the plant was held in great esteem by the people for their magical properties. It is also known as the love apple.

Mint
Mint

Mint The Greek word “heduosmon” is translated mint in the New Testament. There are two varieties of wild mint; both grow in Syria and Palestine.    In ancient times, mint was used for medicine and seasoning foods. It may have been one of the “bitter herbs” that the Israelites ate with the Passover lamb. Mint was considered to be one of the least important herbs, even though it was used as a tithe at the temple.

Mustard The black mustard grew wild in Palestine on the shores of Galilee. This herb reached 1.8 to 2.4 m. (60 to 8 ft.) in height and as covered with yellow flowers.    Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:31-32; Luke 13:19). He also used it to teach the power of small faith (Matt. 17:20; Luke 17:6).   Some think the mustard of the Bible was the yellow mustard. But this is not likely, because it is a low-growing plant and not a true herb.

Myrrh The King James Version uses the word myrrh with reference to different plants. One of these was a small tree with bushy branches and three-sectioned leaves, bearing a plum-like fruit, and producing a fragrant gum that had many uses. The Hebrew word for this plant was “mor”. It was used in anointing oil (Exod. 30:23), in perfume (Psa. 45:8; Prov. 7:17; Song 3:6), and in ceremonial cleansing (Esther 2:12). The magi brought it to the baby Jesus (Matt. 2:11). It was offered to Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:23), and was used to prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39).   The myrrh mentioned in Genesis 37:25 and 43:11 was probably the tree Cistus creticus. The Hebrew word for this plant is “lot”. This shrub produces pink flowers and is sometimes known as the “rock “rose.” It is very fragrant and valued for its perfume.    The tree (Commiphora) that produces the myrrh used in modern times is not of the same genus or species as the myrrh of Bible times. Another name for garden myrrh is Sweet Cicely. This plant has fern like foliage with dull white flowers and grows to be about 3 feet tall.

Common Myrtle
Common Myrtle

Myrtle The myrtle tree (Hebrew, “hadas”) of the Bible was probably the common myrtle. Growing 4.6 to 6 m. (15 to 20 ft.) high, it has dark shiny leaves and bears clusters of star-shaped leaves and bears clusters of star-shaped flowers.    The myrtle tree was common to Galilee and northern Palestine and Syria. It also grew around Jerusalem, but was rarer there. Zechariah 1:9-11 mentions that is also grew in the Jordan Valley.   Its branches were used for booths in the Feast of Tabernacles (Neh. 8:15; cf. Lev. 23:40). It reminded the Israelites of GOD’s goodness (Isa. 41:19), by contrast with the brier (Is. 55:13).

The myrtle was sacred to the ancient Greeks. They used it in their worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

Rue This important herb is mentioned in the Bible only once (Luke 11:42). The Greek word for it is “peganon”. It is a small shrub with clusters of yellow flowers that have a very strong odour. It is a native to the Mediterranean region, but was cultivated in Palestine as a garden herb. It was used as a disinfectant, medicine, and as the temple tithe.

Saffron The saffron has been cultivated in southern Europe and Asia from very early times. The Hebrew word for it is “karkom”.   The plant, which grows from a bulb, blooms in the fall, with light lavender blossoms, veined red. Their stigmas are dried, pulverized, and pressed into cakes that are used for making yellow dyes in medicine, and for flavouring. Saffron has a sweet smell but a bitter taste. It is mentioned as one of the common spices of the Old Testament (Song 4:14).

Spikenard
Spikenard

Spikenard This is one of the most precious spices of the Bible. The Hebrew for it is “nerd”; the Greeks called it “nardos”. It grew extensively in northern India, and has been found high in the Himalaya Mountains.   It grows small with many spikes on one root, bearing pink blossoms; thus it is sometimes called the “Indian spike”. Perfumed oil is extracted from these spikes.   The New Testament tells how a woman anointed Jesus with this most costly liquid (Mark 14:3-4). According to Werner Keller, “The receptacles for these often expensive items (i.e., perfumes) have been found by archaeologists under the debris of walls, among the ruins of patrician houses, and in royal palaces.”

Stacte The Hebrew word for this spice is “nataph”, which means “a drop”. It is generally believed that this word denotes the gum from the storax tree.   Grown in the region of Galilee, Asia Minor, and Syria, the storax tree reaches up to 6 m. (20 ft.) with dark green leaves. Its clustered white blossoms appear in March. When in bloom, it resembles the orange tree.    The resin of the storax is used as an expectorant. It is mentioned in the Bible only once, as an ingredient for the anointing oil (Exod. 30:34).

Herbal Remedies from the Bible

Sores and wounds were treated mostly with poultices made from bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis), honey and lard, ivy gum (from the ivy plant), agrimony, linseed oil, and papaya peel.

Sprains were wrapped with an ointment made from the crushed leaves of comfrey plant.

Rheumatism was treated by soaking the balm of Gilead in olive oil and applied in liniment form.  By having a massage with salt followed by a full body shampoo, you would feel as you do after enjoying a soak in a spa.  This helps with blood circulation.

Upset stomachs were settled by gargling with rosemary water, and drinking it. Also ginger root would have been nibbled on.

Headaches called for rosemary tea, or spearmint leaves being laid on the forehead. Sweet marjoram’s oil was rubbed upon the forehead for relief.

Fever:  Rosemary twigs were boiled in water and used to wash a feverish body.  White willow was made into a tea for what we know as an aspirin effect.

Earache:  Softened flowers of the mullein plant steeped in olive oil were used as drops. Garlic was also thought to have relieved pain and loosen the earwax.

Rosemary was a widely used plant for many ailments
Rosemary was a widely used plant for many ailments

Flowers mentioned in the bible:

Willow Herb, Water lily, Violet, Tulip, Salvia, Star of Bethlehem, Rose, Ranunculus, Peony, Nigella, Narcissus, Meadow Saffron, Mallow, Lupine, Loosestrife, Lily, Larkspur, Jonquil, Hyacinth, Bedstraw, Crocus, Anemone

Herbs from the Bible:

Wild Gourd, Rue, Mustard, Mint, Melon, Mandrake, Mallow, Hyssop, Garlic, Leek, Onion, Coriander, Anise, Cumin, Flax, Cucumber, Bay Leaf, Chervil, Cinnamon

Trees of the bible

Willow, Pine, Poplar, Oak, Mulberry, Myrtle, Juniper, Green Bay Tree, Elm, Chestnut, Cypress and Cedar

Fruits mentioned:

Pomegranate, Palm, Nuts, Apple and Olives