Herbs In The Bible

The herbs mentioned in the Bible are many, from aloe to wormwood, gall to garlic. Here we will look at the reason for their popularity.

The popularity of herbs is not new to the twenty-first century, or even the twentieth, or the nineteenth, or... well, you get the picture. The use of herbs dates back to Biblical times and played a major role throughout the Bible. In some instances their uses aren't specified, but they are referred to so the reader can draw comparisons, which shows how strong herbal knowledge was at that time. What herbs were commonly used then and what were they used for?

Please note here that all scripture will be quoted from the New American Standard Bible, unless noted from the King James Version (KJV).

The first mention of herbs in the Bible is in Genesis 1:29.

"And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat." (KJV)

Herbs were set apart from other forms of vegetation even in the beginning. Another example of this is found in Genesis 2:5, "And every plant of the field, before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew...".(KJV). These two verses show that there was a definite distinction made between the herbs and other plants of the fields. It is obvious that, according to the Bible, they were created to be distinctive.

So what herbs were mentioned specifically in the Bible? Probably the most remembered are frankincense and myrrh, as they were two of the gifts brought by the three wisemen to the baby Jesus. "...and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." Matthew 2:11.

Frankincense represents holiness while myrrh is very aromatic and resinous and is obtained from thorn trees. Many believe the myrrh was to symbolize the suffering that would come to Jesus in the future, perhaps referring to the "crown of thorns" He would wear on the cross.

Mustard is another famous New Testament herb, mainly mentioned to note comparisons about size. "...for truly I say to you if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, "Move from here to there" and it shall move, and nothing shall be impossible to you", Matthew 17:20.

Other herbs mentioned, however briefly in the New Testament, are cumin, mint, and dill in Matthew 23:3, "Woe unto you...hypocrites. For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness;". The tithing of herbs dated back to Mosaic law, for in Deuteronomy 14:22 it is commanded "You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year." Mint was popular in Biblical times as a condiment and medicine, and grown throughout the Syrian region. Dill is referred to as "anise" in some translations. It was also a popular kitchen herb at the time, and in the Talmud, paying tithes with dill requires that the seeds, leaves and the stems are to be used. Cumin was used in breads and stews and was also a popular herb for tithing.

The version of this scene given in Luke 11:42 specifically mentions "mint, rue and every kind of garden herb." Rue was used as medicine and in cooking. It is very aromatic and is also a stimulant. It is also known as the "herb of grace". Brushes made from rue werre once used to sprinkle Holy water at mass.

The emphasis placed on these herbs in Jesus' rebuke shows their importance to the people of that time. He wanted them to realize that it was more important to offer up justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Gall is an herb whose name in Hebrew translates to "bitterness". It is mentioned several places in the Bible but most famously at the crucifixion of Jesus. At that time it was mixed with wine and offered to those crucified to relieve pain, as it is actually the juice of an opium plant and therefore used as a narcotic. Matthew 27:34 states "They gave Him wine to drink, mingled with gall; and after tasting it, He was not willing to drink." The immediate reaction to that statement is that Jesus did not drink because of the taste, but further examination of the life of Christ shows that He refused in order to fully endure the cross.

The Old Testament abounds with mentionings of herbs. Aloe is singled out in Numbers 24:6, "..like valleys that stretch out, like gardens beside the river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters". The way it is mentioned in this context gives rise to the belief that it is the only tree descended from the Garden of Eden,as it is also referred to as "Paradise Wood". It is a very fragrant wood and the gum or perfume extracted from the wood was used for embalming dead bodies, as Jesus' was by Nicodemus in John 19:39. "And Nicodemus came also, who had first come to Him by night; bringing a miture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds of weight". A prophecy about this was made in Psalm 45:8, "All thy garments are fragrant with myrrh, and aloes and cassia;".

Coriander also has numerous Old Testament references. The manna sent from heaven in the wilderness was compared to it in Exodus 16:31. "And the house of Israel named it manna, and it was like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey." Coriander was used medicinally and as a spice.

Garlic is mentioned only once in the Bible, but it is done so in a way that makes the reader very much aware of how much the person speaking cherished it. "We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic". Numbers 11:5.

Hyssop is also referred to frequently in the Bible. Hyssop was known as a holy herb that was used to cleanse sacred places. "And a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there." Numbers 19:18. It is for its cleansing properties that in Psalm 51:7 David uses it in a prayer of forgiveness "Purify me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."

Along with other herbs and spices, saffron is mentioned in Song of Solomon 4:14, when he is expressing his affection to his lover. "Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, along with the finest spices. You are a garden spring,..". To be likened to herbs and spices at that time was a prized compliment.

Wormwood is often mentioned in instances where "intense bitterness" is the point trying to be made. "But in the end she (an adulteress) is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword", Proverbs 5:4. Southernwood, which is often grown today for its fragrant properties, is a species of wormwood.

Given the popularity of herbs today, it is interesting to look at some of the oldest recorded words in history and realize that, even thousands of years later, some things never change.

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