I wonder from time to time what our Buddhist, Muslim, or Jewish brethren, among others, think of the hoopla as Christians face a new millennium. Other religions and societies are into their third, fourth, or even fifth millennia. Regardless, the new millennium is an opportunity for reflection and anticipation: What have we done to the earth, to its flora and fauna? How accurately have we measured progress in diet, medicine, and health care?
As we move into the third Christian millennium, we may be ready to rekindle a medical as well as spiritual explanation of the herbs and plants that have been with us for as many as six millennia.
The Bible mentions 128 plants that were part of everyday life in ancient Israel and its Mediterranean neighbors. These plants include almonds, apples, black mustard, cucumber, grapes, mandrake, nettle, poppy, and wormwood.
The migratory patterns of herbs and plants follow those of the people who relied on them. The Levant—which stretches in a crescent around the eastern Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to the Sinai Peninsula and includes modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel—marks the most likely “checkpoint” through which population groups passed as they migrated. As they moved, people carried cuttings, seeds, or saplings of plants and herbs necessary for their well-being or in accordance with God’s directives. Thus, use of the medicinal plants of the area combines the healing wisdom of early Arabs, Hebrews, Copts, and Muslims.
Here are a handful of these plants and a look at their roles in personal beauty, hygiene, ritual, ceremony, and the treatment of disease—many of which still apply today.
Aloe (Aloe Vera)
Used for: Burns, constipation, cancer, skin irritations
The aloes of biblical time are very different from the aloe vera you keep on your kitchen counter. One variety of aloe (A. succotrina) produced an aromatic juice used in embalming in ancient Egypt. Aloe juice was included in incense, perfume, lotion, and scented powder.
From biblical times to the present, aloes have been a giant among herbs and herbal medicine. People commonly keep an aloe vera plant in their home for the instant and effective treatment of burns. Fresh aloe vera juice taken internally purges the stomach and lower intestines and relieves fevers. Externally, aloe juice, in gels with or without lanolin, treats abrasions, burns, and skin irritations. When applied to open sores, aloe vera extract aids in healing, exhibiting anesthetic and antibacterial action and increasing blood or lymph flow in the small vessels in the area.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum)
Used for: Arthritis, bronchitis, cancer, dermatitis, heart disease, inflammation, rheumatism
Linen is one of the world’s oldest textiles; the earliest fragment of identified cloth (considered to be of linen) is from eastern Turkey, carbon-dated to 9,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptian murals and papyri depict the growth of flax, the spinning of flax thread, and the weaving of that thread into linen. Mummified remains of the pharaohs are bound in fine and delicate linen, woven with an expertise that is still difficult to replicate today, 3,000 to 4,000 years later. Linen also was used to make mummy cases, and flaxseed oil was used in the embalming process.
Flaxseed produces linseed oil, which is edible when cold pressed. Medicinally, the seeds were prescribed as a demulcent, emollient, and laxative; flaxseed was also used as a remedy for burns.
The three principal components of nutritional significance in flax are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), dietary fiber, and polyphenolics (particularly lignans). The ALA slows blood clotting; prevents inflammation; relieves colitis, arthritis, gastritis, and other conditions; retards and prevents tumor growth; and boosts the immune system. The lignans in flaxseed are particularly useful in preventing breast and colon cancers.
Frankincense (Boswellia sacra) or (B. carteri)
Used for: Dysentery, gonorrhea, fever, polyps
The magi brought the newborn Jesus three gifts: gold to recognize his kingship; frankincense to acknowledge his holiness or divinity; and myrrh to symbolize the hardship and suffering that he would endure.
Frankincense is an important ingredient in incense. Literally, frank means “free” and incense means “lighting.” The Arabic word for frankincense, luban, means “milk of the Arabs.” The aromatic gum was used for incense, perfume, holy ointments, and as a fumigant. Not native to Israel, frankincense was imported by caravan from Arabia and East Africa.
The gum is obtained by cutting incisions into the bark of the frankincense shrub. The milky juice that exudes hardens into “tears” within a few weeks. These tears are favored in Lebanon primarily as incense and secondarily as a medicine or cosmetic. Essential oil of frankincense, or oil of olibanum, is used in high-grade perfumes, especially in oriental and floral types.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Used for: Angina, cancer, colds, diabetes, flu, hypertension, infections
Believing that garlic increases virility, Hebrews have relied on the herb to be able to “be fruitful and multiply” as directed in Genesis. According to the Talmud, there are five properties to the garlic that many Jews consumed on Fridays (Shabbat).
1. It keeps the body warm.
2. It brightens the face.
3. It increases semen.
4. It kills parasites.
5. It fosters love and removes jealousy.
Why Fridays? After the women’s ritual Friday bath, or mikvah, the men could make love to their wives (with consent, of course).
The use of garlic to increase virility may be more than just an interesting bit of folklore or ritual. Garlic has a high content of free amino acids dominated by the amino acid arginine. Arginine is used by the cells that line the artery walls to manufacture nitric oxide, which facilitates blood flow to the penis. Without nitric oxide, erections are impossible.
Medicinally, garlic juice was prescribed to treat intestinal infections, respiratory ailments, snakebites, melancholy, and hypochondria. Today, medical research has identified the phytochemicals that support many old wives’ tales. For example, garlic contains the active ingredient ajoene, reported to inhibit platelet aggregation in arteries. Garlic juice contains allicin, an antibiotic and antifungal compound. Around the world, folk remedies for headaches, tumors, and fungal and bacterial infections include inhaling vapors from the garlic stalk, applying a poultice made from the bulb, or massaging with an ointment made from garlic roots.
Garlic’s anticancer and antitumor reputation is no less stellar. Allicin, a powerful antibiotic, has been isolated as the silver bullet that protects the body from carcinogens and bacteria. It also facilitates healing, lowers blood sugar, and alleviates hypertension. If spinach gave Popeye the strength of ten men, garlic gave 100,000 pyramid builders their strength for thirty years.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
Used for: The effects of alcoholism, asthma, cirrhosis, hepatitis, jaundice, kidney and urinary tract stones, psoriasis
We aren’t certain that milk thistle is one of the thorns, thistles, and briers referred to in the Bible, but it could be. We know that milk thistle grows among shrubs that are common in Samaria and parts of Israel today.
Milk thistle has been used as a liver remedy for 2,000 years. Liver disease (often a deadly side effect of alcoholism) attacks the blood’s filtration system, allowing dangerous toxins to accumulate in the body. Milk thistle, which contains silymarin, seems to be the most promising natural compound both for preventing damage to the liver and for repairing existing damage.
Studies show that milk thistle can regenerate damaged liver cells. Research studies have led Commission E, the German expert panel that judges the safety and effectiveness of medicinal herbs for the German government, to approve milk thistle seeds and seed extracts as supportive treatment for cirrhosis and chronic inflammatory liver conditions. Silymarin also helps protect the liver from many industrial toxins, such as carbon tetrachloride. Even if you don’t have liver damage or disease, milk thistle helps improve liver functions by aiding the removal of toxins from the body.
Recently, silymarin has shown great promise as a diabetes fighter. In 1998 an Italian scientist suggested that taking 600 mg of silymarin substantially reduced diabetic symptoms and complications. An article in the Journal of Hepatology said that taking silymarin lowered blood sugar and insulin levels.
Myrrh (Commiphora spp.)
Used for: Analgesic, astringent, bronchitis, expectorant, high cholesterol
There are 135 species of myrrh found throughout Africa and Arabia, growing mainly in very arid regions. In her book All the Plants in the Bible, Winifred Walker asserts that the myrrh mentioned in the Old Testament came from a small plant called a rockrose that grew among the sand and rocks. The gum collected from the rockrose was pressed into cakes and used as perfume. In the New Testament the soft, dark brown or black resin collected and sold in golden spiral pieces, sometimes called “tears” or “pearls,” was from a small tree. Myrrh was sold as a spice or an ingredient of the anointing oil used in the Tabernacle or as a salve for the purification of the dead. The stems and leaves were used to prepare perfume and incense, a practice that continues in Eastern churches today. Medicinally, the extract served as a salve, stimulant, or expectorant.
The myrrh that the Magi gave to the baby Jesus foretold how he would suffer and die. The term myrrophore was applied to the women who bore spices to the sepulcher of Jesus—aloes, cassia, and cinnamon. In Mesopotamia and the Greco-Roman worlds, myrrh was a panacea for almost every human affliction from earaches to hemorrhoids. The Asians esteemed myrrh as an astringent tonic taken internally and as a cleansing agent applied externally.
A salve of myrrh used as an analgesic can assuage the discomfort of topical ulcerations, and myrrh can be made into a mouthwash for spongy gums, ulcerated throats, and mouth sores. The herb also has been found helpful in treating bronchial inflammations and vaginal infections. Guggul, or Indian myrrh, has been the subject of recent research on leukemia and blood cholesterol levels.
Myrrh oil is most popular today as an astringent in mouthwash and gargles as well as a fixative or fragrance in creams, detergents, lotions, perfumes, and soaps. Myrrh has been approved by the FDA for food use in alcoholic beverages, baked goods, gelatins, and puddings.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
—Song of Solomon 4:14–15
Used for: Inflammation, flatulence, arthritis, bronchitis, diuretic, dyspepsia, expectorant, laryngitis, lymphoma, rheumatism
Three plants vie for the honor of being the biblical saffron: the saffron crocus, safflower, and turmeric. Since saffron is mentioned only once in the Bible, this plant presents a conundrum for botanists. Linguistically, the issue is the proper translation and interpretation of the Hebrew kakom and the Arabic kurkum, or saferam.
Okay. I confess. I want turmeric to be the saffron mentioned in the Bible. It’s such a good herb that it deserves to be in the Bible. I am sure that humans have used it for thousands of years.
Dried turmeric rhizomes are used as spice, whole or ground, to flavor meat and egg dishes and to flavor or color pickles, relishes, prepared mustard, butter, and cheese; turmeric is an indispensable constituent of curry powder. It provides a natural dye to color cloth, leather, silk, palm fiber, wool, and cotton. Its rhizomes yield an orange-yellow essential oil used in flavoring spice products and in perfumery. Powdered turmeric is an antioxidant. The essential oil of turmeric has shown anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory activity in rats. And I believe that turmeric as a pain reliever has preceded aspirin by at least 2,000 years.
James A. Duke, Ph.D., is one of the world’s foremost authorities on botanical medicine. He is author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997) and Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary (CRC, 1994).
Adapted with permission from Herbs of the Bible: 2,000 Years of Plant Medicine (Interweave Press, 1999) by James A. Duke, Ph.D.