Site hosted by Build your free website today!







My Redeemer > Bible Dictionary > Plants > Manners and Customs of the Bible > Herbs and Spices Homepage

Agriculture of the Bible

Plants of the Bible

(Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible)

III. Herbs and Spices. 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.

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).

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.

A spice is a vegetable substance possessing a sharp taste and aromatic qualities. The Bible sometimes uses the Hebrew word for spices in general (bosem), which literally refers to the rich fragrance of spices (Exod. 25:6; I Kings 10:10). At other times, specific spices are mentioned, as in Exodus 30:23, Song of Solomon 4:14, and Ezekiel 27:19.

Spices were grown in Arabia, India, Persia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. There was an extensive commerce in spices between these countries (Gen. 37:25). For further information, see "Trade." The people of the ancient world possessed an incredible knowledge of how to use spices and herbs. When royal emissaries sent gifts to rulers of other countries, spices and herbs were usually included in their cargo.

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

    A. Aloes. The King James Version often uses this word in reference to a large tree, known in Hebrew as ahalim.

    But the 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.

    B. 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.

    C. 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.


    The Bible refers often to gardens, fields, foods, feasts, and eating habits of people. Food was certainly an important aspect of life for the ancients. By cultivating a Bible garden, we can learn much about the eating habits and other customs of Bible times.

    Many people find the experience of growing plants mentioned in the Scriptures an exciting way to learn about Bible lands. This project is well-suited to the home garden, a ploy on the church campus, or a small garden space elsewhere.

    A Bible garden would include many vegetables that can be grown in the temperate climate of North America, Great Britain, or Western Europe. For example, one could plant beans, lentils, cucumbers, leeks, onions, radishes, and garlic. In warmer climates, a Bible garden could also include melons, grapes, apricots, figs, and pomegranates.

    One authority notes that biblical people crushed watermelon and mixed it with water to satisfy their thirst. They mixed juices of fruit with honey to make a tasty fruit punch and dried spring flower petals to brew fragrant teas.

    A variety of herbs would also be in a Bible garden. Caraway, cumin, mint, mustard, parsley, sage, and thyme are but a few plants that were used for seasoning food.

    Remember that the Israelites observed certain methods of planting that were quite different from our traditional gardening practices. So if you wish to make your Bible garden truly authentic, you may choose to follow these ancient methods.

    For example, modern gardeners often plant two crops in the same furrow to take advantage of different growing seasons; but the Israelites could not do this. Seed symbolized the Israelites themselves - the "seed" (descendants) of Abraham - and just as GOD forbade the Israelites to marry pagan peoples, He forbade them to mix their garden seed (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:9). This law constantly reminded the Israelites that they must remain a separate people. GOD's law also prohibited planting trees near a place of worship (this assured that the Israelites would not revert to pagan tree worship - Deut. 16:21), so gardens near the temple had no fruit trees.

    In the dry climate of Palestine, the Israelites customarily planted their crops beside streams (cf. Psa. 1:3; Is. 19:7), or dug irrigation ditches between the rows of plants (cf. Ezek. 17:7). Our gardens seldom require such special provisions for watering; but you may decide to lay our your Bible garden in this fashion to illustrate the methods that Israelite farmers used. It would also remind you of the symbolic importance of water in the Bible. Isaiah said that when GOD's people disobeyed Him, they would "be as an oak that fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water" (Isa. 1:30). The writer of Proverbs said that GOD could direct a king's heart "as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will" (Prov. 21:1) - a phrase that reminds us of the irrigation ditches which the Israelites used to channel water wherever they desired. The Bible often cites water as a spiritual symbol, and it wa a very familiar commodity for the Hebrew gardener.

    The ancients planned, planted, and tended their gardens with care. They enjoyed the fruits of their labor and celebrated the yield with great thanksgiving. We can do the same.

    D. Baytree or Laurel. The meaning of the Baytree 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."

    E. 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 color 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. (See "Minerals and Gems".)

    F. 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. Modern Jews in Egypt and Arabia eat the Passover with lettuce and endive.

    G. 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. The calamus was grown throughout Palestine.

    H. 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. (See "Clothing and Cosmetics.") Men also used this cosmetic to paint their beards. The "camphire" also grows in Egypt and other countries in the East today.

    I. 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 s 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.

    J. 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. Its 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. It was one of the chief spices of the ancient Near East.

    K. 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 flavor 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).

    L. Cummin. The plant is also a member of the parsley family. The Hebrew word for it is kammon. Cummin is a low-growing herb with heads of white flowers. When the seeds are dried, they are used for flavoring foods.

    Isaiah 28:25,27 says that, just as the farmer carefully plants his cummin, so GOD will deal wisely and justly with His people. Jesus used cummin to demonstrate the importance of keeping the whole law (Matt. 23:23).

    M. 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".

    N. Frankincense. Although many types of plants were used as incense, only one is mentioned in Scripture as frankincense. 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).

    O. 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. It is a symbol of spiritual enmity to GOD.

    P. 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 flavor breads.

    Q. 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. It is a bush growing 30 to 46 cm. (12 to 18 ft.) high, with small pointed leaves and spikes of various colored flowers. 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. The reference to hyssop in John 19:29 shows that hyssop was still commonly known in the New Testament era.

    R. 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 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.

    S. 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.

    T. 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. The seeds were used to flavor meat and vegetables, and were a favorite food of the birds.

    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 thing 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.

    U. 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 that produces the myrrh used in modern times is not of the same genus or species as the myrrh of Bible times.

    V. 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.

    W. 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 odor. 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.

    X. 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 flavoring. 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).

    Y. 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."

    Z. 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).

Back to Top

Back    Next

Home Site Index Bible Index
Kingdom Dynamics Truth in Action Links