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Healing Herbs of the Holy Land

by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On the Wall of Jerusalem's Old City

The Bible tells us that herbs were placed on earth for the healing of man.  In Genesis, God proclaims that the fruit of the tree is to be used for food, and the leaf thereof for medicine.

In the Quran, God, or Allah, says that there is no disease created by Him for which He did not also create the cure.  The prophet Mohammad, PBUH, extolls the healing virtues of several different medicinal herbs in his writings.

The power of herbs, and of Nature, to heal all ills figures prominently in all of the world’s major religions.  The message of all this is clear:  Herbal medicine and other natural healing modalities are God’s preferred form of healing.

Healing Herbs of the Bible

Many different healing herbs are mentioned in the Bible.  However, since the common vernacular names for these herbs can be vague, dubious or misleading, and can change over time, careful research is needed to ascertain their true identity.

For instance, Aloes, both fragrant and bitter, are mentioned in various places in the Bible.  Fragrant Aloes refers not to Aloe Vera, or the True Aloe, but rather to Aloes Wood, a resinous wood from Southeast Asia which is used both medicinally and in aromatics, whose botanical name is Aquillaria agallocha.

The True Aloe, or Aloe Vera, is the Bitter Aloe, as anyone who has ever eaten its fresh leaf can testify to.  The Bible tells us that when Jesus was placed in the tomb, his whole body was annointed or covered with a paste made from Myrrh and Aloes before the shroud was placed over him.

But this only opens the door to a deeper mystery.  Any knowledgeable herbalist will tell you that the True or Bitter Aloe, or Aloe Vera, when combined with the resin of Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) is one of the best preparations for facilitating the healing of wounds, even though these substances could also possibly be used for embalming.

All this begs the question:  Could it be that Jesus wasn’t really dead when he was taken down from the cross and placed in Joseph of Arimathea’s Garden Tomb?  After all, when someone dies, all physiological processes stop, including the healing and regeneration of wounds.

“Purge me with Hyssop, and I shall be made clean”, says the Bible.  In the herb and spice stalls of Jerusalem’s Arab bazaar, the herbal condiment known as Zatar was almost universally labeled with “Hyssop” as its English name.  However, I have tasted both Hyssop, whose botanical name is Hyssopus officinalis, and the herb known as Zatar, and believe me, they are clearly NOT one and the same.  Zatar is actually a species of Thyme. The popular Middle Eastern spice mixture called Zatar is actually a tasty combination of Thyme, Sesame seeds and a little salt.

Another mysterious herbal preparation from the Bible is the Spikenard Oil that was used by the woman to annoint the feet of Jesus.  The mysterious woman is believed to have been Mary Magdalene, but what about this mysterious Spikenard Oil?

Here again, an expert knowledge of herbal medicine and aromatics is needed to decipher the true identity of the Spikenard that formed the base of this fragrant medicated oil.  The Spikenard used was NOT American Spikenard, or Aralia racemosa, which is a close botanical relative of Ginseng, but rather, the Indian Spikenard, also calledJatamansi in Ayurvedic medicine.  Its botanical name is Nardostachys jatamansi, and it has a strong, musky odor like Valerian root.   For this reason, Jatamansi is also called Indian Valerian.

Like Valerian root, Indian Spikenard, or Jatamansi, with its strong musky odor, can be used as a fixative, or aromatic fixer and amplifier, in combination with other warming, sweet and pungent aromatic herbs like Cinnamon and Cardamom.  And, also like Valerian, Jatamansi, or Indian Spikenard, is a relaxing sedative that can soothe and ease muscular tension, aches and pains when it is applied topically in the form of a medicated oil.

But perhaps the most eggregious case of misunderstanding and confused identity concerning herbs and foods in the Bible involves John the Baptist, and what he ate while he was praying, fasting and baptizing others in the desert wilderness by the Jordan river.  Most Christian preachers erroneously assume that he lived on a diet of locusts and wild honey.

But herbalists know better; what John the Baptist actually ate was Carob, or the fruit of the Honey Locust tree.  The pods of the Carob tree are commonly made into candies and chocolate substitutes which are sold in health food stores.

The botanical term Locust refers to all trees of the bean or Legume family that bear large pods.  And Carob, or Ceratonia siliqua, being the sweetest of these Locust trees, is called the Honey Locust.  Because it is what John the Baptist ate in the wilderness, Carob is also called Saint John’s Bread.  Carob is also a native or indigenous plant of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land.

If you’ve been accustomed to thinking of John the Baptist as eating a diet of locusts and wild honey, please consider the following arguments and evidence in favor of Carob:

There is a common food additive, an emulsifier called Locust Bean Gum.  These beans are not from insect locusts, but rather, are from the beans contained within the pods of certain Locust trees.

John the Baptist spent most of his time in the Jordan wilderness praying, fasting and baptizing others.  If he had really eaten a diet of locusts and wild honey, he would have had to spend all his time poking around in beehives, fending off angry bees, and chasing around after locusts; no time would have remained for his spiritual pursuits.

A diet of locusts and wild honey would have been an extremely unhealthy and unbalanced one, deficient in many essential nutrients.  The concentrated protein of locusts, combined with the concentrated sugars of honey, with both of them severely or totally deficient in dietary fiber, would lead to severe putrefaction in the gut, and a whole host of intestinal problems.

Carob, on the other hand, is a remarkably whole and complete food.  It is rich in calcium, protein, complex carbohydrates, riboflavin and dietary fiber.  The raw Carob pods are quite rough and fibrous, being the internal counterpart of the rough camel hair shirts that John the Baptist wore as part of his coarse, ascetic lifestyle.

In the Holy Land, Carob is used as both food and medicine by the Palestinians.  Mix powdered Carob with Sesame Tahini and you get a delicious Halvah.  Also, a syrup or molasses is distilled from Kharoub, or the Carob pod, that is an excellent bowel tonic for those suffering from chronic constipation; it also soothes the throat and clears the voice.