Monday, May 17, 2021

Anonymous Asks (145)

“Can the balm of Gilead heal?”

Well, there’s an obscure question for you!

I suppose first we should probably ask what the balm of Gilead is. I don’t imagine most people, even some regular readers of scripture, have the slightest idea.

Genesis 37 makes reference to a “caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead” and bound for Egypt. These men were merchants and traders, and one of the goods they had for sale was balm, salve in the form of wax or resin to be applied topically. They acquired this balm east of the Jordan River in Gilead, later part of Israel. Genesius’ Lexicon says this medicine was secreted by a plant known to grow only in that region, though the actual species is today a matter of dispute among scholars. The plant was extremely rare, its medicine believed to be very effective, and was highly valued and sought after. Once Israel conquered Canaan under Joshua and populated the Transjordan highlands, they effectively cornered the world market on Gilead’s balm.

So then, over a period of at least a thousand years, first Gilead, then later all Israel, maintained a reputation as the place where you could obtain the cure for what ails you. Could the balm of Gilead heal physical illness? I guess it depends what sort of malady you were suffering from. The ancients certainly believed it could, and the expression later became a metaphor for a sort of universal curative.

More importantly, I suppose, we should ask about the balm’s spiritual significance. There are two references in Jeremiah to the balm of Gilead worth examining.

Jeremiah 8:22

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?”

These are the final few lines of Jeremiah’s lament for the nation of Judah, after two chapters in which the Lord declaims against the evils of its society: theft, murder, adultery, oppression of the poor, oath-breaking, idolatry, all the while maintaining a veneer of religious observance. He points God’s people to the example of the breakaway nation of Israel (home of the balm of Gilead), sent into Assyrian captivity and dispersed throughout the nations because of the very same evils. Once Jeremiah has finished with his message from the Lord, he takes a moment to grieve for Zion, his home: “My joy is gone; grief is upon me,” he begins, and he finishes with the balm in Gilead. He compares the spiritual evil of Judah to a sickness and a wound in desperate need of healing.

So then, the sense of these last words seems to be something like ironic despair: Cannot the people known throughout the nations for their healing balm heal themselves? How is it that the famous healers are no longer able to heal? These are the people who had been entrusted not just with earthly medicine to treat physical ills, but with the very words of Almighty God, capable of curing every spiritual disease or injury, but sadly neglected by the nation which needed them most.

Jeremiah 46:11

Go up to Gilead, and take balm, O virgin daughter of Egypt! In vain you have used many medicines; there is no healing for you.”

In the final days of Judah’s existence as a nation, before Nebuchadnezzar besieged and destroyed Jerusalem and transplanted the people of Judah throughout his kingdom, there was intense political tension between the great powers of Egypt and Babylon culminating in 605 B.C. at the Battle of Carchemish, which is near the border between the modern nations of Turkey and Syria. The Egyptian army was far from home and would be soundly defeated. Prior to this decisive moment, Jeremiah addresses the nation of Egypt in chapter 46 and warns Pharaoh Neco of God’s coming judgment against the Egyptians.

Again, Jeremiah is comparing Egypt’s spiritual condition to a sickness. In this case, Egypt’s problem is pride. Like Satan, Pharaoh has said in his heart, “I will rise.” His arrogance and blindness will lead his people into destruction. In this context, Jeremiah counsels, “Go up to Gilead, and take balm.” The irony, of course, is that if Gilead couldn’t help Gilead, how could it possibly help Egypt?

The sense in this case is that all remedies are futile. There is no hope for Egypt.

Here Endeth the Lesson

What is the lesson of the balm of Gilead? Perhaps it is that spiritual problems cannot be remedied through human effort. Our natural instincts are to look first to ourselves and to others for solutions to our problems, rather than to the word of God. It didn’t work for Judah, it didn’t work for Egypt, and it won’t work for you and me.

Spiritual problems need spiritual solutions. The only real balm of Gilead is Christ.

No comments :

Post a Comment