Seed, Spade and Sword: The Bible In Context

Helping to illuminate biblical context and background

Aloe arborescens var. natalensis, Xanthorrhoeaceae. M.S. del., J.N.Fitch lith. - Curtis's Botanical Magazine, London., vol. 142. Public domain.

"Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the LORD, like cedars beside the waters.

Numbers 24: 6

I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.

Proverbs 7:17

All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; from palaces adorned with ivory the music of the strings makes you glad.

Psalm 45: 8

He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.

John 19: 39

True Aloe - Aloe vera

These are the four verses from scripture that name a plant ascribed to aloe.  The verse from Numbers offers no clue to the plant’s identity. Psalms and Proverbs offer the clues of fragrance and perfume, the report from John references the burial custom of the Jews then common at the time – one they probably got from their time in Egypt. 

So what have we here?

Aloe flowers in Candelabra (photo E. Lee Bez)

If you have an Aloe in a pot at home, as many do, you know that aloe has no appreciable aroma.

However, we know that as early as 4,000 BCE aloe gel was used for the making of perfumes, so these two references  could point  to the true aloe; however, naming aloe in verses that also names myrrh and cinnamon reminds us that at the times these verses were composed, the cities of the Levant were even then beneficiaries of an international land and seaborne trade that reached all the way to the spice islands – the home of cinnamon and an aromatic tree whose wood is used in the making of incense. I accept the judgment of others that the plant referenced in Psalms and Proverbs is that tree. We call it Agar-wood, but it was also once known as lignum aloes – aloe-wood[i]. It is this mis-naming that was probably conveyed into early vernacular translation: an error which has persisted to this day.

I write here about the plant that Nicodemus used to wrap the crucified Jesus:  the true aloe – that spiky, fleshy succulent we have been using and extolling for at least 6,000 years: Aloe barbadensis miller. The real aloe (also called the desert lily) is robust and drought resistant and can do without rain for many months. . She has been called the "queen of herbs". Her healing properties have been used and revered since Egypt ruled the Levant. For cosmetic purposes, the gel that stems from the leaf spots is used. It has proved to alleviate itching and has cooling and anti-inflammatory powers. This is presumably due to the active ingredient acemannan: one of aloe’s many active ingredients. This carbohydrate is from the group of mucopolysaccharides and is produced by the plant body upon the onset of puberty. It is effective against viruses, bacteria and fungi. It also strengthens the immune system and has anti-allergenic properties.

The name "Aloe" comes from the Arabic "alloeh" (shiny) and the Hebrew "halal" (bitter) terms referring to the shiny leaf surface and the taste of the juice. Aloe is a genus of the family Asphodeloideae (Asphodelaceae). The genus includes about 400 plant species. It is also regarded as the 'Queen of Healing Herbs'

Aloe is an ‘Old World’ plant, probably of African origin.  “The natural range of A. vera is unclear, as the species has been widely cultivated throughout the world. Naturalized stands of the species occur in the southern half of the Arabian Peninsula, through North Africa (Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt), as well as Sudan and neighboring countries, along with the Canary, Cape Verde, and Madeira Islands. This distribution is somewhat similar to the one of Euphorbia balsamifera, Pistacia atlantica, and a few others, suggesting that a dry sclerophyl (dry leaf)  forest once covered large areas, but has been dramatically reduced due to desertification in the Sahara, leaving these few patches isolated. Aloe’s aversion to direct sunlight and short stature all tell of it occupying the forest floor.  Several closely related (or sometimes identical) species can be found on the two extreme sides of the Sahara: dragon trees (Dracaena) and Aeonium being two of the most representative examples. This is an ancient plant.

I dismiss Mayan references to aloe as references to agave, a plant that closely resembles Aloe and with Aloe now shares the same Order (Asperagales – asparagus like – It was once accounted as a member of an order of the lily family.)

The first record of the aloe plant was made about 6,000 years ago in Egypt. It was considered a plant whose 'blood' gives beauty, health and immortality. Nefertiti valued the soothing juice and used it for daily skin and beauty care as did Cleopatra, much, much later. In Asian countries Aloe was at that time already an integral part of medical treatments. It is said that Aristotle persuaded Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC)  to conquer the island of Socotra and take possession of the aloe plantations there in order to  have sufficient medicines and remedies  available for the wounded warriors his battles would bring.

As we have seen, above, the New Testament reports that Jesus' body was embalmed with a mixture of myrrh and aloes This would have been during the reign of Emperor Caesar Augustus , circa 50CE. The Greek physician Dioscorides described the aloe in his Materia Medica as one of the preferred medicinal plants of the ‘east’.  He recommended the use of Aloe vera juice in numerous complaints: the treatment of wounds in stomach and intestinal problems, gum disease, joint pain, itching, sunburn, acne, hair loss, ulcers (above all in the genitals), etc.

In the early Middle Ages Hildegard of Bingen described aloe as a remedy for jaundice, stomach diseases and festering sores. Christopher Columbus brought aloe with him on his ships in pots to treat the ailments of his sailors with its juices. He called it the “doctor in a pot.” Magellan copied him; that one of his crews made it all the way around the planet may be ascribed to this plant.

In the 16th century Spanish Jesuit monks – today known as the best trained herbalists and healers of their place and time – gathered aloe  from the wild, learned its cultivation and disseminated it wherever they went even to places where it could not grow outdoors and to the ‘New world'. Jesuit planted Aloe would flourish in California and Mexico.

“The species was introduced to China and various parts of southern Europe in the 17th century. The species is widely naturalized elsewhere, occurring in temperate and tropical regions of Australia, Barbados, Belize, Curacao, Nigeria, Paraguay, Mexico and the US states of Florida, Arizona and Texas. The actual species' distribution has been suggested to be the result of human cultivation.” (per Wiki)

I dismiss Mayan references to aloe as references to agave, a plant that closely resembles Aloe and with Aloe now shares the same Order (Asperagales – asparagus like. Aloe had been accounted as a member of an order of the lily family.)

We have now heard from Testament and Torah concerning Aloe, but I have learned that no tract about a biblical plant is complete without a word or two from the Talmud.  The Babylonian Talmud [ii] reports medicinal recipes using aloe and a face washing compound called Barda that one may use on the Sabbath: “ [per] R. Shesheth [use]  Barda," to wash the face. What is Barda? Said R. Joseph:  [Barda is] a powder of one-third aloe, one- third myrrh, and one-third violet. R. Nehemiah bar Joseph also permits Barda, provided it does not contain more than a third part of aloe.”  Strong wine mixed with aloe is named as the cure for abscesses in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 67b).  

If for some obscure reason, you suddenly find modern pharmaceuticals too expensive for treating internal parasites (worms), here is a suppository mixture for that: “For anal worms he should take acacia and aloe juice and white-lead and silver dross and an amulet-full of phyllon [phylanthera] and the excrement of doves and tie it all up in linen rags in the summer or in cotton rags in the winter.” (Gittin 69b) 

Our grandmothers knew Aloe vera as the first aid plant par excellence.  She used its gel pure – straight from the leaf. She got that by cutting bit from an older, outer leaf and apply the fresh flowing sap directly to the burn or wound.  With the ubiquity of refrigeration, we can now recommend cutting a large outer stem, sealing it into a plastic bag and storing it in your freezer.   For burns and cuts, take the leaf t from the freezer and bag and rub the cut end on the wound as if it were a deodorant stick.  Cut the leaf down (toward the tip) as its gel is used up.[i]  Any leaf you cut should be as outermost and large as your plant offers .

Various solutions or tinctures are used externally as an ointment or cream. The anti-inflammatory and disinfectant (antiseptic) effect is particularly remarkable.  Aloe is used internally in the form of drops or tablets. Here, it is the laxative and purgative effects that the user seeks. In Europe, the Aloe vera is mainly known for skin care, wound healing and moisturizing agents in cosmetic products.  An Aloe juice has been available in European markets since the mid-90s.

Because of its many important ingredients (among them minerals, trace elements & vitamins) aloe juice as a dietary supplement has a particularly invigorating and rejuvenating effect. Unfortunately, due to industrial processing with its associated heat treatments and various filtering processes, many of the commercially available products are virtually ineffective. Exceptions are products that are subject to strict quality control, for example the Institute Fresenius, the International Aloe Science Council Inc., and any Kosher Rating group.

Aloe is excellent for treating the following:

  •  atopic dermatitis,
  •  eczema,
  •  acne, abscesses,
  •  poorly healing wounds,
  •  canker sores
  •  burns (sunburn – first degree burns)
  • constipation (short term only )
  • Athlete's foot
  • herpes
  • bruising (bruises)
  • dandruff, hair loss

It is important to note that  only the sap of the mature plant (four years old) affords Aloe’s healing power.

It is easy to propagate Aloe. Healthy plants will generate ‘pups’ (offsets). You can get a new plant from each pup. To do this you will need either a store-bought or home-made cactus soil mix. Make your own using four parts compost or potting soil, five parts perlite and one part coarse sand. (You can use this mixture for any cactus or succulent.) Add some rock dust for minerals. The mix should feel dry.

Have new pots ready: one larger that the mom’s home pot for her new home and one for each pup. You can reuse the soil that had hosted the mom, too.

All ready? Remove the mom and her pups from their pot. Separate the pups from mama. Fill all pots with your potting mix to ½ inch of the top.  Lightly spray water on the soil top of each pot. Make a hole for mama in her new pot and put her in. Do the same for each pup – one pup per pot. Leave the soil loose and cover with small stones.

Done!  Now you have added more ‘aloage’ to your herb farm and made plenty gifts for friends and family.  Teach them how to harvest and use the rich gel that is aloe’s gift to us.

So there you have it: Aloe and the four verses that sing of it. That two of these verses sing of another plant entirely and that the third tells us little about the plant, is why we do not use scripture as a science text.

However, the phrase from Numbers – like Aloes planted by the Lord – teaches us the most precious truth about Aloe, the world and us.

We and all there is, is creation.

There is a Creator; the Greatest Gardener of all – our ever loving Lord God.

Amen

===================================

A few more Aloe care tips:

  • Never ever pour cold water onto the leaves of an aloe.
  • Do not expose aloe to direct sunlight  without acclimating the plant over two weeks to ever increasing sunlight
  • So not expose unprotected aloe to temperature lower than 40F (5C)


[i] Find more on harvesting Aloe gel here: http://www.aloeplant.info/harvest-fresh-aloe-gel/



[i] Agarwood is actually a resinous core of the Aloe tree. Agar is a product from within the Aloe tree itself. Agar is produced by a bacterial infection. (elb)

[ii] Several Edition available free online courtesy of Google eBooks at: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=8-WfAAAAMAAJ&rdi...

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Tags: Aloe_vera, ancient_healing, healing_herbs, materia_medica

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