Word Wednesday: Balm in Gilead

CoinedbyGod-MallessFor our “Word Wednesday” feature today, we consider another entry in one of my new favorite word books – Coined by God: Words and Phrases That First Appear in the English Translations of the Biblethe combined work of Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain (W.W. Norton, 2003).

Our selection today is the expression “balm in Gilead, about which Malless and McQuain write:

Balm in Gilead – healing ointment; cure-all

‘Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?’ the Lord asks rhetorically in the King James Version of Jeremiah 8:22. ‘Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?’

The answer, of course, is that Gilead was already long known for its balm. This healing product is mentioned as early as the Old Testament story of Joseph’s coat of many colors…, when a company of traders arrives ‘from Gilead bearing spicery and balm’ (Genesis 37:25). In fact, some versions of the Bible have become famous just for the way they chose to translate this phrase. A 1568 version was known as the Treacle Bible for asking, ‘Is there no tryacle in Gilead?’ In 1609, another translation used ‘rosin,’ making that version the Rosin Bible. More recent versions have substituted the word ‘medicine.’ However, the King James Version was the first to introduce the phrase into the written language. (Wycliffe chose ‘gomme’ and ‘resyn,’ Coverdale introduced ‘balm,’ but the King James  translators changed the preposition from ‘Balm at Gilead’ to balm in Gilead.

From Jerome’s Latin noun balsamum (‘balsum’), which translates the Hebrew basam, this curative has been described as a fragrant golden gum, probably from a small evergreen tree (commiphora opobalsamum) cultivated to help in healing wounds or soothing pain. When healing did not occur, however, balm was also the term for perfume used to help enbalm the dead.

…The phrase has been known for its use in a folk hymn (‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole/ There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul’)… (pp.17-18)

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