The Oldest Known Image of the Biblical Balsam Plant Discovered in Jerusalem

October 22, 2021 | Times of Israel
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According to the Talmud, balsam—a resin produced from the sap of a plant known as the biblical persimmon—was one of the ingredients of the incense used in the Temple rituals. The same substance, tsori in Hebrew, is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible, most famously in Jeremiah’s rhetorical “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Thus the discovery of an ancient seal bearing the oldest known image of the plant is of particular significance. The Times of Israel reports:

The 2,000-year-old amethyst seal, which was designed to be worn as a ring, has an engraving of a bird next to a branch of what appears to be the expensive biblical persimmon used to make the fragrance. The seal . . . was discovered at the foundation stones of the Western Wall. . . . According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the biblical persimmon plant is unrelated to the modern-day fruit.

The 1st-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote that Mark Antony gave Cleopatra valuable persimmon groves that formerly belonged to King Herod. Scholars believe that this was so she could have an unlimited supply of the expensive balm extracted from the plant [to use as perfume].

Researchers [from the Israel Antiquities Authority] said in a statement that the seal depicts a bird, probably a dove, and a thick branch with five fruits on it, which they believe to be the persimmon plant.

“This is an important find because it may be the first time a seal has been discovered in the entire world with an engraving of the precious and famous plant, which until now we could only read about in historical descriptions,” said Eli Shukron, who carried out the excavation where the seal was found.

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