The joy to me of reading the Bible is looking deeper at the throw away lines. Those verses that give colour to a story and give insights to us three millennia later about life in Bible times. These verses have been included by the authors with considerable thought and care. They often have deliberate links to other verses in the Bible and provide a deeper meaning.
In this Parashah we are in week three of the Joseph story. Joseph’s starving brothers have come to see him, now an Egyptian Prince, and he has sent them back to bring his brother Benjamin to Egypt. Jacob, now called Israel, reluctantly agrees to let his youngest son travel. As the brothers prepare for their departure Jacob suggests that they take a gift to the Egyptian, yet to be revealed as Joseph.
“And Israel their father said to them “If it must be so, do this, take of the best yield of the land in your baggage and bring them to the man as tribute: some balm (tseot) and some honey (d’vash), gum (n’choth), ladanum (lote), pistachio nuts (botnim) and almonds (shaqedim).” Genesis 43:11
There is a symmetry here that Jacob, unknowingly, is making a peace offering to Joseph for being sold as a slave and dragged to Egypt with the same highly valued traded goods that were the baggage of the camels that accompanied him.
“And they [Joseph’s brothers]…. looked and behold a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing gum, balm and ladanum.” Genesis 37:25
Each of the gifts is expensive and, although the passage says they are from the land, they are probably from either Gilead, which is in Northern Jordan today, or beyond. In fact, the city of Aleppo was known for its pistachio nuts, but sadly it is the fierce fighting on its streets that has dominated recent news.
Let’s look more at Jacob’s gifts, starting with honey.
D’vash, is usually translated as “honey” but rarely means bees’ honey and more usually refers to the syrup of dates. The date palm, tamar, is mentioned throughout the Bible and yet the eating of dates is never described except as d’vash. In our verse Jacob says m’ot d’vash, a little honey, implying something very precious so this might be one of the few examples in the Bible where d’vash indeed refers to bees’ honey.
Another of Jacob’s gifts is Lote, translated either as Ladanum or Myrrh, which is more usually associated with the Hebrew word Mor. Lote could be the Rockrose a small shrub with beautiful big flowers that grows throughout the Middle East and yields a fragrant gum.
Balm was a high value resin used on embalming by the Egyptians it was also used for health remedies. Jeremiah links it to Gilead.
“Is there no balm in Gilead; Is there no physician there?” Jeremiah 8:22.
Gum or Mastic comes from the Mastic Tree which is still found on the Greek island of Schios but also found in Israel. The gum was “bled” from cuts in the bark and was used as a binder of incense, as a sealant and as chewing gum.
Almond trees are often celebrated in the Bible for their blossom and were used in the branches of the Temple Menorah and the story of Aaron’s staff. Rarely are almonds described as food like Jacob’s gift. Today they are eaten in the Middle East as either young green almonds or the brown nuts.
Whilst Jacob’s gift is the “best yield of the land”, remembering the famine and scarcity of food it seems more likely these are high value products from the wider region from today’s Jordan, Syria and possibly Greece. They hint at a much more global and multicultural world than the image of Jacob in his tent suggests.
Throughout the Bible trade is part of the fabric of society. Goods not available locally were brought from where they were produced. They had to be high value as the cost of transporting long distances by camel, barge or ship was expensive.
In the 5th Century BCE, Ezekiel (Chapter 27) wrote about the Phoenicians of Tyre. They were a great seafaring and trading culture.
“When your goods went forth from the seas, you satisfied many people; you enriched the kings of the earth with your abundant wealth and merchandise.” Ezekiel 27:33
Their wealth came from trade not just of agricultural goods but timber, metals, dyes, textiles, free people and slaves throughout the Mediterranean from the East to Tarshish in the West. Tarshish often refers to the region beyond the dangerous passage through the Straights of Gibraltar.
“Tarshish traded with you because of your great wealth of every kind: silver, iron, tin, and lead, they traded for your wares.” Ezekiel 27:12
Whilst many metals were abundant in the region, tin, needed for Bronze, was not. It is possible that the references to tin from Tarshish is a reference to Cornwall. So Britain could have been part of the Mediterranean trading zone way back in 500 BCE.
An important part of Global wealth has been underpinned by the stimulating benefit of free trade. Not just goods but people. Ezekiel refers to differences in national skills that were recognised and used throughout the region such as shipbuilders, ships pilots, sailors and soldiers.
In this Parashah we read about Jacob’s family who were the economic migrants of their day seeking food for their starving family. They came to Egypt because Joseph had an economic plan that could support both the local people and the wider region whilst the famine lasted. They stayed and, like many modern Jewish families, became an important part of Egyptian society, at least for several hundred years.
Finally, when we eat pistachio nuts let’s spare a thought, prayer and money for the people of Aleppo.
Alasdair Nisbet, former Chairman of the Leo Baeck College
A Dictionary of Bible Plants by Lytton John Musselman
Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Plants by F. Nigel Hepper