“Is There No Balm in Gilead?”

Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?

why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

Jeremiah 8:22 (KJV)

The biblical prophet Jeremiah was bemoaning the spiritual sickness of the people of the Kingdom of Judah in the sixth century BCE.

He alluded to the fabled balm of Gilead, a balsamic medicinal ointment prized in the ancient world, produced in what is now northern Jordan. Balm was a metaphor for spiritual healing. Jeremiah is not here lambasting the balm distribution system, the drug supply chain. Balm had long been trafficked between the Levant and Egypt. In Genesis 43:11 Joseph’s father Israel (Jacob) supposedly sent a gift of it and other local specialties (pistachios, almonds, myrrh) to the Egyptian court. (That tale is surely a myth, but it does affirm the fact that this balm was widely traded and prized by around 1000 BCE.)

No—there WAS in fact plenty of balm in Gilead. That’s the whole point, actually. Stockpiles, perhaps, awaiting camel caravan pick-up. Balm is this leafy thing you need to process to market as a pharmaceutical. It takes time, it’s not that easy. Somebody has to do the work. But supply was not the problem for Jeremiah. He was treating spiritual matters.

A regime in Jerusalem (“the house of the king of Judah,” Jeremiah 21:11-23:8) had been charged by God (Yahweh) to “execute justice in the morning and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed” (Jer 21:12-14). But it was failing.

The Book of Jeremiah is an attack on idolatry, the worship of false gods as prohibited by the First Commandment. But it is also all about social justice and the obligation of kings to protect workers. Thus the prophet excoriates the kings of Judah, David’s heirs, for among other thing building palaces with forced labor: “Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work” (22: 13).

Jeremiah’s famous rhetorical question can be rephrased: “Is there no godliness, no justice, in Judah? Is there no prophet there to heal the people from their idolatry?” The “physician” here is the spiritual figure, the shaman, the medicine-man, the Yakushi buddha holding his vial of medicine, the “judge” of the Book of Judges. Jeremiah may have posed the question in an implicit bid to be accepted as the needed physician of his times. What is a prophet after all if not a physician of the soul?

Anyway, in the Christian tradition Jeremiah is revered as one of the scribes who prophesied about the Messiah, his predictions fulfilled by the life of Jesus Christ. (Virtually all such “prophesies” such as those pertaining to Jesus’s Davidic ancestry, the “massacre of the innocents,” and his function as sacrificial lamb are actually stretched, tendentious, and unconvincing; but let me not digress.)

Jeremiah’s anguished query has been interpreted as a desperate appeal for what the early Church called the “Divine Physician” to arrive. (The gospel of Luke may have been written by a physician. Of the gospel writers he most emphasizes Jesus as healer; see Luke 7:21.)

I suspect that most people in this country familiar with the Bible passage were exposed to it not through Bible reading but through the Negro spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” composed in the 1850s. It is the voice of the African-American during the slave times answering Jeremiah’s question in the affirmative, and declaring faith in the Risen Christ. Mahalia Jackson, Jessye Norman, Paul Robeson have all left moving versions.

There is a balm

In Gilead

To make the wounded whole

There is a balm

In Gilead

To save a sin-sick soul

If you

Cannot preach

Like Peter

If you cannot preach like Paul

Oh, you can tell

The love of Jesus

You can say

He died for us all

The hymn actually makes no reference to the biblical historical context of Judah under Babylonian pressure and governed by corrupt kings and priests. It is merely an implicit response to Jeremiah’s lamentation with the affirmation that—since Jesus came, washing away our sins in the blood of the lamb—yes, medicine is there, for those willing to take it.

So for a limited some this resolves the Jeremiah problem.

Not that the Judaean prophet would ever have imagined that Yahweh would have a son or that his reference to the slaughtered lamb (Jer 11:19) would have anything to do with a Roman crucifixion many centuries later. The Christian believes that Jeremiah was inspired by God to foretell the coming of the Savior, whose life and suffering heal those who believe. “By his stripes are we healed” (Isaiah 53:3), etc. Those who believe can apply the balm to their own stripes and fix their spiritual problems thereby. (Good luck with that.)

Still there remains the problem: with all the balm of Gilead on hand, bazaars stacked with face-masks and respirators, offering drugs and snake-oils, and caravans in the desert butting heads over market control, why is the health of the people not recovered? Why do the daily statistics look so ominous? Why is this plague taking so long to peak? Why is the balm so selectively distributed? Why is quality control so lax? Why are the unrighteous forcing people to work?

Jeremiah is celebrated as a prophet who “spoke truth to power.” Cornell West sees this prophetic tradition as the essence of the African-American church, the source of its moral authority. It is unfortunate that a source of great spiritual inspiration is also rooted in myth; and that literalist interpretations of the Bible can produce ridiculous and dangerous views. Like the view that going back to church real soon is a good idea.

To speak truth to power, prophetically, now is to say:

· Lo! There is going to be a protracted health crisis, millions will die of this disease in the next few years!

· There will be false openings and re-openings, expensive new shutdowns, political recriminations, accusations of incompetence, amorality, fascism.

· There will be the worst economic crisis in the history of the world; it is indeed upon us. Capitalism cannot cope with the contradictions that become starker each day.

· There will be more ridiculous, rigged elections, the U.S. charade foremost among them. Wars and rumors of wars, and crazed people finding in any possible development sure proof of Biblical prophecy and Jesus’ imminent return.

There is still balm in Gilead, that area between the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea in that part of the Kingdom of Jordan where “Canada Balsam” is a major investor. But India has long taken over the market. And the balm’s not that useful, actually. The Balm of Gilead (like the Pie in the Sky) is just a metaphor for spiritual healing that couldn’t be realized in the Judah of King Josiah and can’t be in the USA of Donald Trump.

In this situation, science must supplant religious ignorance and obfuscation. Belief in a God who sends plagues to punish (2 Sam 24; 1 Chron 21 etc.) is not helpful.

More helpful is a reflection on Marx’s observation in 1843 that:

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

(In other words the Balm of Gilead.)

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

The real material balm versus the offered spiritual balm. Trump offers the death-balm to the anxious returning workers, sedating them for their fate. The aerosol-vaporizing Democrats offer their own balm of myth.

But why are the people not recovered? asks the prophet. The simple answer across space and time is here, by Three Dog Night, 1967:

Jeremiah was a bullfrog
Was a good friend of mine
I never understood a single word he said
But I helped him a-drink his wine
And he always had some mighty fine wine. 


(Note 1: Three Dog Night is best known for its interpretation of “How Can People Be So Heartless/Easy to Be Hard” from the rock musical “Hair” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIffz-72B8Y; Note 2: the ancient Judaeans did not realize that Jeremiah was a bullfrog.)

Here is the prophetic part, delivered by Danny Hutton:

And if I were the king of the world
Tell you what I’d do
I’d throw away the cars and the bars and the war
Make sweet love to you

Singin’ joy to the world
All the boys and girls now
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me

This prophecy might well be fulfilled, with bullfrogs inheriting the earth as the ashes of humans and others dying, both from the lack of balm and the dominance of delusions, flush out into that deep blue opiated sea.

On the other land the lamb may lay down with the wolf, etc. as we find predicted in Isaiah, and swords beat into plowshares, and world peace established under Trump or Biden. To all ye of little faith (Matthew 8:26), what can I say, except that you should never have had faith to begin with? There cannot be justice and peace “under the hands of the oppressor” as Jeremiah put it. There is bogus balm in fairy-tale Gilead, and real balm in the palm of science.

In the Buddhist iconographic tradition Bhaiṣajyaguru holds his medicine vial there in his palm, suspended in some mythic universe, helping out with the vision of a future in which all sentient beings are well. In the meantime, a plague of “biblical proportions” exploited by robbing oppressors proceeds apace with absolutely no redemption in sight, other than the prospect of creative new forms of bolshevik uprisings and people’s wars against modern sickness itself.

We need jeremiads in such times—explosions of moral outrage. But we need science too, and when biblical religion and rational science are incompatible, we should smite the opponents of human life with all the ferocity of the fictional Old Testament god.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu