Notes Tragacanth Milkvetch

And their father Israel said unto them, If it must be so now, do this; take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds.

Genesis 43:11 (KJV)

Then their father Israel said to them, "If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man a present, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds.

Genesis 43:11 (RSV)

So Israel, their father, said to them, "If then, that is the case, do this: Take the finest products of the land and carry them down to the man as a gift, a little balsam, and a little honey, labdanum, and resinous bark, pistachio nuts, and almonds.

Genesis 43:11 (NWT)

Working with the RSV, the only version of the three to mention gum, clearly differing botanically from the KJV and NWT above, Zohary concludes that the word nekhoth, mentioned only twice in the Hebrew Bible, should be translated tragacanth. The KJV seems to have substituted spices, the NWT labdanum, for the gum in the RSV. As a mediocre botanist, not a historian or biblical scholar, I do not know which, if any, version is correct. Further complicating life, the AH2 specifies that the Standardized Common Name of the dried gummy exudate of the stems of A. gummifer is gum tragacanth. Zohary notes that the genus Astragalus has about 1800 species, "many of them producing the tragacanth gum." (ZOH) Zohary says tragacanth is "a dried gum exuded from certain spiny and shrubby species of Astragalus occurring in several countries of the Middle East, including Israel" (ZOH). Zohary lists 50 species of Astragalus, but not A. gummifer, in the Flora of Palestine (FP2). It is difficult for trained taxonomists who have devoted their lives to the study of legumes to identify flowering and fruiting specimens of the shrub; who, then, can identify the "gum," perhaps mentioned in Genesis? It could have been the gum of many species of Astragalus, perhaps even admixtures of gum from several species or even other gum- or resin-bearing shrubs. Before his death, Howard Scott Gentry, who himself had studied tragacanth in the Middle East, tried to interest me in just such a study. There was much anticancer interest in the various species of Astragalus. I declined, frightened by the taxonomic complexity. I fear no one man in his lifetime could resolve the taxonomic difficulties of this complex but useful genus. Hungry early man doubtless used traga-canth as a survival food, after seeing that ants, goats, and sheep relish the sweeter gums. Tragacanth gum is one of the oldest natural emulsifiers known to man, extensively used in vaginal jellies and creams, low-calorie syrups, toothpastes, and hand lotions. The gum is used in such foods as salad dressings, sauces, ice creams, confections, syrups, milk powder stabilizers, citrus oil emulsions, and cheeses. Together with guar, tragacanth may make the cheaper ice creams healthier, substituting soluble cholesterol-free polysaccharides for the unhealthy cream. Some of these polysaccharides are active against ascites tumor types in mice. Among the species taxonomically confused with or called tragacanth, or some derivative thereof, Hartwell notes "folk-cancer" remedies for chronic indurations of the liver (including, probably, cirrhosis), nasal polyps, non-ulcerated cancers, superfluous flesh, and tumors of the eyes, fauces, and liver. It was once used to stiffen calico, crape, etc. Need for fuelwood in poor desert areas may jeopardize many natural stands of this shrub (e.g., in Iran, source of the best tragacanth, where it is largely used in medicine and confectionary) (BIB).

Common Names (Tragacanth Milkvetch):

Adragante (Fr.; EFS); Alquitira (Sp.; USN); Angira (India; EFS); Astragale a Gomme (Fr.; USN); Besem (Heb.; BI2); Dragante (It.; EFS); Goat-Thorn Bush (Eng.; AH2); Gomme Adragante (It.; EFS); Gum (Eng.; BIB); Gum Tragacanth (Eng.; Scn.; AH2; USN); Gummitragant (Ger.; USN); Katad (Arab.; Syria; HJP); Kathira Bayda (Arab.; Syria; HJP); Kitre Givenne (Tur.; EFS); Nakaa (Arab.; ZOH); Nakaath (Arab.; ZOH); Nekhoth (Heb.; ZOH); Tragacanth (Eng.; FAC); Tragacanth Milkvetch (Eng.; AH2); Tragacanthstruik (Dutch; EFS); Tragacanto (Sp.; USN); Tragant (Den.; Ger.; USN); Traganthstrauch (Ger.; EFS).

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