A balm is an aromatic, medicinal substance derived from plants. Gilead was an area east of the Jordan River, well known for its spices and ointments. The "balm of Gilead" was, therefore, a high-quality ointment with healing properties. The balm was made from resin taken from a flowering plant in the Middle East, although the exact species is unknown. It was also called the “balsam of Mecca.” Myrrh is taken from a similar plant—Commiphora myrrha. The Bible uses the term “balm of Gilead” metaphorically as an example of something with healing or soothing powers.
"Balm of Gilead" has three references in the Bible. In Genesis 37:25, as Joseph’s brothers contemplated how to kill him, a caravan of Ishmaelites passed by on their way to Egypt from Gilead. In their cargo were “spices, balm, and myrrh.” Jeremiah 8 records God’s warning to Judah of what Babylon would do to them. Upon hearing the news, Jeremiah laments, "Is there no balm in Gilead?" (verse 22). His question is a poetic search for hope—a plea for healing. Then, in Jeremiah 46:11, as God describes an impending judgment on Egypt, He taunts them: "Go up to Gilead and obtain balm, O virgin daughter of Egypt! In vain have you multiplied remedies; there is no healing for you!"
These scriptural references to the balm of Gilead have inspired many literary and cultural allusions, including references in “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe and movies such as The Spitfire Grill. Notably, "There Is a Balm in Gilead" is an African-American spiritual that compares the healing balm to the saving power of Jesus—the one true treatment that never fails to heal our spiritual wounds.