The parable of the aloe and cedar trees (Numbers 24:5-7) was included in an oracle; it was spoken. This third oracle given by Balaam named two trees – the aloe and the cedar. In this entry the aloe is emphasized.
When the Moabites saw Moses and the Children of Israel approach their country, they were afraid the “horde’ was going to destroy the land, i.e., cut trees for firewood, consume pasture lands needed for their own livestock. Moab wanted to turn the Israelites away from their land. The problem was that Moab didn’t have an army to fight against the Israelites. Until recently, Moab was subject to the Amorites. Moab was only freed when the Israelites conquered of King Sihon and the Amorite army.
In an effort to combat the Israelites, the Moabite king, Balak, sent for the most the renowned seer/diviner in the known world—Balaam. King Balak planned for Balaam to curse the Israelites. In ancient times people believed that cursing a person or people could influence their outcome. God allowed Balaam to go with the Moabites; however, God warned Balaam that he could only speak the words God gave him.
Parable of Aloe Tree
What followed was Balaam offering five oracles, each of which blessed the Israelites. The one parable that included plants compared the Israelites to aloes and cedars planted by God in watered land:
How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the LORD, like cedars beside the waters. Water will flow from their buckets; their seed will have abundant water. Their king will be greater than Agag; their kingdom will be exalted.” — Numbers 24:5-7 NIV
Aloe Tree’s Interpretation
In contrast to the aloe of the New Testament which came from an herbaceous plant, Old Testament aloe came from a tree. The Old Testament aloe tree was the eaglewood tree (Aquilaria malaccensis also known Aquilaria agallocha). Likely, Old Testament traders brought its wood from India. Aquilaria species have adapted to live in different habitats, e.g. rock, limestone, sand, well-drained slopes and ridges, and land near swamps.
Aloe is made from agarwood of the eaglewood tree. Only about 10% of mature trees produce agarwood. The fragrant oleoresin that permeates the heartwood of some eaglewood trees is produced in response to a fungal infection. Once the fungus establishes itself on the tree, it turns the woody trunk into a deep brown color. The darker the heart wood, the more valuable the wood. Trees over 50 years old produce the best agarwood. Agarwood is harvested, cut into small pieces, and burned. The result is a distinct aroma described as being a cross between sandalwood and balsam. Linens packed with pieces of agarwood take on the smell of the agar in the same manner as linens packed in a cedar chest take on the smell of cedar.
Balaam heard traders’ descriptions of the majesty of the aloe-producing tree. Something in or about the Israelite encampment resonated with description Balaam heard of the uprightness of the tree. These Israelites came to adult hood as free men and women. They stood upright. They live in the dry, rugged Sinai. They were used to standing upright, looking off into the distance for the first sign of danger to their families or for signs of water and food.
Balaam was smart and knew his craft well. He knew the Israelite history. He knew how they left Egypt. He knew about their 40-year trek in the wilderness. Possibly Balaam compared the 50 years it took the eaglewood tree to produce mature agarwood (aloes) with the 40 years the Israelites wondered in the desert coalescing into a cohesive nation. Another comparison could be that just as only 10% of eaglewood becomes agarwood and sweet smelling aloes so too of all the peoples in the known world, God touched the Children of Israel for his own. This small nation was unique in being God’s chosen people.
Reflection: The spiritual interpretation of Balaam’s parable is: what God has declared blessed, man shouldn’t curse. The opposite is also true, what God has declared as sinful, damaged, and depraved, man can’t declare as valuable and good.
Copyright September 5, 2015; Carolyn A. Roth