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Righteousness Into Hemlock

In Bible History, the Hebrew word (pronounced) law-ah-naw generally meant poisonous, or to poison, hence also in the figurative sense, accursed. It is used to refer to the very bitter plant (or one closely related to it) now classified by botanists as Artemisia absinthium (shown in the illustration) - the chief flavoring ingredient of the liqueur known as absinthe, before the original liqueur by that name was banned in a number of countries in the early 20th century because it was judged hazardous to health i.e. hallucinogenic.

Coincidentally, other unrelated-to-absinthe beverages of that era were also banned, or eventually had their ingredients changed, because of suspected psychoactive effects e.g. Coca-Cola, the 1886 originally marketed as a "tonic" invention of Dr. John Pemberton, a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia, got its famous product name from the two active ingredients of its original formula - coca leaves (i.e. cocaine) and kola nuts (for caffeine), but from 1929 the popular "soft" drink was sold entirely free of the cocaine, if not the caffeine.

The King James Version translates the actual Hebrew word law-ah-naw once as "hemlock," but all other times as "wormwood." References to wormwood in the Holy Bible are almost always metaphorical e.g. "her end is bitter as wormwood" (see below).

"for ye have turned judgment into gall and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock"

The King James Version once translates the original Hebrew word as "hemlock" but all other times as "wormwood." Most other translations use "wormwood" where the King James once uses "hemlock" as shown here for Amos 6:12 comparing the KJV with the RSV.


"For, behold, The Lord commandeth, and he will smite the great house with breaches, and the little house with clefts. Shall horses run upon the rock? will one plow there with oxen? for ye have turned judgment into gall, and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock" (Amos 6:11-12 KJV)

"For behold, The Lord commands, and the great house shall be smitten into fragments, and the little house into bits. Do horses run upon rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood" (Amos 6:11-12 RSV)

The Lord warned the Israelites that the idolatrous people around, and among, them would be a "root that beareth gall and wormwood":

"And ye have seen their abominations, and their idols, wood and stone [see also What Would Mary Really Say About Idolatry?], silver and gold, which were among them: Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from The Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood" (Deuteronomy 29:17-18 KJV)

Fornication and adultery are "bitter as wormwood, sharp as a twoedged sword":

"For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a twoedged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell." (Proverbs 5:3-5 KJV)

For those who forsake Him, The Lord "will feed them, even this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink":

"And The Lord saith, Because they have forsaken My Law which I set before them, and have not obeyed My Voice, neither walked therein; But have walked after the imagination of their own heart, and after Baalim, which their fathers taught them: Therefore thus saith The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will feed them, even this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink. I will scatter them also among the heathen, whom neither they nor their fathers have known: and I will send a sword after them, till I have consumed them" (Jeremiah 9:13-16 KJV)

In the New Testament, the Greek word translated as "wormwood" is pronounced ap-sin-thos which is most likely the origin of the English word absinthe. As with the Hebrew usage however, the New Testament use is also, at least partly, metaphorical - although the comet or asteroid strike described in Revelation will cause "bitterness":

"And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter." (Revelation 8:10-11 KJV)

Fact Finder: What bitter / sour liquid was also known to the ancient Israelites?
See Vinegar

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