Is Wormwood in the Bible?

Wormwood is a bitter plant symbolizing bitterness and grief

Illustration of Wormwood Star from Revelation 8
Illustration from Revelation 8. Angels of the Lord throw destruction on the Earth, including the star Wormwood which poisons the waters.

Historical Picture Archive / Contributor / Getty Images

Wormwood is a non-poisonous plant that grows commonly in the Middle East. Because of its strong bitter taste, wormwood in the Bible is an analogy for bitterness, punishment, and sorrow. Although wormwood itself is not poisonous, its extremely unpalatable taste evokes death and grief.

Wormwood in the Bible

  • Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible defines wormwood as “any of several species of a shrublike plant of the genus Artemisia, known for its bitter taste.”
  • Bible references to wormwood are metaphors for bitterness, death, injustice, sorrow, and warnings of judgment.
  • Like a bitter pill to swallow, wormwood is also used in the Bible to symbolize God’s punishment for sin.
  • Although wormwood is not deadly, it is often associated with a Hebrew word translated as “gall,” a poisonous and equally bitter plant.

White Wormwood

Wormwood plants belong to the genus Artemisia, named after the Greek goddess Artemis. While several wormwood varieties exist in the Middle East, white wormwood (Artemisia herba-alba) is the most likely type mentioned in the Bible.

This small, heavily branched shrub has grayish-white, wooly leaves and grows plentifully in Israel and surrounding areas, even in dry and barren regions. Artemisia judaica and Artemisia absinthium are two other potential varieties of wormwood referred to in the Bible.

Goats and camels feed on the wormwood plant, which is well-known for its intensely bitter taste. The nomadic Bedouins make a robust aromatic tea from the dried leaves of the wormwood plant.

Tea of Wormwood
Tea of Wormwood.

Rezkrr / Getty Images

The common name “wormwood” most likely derives from a Middle Eastern folk remedy used to treat intestinal worms. This herbal medicine contains wormwood as an ingredient. According to WebMD, the medicinal benefits of wormwood include, but are not limited to, the treatment of “various digestion problems such as loss of appetite, upset stomach, gall bladder disease, and intestinal spasms … to treat fever, liver disease, depression, muscle pain, memory loss … to increase sexual desire … to stimulate sweating … for Crohn’s disease and a kidney disorder called IgA nephropathy.”

One species of wormwood, absinthium, comes from the Greek word apsinthion, meaning “undrinkable.” In France, the highly potent spirit absinthe is distilled from wormwood. Vermouth, a wine beverage, is flavored with extracts of wormwood.

Wormwood in the Old Testament 

Wormwood appears eight times in the Old Testament and is always used figuratively.

In Deuteronomy 29:18, the bitter fruit of idolatry or turning away from the Lord is called wormwood:

Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit [wormwood in NKJV] (ESV).

The minor prophet Amos portrayed wormwood as perverted justice and righteousness:

O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth! (Amos 5:7, ESV)
But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood— (Amos 6:12, ESV)

In Jeremiah, God “feeds” his people and the prophets wormwood as judgment and punishment for sin:

Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.” (Jeremiah 9:15, NKJV)
Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts concerning the prophets: “Behold, I will feed them with wormwood, and make them drink the water of gall; For from the prophets of Jerusalem profaneness has gone out into all the land.” (Jeremiah 23:15, NKJV)

The writer of Lamentations equates his distress over the destruction of Jerusalem to being made to drink wormwood:

He has filled me with bitterness, he has made me drink wormwood. (Lamentations 3:15, NKJV).
Remember my affliction and roaming, the wormwood and the gall. (Lamentations 3:19, NKJV).

In Proverbs, an immoral woman (one who deceptively lures into illicit sexual relations) is described as bitter wormwood:

For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey,And her mouth is smoother than oil;But in the end she is bitter as wormwood,Sharp as a two-edged sword. (Proverbs 5:3–4, NKJV)

Wormwood in the Book of Revelation

The only place wormwood appears in the New Testament is in the book of Revelation. The passage describes the impact of one of the trumpet judgments:

Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the water, because it was made bitter. (Revelation 8:10–11, NKJV)

A blistering star named Wormwood falls from the heavens bringing destruction and judgment. The star turns a third of the earth’s waters bitter and poisonous, killing many people.

Bible commentator Matthew Henry speculates on what or whom this “great star” may represent:

“Some take this to be a political star, some eminent governor, and they apply it to Augustulus, who was forced to resign the empire to Odoacer, in the year 480. Others take it to be an ecclesiastical star, some eminent person in the church, compared to a burning lamp, and they fix it upon Pelagius, who proved about this time a falling star, and greatly corrupted the churches of Christ.”

While many have endeavored to interpret this third trumpet judgment symbolically, perhaps the best explanation to consider is that it is a genuine comet, meteor, or falling star. The image of a star falling from heaven to pollute the earth’s waters reveals that this event, regardless of its actual nature, represents some form of divine punishment coming from God.

In the Old Testament, trouble and judgment from God are often foretold by the symbol of a darkened or falling star:

When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. (Ezekiel 32:7, NIV)
Before them the earth shakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. (Joel 2:10, NIV)

In Matthew 24:29, the coming tribulation includes “the stars falling from heaven.” A falling star labeled with the notoriously bad reputation of wormwood would undoubtedly represent calamity and destruction of catastrophic proportions. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the dreadful impact on animal and plant life if a third of the world’s drinkable waters are suddenly gone.

Wormwood in Other Traditions

Besides having many folk medicinal uses, wormwood leaves are dried and used in folk and pagan magic rituals. The presumed magical powers associated with wormwood are understood to come from the herb’s association with the moon goddess Artemis.

Practitioners wear wormwood to strengthen their psychic abilities. Combined with mugwort and burned as incense, wormwood is believed to help call up spirits and in “uncrossing rituals” to break hexes or curses. Wormwood’s most potent magical energy is said to be in spells of purification and protection.

Sources

  • Wormwood. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (p. 1389).
  • Wormwood. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 4, p. 1117).
  • Wormwood. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 6, p. 973).
  • Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). Revelation (p. 234).
  • Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature.
  • Revelation. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 952).
  • Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. (p. 2474).
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Fairchild, Mary. "Is Wormwood in the Bible?" Learn Religions, Jul. 26, 2021, learnreligions.com/wormwood-in-the-bible-5191119. Fairchild, Mary. (2021, July 26). Is Wormwood in the Bible? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/wormwood-in-the-bible-5191119 Fairchild, Mary. "Is Wormwood in the Bible?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/wormwood-in-the-bible-5191119 (accessed September 26, 2021).