Poison is the rendering in the A. V. of the Bible of two Hebrew and two Greek terms, but they are so general as to throw little light upon the knowledge and practice of poisons among the Hebrews.
1. חֵמָה, chemaih, from the root signifying "to be hot," is used of the heat produced by wine (Ho 7:5), and the hot passion of anger (De 29:27, etc.), as well as of the burning venom of poisonous serpents (De 32:24,33; Ps 58:4; Ps 140:3). In all cases it denotes animal poison, and nut vegetable or mineral. The only allusion to its application is in Job 6:4, where reference seems to be made to the custom of anointing arrows with the venom of a snake, a practice the origin of which is of very remote antiquity (comp. Homer, Od. 1, 261, 262; Ovid, Trist. 3, 10, 64; Fast. 5, 397, etc.; Pliny, 18:1). The Soanes, a Caucasian race mentioned by Strabo (11, 499), were especially skilled in the art. Pliny (6, 34) mentions a tribe of Arab pirates who infested the Red Sea, and were armed with poisoned arrows like the Malays of the coast of Borneo. For this purpose the berries of the yew-tree (Pliny, 16:20) were employed. The Gauls (Pliny, 27:76) used a poisonous herb, limeum, supposed by some to be the "leopard's bane," and the Scythians dipped their arrow-points in vipers' venom mixed with human blood. These were so deadly that a slight scratch inflicted by them was fatal (Pliny, 11:115). The practice was so common that the name τοξικόν, originally a poison in which arrows were dipped, was applied to poison generally. SEE ARROW. In Palestine and the countries adjacent were many venomous snakes, as well as insects, such as the scorpion and the scolopendra; but no such practice obtained among the Jews. Poisonous plants were as well known as in other countries, and we have an instance of a miracle wrought by Elisha (2Ki 4:38), to prevent mischief by the accidental shredding of a wild gourd into a mess of pottage prepared for the sons of the prophets. This fruit or vegetable was probably the colocynth; and when those who were about to partake of it were repelled by its nauseous bitterness, the prophet commanded a handful of meal to be thrown into the pot, and thus rendered its contents fit for human food. SEE GOURD.
2. ראֹשׁ (once רוֹשׁ, De 32:32), rosh, if a poison at all, denotes a vegetable poison primarily, and is only twice (De 32:33; Job 20:16) used of the venom of a serpent. In other passages where it occurs it is translated "gall" in the A. V., except in Ho 10:4 where it is rendered "'hemlock." In the margin of De 29:18 our translators, feeling the uncertainty of the word, gave as an alternative "rosh, or, a poisonful herb." Beyond the fact that, whether poisonous or not, it was a plant of bitter taste, nothing can be inferred. That bitterness was its prevailing characteristic is evident from its being associated with wormwood (De 29:18 ; La 3:19; Am 6:12), and from the allusions to "water of rosh" in Jer 8:14; Jer 9:15; Jer 23:15. It was not a juice or liquid (Ps 69:21 ; comp. Mr 15:23), but probably a bitter berry, in which case the expression in De 32:32, "grapes of rosh," may be taken literally. It grew in the fields (Ho 10:4), was bitter to the taste (Jer 23:15; Ps 69:22; comp. La 3:5), and bore clusters, perhaps something like the belladonna (De 32:32. Yet here the words עַנּבֵי רוֹשׁ might also be rendered poison grapes, carrying out the figure of the vine, without special allusion to the poison plant). Any special rendering which would suit all the passages is uncertain, since all the old translators have but general expressions (Sept. χολή, Vulg. Jel, or else some word meaning bitter; yet in the passage from Hos. 1. c. ἄγρωστις, Ven. MS. τιθύμαλος), and there is no kindred word found in the other dialects to compare. Oedmanu (4, 83 sq.) referred the word to the poisonous colocynth (Cucumis colocynthi, Linn.), which grows almost everywhere in Arabia and Palestine; a plant with a creeping stem, bright green leaves, and bears a fruit with a strangely bitter juice (Fabri Evagat. 2, 417 sq.). But this fruit is not a berry, but an apple, of the size of the closed hand; nor does the colocynth shoot up among the grain. Michaelis (Fragm. etc., p. 145) would understand the hyoscyamus or the darmnel (Lolium temulentum). (But see Oedmann. ut stp. p. 85.) This meaning suits the passage in Hosea well (Rosenmüller, Alterth. 4, 1, 118), but not that in De 32:32; nor does the lolium produce so active a poison that it could be mentioned by way of eminence in these passages. Indeed, many moderns disbelieve its poisonous properties entirely. Celsius (lierobot. 2, 46 sq.) explains rosh of the cicuta or hemlock, but is opposed by Michaelis and Oedmann (ut sup. p. 84). Gesenius (Thesaur. p. 1281), on the ground that the word in Hebrew also signifies "head," rejects the hemlock, colocynth and darnel of other writers, and proposes the "poppy" instead (comp. Livy, 1, 54, Papaverum capita, Papaver somnifelrum), from the "heads" in which its seeds are contained, and from which the Orientals have extracted opium from a remote antiquity. This was known to the ancients to be poisonous, when taken in excess (Pliny, 20:76). But it may be doubted whether the poppy could be so directly and pre-eminently styled the poison plant (it was even placed on the table as a sidedish, Pliny, 19:53); and if rosh had denoted a plant so well known, surely some one of the old interpreters would have discovered it. "Water of rosh" would thus be simply 'opium;" but it must be admitted that there appears in none of the above passages to be any allusion to the characteristic effects of opium. The effects of the rosh are simply nausea and loathing. It was probably a general term for any bitter or nauseous plant, whether poisonous or not, and became afterwards applied to the venom of snakes, as the corresponding word in Chaldee is frequently so used. SEE HEMLOCK.
3. Ι᾿ός, strictly something emitted, as a missile weapon; hence the venom of a serpent (Jas 3:8; Ro 3:13). SEE SERPENT.
4. Φάρμακον, prop. medicine, hence often a deadly potion. There is a clear case of suicide by poison related in 2 Macc. 10:13, where Ptolemaeus Macron is said to have destroyed himself by this means. But we do not find a trace of it among the Jews, and certainly poisoning in any form was not in favor with them. Nor is there any reference to it in the N.T., though the practice was fatally common at that time in Rome (Sueton. Nero, 33, 34, 35; Tüb. 73; Claud. 1). It has been suggested, indeed, that the φαρμακεία of Ga 5:20 (A. V. "witchcraft") signifies poisoning, but this is by no means consistent with the usage of the word in the Sept. (comp. Ex 7:11; Ex 8:7,18. etc.), and with its occurrence in Re 9:21, where it denotes a crime clearly distinguished from murder (see Re 21:8; Re 22:15). It more probably refers to the concoction of magical potions and love philters. SEE WITCHCRAFT.
The reference in Mr 16:18 seems to be to the custom of condemnation to death by means of poison (κώνειον, Plato, Lys. 219; Plutarch, Phoc. c. 36; Diog. Laert. 2, 42; Ael. V. H. 1, 16; 9:21; comp. J. Jac. Bose, De potionibus mortiferis, Lips. 1736). We read in 2 Macc. 10:13 of an example of suicide by poison (comp. Bose, iss. p. 25 sq.). The administration of poisons seems to have been no unusual crime in the days of the apostles (see Winer, Ad Gtlat. p. 125; comp. Philo, Op. 2. 315 sq.), and the Arabian women were especially famous for their skill in preparing them (Joseph. Ant. 17:4, 1; comp. Rein, Romr. Criminahlecht, p. 427 sq.). But in the New Testament the words φαρμακεία and φαρμακεύς do not refer to this, but to necromancy (q.v.). On poisoned arrows, see Bow. Swords were sometimes also dipped in poison (Curt. 9, 8, 20). SEE MYRRH.