Qetsach is identified as cumin (Cuminum cyminum). Specifically it may be the black cumin (Nigella sativa). Israeli botanist Michael Zohary points out, "The identity of the Hebrew ketzah (sic) with ‘black cumin’ or ‘nutmeg flower’ is not only linguistically supported but attested by the widespread post-Biblical custom of sprinkling the seeds over bread and cake and of flavouring dishes with them. The Arabic and Aramaic name is kazha."

Cumin seeds

Cumin seeds, highly magnified. PICTURE: Sanjay Acharya/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

It was originally found in a region stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to India. Cumin seed (ground or whole) is used in food and the plant has been used in traditional medicine. Cumin is a member of the parsley family. It grows to between 30 to 60 centimetres in height.

The only references to qetsach in the Old Testament are found in Isaiah 28:25-27: "When a farmer plows for planting, does he plow continually? Does he keep on breaking up and harrowing the soil? When he has levelled the surface, does he not sow caraway and scatter qetsach (cumin)? Does he not plant wheat in its place, barley in its plot, and spelt in its field? His God instructs him and teaches him the right way. Caraway is not threshed with a sledge, nor is a cartwheel rolled over qetsach (cumin); caraway is beaten out with a rod, and qetsach (cumin) with a stick.”

Cumin is also mentioned in the New Testament, in Matthew 23:23: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former."

This is an edited excerpt from Alvin Johnson's iBook 'Biblical Flora', 2017. The book is available for free download on iTunes. A teacher's edition is also available for purchase.