Frankincense and Myrrh: A Brief Account of Perfume in the Bible

Frankincense and Myrrh: A Brief Account of Perfume in the Bible

If eyes are the windows to the soul, noses are the windows to the heart. Smelling good is incredibly important, and the act of doing so has positive effects in all areas of life. To many people, fragrance is a key part of their identity, but perfume as a commodity has greater societal value and importance than just it's practical purpose.

Perfumery, the craft of making perfume, sits on the ley line connecting art and science, with perfume simultaneously being both wearable art and tangible chemistry. So strong is the relationship between perfumery and chemistry that the world's first recorded chemist was a perfume maker, a woman named Tapputi who lived in Babylonian Mesopotamia in around 1200 BCE. In fact, not only is Tapputi considered to be the first recorded chemist, she is also one of the earliest known women in recorded history to be involved in natural science. So highly regarded was her perfume that she held a powerful role in the Mesopotamian government and religion, as the overseer of the Mesopotamian Royal Palace (known as a Belatekallim).

The Tapputi Belatekallim cuneiform tablet in which Tapputi is mentioned.

Perhaps perfume's place at the intersection of art and science is why, throughout history, people have held the belief that fragrance represents something slightly mystical or divine. In the famous traditional nativity from the Gospel of Matthew, the Three Wise Men travelled to Bethlehem from the East, guided by the Star of Bethlehem to the side of the manger in which the infant Christ slept. So disticly important and significant was fragrance in the ancient world that two of the Three Wise Men (Saint Caspar and Saint Balthazar, in case you were wondering) brought gifts of incensce to the baby Jesus, with both frankincense and myrrh being aromatic resins commonly used as perfumes at the time.

Chapter 30 of the Book of Exodus provides an in-depth description of incense, perfumery and fragrance, with essentially the entire chapter consisting of God telling Moses about the intricacies of the implementation of fragrance in worship.

It begins with God instructing Moses to make an altar of incense out of acacia wood and overlaid with gold, known as the Altar of Incense or the Golden Altar. God relays precise measurements and instructions as to how the altar is to be constructed, how it is to be carried, and where it is to be placed. Verse 6 reads:

'Put the altar in front of the curtain that shields the Ark of the Covenant law - before the atonement cover that is over the tablets of the covenant law - where I will meet with you.' - Exodus 30:6

In this verse, God explicitly states that the Altar of Incense marks the place where God will meet with Moses, where the divine will commune with the mortal. So important is incense in the Old Testament and to Isrealite cutlture, that God chose the place where it is burned over all other places to manifest himself.

A model of the Golden Altar in the Timna Valley, Israel.

From verse 34, God gives instruction about how the incense is to be made. He tells Moses to mix together equal amounts of gum resin, onycha, galbanum and pure frankincense. The mixture is then to be salted, ground into a powder, and placed in front of the Ark of the Covenant. God demands that the incense be pure and sacred, commanding that it be of such high quality that it be the work of a perfumer. God tells Moses that he is to consider the incense to be most holy, and to not attempt to use the divine formula to create any incense apart from the one God has instructed him to. The extent to which God places significance over the exclusivity of his fragrance is shown in verse 33:

'Whoever makes perfume like it and puts it on anyone other than a priest must be cut off from their people.' - Exodus 30:33

From verse 7, God instructs Moses when incense is to be burned, and who is to carry out it's burning. God commands that Aaron, the elder brother of Moses, is to burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning, and again at every twilight, so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for generations to come. God warns that no other incense or offering is to be made on the altar other than the twice daily incense burnings carried out by Aaron.

As you can see from the verse numbers, I haven't gone about recounting this section in order of each verse's appearance in the Book of Exodus, but instead in the chronological sense of how one would carry out preparations for the act of the ritual described. The reason for doing this is, interestingly, because God gives Moses instruction of how the ceremony for the burning of incense must be carried out before he gives instruction of how to make the incense itself. To me, this implies that the ritual act of sacrifice is more important to God than the incense which is to be burned, yet the importance God puts on the incense cannot be denied, purely due to the detail in which he describes it's recipe to Moses. Perhaps there is a point to be made here, an argument to which this could contribute, but I'm no theologian, so I won't be making one.


Exodus 30 also describes the manufacturing of a second fragrant substance that holds importance in the act of worship. From Verse 23, God gives Moses a formula for making a holy anointing oil.

"Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassiaand a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil." - Exodus 30:23-25

A shekel is both a unit of weight and a unit of currency, with 1 shekel being approximately 11.6g. A hin is a unit of volume, with 1 hin being approximately 3.8L.

God commands Moses to use the holy anointing oil to anoint several objects of religious importance, including the Ark of the Covenant and the Altar of Incense. God tells Moses to consecrate these objects so that they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will become holy as well.

Reading no further than the text of Exodus 30, the notion that the fragrant oil is used to bless objects of particlar importance to God can be looked at in reverse as being equivalent to the oil itself being the consecrating substance that grants the mundane objects their divinity. This is quite a profound approach, and I am by no means convinced that it is right, but the fact that there are sufficient grounds to even make such a claim serves as evidence for the importance and sacrality of fragrance in the Old Testament.

In verses 30 to 33, God tells Moses that Aaron and his sons should be anointed with the oil and consecrated so they may serve him as priests, making Aaron the first High Priest of the Israelites (I read with interest, so I hope you might as well, that priesthood in and before Second Temple era Judaism has absolutley nothing to do with rabbis from Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbis didn't evolve from priests, indeed there was an albeit brief period in which priesthood and rabbinicism coexisted, with Phannias ben Samuel, the last Jewish High Priest, and Yohanan ben Zakkai, the first rabbi, both living until the latter parts of the 1st century. The reason for the clear distinction between the two is that a rabbi was a religious teacher who operated out of the local synagogue and was not required to belong to any particular family or tribe in order to hold his position, wheras a preist was a descendant of Aaron, and worked at the Temple in Jerusalem).

Unfortunately for them, Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were enjoying their newfound priesthood, violated God's holy commands when they prepared an incense offering upon kindling of their own, and not of the holy incense from the sacred altar. God decreed that his own holy fire would consume the sacrifice as a sign of his presence, so Nadab and Abihu burning their own offering was seen as foreign or unholy fire, something sacreligious and strictly forbidden by God in Exodus 30:9. The act of sacrifice or the presentation of an offering was an action that must be carried out singularly, so the brothers carrying out the ritual exercise together was seen as careless and irreverent, and swiftly induced the wrath of the Lord. In a cruel display of biblical irony, instead of sending his fire down to consume the sacrifice, God sent his fire down to consume the brothers, burning them alive where they stood. Furthermore, to emphasise just how seriously he took the act of defying sacred law, God commanded Moses (who has just lost two nephews) to forbid Aaron from mourning for his dead sons. Needless to say, God liked his perfume.

An illustration of the sin of Nadab and Abihu, from a 1907 Bible card.

Moving swiftly on from the horror of what befell Nadab and Abihu, and on from the Bible itself in fact, incense has been used in all variety of Christian denomination worship since antiquity. It must be noted that I am now talking about incense in a more functional sense, not in the Biblical sense mentioned above. The smoke of burning incense is interpreted by both the Western Catholic and Eastern Christian churches as a symbol of the prayer of the faithful rising to heaven. Modern incense is made using a wide variety of different aromatics, spices and fragrant resins, but with the frequent inclusion of frankincense and myrrh, is not wholly different from the incenses of old.

Considering the undeniable historical importance of fragrance in the Bible, as well as the prevalant use of incense in many contemporary religious settings, one could argue that perfume is not only of an olfactory nature, but possesses an almost spiritual character as well. Perfumery has a fascinating past, and was once central to the practices and teachings of Judaism and Christianity, at a time when Judeo-Christian culture in the ancient world was practically equivalent to culture itself.