“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices – gum resin, onycha and galbanum – and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from his people.” Exodus 30: 34-38 NIV
At the same time as the formula for the Anointing Oil was given, God gave Moses the instructions for making the incense, also called ketoret , that was to be used in the temple. If this incense was not properly made by a perfumer it was rejected for use in the temple. Holy Incense was prepared using aromatic gum resins that had been ground into a powder before being tempered with salt. Carefully preserved oral records that have been passed down concerning the making of this incense indicate that 11 spices were used, not just the four mentioned in Exodus . This is because gum resin was a generalised term encompassing all resins that were obtained from trees. For the purposes of this blog, however, I will focus only on the four in Exodus.
Gum resin has been translated as stacte or rosin. While rosin is a generalised term for all tree resins, it also referred more specifically to mastic resin from the Pistacia lentiscus tree. This tree grows in Judea, Cyprus, Syria, and Libya and produces a small amount of highly fragrant resin which is a clear or slightly blue colour. Because of the scarcity of the resin, it is very valuable and a fitting offering to God.
Operculum was the aromatic outer shell of a marine gastropod (or mollusc) obtained from the genus Strombus, including the species S. fusus, S. murex, or S. lentiginosus. Operculum can also be translated as fingernail, because the shell is the shape of a fingernail or claw. The shells were thought to be derived from the earth, since they washed up on the shores of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. In addition to the Strombus species, it is possible that the shell used for the Holy Incense was also obtained from Pleurotoma babyloniae and Pleurotoma trapezii.
Galbanum is obtained from the lower stem or root of the giant fennel species Ferula gummosa, which is also known as Ferula galbaniflua (they are sometimes classified as separate species due to differences in their chemical compositions, but were likely considered one species when Exodus was written in 1440 B.C. ). Apparently this fragrance was not particularly pleasant on its own. However, when combined with the other aromas of the Holy Incense, it helped to create a heavenly blend.
Frankincense is a tree or shrub within in the genus Boswellia. There a number of species within the genus Boswellia, however the Frankincense from the bible may have been: B. serrata, B. sacra, or B. papyrifera. B papyrifera grows in modern day Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan and so is the most likely source of biblical Frankincense as it is the species most accessible by trade routes at the time. However, B. carterii is indigenous to the area that was known as Sheba and Jeremiah 6:20 mentions incense imported from Sheba:
“What do I care about incense from Sheba
or sweet calamus from a distant land?”
Therefore it is possible that the Frankincense God asked for in the Holy Incense was that of Sheba, or B. carterii. Frankincense is a gum resin, meaning that the resin of the tree or shrub is extracted through tapping and the resin solidifies in contact with the air to form yellowish pellets or tears . When the resin tears rub together they form a white powder which burns easily to release an aromatic smoke. The frankincense used in modern aromatherapy treatments is most often obtained from B. carterii, which is shrub-like in appearance.
This incense formula had very specific purposes. Exodus 30: 7-8 (NIV) states that this incense was to be burned on the Altar of Incense:
“Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for the generations to come”
Since this altar stood beside the veil separating the Most Holy Place, the visible aromatic smoke was the only thing that would enter this sacred area on a regular basis. Thus the smoke and, by extension, the incense became symbolic of prayers and devotion reaching God . This can be seen in Psalms 141:2 (NIV):
“May my prayer be set before you like incense;
may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.”
As well as in Revelations 5:8 and 8:3-4 (NIV):
“And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
“Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.”
Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place. On this day, he would need to carry a pan filled with coals on which to sprinkle the incense. This is so that the Lord’s presence would be concealed from sight.
Leviticus 2:1-2 and 2:16 says that incense was to be used when making a grain offering – mixing the grain with oil and incense in order to burn it as part of the grain offering to the Lord:
“When someone brings a grain offering to the Lord, his offering is to be of fine flour. He is to pour oil on it, put incense on it and take it to Aaron’s sons the priests. The priest shall take a handful of the fine flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial portion on the altar, and offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.”
“The priest shall burn the memorial portion of the crushed grain and the oil, together with all the incense, as an offering made to the Lord by fire.”
As with the anointing oil, this incense was to be considered sacred and any personal use was punished by exile, or excommunication
- J. Niebler, “Incense Materials,” in Springer Handbook of Odor, Springer, 2017, pp. 63-83.
- D. Ben-Abraham, “Holy Incense: The Jewish Prescription at the Time of the Temple,” [Online]. Available: http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/32750666/Holy_Incense.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1493117740&Signature=oVciOFD4GagBTdgt1wmuUYI4Tpg%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DHoly_Incense_The_Jewish_Prescripti. [Accessed 25 April 2017].
- Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Archaeological Study Bible, Toronto: Zondervan, 2005.
- Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, “Cultural and Historical Notes: Incense,” in Archaeological Study Bible, Toronto, Zondervan, 2005, p. 1209.