Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant cane, 500 shekels of cassia – all according to the sanctuary shekel – and a hin of olive oil.” Exodus 30: 22 – 24 NIV
The anointing oil (shemen hammishhâ) specified in this verse was to be prepared by a perfumer and used only for sacramental anointing by the priests . Its purpose was to consecrate the priests and any articles anointed with it, symbolising the imbuement of the Holy Spirit and setting them apart for the Lord’s service. The use of this oil for any other purpose was forbidden and the punishment for disobedience was being cut off from the people.
In Greco-Roman times, olive trees grew throughout the Mediterranean. Because of the widespread availability and the relative ease of obtaining oil from the olives, olive oil was frequently used for all applications. The plants that were used to scent the oil could have been crushed or pressed . There were also techniques of distilling the plants, much like the process of obtaining certain essential oils for aromatherapy today. The anointing oil specified by God used the same method of preparation – with a hin of olive oil (or approximately 4 litres) as the base for the fragrance. To this olive oil base, the myrrh, cinnamon, fragrant cane and cassia were added. A sanctuary shekel was a standardised measurement that weighed 20 gerahs, which was 0.6 grams per gerah. So a sanctuary shekel would have weighed 12 grams and so 500 shekels would be 6kg. This means that, in metric measurements, 6kg each of myrrh and cassia were to be added to 6 litres of olive oil, along with 3kg of fragrant cane and fragrant cinnamon.
Liquid myrrh in the time of Moses was similar to the myrrh essential oil of today. Myrrh essential oil is steam distilled from the resin of the Commiphora myrrha tree. However, the myrrh used in the preparation of anointing oil was obtained from tapping the resin of Balsamodendron myrrh, of which there are accurate representations in the Egyptian temple of Hatshepsut . The finest myrrh ran out in a semi-liquid form , and this was the one required for the anointing oil.
The remaining spices were not in liquid form and so needed to be bruised or crushed separately before being combined and boiled in clean water until their “strength” was in the water. In other words, they were steeped in boiling water to extract the essential oils. The decoction was strained to remove the solid portions and the olive oil was added to it and boiled again to remove the water . In the King James Version of Exodus 30:23, fragrant cane has been translated as sweet calamus or sweet flag from the original word קָנֶה or qaneh. This is probably the species Acorus calamus. Cassia (from the original word קִדָּה or qiddah) is most likely the Somaliland senna (Cassia angustifolia) . The cinnamon used for the anointing oil could have been from either the Cinnamomum verum or Cinnamomum zeylanicum plant .
Once the anointing oil was created according to God’s specifications, it was sprinkled on the priests, the tabernacle furniture and objects within the tabernacle as well as over the tent and the Ark of the Covenant in order to consecrate them and make them holy. Whoever touches the anointed objects becomes holy. God says in verses 31 – 32:
Say to the Israelites, ‘This is to be my sacred anointing oil for the generations to come. Do not pour it on anyone else’s body and do not make any other oil using the same formula. It is sacred, and you are to consider it sacred. NIV
- C. F. Pfeiffer and E. F. Harrison, The Wyncliffe Bible Commentary, London: Lowe & Brydone (Printers) Ltd., 1962.
- Archaeological Study Bible, Cultural and Historical: Perfumes and Anointing Oils, Toronto: Zondervan, 2005.
- G. W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 69-95, 1960.
- W. Smith and C. Anthon, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1843.
- T. Lewis, “Volume 1: The Origin of the Hebrews,” in Origines Hebraeae: The Antiquities of the Hebrew Republick, London, Oxford University Press, 1689, p. 103.
- W. H. Schoff, “Cinnamon, Cassia and Somaliland,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 40, pp. 260-270, 1920.
- P. Mihindukulasuriya, “The Fragrance of Life: Cinnamon in the Bible,” Journal of the Colombo Theological Seminary, vol. 8, pp. 171-181, 2009.