Biblical Aromatherapy

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Aromatherapy is an ancient practice that has, in recent years, been associated with the New Age philosophy or eastern religious practices. However, not many people think of the bible when they hear mention of aromatherapy. Aromatherapy was used frequently in the bible, although not in the form that aromatherapy is used today.

 

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils obtained from plants for therapeutic benefit. In biblical times the essential oils were not often extracted and the plants were used mainly as infusions – spices were added to a carrier oil (usually olive oil) and the essential oils diffused into the oil, permeating the olive oil with the scent and properties of the spices it contained. The spices were obtained from grinding the pertinent parts of the plant into a powder. They may also have put whole leaves, flowers or roots into the olive oil. We still use this technique in aromatherapy today, but in many cases we use the more concentrated essential oils that have been extracted through various techniques.

 

The most notable mentions of aromatherapy, and the most detailed, are the formulas God provided the Israelites in Exodus chapter 30 for creating the anointing oil and temple incense. However, there are also wedding fragrances mentioned in Song of Songs and beauty treatments in Ester. Medicinal, cleansing and embalming applications are also noted throughout the bible.

 

Looking at aromatherapy in a Christian context begs the question: Why would God, who created the plants and gave them the medicinal properties they possess, not want us to make use of His creation? A study of the bible answers that question. I will be looking more closely at each of these biblical applications and the plants used for each. There is much we can learn about aromatherapy from the bible if we can only look past the religious connotations and practices that have been applied to it in the 21st century.

Aromatic Fruits: Love

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But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

 – Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)

 

I have had a bit of time now to pull myself together and I thought for this post I would move on to love. As I said last week, love is easy to show to those you love; but not so easy for those you don’t really like. I decided to investigate what the bible says about love. My concordance has over 3 pages of instances where love is mentioned throughout the bible – and each page has three columns! Going through the verses we can derive two different types of descriptions of love: a description of God’s love for us and a description of what our love should be like.

 

Over and over again the scriptures proclaim God’s unfailing love. His love is eternal and unwavering. It doesn’t depend on our love for Him or our own righteousness (something we can all be very grateful for, I’m sure). His love for us is also self-sacrificing.

 

So, what should our love look like? I have been going through the letters of John in my devotions and came across this verse:

And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

– 2 John 1:6

 

This verse may be referring to Joshua:

But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to obey his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul.

– Joshua 22:5

But I think Jesus’ words should also be taken into account when reading the letter from John which, incidentally, were related in the gospel of John:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

– John 13:34

 

So ultimately our love, or our fruit, should mirror the love of Christ. Our love should be slow to anger, forgiving (see Proverbs 10:12 and Proverbs 17:9), constant (see Proverbs 17:17), sincere (see Romans 12:9), and given equally to brothers (and sisters) as well as to our enemies (Matthew 5:44).

 

Essentially, according to 1 Corinthians 13, love is all the fruit of the Spirit rolled into one way of being. And this makes sense, since the concluding verse of this passage says

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

 

The essential oil I associate with love is rose. But before you roll your eyes and groan at the predictability of it, please read my reason for this. I love my Mom. My Mom loves me too, but more relevant to the topic, she also loves her roses. She had a rose garden with a different variety of rose carefully selected for each woman in her life whom she loved (I’m sorry I killed your rose garden Mom!). Whenever I think of my Mom, I think of roses and I always try to use rose in every blend that may be used by my Mom (or on my Mom). So, as you see, my association of Rose essential oil with the fruit of love, has nothing whatsoever to do with convention.

 

The second reason I associate Rose with Love is because one of my favourite songs is Above All by Michael W Smith…

Like rose, trampled on the ground

You took the fall and thought of me

Above All

 

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

 – John 15:13

Aromatic Fruits: Faithfulness

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But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

  • Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)

 

Following on from my crocodile post, I thought I would give my personal favourite essential oils for each fruit of the spirit. I don’t know anyone who can honestly say they have mastered each fruit, myself least of all. Regardless, I figured I could start off with the easier ones for me. It turns out, I am not as fruitful as I thought I was. This is particularly true for the past week, during my search for the perfect shower crème and shampoo recipes.

 

All testing of products is conducted on myself first, and so my erroneous trials have put my peace, joy, gentleness, forbearance, and self-control to the test; resulting in further spiritual errors on my part. I did not throw the bottle of body wash against the wall though, so perhaps there is still hope for my self-control. I am not one to waste ingredients, even flops. I will eat that burnt cookie, drink the improperly set fridge tart, and try my best to wash myself with the contents of bottles that neither lather nor clean. That doesn’t mean I have to be cheerful about it… ummm. Anyway, moving on…

 

I thought I might be able to turn to love, my one fruit that I feel like I am pretty secure in. Upon further reflection, I realised that love is easy to show to those you love (obviously). But to others, the ones you don’t really know and don’t particularly want to know, it is not quite so easy. Particularly when you are growing steadily more frustrated with inanimate objects and cosmetic chemistry. Other interpretations of this verse use the word charity in place of love, and I have not been particularly charitable. I have felt horrid about it, but have still battled with this particular fruit. So perhaps not the best one to start with.

 

Every time I read this list I tend to glance over the word FAITHFULNESS. It seems so vague. Yet, what it means is unwavering, unaltered devotion. Considering my personal battlefield of late, faithfulness was at times the only fruit I had. I had the perfect example to follow because God has been faithful to me; and His faithfulness was an ever-present lifeline that I could hold onto, even when I had wandered. His grace has saved me and taught me the true meaning and value of faithfulness. It is so much deeper than the worldly interpretation of faithfulness.

 

When I think of faithfulness in the context of aromatherapy, my mind instantly goes to Lavender. I have never stopped using Lavender. I have used it for years and I use it in almost everything. Lavender has never let me down – erasing burns like they never happened, stopping itching or stinging from insect bites (or stings), easing headaches, etc. Lavender essential oil may not be derived from a fruit, but it is most certainly my old faithful.

Extracting Essential Oils

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Medicinal and aromatic plants have species specific chemical components that give them their unique properties. These are the “active ingredients” if you will. Modern medication is made up of active ingredients which have been mixed with other stuff so that it can be made into a readily ingested and absorbed form allowing the active ingredient to have the desired effect. Plants are not just active ingredients, there is a lot of plant material containing the active ingredients. The plant oils, or essential oils, tend to accumulate in greater concentrations in different parts of the plant; such as the flowers (rose, lavender, jasmine); leaves (mint, lemongrass); stems (geranium, patchouli); bark (cinnamon, cassia); wood (sandalwood, cedar); resin (myrrh, frankincense); roots (angelica, vetiver); rhizomes (ginger, calamus); fruit (orange, juniper); or seeds (fennel, coriander). The essential oils are the concentrated active ingredients of the plant and there are several different ways in which these essential oils can be extracted from plants.

 

Technically, true essential oils are extracted through mechanical means or distillation – using either water, steam, or a combination or recombination of the two. Aromatic plant oils extracted through other means can be called concretes, absolutes, resinoids or pomades, depending on the technique used to extract the oils. In biblical times, the most likely methods of extracting plant oils were distillation or expression [1]. This means that true essential oils have been in use for longer than we have historical records for. Olive oil was an oil of enormous economic and cultural importance and has been extracted through cold pressing for millennia. The Egyptians used distillation and expression for the oils used in embalming rituals. The following is a brief description of the most commonly used methods of extraction.

 

Distillation is the most commonly used extraction method and may be one of the oldest. There are records of distillation being used by Arabs 3000BC but the technique may have been discovered as far back as the Indus Culture about 5000 years ago [2]. Distillation involves passing either water or steam through the plant material. The heat of the water or steam releases the phytols from the plant cells and they are carried into the collection section of the apparatus. The essential oils do not mix with water, and so they are siphoned off the water (which is then known as a hydrosol or floral water).

 

Expression is a mechanical extraction technique also known as cold pressing – basically squeezing the essential oils out. In order to get all the essential oils possible, it is rinsed with water and then the essential oils (which do not mix in water because it is a different weight) are separated out. This technique was certainly used in ancient Egypt to extract citrus oils. Due to the fairly simple technique (if you’ve ever been misted by an orange while peeling it, you will know how simple it is), it is likely that this method has been around for longer than distillation has.

 

CO2 extraction is similar to distillation, except that instead of water, highly pressurised liquid carbon dioxide is passed through the plant matter. The carbon dioxide turns into a gas at a much lower temperature than the essential oils, and so evaporates leaving only the essential oils.

 

Enfluerage is an old, costly, and mostly redundant form of extraction, which makes use of a layer of fat or wax (known as a chassis) onto which the plant material is placed. The oils diffuse into the fat or wax and, once the plant material has been replaced a number of times, the essential oils are separated from the chassis using alcohol. Once the alcohol has evaporated we are left with the essential oils known as an absolute.

 

Some plants have higher concentrations than others. For example, when peeling an orange, you will often get stains on your fingers from the essential oils in the peels. However, jasmine flowers are a completely different story – for one drop of essential oil, about 190 jasmine flowers are needed. This also explains why some essential oils are more expensive than others – not because they are more effective, but because they are scarcer.

 

References:

  1. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, “Cultural and Historical: Perfumes and Anointing Oils,” in Archaeological Study Bible, Michigan, Zondervan, 2005, p. 1746.
  2. E. Schmidt, “5. Production of Essential Oils,” in Handbook of Essential Oils: Science, Technology, and Applications, 2nd edition, London, CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group, 2016, pp. 127-162.

Aromatherapy for the Soul

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Aromatherapy has an element of nostalgia to it. Scents can remind you of people or events in your life and arouse the emotions that were associated with them. Certain previously encountered aromas can trigger strong emotional responses.

 

For example, I used to wear a particular deodorant when I was studying at university. CrocodileOne year we had a Zoology project for Anatomy and Physiology that involved a year-old culled crocodile and the mounting of its bones. I was in my element! I loved every step of the process. There was the skinning and defleshing, the boiling of the carcass to make the remaining flesh and connective tissue gel-like and easier to remove. Then there was the scrubbing of the bones, de-greasing in ammonia, bleaching in peroxide and then re-articulation (the best 3D puzzle I have ever done!!). I was up to my elbows in crocodile goop and loving it.

 

My mom, on the other hand, was not quite so happy. Like the supportive mother she is, she would bring me coffee while I worked (read: had fun) and watch in morbid fascination until disgust got the better of her. By the way, she was not too happy about her pot being used for the boiling; or the crocodile brains that got squirted over the driveway by the garden hose. But like all things, the project came to an end, leaving only memories. Happy ones for me, but nauseating ones for my mom. For the next few months, every time I would walk into a room, my mom would comment on how she smelled dead crocodile. Eventually we realised that the smell of my deodorant had become connected in her memories with the dead crocodile. Needless to say, I had to change my deodorant and my mom never smelled dead crocodile again.

 

Because of the nostalgic element of scents, the same aroma can elicit different emotional responses from different people. What is calming for one person could be a trigger for anxiety for another person. A scent that causes joy for some; may cause sadness for others. Aromatherapy for the mind, heart and soul is very personal and cannot be prescribed according to a universal standard. After all, my crocodile experience was completely different to my mom’s crocodile experience.

Athlete’s Foot Cream

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The cocoa butter and olive oil used in this cream are soothing for inflamed and infected skin. The coconut oil is not only nourishing, but also has anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. The essential oil blend adds to those anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory effects. Patchouli is anti-fungal but also speeds healing and soothes inflamed skin. Peppermint can be used for a variety of skin conditions and infections and provides relief from itching and redness. Lavender has a soothing effect on inflamed and itchy skin and combats a wide variety of organisms, including fungi. Myrrh is an incredibly useful healing oil and is effective in treating many skin ailments such as athlete’s foot.

Caution: It is not advisable to use this cream during pregnancy or on children under the age of 7 years.

Some essential oils can cause sensitivity and if sensitivity does occur, discontinue use.

While the essential oils do provide a degree of preservation to the cream, it is advisable to use the cream within 3 months. My products are made to order to extend the shelf life for as long as possible.

Quantity: 50 ml

Price: R100 (excluding shipping)

Please place all orders through the Contact page

Essential Oils For Burial and Embalming

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This topic is particularly exciting for me as it is based on those things that interest me the most: the Word of God, biblical archaeology, and the science behind essential oils.

 

The burial of Jesus in John 19:38 – 40 (NIV) describes the preparation of his body following his crucifixion and death:

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

Jewish burial customs dictated that a body could not be left in the city overnight, and so had to be prepared for burial and buried on the same day as death occurred. The aloes used in this verse are unique, and not the same species of aloe mentioned in the Old Testament of the bible. They are also not the same as the versatile and well-known aloe vera we use today for many applications. According to a number of sources, the species of aloe used in the New Testament and ancient embalming practices is Aloe succatrina [1] [2]. This is a member of the lily family and the extract from the fleshy leaves has no scent of its own. The myrrh was added to the aloe sap before being used to prepare a body for burial.

 

Not only was Jesus’ body prepared according to Jewish burial customs, but also according to the norms for the late Roman period. The body was typically wrapped in shrouds which were either sprinkled or pasted with aromatic resins and perfumes. The shrouds were most often strips of fabric, but in some instances whole sheets of linen were used to wrap the deceased. Some bodies were encased in plaster. Archaeological evidence reveals that plant exudates from the sub-family Pinaceae (pines, firs and larches) and the Burseraceae family (frankincense being the most well-known in this family) were often used in the preparation of a body for burial. Species belonging to the genus Pinus (Pine), Boswellia (which is made up of 23 species including frankincense or olibanum), and Pistacia (including mastic and terebinth) were important in burial rituals; either as a symbol of mourning, or a means of preparation for burial. The aromatic perfumes and resins used in burials had a dual purpose. Perhaps the more obvious reason to use perfumes and aromatic resins is to mask the inevitable smell of decay. The other purpose is related to the chemical properties of the oils, which slow the process of decay and protect the body from insect scavenging [3].

 

Embalming is also mentioned in the bible and was a different process to that of burial and was not in use in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death. This practice was adopted from Egypt and was the method of interment used by Joseph and his father, Israel, who were embalmed by Egyptian physicians (see Genesis 50:2, 26). It is believed that Joseph was in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom period when Sesostris II and Sesostris III were pharaohs. This would place his death and embalming between 1878 BC and 1843 BC [4]. When a body was being prepared for embalming, the insides were taken out (to be delicate about it) and the body cavity stuffed with natron (a salt made up of sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate), linen cloths and bandages soaked in resin. The body was then soaked in natron (a powdered form at the time of Joseph’s embalming) for a period of 40 days to allow complete desiccation. The internal stuffing would be replaced with fresh packages of sawdust mixed with plant extracts such as myrrh, frankincense, cassia cinnamon, and other aromatic resins. Sometimes they might throw in a couple of onions too (I found that amusing. I wonder who first had the thought to stuff an onion inside). Balms made from beeswax or hot liquid resins would then be applied to the body to seal it from absorbing atmospheric moisture. These balms and resin coatings contained wood oils, spices, perfumes and aromatic resins [5]. For rich nobles, the body would then be wrapped in bandages soaked in resins and placed in a rectangular coffin. This is likely the procedure that was used to embalm Israel and Joseph.

 

The resins and sawdust that were used during the embalming process belonged to coniferous trees such as pine, juniper, or cedar wood. Juniper cones (Juniperus phoenicea) are often found in Egyptian graves, and so it is reasonable to believe that they would have been used in the embalming process too. Other essential oils discovered in the embalming materials of well-preserved mummies belong to cedar wood (Cedrus librani), pine (Pinus sp.), juniper (Juniperus communis), mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), myrrh (Commiphora sp.), cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), onions (Allium cepa), lichen (Peltigera canina), and henna (Lawsonia inermis) [5].

 

Both burial and embalming, while being very different procedures, used similar plant extracts. These included pine, mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), terebinth (also known as turpentine tree, Pistacia terebinthus L) [3], and frankincense. Myrrh is another aromatic resin that was used in both burial customs and embalming procedures [6]. These plant extracts, or more accurately the chemical components that are contained in the essential oils, are antibacterial, antiseptic, antifungal, and insects. These properties would have provided the bodies of departed loved ones with some protection from the natural processes of decay; and preserved the remains for as long as possible.

 

References:

  1. Z. Wlodarczyk, “Review of Plant Species Cited in the Bible,” Folia Horticulturae, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 67-85, 2007.
  2. M. C. Tenney, The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974.
  3. R. C. Brettell, E. M. Schotsmans, P. Walton Rogers, N. Reifarth, R. C. Redfern, B. Stern and C. P. Heron, “’Choicest unguents’: Molecular Evidence for the Use of Resinous Plant Exudates in Late Roman Mortuary Rites in Britain,” Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 53, pp. 639-648, 2015.
  4. C. Aling, “Joseph in Egypt: Part 1,” Associates for Biblical Research, 18 February 2010. [Online]. Available: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/02/18/Joseph-in-Egypt-Part-I.aspx#Article. [Accessed 14 June 2017].
  5. G. Abdel-Maksoud and A.-R. El-Amin, “A Review on the Materials used During the Mummification Processes in Anicent Egypt,” Mediterranean Archeaology and Archaeometry, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 129-150, 2011.
  6. G. W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 69-95, 1960

Facial Moisturiser for Oily/Combination/Acne Prone Skin

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This is a versatile facial moisturiser that can be used for normal, oily, combination and acne prone skin types as a day cream or a night cream. The base of this cream contains Shea butter, which has natural anti-inflammatory properties for the treatment of acne. Both Shea butter and jojoba oil are easily absorbed into the skin and will not clog the pores or leave an oily residue. Rosehip oil is included in the base as it reduces the appearance of scars and wrinkles. The essential oils used were selected for their beneficial properties such as reducing oily residue on the skin and soothing inflammation that is associated with acne.

Caution: It is not advisable to use this cream during pregnancy.

Some essential oils can cause sensitivity and if sensitivity does occur, discontinue use.

While the essential oils do provide a degree of preservation to the cream, it is advisable to use the cream within 3 months. My products are made to order to extend the shelf life for as long as possible.

Quantity: 50 ml

Price: R89 (excluding shipping –contact me for delivery options)

Anti-Allergy Cream

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The base of this cream contains Shea butter, which has natural anti-inflammatory properties. To this I added rosehip seed oil and jojoba oil, which are used to reduce itching associated with allergic skin reactions. The essential oil blend for this cream contains Lavender, Roman Chamomile and Melissa, which has an anti-histamine effect on the skin; reducing inflammation and calming itching. The lavender has the additional effect of soothing insect bites and stings.

Caution: It is not advisable to use this cream during pregnancy.

Some essential oils can cause sensitivity and if sensitivity does occur, discontinue use.

While the essential oils do provide a degree of preservation to the cream, it is advisable to use the cream within 3 months. My products are made to order to extend the shelf life for as long as possible.

Quantity: 50 ml

Price: R87 (excluding shipping –contact me for delivery options)

Please place your orders through the Contact page.

Aromatic Gifts

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For this section I was going to discuss the fragrant gifts and valuable offerings mentioned in the bible. Everyone is familiar with the gifts of the magi described in Matthew 2:11; which included myrrh and incense (often interpreted as frankincense). Then there are the tributes that the Queen of Sheba paid to King Solomon and the gifts Israel told his sons to take to Egypt to appease the official (who was, unbeknownst to them, their brother Joseph). These included myrrh, balm, spices, honey, almonds and pistachio nuts.

 

However, I have been battling with this particular topic. I don’t believe it is because there is a lack of material, because there really is much more than I have mentioned and each instance can be examined in great detail going into why these fragrances were chosen and deemed appropriate for gifts. It is also not because there is no link between the bible and aromatherapy in this instance because many of these aromatic gifts are still very much in use in aromatherapy today (insert a witty punt for my products which can be bought for gifts, hint, hint).

 

I believe the reason I have been battling is because of a lack of focus. Or, more importantly, an inaccurate focus. The most fragrant gift we have ever received is the gift of eternal life. God looked at Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and He found it to be a pleasing aroma (Ephesians 5:1-2 NIV):

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

In the same way, the most fragrant gift we can offer to God, our Saviour and Creator, is sincere prayers and praises. Revelations and a number of apocryphal books depict angels offering the prayers of the saints to God as bowls of incense:

…Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

– Revelations 5:8 (NIV).

 

Our relationship with God does not exist in isolation. The same is true for our relationship with God. This is not a two-way street; it is a trinity of aromatic gifts. The fragrant gift of eternal life, the sweet incense of our prayers to God, and the aroma of Christ – as second Corinthians describes:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?

– 2 Corinthians 2:14-16

The third fragrance is our lives as Christians, bringing aroma to those whose lives we touch. For those who are searching for Christ and are newly saved, we should be a pleasant aroma; while to those who are unsaved and not searching for salvation, we are actually quite sickening and foul to be around. If it is not that way, we need to ask ourselves if we really are giving off the right scent. This is a point I battle with the most, as I’m sure many do. Who wants to be repellent to people? And yet, that is exactly what we should be. As Paul says, “Who is equal to such a task?” Certainly not me. I am a poor example to follow and have made too many life choices that would sour in God’s nostrils. In fact, I have absolutely no business writing this at all. I am not a biblical scholar. I am not as well versed in the bible as I should be. And I certainly have no wisdom to impart (except that which comes from experience of doing what I should not have done). But this has given me something to think about, something to strive for: to live a life of spiritual aromatherapy; pleasing to God and soothing to my Christian family.

Healing Treatments

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Plants have been used extensively for medicinal purposes from the time when disease first entered the world. These plants were processed into medicines using various techniques, for example cold pressing the plant to extract the oil, as is done in order to extract olive oil; or infusions of the plant material in oil. Resins such as frankincense and myrrh were ground into a powder and some plants were dried before being ground into powdered form.

 

The Balm of Gilead was well-known for its healing properties and by all accounts was a very expensive and effective treatment:

As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.

– Genesis 37:25 (NIV)

In this passage the balm is given special mention along with myrrh, which was an expensive resin. Further on in Genesis, the balm was again mentioned as among the best products of the land:

Then their father  Israel said to them, “If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift – a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.”

– Genesis 43:11 (NIV)

The healing properties of the balm of Gilead are inferred in a number of instances throughout the Old Testament:

The men designated by name took the prisoners and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing balm.

– 2 Chronicles 28:15 (NIV)

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?

– Jeremiah 8:22 (NIV)

“Go up to Gilead and get balm, O Virgin Daughter of Egypt. But you multiply remedies in vain; there is no healing for you.”

– Jeremiah 46:11 (NIV)

Babylon will suddenly fall and be broken. Wail over her! Get balm for her pain; perhaps she can be healed.

– Jeremiah 51:8 (NIV)

The balm of Gilead is thought to be the species Commiphora gileadensis, a member of the family Burseraceae, as are frankincense and myrrh [1] [2]. This was an exceptionally expensive resin and was useful for the treatment of a variety of ailments, including headaches, cataracts, and diminishing eye sight. The resin was extracted using knives of bone, stone or glass. Deep cuts using iron or steel would apparently cause the tree to die [2]. In the Medieval period this oil was thought to delay aging and cure “evil vapours of the stomach” and so was probably used as a poison antidote. The balm of Gilead was also used to treat wounds, colds, tremors, urinary tract stones, ulcers, spasms and ruptures and as an anticoagulant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and to reduce fevers, heart rate and blood pressure [1].

 

Myrrh was used in Greco-Roman times as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory, being prescribed for pain in the ear, eye, nose, anus (probably for haemorrhoids), the side, and the liver. Being in the same genus as the Balm of Gilead, it would have similar phytochemical components and so similar properties and uses. It is mentioned in the gospel of Mark as being given to Jesus at Golgotha just before he was crucified:

Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.

– Mark 15:23 (NIV)

Myrrh also promoted healing and was used in plasters to bandage broken heads and in the treatment of bladder stones, abscesses, inflammation of the genitals and uvula and to induce menstruation.

 

In the gospel of Matthew there is a different medicinal plant mentioned as being given to Jesus at Golgotha which was mixed with wine before his crucifixion:

There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.

– Matthew 27:34 (NIV).

According to Tenney, gall is the juice of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, which induces a deep sleep [3].

 

Aside from these plants, the bible mentions healing oils in a number of places, but no specific ingredients are given:

They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

– Mark 6:13 (NIV)

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord

– James 5:14 (NIV)

 

 

Based on the historical record of medical practices at the time we can assume the use of certain plants and oils for treating various ailments. Olive oil in itself was viewed as medicinal and Greek physicians would often massage their patients and athletes with oil as a treatment for ailments or sports injuries [2]. Medical practice in Jesus’ time was expensive and rudimentary. Most treatments consisted of rest, massage, and changing diets [4].

Frankincense was used by Greco-Roman medical practitioners in a number of medicinal applications [5]. It aided in clotting blood and was used to heal wounds, stop bleeding, treat haemorrhages emanating from the throat and mouth. It also served as an antidote to poisons such as hemlock. The analgesic properties of frankincense made it useful for treating chest pains and pains in the side. Frankincense was also used to treat abscesses, haemorrhoids, ulcers and bruises [1]. In some instances, it was even said to be used to treat paralysis.

 

References:

  1. S. Ben-Yehoshua, C. Borowitz and L. O. Hanus, “Frankincense, Myrrh, and Balm of Gilead: Ancient Spices of Southern Arabia and Judea,” in Horticultural Reviews Volume 39, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012, pp. 1-76.
  2. J. A. Duke, Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible, New York: CRC Press Taylor and Francis Group, 2008.
  3. M. C. Tenney, The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974.
  4. E. Amiel, R. Ofir, N. Dudai, E. Soloway, T. Rabinsky and S. Rachmilevitch, “β-Caryophyllene, a Compound Isolated from the Biblical Balm of Gilead (Commiphora gileadensis), Is a Selective Apoptosis Inducer for Tumor Cell Lines,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2012, 2012.
  5. G. W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 69-95, 1960.