Perfumes and oils in the Bible and history

        To discuss perfumes unavoidably involves discussing oils, since historically oils have been the base of perfumes, and in many cases, comprise all the ingredients of perfumes. However, once man learned to produce synthetic compounds that are less expensive than obtaining the natural aromatic ingredients, the synthetics have been used increasingly in the composition of perfumes. (Generally the base of colognes is alcohol, even though the word comes from the French eau de cologne, meaning “water of Cologne.”)

“‘Ointment and perfume delight the heart’ (Proverbs 27:9). Historically “ointment” and “perfume” were made with natural and harmless ingredients, such as myrrh, frankincense, aloes and cinnamon (Song of Solomon 3:6; Proverbs 7:17).

“Colognes aren’t needed to cover up foul body odors like they were in ages past when people didn’t bathe regularly. Today’s popularity is akin to cosmetics, a customary part of dressing up. Advertising and imagery certainly play major roles in boosting sales and usage. This may seem harmless, but the fly in “the perfumer’s ointment” (Ecclesiastes 10:1) is the increasing use of chemicals in fragrances to make the scents travel farther, increase the time they linger in the air, cut costs and boost profits.”

from “Colognes, Chemicals, Compassion, and the Church

        Fragrant aromatic substances, including ointments, anointing oils, and incense are mentioned in quite a few places in the Bible. They were used for religious (rituals, etc.), health (medicinal), personal (pleasure, cosmetic), and funeral purposes. When a useful substance (like olive oil for anointing or to protect the skin in the hot, dry climate) didn't smell particularly good by itself, adding a fragrance added pleasure, a sense of significance, and a distinctive association.

        Several fragrant spices and oils are mentioned in the Scriptures. A few of the fragrant substances were native to Palestine, and the others had to be imported, mostly from tropical countries. Most were relatively expensive, so. their uses were reserved by most (the non-rich) for special occasions.

        The “sweet incense” (lit. “incense of the aromas) burned on the altar of incense in the tabernacle was fragrant incense made of equal parts of stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense (Exodus 30:7, 34-35). This was for this sacred use only; God did not permit any personal use. “Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people” (Exodus 30:37-38). The Scriptures clearly show that the burning of incense is a type of prayers going up to God (Psalm 41:2; Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4). Our prayers are a sweet smell to God.

        The word “perfume” occurs only three times in the KJV of the Bible, all in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word translated “perfume” (including the famous Proverbs 27:9) occurs about 58 times in the Old Testament. In almost all the other places, it is translated as “incense” or “sweet incense,” meaning fragrant incense. The Hebrew word translated “perfumes” (plural) in Isaiah 57:9 occurs only that once in the OT.

        The word “ointment” occurs 15 times and the word “ointments” occurs 3 times in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word translated as such is usually translated as “anointing oil.” In the New Testament, “ointment” and “ointments” together occur 14 times. They are translated from the Greek word “muron,” meaning fragrant anointing oil. It is closely related to the Greek word “smurna” (or “smyrna”), which is the word for myrrh.

        The predominant oil of the Bible is olive oil. Olive trees grow naturally in the Middle East. The word “oil” is derived from the word “olive.” It had many purposes: food, cosmetic, funereal, medicinal, fuel for lamps, and ritual. In the United States, the popularity of olive oil is increasing as people are rediscovering the healthful benefits of it.

        The use of olive oil in Isaiah 1:6 and Luke 10:34 for “wounds and bruises and putrefying sores” has largely been viewed as strictly an emollient to soothe and soften the skin and scabs. However, the more we learn about olive oil, the more we understand that there are other medicinal benefits. And sometimes other medically beneficial oils were mixed with olive oil. Olive oil used to anoint the sick (Mark 6:13; James 5:14) was a symbol of the Holy Spirit, which God uses to miraculously heal. It also was strikingly appropriate to anoint with a substance that has healthful properties.

        Many aromatic ointments mentioned in the Bible were olive oil with aromatic oils and resins added. In fact, the holy anointing oil used by the priests was mixture prescribed in Exodus 30:23-25. It was olive oil, myrrh, cinnamon, “sweet-smelling cane” (calamus), and cassia. Like the incense, any other use of this recipe than the God-ordained sacred uses was strictly forbidden (Exodus 30:31-33).

        Most of the other oils mentioned in the Bible are what today we call essential oils. Why are they called “essential oils?” Each of these extracts or oils is the “essence” of the plant it comes from. Here are three definitions of “essence” from the 1969 American Heritage Dictionary: 1.) The quality or qualities of a thing that gives it its identity; the intrinsic or indispensable properties of a thing. 2.) The most important or effectual ingredient; crucial element. 3.) An extract of a substance that retains its fundamental or most desirable properties in concentrated form.

        One of the definitions of “essential” is “absolute, undiluted.” So essential oils are the extracts from plants that are distilled into concentrated, pure oils that retain the unique aromatic and medicinal qualities of that plant but in concentrated form. This dictionary also lists “essential oil,” and defines it as A volatile oil, usually having the characteristic odor or flavor of the plant from which it is obtained, used to make perfumes and flavorings. The main thing missing from this definition is the healthful benefits that can be obtained from many of the oils.

        Historically, most “perfumes” were essential oils. The production and use of essential oils has been going on for thousands of years. but not until recent times could man view them microscopically and understand them scientifically as we can now.

        A good example of a vegetable that is claimed to have powerful health benefits is garlic. The juice can be bought in concentrated form as oil of garlic. (Garlic, though, fails to be aromatic!) Cinnamon oil or clove oil have been sold at pharmacies, and they are indeed concentrated. A drop can burn one’s skin and one drop goes a long way in flavoring something. Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) has been fairly popular as a topical treatment for several conditions.

        Esther was given oil of myrrh (Esther 2:12). (According to the KJV, she was also given “sweet odours,” and according to the NKJV, she was given “perfumes.” The Hebrew word here is usually translated “spices.”) Several sources of essential oils are listed in Song of Solomon 4:13—“Fragrant henna with spikenard, spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense (galbanum), myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices.” Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) and myrrh, two of the gifts to Jesus from the magi, come from aromatic gum resins from certain trees.

        Some other oils mentioned in the Bible are algum (probably what is known as sandalwood today), amomum, balm (balsam), cassia (similar in flavor and aroma to cinnamon), coriander, dill, lily, mastich, mint, mustard, and stacte.

        Today, many people use essential oils. Some use them merely for the pleasure of their smell, but more use them for the healthful benefits of their special properties. Some easily-recognizable names of oils are basil, cedarwood, chamomile, citronella, eucalyptus, frankincense, ginger, hyssop, juniper, lavender, lemongrass, myrtle, oregano, peppermint, pine, rosemary, rosewood, sandalwood, spikenard, tarragon, thyme, and valerian.

        Generally, some oils are ingested orally, some are absorbed through the skin, with some, the scent is inhaled, and some are enjoyed in all three ways. The fastest way a person receives either the benefit or harm from any substance is inhaling. The efficiency and speed of the olfactory system is amazing.

        The use of essential oils for aromatherapy has become popular again, so producers and sellers naturally jump on the aromatherapy bandwagon, hoping to profit. The competition leads some to produce or sell lower quality, less costly oils. Low-cost oils may be satisfactory if one’s goal is merely emotional benefits—a pleasant, soothing, uplifting experience. But true therapeutic benefits are not likely to be had with inferior quality oils. It takes time and a larger investment to produce pure, potent essential oils. “You get what you pay for.”

        Why don’t doctors prescribe essential oils? This article won’t get into that, but to some extent, they do, because sometimes an ingredient in a prescription is an essential oil more or less disguised with another name.

        This article has three goals in introducing this subject of essential oils. The first is to show how essential oils have played the major role in the history of perfumes. The second is to help people become aware of a perfume option. If someone likes to wear fragrances, but wants them to be environmentally-friendly (harmless to themselves and harmless to others), there are two options: essential oils and perfumes that have all natural ingredients. But that kind of perfume may be more expensive than essential oils, and the ingredients may be essential oils!

        That is not to say that no one would be bothered by the scent of any essential oil. It seems that people can become allergic to almost anything. Many people are allergic to certain flowers. They likely would be allergic to the essential oils made from those flowers. But if it is chemical sensitivity that makes someone intolerant of most commercial colognes, that person probably would not feel any unpleasant symptoms from the scents of pure essential oils.

        Essential oils are commonly sold both as single oils and blends of several oils. After smelling various products of essential oils, one may decide he/she prefers some with a single oil and some with a mixture of oils. Learning about this option may be “a breath of fresh air” to some readers.

        The third goal for discussing essential oils is to use this as an example of a healthful alternative to encourage the readers to become more interested in building and maintaining good health. (Essential oils are generally beneficial for health, whereas many commercial colognes are deleterious to health.) Humans tend to forget the lessons of history and make innumerable mistakes that could be avoided. The way to good health if by taking full personal responsibility for one’s health. Doctors, supermarkets, advertising—none of them are going to guide you to make the thousands of good decisions about what to do and what not to do, what to eat and what not to eat, what to inhale and what not to inhale, and so on, ad infinitum.

        Satan wants to destroy us in any way he can, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Satan has led the world to be a Babylon of complexity to make if difficult to find spiritual truth and the ways to good health and safety. This means we must be diligent in constantly learning what is right and wrong, what is healthful and what is unhealthful. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowleldge” (Hosea 4:6).

        Please don’t misunderstand. This is not meant to promote essential oils as a magic bullet for good health. A major mistake commonly made is for people to latch on to one healthful product or activity and expect it to make them healthy. The best health is achieved by conforming one’s total lifestyle to healthful choices—good nutrition with natural foods, adequate sleep, exercise, maintaining positive attitudes and peace of mind through a close relationship with God, keeping stress down, maintaining a safe and clean environment, avoiding accidents and injuries, etc.

        Now let’s summarize the history of perfume and the present time we live in. Historically, humans have used fragrances to add pleasure, attraction, and special significance to many activities. In hot climates conducive to profuse perspiration, the use of fragrances became important to cover up and mask bad odors from a lack of bathing. It’s interesting and telling that the Hebrew word for soap (spelled “sope” in the KJV) occurs only twice in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 2:22; Malachi 3:2). The words “soap” and “sope” do not occur in the New Testament. Apparently God doesn’t emphasize soap as an important factor in bathing, even though water for bathing is emphasized a great deal. But plentiful water has not been available in many parts of the world.

        When a bath or shower was not accessible, fragrances were especially important when large groups of people were in close quarters, such as at feasts, wedding, and other special occasions. Thus, those natural oils and ointments aided large gatherings, whereas today, most commercial colognes hinder large gatherings, somewhat by excessively powerful scents, but more importantly by causing negative physiological reactions, ranging from mild discomfort to intense suffering. With indoor gatherings, the combination of different airborne chemicals plus the elevated concentration equates to serious air pollution.

        Until recent times, the sources for "ointment" and "perfume" were natural and harmless. They were flowers, wood, gums, resins, spices and oils, and we cannot improve upon God’s perfect and awesome creation. Ah, let’s thank God for the sweet and spicy smells He has created!

        Today, most fragrances are totally or in part chemically-synthesized. Modern man has the impressive ability to make imitations of natural fragrances, invent new scents, and to extend the reach and lingering capacities of those products. But some of these efforts are showering our environment with more and more chemicals whose biological effects are largely untested.

        The big question is: What price are we paying health-wise?

by Don Hooser

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