Galbanum Incense – An Ingredient in the Holy Incense

Galbanum Incense – An ingredient of the Holy Incense (Temple Incense)

Resembling a giant fennel plant, Galbanum (Ferula galbaniflua, member of the carrot family) was used in the ancient world as incense. Native to the Middle East and grown in the Mesopotamian area and West Asia, Galbanum had to be imported in biblical times. Today it is cultivated in Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Galbanum, also called Mother resin, is discharged from the roots and lower trunk of this small wild plant. It is harvested by slitting its stem a few inches above the ground, allowing the milky substance to flow out and harden. Its balsamic tears are round, yellow to brownish-yellow, translucent, and not larger than a pea. It has been valued for its complex green, woody, balsam-like fragrance. At one time it was used in pharmaceuticals, but now it is mostly used as a food flavoring and as a perfume fixative. The Egyptians imported Galbanum resin in vast amounts, as it was a most treasured incense ingredient. In addition, Egypt used it for embalming and cosmetics.

The Jewish Talmud suggests that Galbanum, a bitter, earthy gum resin from an Asiatic plant was included in the Holy Incense because Every communal fast that does not include the sinners of Israel is not a fast. This was because the Temple incense included spices with beautiful fragrances, but was considered incomplete without a less-than-fragrant aromatic such as Galbanum. Described by some modern Bible commentators as having a pleasant smell, Philo praises Galbanum, comparing it to air and calling it sweet smelling and says its smoke drives away serpents.

This sharp, biting pungent resin could be equated with some of the unpleasant things we need to pray about. We are required to examine ourselves carefully as we meditate on the Holy Scriptures,

Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Yeshua Ha Mashiach is in you, except ye be reprobates? (II Corinthians 13:5)

A genuine self-examination can be a very unpleasant experience. The Jewish Talmud say, Chelbenah alludes to complete sinners. Like a Tziporen-fingernail, they are smooth and unblemished on the inside, and only darkened on the outside.

In Hebrew, Galbanum is Chelbenah. The Hebraic root is Cheleb, which means the fat or the richest part and Chalab, which means milk. Of the animal sacrifices in Scripture, the fat was reserved for God and burned as a soothing aroma to Him (Genesis 4:4, Leviticus 3:14-16).

In the Greek, Galbanum is simply a borrowing of the Hebrew word, so there is no chance of error in translation from Hebrew to Greek. It is mentioned in the Egyptian papyri and only once in the Old Testament as an ingredient of the sacred incense and once in the Apocrypha (Sirach 24:15).