Healing Essential Oils of the Bible
Healing Essential Oils of the Bible
Essential oils have been revered for their therapeutic and beautifying abilities since the first human civilizations emerged. Oils and resins, as hard-to-obtain substances, have long had special roles in medicine and religious activities. In order to obtain an essential oil, an inordinate amount of the plant must be collected, making the end product highly valuable. Perhaps the most well-known documentation of aromatic oils being used in religious contexts is in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible recounts many uses of aromatic oils as objects of prosperity, kindness, health and worship. We see instances of like spikenard being used to anoint Jesus and frankincense being turned into a precious incense for use in religious ceremonies. The Bible shows us that the use of essential oils and resins has always been a critical part of worship for Jews and Christians.
Steam distilling essential oils is a modern process that necessitates sophisticated technology and access to large amounts of water, two things that were unavailable in Biblical times in the Middle East. The oils we read about in the Bible were probably infusions, where an aromatic plant is soaked for a long time in a more abundant oil, such as olive oil. While the exact substances may differ between what we use today and what was available 2,000 years ago, these oils still held the same cultural importance we attribute to medicinal oils. Spikenard, cassia and the other herbs mentioned in the texts were valued because of their inherent qualities and because they were hard to find. No matter how these oils were created, obtaining essential oils was not an easy endeavor.
We find about twelve essential oil plants listed in the Bible: juniper, myrtle, spikenard, frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, cinnamon, cedar, cedar and sandalwood, hyssop and cypress. One part of the puzzle that is unclear to modern scholars is whether all these plants were used as essential oils or if they were herbal plant remedies. Regardless, the Bible certainly makes reference to the Jews and Christians using these plants for anointing and also for medicine. There are varying interpretations of how many healing plants mentioned in the Bible were used for medicinal or sacred purposes. However, contemporary still recognizes these oils as important ingredients in the essential oil repertoire, and it is clear humankind has valued these plants for thousands of years.
The aromatic plants of the Bible reflect the dryness of the Middle East. These plants can survive harsh climates and little rainfall. Fortunately for humankind, this unforgiving environment has given birth to many of aromatherapy’s most well-loved plants. The oils of the Bible come from a variety of plants, most of which are hardy, desert-dwellers. Cinnamon is a bark from an aromatic tree that curls once it is removed and dried. Sandalwood, cedar, cypress and juniper are also all trees or shrubs found in the Mediterranean region. Historically, they were used for wood as well as medicine, aromatherapy and incense. Frankincense, myrrh and galbanum are resins derived from the barks of trees. They are often burned directly, also used in incense and retain their aromatic qualities for a long period of time. Modern aromatherapy often uses frankincense and myrrh for their abilities to connect us to higher planes of awareness. The frequently mentioned hyssop is an aromatic plant with purple flowers that is widely cultivated for use in cooking and medicine. Myrtle, a flowering short tree or shrub, is a common aromatherapy plant as well that grows wild in these dry climates. Finally, spikenard, also called nard in the Bible, is a plant that is native to the Himalayan region of Asia. It was imported to the Middle East and used as an expensive perfume.
The Old Testament contains the most references to healing plants. One of the first of these plants to be mentioned in the Bible is cinnamon. In Exodus 30:23-29, God instructs Moses to create an anointing oil made from myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, cane and olive oil. He advises Moses to place the oil on all the implements used for worship in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the portable alter created for worship during the Israelites’ 40-year journey in the desert. Through being anointed, the objects became transmuted into sacred vessels. The act of anointing objects and people with precious oils is carried throughout the Old Testament and can be found in the New Testament as well.
Jesus’s life history has a number of instances when essential oils were conferred on him as acts of faith and appreciation. The book of Matthew tells of the kings from the East that came to offer Jesus gifts at his birth, notably frankincense and myrrh. As we already learned, these two resins are often used in modern times to assist in spiritual work. Jesus also received gifts of spikenard from two women. The first woman cracked a jar of spikenard and poured it above Jesus’s head. The second gift-giver, Mary Magdalene, used her life savings of the same plant oil to anoint his feet. Using her hair, she then massaged the oil into his skin. These acts of faith and gratitude were seen as humble sacrifices as spikenard was a particularly expensive oil to obtain.
Today, the oils of the Bible are frequently used in aromatherapy for healing physical ailments, connecting with spiritual or meditative states and even as offerings in religious contexts. Many of these oils have been used in unison, such as frankincense and myrrh, for thousands of years. Their widespread cultivation and our appreciation for their medicinal qualities have traversed the globe as Jews and Christians have continued to respect and use these rare oils. While aromatherapy as it is practiced today is a relatively new field of medicine, the use of medicinal oils is actually as old as civilization itself. By learning how these plants were used during Biblical times, we can connect to traditions that have recognized the relationship between humankind, the plant world and spiritual awakening.