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Holman Bible Dictionary

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Additional Resources
• Nave's Topical Bible
• Treasury of Scripture Knowledge
Perfumes, & spices: & Balm, Ointment
Spices, Spikenard, Myrrh, Hyssop, etc: & Balm, Ointment, Perfumes
• Easton's Bible Dictionary
• Fausset's Bible Dictionary
• Smith's Bible Dictionary
Spice, Spices
• International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Spice, Spices
Greek - spices, sweet spices
Hebrew - spices
Hebrew - sweet spices, fragrant spices, spices
Hebrew - spices
Hebrew - mix in the spices

Aromatic, pungent substances used in the preparation of foods, sacred oils for anointings, incense, perfumes, and ointments used for personal hygiene and for burial of the dead.

Spices were very expensive and highly prized in antiquity. They were brought into Palestine from India, Arabia, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Solomon had an extensive commercial venture with Hiram, king of Tyre, dealing in spices and other commodities. His fleet of ships brought much needed revenue into the Israelite economy (1 Kings 10:15). Solomon also taxed the caravan groups that passed through his lands. The land of Sheba, present day Yemen, had an extensive commerce in spices. The queen of Sheba made a long journey of 1,200 miles because she was afraid that her caravan spice business would be hurt by Solomon's merchant fleet. In her visit she gave to Solomon “a very great quantity of spices” (2 Chronicles 9:9).

Spices were widely used in the worship service of the Temple and in the lives of the people. See Ointment. Several spices, which the Talmud called “food improvers,” were used in the preparation of foods. These included cummin, dill, cinnamon, and mint. Frankincense, stacte, galbanum, and onycha were used in the preparation of the incense to be used in the worship of Israel (Exodus 30:34-35). Balsam, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and calamus were used in the preparation of the holy anointing oil (Exodus 30:23-25). Cassia, aloes, and spikenard were some of the spices used in the preparation of cosmetics (Song of Solomon 4:14; Mark 14:3; John 12:3). Myrrh and aloes were used in ointments for burial (Luke 23:56; John 19:39).

Some of the most important spices were:

1. Aloe (Aloexyllon agallochum and Aquilaria agallocha) A spice used to perfume garments and beds (Proverbs 7:17; Psalms 45:8;). The aloe mentioned in John 19:39 was a different plant. The extract from its leaves was mixed with water and other spices to make ointment for the anointing of the dead.

2. Balsam (Pistacia lentiscus) This product of Gilead was exported to Egypt and to Tyre. The resin from this desert plant was used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes (Jeremiah 46:11).

3. Cummin (Cuminum cyminum) This seed was used as a spice in bread. Its dry seed was beaten with a stick, for it was too soft to be threshed with a sledge (Isaiah 28:23-28).

4. Cassia (Flores cassiae) Two Hebrew words are used to translate cassia (Exodus 30:24; Psalms 45:8). The dried bark or blooms were used in the preparation of the anointing oil; the pods and leaves were used as medicine.

5. Cinnamon A highly prized plant, cinnamon was used as a condiment, in the preparation of perfumes (Proverbs 7:17), and in the holy oil for anointing (Exodus 30:23). The New Testament lists cinnamon as one of the commodities found in Babylon (Revelation 18:13).

6. Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) An aromatic seed used as a spice in food; its oil was used in the manufacture of perfume. The Israelites compared the manna to the coriander seed (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:7).

7. Dill The seed and the leaves were used to flavor foods and as medicine to wash skin wounds (Matthew 23:23; KJV, “anise”).

8. Frankincense (Boswellia carteri and Frereana) A resin of a tree which, when burned, produced a strong aromatic scent. Frankincense was used in the preparation of the sacred oil for anointing of kings and priests and for the sacrifices in the Temple. The men from the East brought frankincense to Jesus (Matthew 2:11).

9. Galbanum A fragrant resin which gave a pleasant scent when burned; it was one of the ingredients of the holy incense (Exodus 30:34).

10. Henna A plant used as a cosmetic; its leaves produced a dye women used (Song of Solomon 1:14; Song of Solomon 4:13). KJV translates the word as “camphire,” but camphire was not native to Palestine and may not have been known in biblical times.

11. Mint Mint leaves were used as a condiment (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42).

12. Myrrh (Commiphora abessinica) The resinous gum of a plant which was included in the preparation of the holy anointing oil (Exodus 30:23). It was also used for its aromatic properties (Psalms 45:8) and used for female purification (Esther 2:12). Myrrh was given to Jesus at His birth as a gift (Matthew 2:11) and as a drink when He was on the cross (Mark 15:23).

13. Onycha Traditionally taken as the aromatic crushed shell of a mollusc but in light of Ugaritic plant lists probably a type of cress (Lepidium sativum). It was used in holy incense (Exodus 30:34).

14. Rue (Ruta graveolens) An herb used as a condiment. It was valued for its medicinal properties. Its leaves were used in the healing of insect bites (Luke 11:42).

15. Saffron (Curcuma longa, Crocus sativus) A substance of a plant which produced a yellow dye and was used to color foods. When mixed with oil, it was used as medicine and perfume (Song of Solomon 4:14).

16. Spices The Hebrew word should be translated “balsam” (Balsamodendrium opolbalsamum). A shrub with a resin that gave a pleasant odor. Balsam was used as perfume and as medicine. The balsam was one of the ingredients of the anointing oil (Exodus 30:23).

17. Spikenard (Nardos tacs jatamansi) A very expensive fragrant oil used in the manufacture of perfumes and ointments (Song of Solomon 1:12; Song of Solomon 4:13; Mark 14:3; John 12:3).

18. Stacte (Pistacia lentiscus) A small tree which produced a resin used in the sacred incense (Exodus 30:34).

Claude F. Mariottini

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'SPICES'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.


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