OINTMENT AND PERFUMES
The Hebrew terms relating to ointments may apply, not only to salve-like preparations that liquefy when rubbed on the skin, but also to compounded oil preparations that remain liquid at normal temperatures.—Ex. 30:25; Ps. 133:2.
In the past as now, ointments were used chiefly as cosmetic and medicinal preparations, their advantage being mainly due to their oil content. The property that fats and oils possess, of absorbing and retaining odors, made it possible for the ointment maker to produce perfumed preparations that were highly prized for their fragrance. (Song of Sol. 1:3) The cleansing power and skin-softening characteristic of the oil, plus the fragrance of the additives, made such ointments very useful for the prevention of chafing and skin irritation, and for a body “deodorant” in hot countries where water was often very scarce. Offering guests such a preparation upon their arrival at one’s home was certainly an act of hospitality, as noted by what Jesus said when someone greased his feet with perfumed oil.—Luke 7:37-46.
When perfumed ointments of special make were used in preparing a corpse for burial, they no doubt served primarily as disinfectants and deodorants. (2 Chron. 16:14; Luke 23:56) With such usage in mind, Jesus explained that the anointing he received in the house of Simon the leper consisting of very costly perfumed oil, the scent of which filled the whole house, was in a figurative sense “for the preparation of me for burial.” (Matt. 26:6-12; John 12:3) Precious perfumes, such as the spikenard used on this occasion, were usually sealed in beautiful marblelike alabaster cases or vials.—Mark 14:3; see ALABASTER.
HOLY ANOINTING OIL AND INCENSE
The first ointment mentioned in the Bible was the holy anointing oil used to sanctify the dedicated articles of the tabernacle and its priesthood. (Ex. 30:25-30) Personal use of this special ointment was prohibited, under penalty of death. This law shows the sacredness attached to the tabernacle and its personnel.—Ex. 30:31-33.
Jehovah gave Moses the formula for the holy anointing oil. Only “the choicest perfumes” were to be used: myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus, cassia and the purest olive oil, and each in specified amounts. (Ex. 30:22-24) Likewise, Jehovah gave the formula for the holy incense. It was not just a substance that would smolder and smoke; it was a special perfumed incense. (Ex. 30:7; 40:27; Lev. 16:12; 2 Chron. 2:4; 13:10, 11) To make it, specific amounts of stacte, onycha, perfumed galbanum and frankincense were used, God further describing it as “a spice mixture, the work of an ointment maker, salted, pure, something holy.” Some of the incense was finely powdered and probably sifted to obtain a uniform product, suitable for its special use. Private use was a capital crime.—Ex. 30:34-38.
In making both the anointing oil and holy incense, fragrant balsam oil was used. (Ex. 25:1, 2, 6; 35:8, 28) It seems reasonable to presume that the perfume agencies used in making the holy ointment were powdered and then cooked in the oil (compare Job 41:31), after which it was allowed to settle before the oil was drawn off and filtered.
Making the anointing oil and perfumed incense was not a matter of trial and error, for at the outset Jehovah said: “In the heart of everyone wise of heart I do put wisdom, that they may indeed make . . . the anointing oil and the perfumed incense for the sanctuary.” (Ex. 31:6-11; 35:10-15; 37:29; 39:33, 38) Thereafter certain ones of the priests were delegated to be ointment makers for the compounding of these materials and also to take the oversight of the supply of such items. (1 Chron. 9:30; Num. 4:16) However, when Israel fell away from pure worship, Jehovah ceased to take pleasure in the making or using of these special ointments and incenses.—Ezek. 8:11, 12, 17, 18.
ECONOMIC IMPORTANCE OF OINTMENTS AND PERFUMES
Ointments, perfumes and incense were not limited to the holy products used in the sanctuary. By Solomon’s day there were “all sorts of perfume” and fragrant powders available for scenting houses, garments, beds and bodies of royalty and others who could afford them. (Esther 2:12; Ps. 45:8; Prov. 7:17; Song of Sol. 3:6, 7; 4:10) Nor was the making of these preparations restricted to the Levitical priesthood. Even women were sometimes skilled ointment makers, and in Nehemiah’s day there was a trade group to which members of the ointment mixers belonged.—1 Sam. 8:13; Neh. 3:8.
The public interest in perfumed products created commerce and trade in the ancient world, not only in such consumer items, but also in the raw materials needed to make the same. Besides myrrh especially for ointments, and frankincense for incense, other materials including spikenard, saffron, cane, cinnamon, aloes, cassia, and various spices, gums and aromatic plants were often transported long distances before reaching the pots and perfumeries of the ointment makers.—Song of Sol. 4:14; Rev. 18:11, 13.