After bathing, the woman applies some fragrant oil over her softened skin. Then she opens a colorfully ornamented box that contains a collection of small bottles, vases, and jars made of glass, ivory, shell, or stone. In them she has an assortment of oils and perfumes that are delicately scented with balsam, cardamom, cinnamon, frankincense, honey, myrrh, and the like.
From the box, the woman takes out several delicately shaped spoons, dishes, and bowls. Using them, she mixes the cosmetics she has chosen for the day. Peering into a bronze mirror, she carefully proceeds with her beauty regimen.
IT SEEMS that since the earliest of times, women have been very interested in making themselves beautiful. Early tomb paintings, frescoes, and mosaics all suggest that the use of cosmetics was widespread among people in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The heavily made up, almond-shaped eyes seen on images of Egyptian women were much admired.
What, though, about the Israelites? Did women of ancient Israel use cosmetics? And if so, what kind? There are, of course, no tomb paintings or frescoes from ancient Israel that we can refer to. But certain accounts in the Bible along with various archaeological artifacts unearthed in Bible lands can provide at least a glimpse of the use of cosmetics in Bible times.
The Tools Used
Countless items linked to the use of cosmetics and perfumes have been unearthed in excavations throughout the land of Israel. Stone bowls or palettes for grinding and mixing cosmetic materials, carrot-shaped perfume bottles, alabaster ointment jars, and hand mirrors of polished bronze were among the finds. One ivory spoon has carved palm leaves on one side of its handle and a woman’s head flanked by doves on the other.
Decorated shells appear to have been popular cosmetic containers among the well-to-do. Tiny cosmetic spoons made of ivory or wood, some carved in the form of girls swimming and various other intricate designs, have also been found in Egypt and at Canaanite sites. All of this testifies to the extent of the use of cosmetics by women of that time.
For the Eyes
In the Bible, one of Job’s daughters is named “Keren-happuch.” In Hebrew, this name could mean “Horn of the Black (Eye) Paint,” that is, a receptacle or box used to store makeup, perhaps kohl, or eye makeup. (Job 42:14) The name could have alluded to her beauty in general, but it also seems to suggest that the use of cosmetics was known at that time.
Significantly, Biblical references to eye painting are always connected with such notorious women as the scheming Queen Jezebel and unfaithful Jerusalem, portrayed as a prostitute by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. (2 Kings 9:30; Jeremiah 4:30; Ezekiel 23:40) Judging by the large number of glass or stone containers with tiny wands for applying kohl eyeliner that have been unearthed, it is evident that many women in apostate Israel—particularly those of royalty and the rich—had taken up the practice of decorating themselves heavily with eyeliner and other kinds of cosmetics.
Perfumed Oil for Sacred or Secular Use
The production and use of olive-oil-based perfumes has a long history in ancient Israel. The Bible book of Exodus contains a recipe for making the sacred perfumed oil used by the priests in their services at the temple. It is a blend of cinnamon, myrrh, and other aromatic plants. (Exodus 30:22-25) In Jerusalem archaeologists have found what they believe to be a first-century C.E. workshop where perfume and incense were produced for use at the temple. There are many Biblical references to perfumed oil, used in both sacred services and everyday life.—2 Chronicles 16:14; Luke 7:37-46; 23:56.
Water was scarce in that part of the world, so scented oils were a welcome addition to the hygiene routine. Oil was used not only for protection of the skin in the hot dry climate but also for its cosmetic benefits. (Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20) The Jewish maiden Esther, before being presented to King Ahasuerus, received a 12-month “spa” treatment—a 6-month massage with oil of myrrh and then another 6-month treatment with balsam oil.—Esther 2:12.
Perfumes or perfumed oils were a valued commodity on a par with silver and gold. When the queen of Sheba made her epic journey to visit King Solomon, the valuable gifts she brought included gold, precious stones, and balsam oil. (1 Kings 10:2, 10) When King Hezekiah showed the treasures of his house to envoys from Babylon, “the balsam oil and the good oil” were proudly displayed alongside the silver, the gold, and his entire armory.—Isaiah 39:1, 2.
Only tiny amounts of perfume or oil could be extracted from the various flowers, fruits, leaves, resins, or bark. The Bible mentions a number of these aromatic plants, such as aloe, balsam, bdellium gum, calamus, cassia, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, saffron, and spikenard. Some of them were indigenous and grew in the Jordan Valley. Others were imported by way of the legendary incense trade routes from India, South Arabia, and elsewhere.
The Enigmatic Balsam Oil
Balsam oil is mentioned in the Bible in the accounts about Queen Esther, the queen of Sheba, and King Hezekiah, as noted above. In 1988 a small jug of oil was discovered in a cave near Qumran, on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It raised much speculation. Was this the last remaining sample of the famous balsam oil? Researchers have no conclusive answer. Down to this day, growers are trying to reestablish the once renowned balsam groves.
Evidence seems to bear out that the balsam oil mentioned in the Bible was cultivated in the area around En-gedi. Excavations have uncovered furnaces, jars, and various metal and bone objects, dating from the sixth century B.C.E., similar to those used in other areas for perfume-making. Most scholars believe that the balsam bush originally came from Arabia or Africa. The fragrance was produced from the sap. Balsam oil was so highly prized that the methods of cultivation and production were kept secret.
Balsam was even used as a bargaining tool in political maneuvers. For example, according to the historian Josephus, Mark Antony obtained an entire grove of these precious plants and offered them as a gift to the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. The Roman historian Pliny mentioned that during the Jewish War in the first century C.E., Jewish fighters attempted to destroy all the balsam plants to prevent the conquering Romans from taking them.
From Bible references and archaeological discoveries, we are able to get a glimpse of the art of cosmetic use among the people of Bible times. Rather than condemning the use of cosmetics and other adornment, the Bible emphasizes that they be used in modesty and with soundness of mind. (1 Timothy 2:9) The apostle Peter pointed out that what is “of great value in the eyes of God” is “the quiet and mild spirit.” In view of ever-changing styles and fashions, this surely is fine advice for Christian women, young and old.—1 Peter 3:3, 4.