Window into the Bible
Incense and Incense Burners
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Frankincense and Myrrh
Frankincense and myrrh are both tree resins. At the time of the Bible, they only grew in the Arabian Peninsula and on the North eastern coast of Africa. Today the finest incense comes from Yemen and Somalia. Both were very expensive to buy after the had been transported over long distances by camel train. Frankincense and myrrh were brought as gifts to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:11). Frankincense was primarily used in places of worship and was usually burnt, often mixed in with other ingredients (Exodus 30:34).
Myrrh was used on Jesus’ body as part of the customary preparations for burial.
‘Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.’ John 19:38-40
Myrrh was also used in the time of Queen Esther as part of the beauty treatment.
‘Before a girl’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.’ Esther 2:12
Frankincense comes from the Boswellia trees, mostly from Boswellia Sacra. The bark of the tree is slashed and as the tree ‘bleeds’ the frankincense hardens. Then the frankincense ‘tears’ are harvested.
Myrrh comes from the Commiphora trees, mostly from Commiphora myrrha. Myrrh is produced when the tree is wounded or slashed. Its name means bitter and has been used as an incense, as perfume and as medicine.
Even a small amount of frankincense produces visible smoke. This imagery is used in the Bible as a symbol of prayers ascending to heaven.
‘And when he [the Lamb] had taken it [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.’ Revelation 5:8.
This reconstruction at Timna Valley, Israel shows the Altar of Incense in the Tabernacle. It is described as following:
They made the altar of incense out of acacia wood. It was square, a cubit long and a cubit wide, and two cubits high - its corners of one piece with it. They overlaid the top and all the sides and the horns with pure gold, and made a gold molding around it. They made two gold rings below the molding - two on opposite sides - to hold the poles used to carry it. They made the poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold. (Exodus 37:25-28)
Incense burners have been used in many cultures across time. Here are a selection of incense burners that we have seen.
Four Horned Altar
Date: 975 - 925 BC
Place: Megiddo [Israel]
The purpose of this limestone altar is uncertain. It may have been used for offering incense, grain or wine.
Photographed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
People sometimes held the horns of the
temple altar in Jerusalem for security when their lives were threatened by the king (eg. Adonijah in 1 Kings 1:50-51)
Painted Cultic Stand and Shovels (Replica)
Place: Tel Dan [Israel]
Photographed at the Beit Ussishkin Museum, Israel.
Dan was established as a "detestable" place of worship during the reign of Jereboam son of Nebat the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 12:28-33).
Date: Late bronze period
Photographed at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
Incense Burner (Thymiaterion)
Date: 1st to 2nd century AD.
Photographed at the M. C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
This type of incense burner or censer was used by priests and Pharaohs in Egypt in various religious ceremonies. Photographed at the Vatican Museum, Rome, Italy.
During the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelite Korah and his followers challenged Moses' leadership. Moses responds as follows:
4 When Moses heard this, he fell facedown. 5 Then he said to Korah and all his followers: “In the morning the Lord will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him. 6 You, Korah, and all your followers are to do this: Take censers 7 and tomorrow put burning coals and incense in them before the Lord. The man the Lord chooses will be the one who is holy. You Levites have gone too far!” (Numbers 16: 4-7)
Silver Incense Shovels
Date: 6th to 5th century BC.
Place: Uncertain but possibly from Altintepe in Turkey.
Photographed at the British Museum, London, England.