Sounds like: mohr
This time of year we often hear about the three gifts that were presented to the infant Yeshua (Jesus). Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were very expensive commodities, gifts worthy of a King and a High Priest.
Erroneously many believe there were three Magi thanks, in part, to the We Three Kings song. But the Bible gives no indication of how many Magi sought the young toddler, we just make the assumption that there were three because three gifts were given. Today we look at the last gift mentioned: MYRRH.
Myrrh is actually tree resin from the very thorny commiphora myrrha tree. The resin was used all across the ancient world for medicinal, beauty, and religious purposes. There are two Hebrew words that have been translated as myrrh: lot and mor (pronounced loht and mohr).
Loht was a type of tree resin but not necessarily myrrh. Most, but not all, modern translators have translated loht as myrrh, but more accurately it should be translated as aromatic resin or gum.
Loht and Joseph
Loht really only pops up in one story in Genesis… the story of Joseph’s fall into slavery and rise in Egypt. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him. He had the gift of dream interpretation and in the interpretations he always made his brothers look bad. When their father appeared to favour Joseph over them, they decided to kill him, but at the last minute they opted to sell him as a slave to Ishmaelite traders instead. Amongst other things, the Ishmaelites who purchased Joseph were loht traders (Genesis 37:25). They brought their goods, including loht, to Egypt where Joseph was sold to an affluent family.
Eventually, as the story goes, Joseph used his gift of dream interpretation to move up the social-political ladder at a relatively fast pace. In fact, Joseph went right to the top, and ended up being second in command to the Pharaoh of Egypt. When a famine hit the land, Joseph’s brothers were forced to head to Egypt to seek food. When they got there Joseph recognized them, but they did not recognize him. Joseph accused them of being spies and he jailed them for three days. On the third day he set them free (which is worth noting!) and then he said to them:
“Do this and live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified, and you will not die.”
And so Simeon stayed imprisoned in Egypt and the brothers went back to their father and explained that the only way they could go back to Egypt for provisions was to bring their youngest brother, Benjamin and present him before Pharaoh’s administrator:
Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the best products of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man as a gift, a little balsam and a little honey, labdanum resin and myrrh (aromatic gum) [wa-loht], pistachio nuts and almonds. And take double the money in your hand, and take back in your hand the money that was returned in the opening of your sacks; perhaps it was a mistake. Take your brother also, and arise, return to the man; and may God Almighty grant you compassion in the sight of the man, so that he will release to you your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my sons, I am bereaved!”
So the men took this gift, and they took double the money in their hand, and Benjamin; then they set out and went down to Egypt, and stood before Joseph.
It’s interesting to note that Jacob instructed his sons to bring loht, amongst other gifts, “to the man” (who they had yet to recognized as Joseph). Joseph had been sold to traders of loht and then he received loht as a tribute from the ones who sold him into slavery in the first place. How does the old saying go? What comes around, goes around.
Myrrh: Perfume of Luxury
Loht may have been very similar to myrrh, but probably wasn’t exactly the same thing, and we know this because of the etymology of the word myrrh. It comes from the ancient Semetic languages (which is what Hebrew is). In Arabic it is Mur; in Hebrew it is Mohr. Myrrh was simply the English translation of the Hebrew word mohr and it was used throughout the Tanakh (Old Testament), from the earliest writings (Torah) to the later writings (Book of Esther).
Myrrh wasn’t an ingredient used solely by the Hebrew people. Most ancient cultures used it. In the Persian kingdom myrrh was used in beauty routines of the king’s concubines. When Esther was chosen to be part of king Ahasuerus’ harem she was given a year-long beauty treatment before being presented to the king. The treatment included myrrh:
Now when the turn came for each young woman to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women—for the days of their beauty treatment were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh [b-sheme ha-mohr] and six months with balsam oil and the cosmetics for women…
As we will see shortly, myrrh was associated with the Presence of YHWH. Keep that in mind as we look at Proverbs chapter 7. The author of this proverb described a rebellious and tempting prostitute. She was an analogy, as a false god tempting Israel away from YHWH. To a young man lacking sense she said,
“I have spread my couch with coverings, with coloured linens of Egypt. I have sprinkled my bed with myrrh [mohr], aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let’s drink our fill of love until morning; let’s delight ourselves with caresses. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He has taken a bag of money with him. At the full moon he will come home.”
With her many persuasions she entices him; with her flattering lips she seduces him. Suddenly he follows her as an ox goes to the slaughter…
This false god took on the smells associated with YHWH and tempted Israel with it. And like an ox to the slaughter-house, they followed their noses to the path that led to death.
Myrrh was also mentioned eight times in the poetically erotic poem, the Song of Songs. This was Solomon’s love poem between a bride and a groom. At one point in the poem the bride noticed that something was coming from the wilderness, something that looked like a column of smoke and smelled like myrrh and frankincense. She then asked the chorus, what is coming?:
Song of Songs 3:6-7
The Bride: “What is this coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh [mohr] and frankincense, with all the scented powders of the merchant?
The Chorus: “Behold, it is the traveling couch of Solomon; sixty warriors around it, of the warriors of Israel.”
To observant Jews this column of smoke, that smelled like myrrh and frankincense, would have brought to mind a particular image from the Torah. When YHWH saved the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery, He guided them into the wilderness in the form of a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire by night:
And YHWH was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from the presence of the people.
This pillar was God’s Presence with the people. It was a physical representation that people could see and smell. In Solomon’s poem the Bride sees the column of smoke coming from the wilderness and it smelled like myrrh. This was a Godly Presence coming her way.
Here are the other times the bride of the poem descriptively used myrrh:
- My beloved is to me a pouch of myrrh [ha-mohr] which lies all night between my breasts (Song of Songs 1:13)
- I arose to open to my beloved; and my hands dripped with myrrh [mohr], and my fingers with drops of myrrh [mohr], on the handles of the bolt.” (Song of Songs 5:5)
- His [my beloved’s] lips are lilies dripping with drops of myrrh [mohr]. (Song of Songs 5:13b)
Here are the times the groom of the poem used myrrh to describe his beloved:
- “Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle that graze among the lilies. Until the cool of the day when the shadows flee, I will go my way to the mountain of myrrh [har ha-mohr] and to the hill of frankincense.” (Song of Songs 4:5-6)
- “A locked garden is my sister, my bride, a locked spring, a sealed fountain. Your branches are an orchard of pomegranates with delicious fruits, henna with nard plants, nard and saffron, spice reed and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh [mohr], and aloes, along with all the finest balsam oils. You are a garden spring, a well of fresh water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.” (Song of Songs 4:12-15)
- “I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh [mohri] along with my balsam. I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, friends; drink and drink deeply, lovers.” (Song of Songs 5:1)
Myrrh: Anointing the Presence of YHWH
Myrrh was more than just an ingredient in a beauty routine. It had an extremely important role to play in ancient Hebrew customs. Myrrh was the first ingredient listed in an anointing oil recipe. This oil was specifically made to anoint the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle furniture, and, most notably, the Ark of the Covenant:
Moreover YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, “Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of liquid myrrh [mahr] five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, 250, and of fragrant cane 250, and of cassia 500, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin. You shall make from these a holy anointing oil, a fragrant mixture of ointments, the work of a perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. And you shall anoint the tent of meeting with it, and the ark of the testimony, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin and its stand. You shall also consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them shall be holy.”
Myrrh was incredibly important. It anointed the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant. The smell of myrrh was meant to remind you of YHWH. Myrrh anointed the Presence of God and consecrated YHWH’s Sacred Space… and everything that touched it would be made holy! This made the gifts of the Magi so much more significant:
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”
After hearing the king, they went on their way; and behold, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on ahead of them until it came to a stop over the place where the Child was to be found. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And after they came into the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary; and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh [Greek: smyrnan]. And after being warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.
This little infant was symbolically consecrated by the same beautiful smelling ingredients that anointed the Temple. These gifts from the Magi made a rich statement: This was Immanuel, God’s Presence with Us and myrrh would be His anointing oil. Everyone whose heart would be touched by Yeshua would be made holy. This one would be our Peace! (Micah 5:5)
Myrrh showed up in the New Testament (B’rit Chadashah) only one other time. After Yeshua died, His body was taken off the cross and given to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus:
Now after these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, requested of Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh [Greek: smyrnes] and aloes, about a hundred litras weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Although John stated that binding a body in linen and spices was the burial custom of the Jews, the Tanakh never gives us the indication that using myrrh was the part of the practice in ancient Israel. It was, however, used in Egyptian mummification. According to the American Botanical Council, “The Egyptian Ebers papyrus (circa 1500 BCE) notes that myrrh, along with frankincense, was used to treat wounds and skin sores, and as part of the embalming ointment used in mummification.”
Fast forward to the time of Yeshua, and it’s worth noting that myrrh was customarily used by wealthy Romans to anoint their dead in order to cover the smell of a decaying body. [You can read more about it in the February 2016 online edition of Current Archaeology].
What we do know about early Jewish funerary rituals was that the dead were wrapped and laid out in tombs. About a year later the family would return, gather the bones and place them in funerary jars. Later, in Yeshua’s day, the bones were gathered and placed in a funerary box called an ossuary. It makes sense that the Jews might also adopt a practice that would cover the smell of decay.
The more important thing to note about myrrh, as a gift for Yeshua, was its deep-rooted use in anointing the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. This was where YHWH resided as the Jews lived nomadically in the wilderness. His Presence was in the portable Tabernacle, hovering over the Ark. Myrrh anointed the space of YHWH, and it smelled really good.
It’s not a coincidence that Yeshua alluded to Himself as the Temple. Remember when Yeshua said the following to the Jewish leaders, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up!” (John 2:19)
The Jews, who accused Yeshua of blasphemy, remembered His statement and mocked Him on the cross:
And those passing by were speaking abusively to Him [Jesus], shaking their heads, and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
But Yeshua was the Presence of YHWH and He could not come down from the cross, because He had to fulfill His promise. He had to redeem the people so they could walk back into the sacred space of YHWH and see Him face to face.
Yeshua equated Himself as the living Temple. He was the Presence of God; He was Sacred Space. Myrrh had anointed Him as a child, just as it had anointed the Temple in the days of Moses.
When the Magi anointed Yeshua with myrrh, it was a prophetic gesture. This tiny infant would become the Temple for us. His death and resurrection would bring us back home to the Garden of Eden, back into the Sacred Space where we always meant to be.
According to one of the Psalms, when we go home to the Father we will be anointed with the oil of joy which will smell of aloes, cassia, and (you guessed it) myrrh:
[Sons of Korah:] Your throne, God, is forever and ever; the scepter of Your kingdom is a scepter of justice.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of joy above Your companions.
All Your garments are fragrant with myrrh [mohr], aloes, and cassia; from ivory palaces stringed instruments have made You joyful.
Next week: Frankincense