L’vonah: Frankincense, Feminine Noun, (Strong’s 3828).
Sounds like: l’voe’nah
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. Today we look at the second gift in the traditional list: frankincense.
There is only one Hebrew word translated as frankincense: l’vonah.
Frankincense in the Tabernacle
Frankincense was an expensive perfume and it held great importance in the Tabernacle of YHWH:
Then YHWH said to Moses, “Take for yourself spices—stacte, onycha, and galbanum, spices and pure frankincense [u-l’vonah zakkah]; there shall be an equal part of each. You shall make incense from it all, a skillful mixture, the work of a perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. And you shall crush some of it very fine, and put part of it in front of the testimony in the tent of meeting where I will meet with you; it shall be most holy to you. And the incense which you shall make, you shall not make in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be holy to you for YHWH. Whoever makes any like it, to use as perfume, shall be cut off from his people.”
This concoction, which included frankincense, was to be placed in front of the Ark of the Testimony where the Presence of God rested in the Tabernacle. It was only for YHWH and no human was to use it as a personal perfume.
In another part of the Tabernacle Frankincense was placed on each of the two rows of the showbread, which sat on the golden Table:
“Then you shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it; two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. And you shall set them in two rows, six to a row, on the pure gold table before YHWH. You shall put pure frankincense [l’vonah zakkah] on each row so that it may be a memorial portion for the bread, an offering by fire to YHWH. Every Sabbath day he shall set it in order before YHWH continually; it is an everlasting covenant for the sons of Israel. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from YHWH’s offerings by fire, his portion forever.”
Frankincense, as a perfume, was considered the purest of incense. In fact, the English word “frankincense” comes from the Old French words, franc encens, meaning pure incense. In fact, in both of these references above the word frankincense was paired with the Hebrew word for pure: l’vonah (frankincense) zakkah (pure). Even the root of the word l’vonah, comes from laban/lavan, meaning pure or white. This incense was uncontaminated and refined… and worthy to be in the presence of YHWH.
That’s what makes the gifts of the three Magi to Yeshua so compellingly poignant. Because of its inherent purity, frankincense was worthy to be in the presence of God. Although the Magi were Gentiles, and perhaps not familiar with the Tanakh scrolls of the Hebrew people, they knew the value of frankincense in the middle eastern market… this was a gift worthy of royalty. But Joseph and Mary would have recognized that this was a gift worthy to be presented to God.
After hearing the king [Herod], they [the Magi] 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 [Greek: libanon], and myrrh. And after being warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi left for their own country by another way.
Grain Offering: Fine Flour and Frankincense
But there was more to frankincense than just being a perfume for the Tabernacle. It also had an important role in the offertory system of the Hebrew people:
“Now when anyone presents a grain offering as an offering to YHWH, his offering shall be of fine flour, and he shall pour oil on it and put frankincense [l’vonah] on it. He shall then bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests; and he shall take from it his handful of its fine flour and of its oil, with all of its frankincense [l’vonahtah]. And the priest shall offer it up in smoke as its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to YHWH. The remainder of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons: a most holy part of the offerings to YHWH by fire.”
Grain offering was not an atonement type of offering, it was a type of worship offering. An atonement offering needed blood, but this perfumed fine flour was an offering of smoke that raised up to God with an aroma that was sweet and soothing. It was a gift, offered to God as a thank you, for the good and fruitful provisions He provided.
“Now this is the law of the grain offering: the sons of Aaron shall present it before YHWH in front of the altar. Then one of them shall lift up from it a handful of the fine flour of the grain offering, with its oil and all the frankincense [ha-l’vonah] that is on the grain offering, and he shall offer it up in smoke on the altar, a soothing aroma, as its memorial offering to YHWH. And Aaron and his sons are to eat what is left of it.”
This “fine flour” offering benefitted from the beautiful scent of frankincense, and it was seen as a memorial offering, recalling YHWH’s pure goodness and soothing presence.
But not all fine flour offerings were meant to include frankincense. The poor, who could not afford doves to sacrifice, were allowed to substitute fine flour for their sin offering:
“But if his means are insufficient for two turtledoves or two young doves, then for his offering for that which he has sinned, he shall bring the tenth of an ephah of fine flour as a sin offering; he shall not put oil on it or place frankincense [l’vonah] on it, for it is a sin offering. He shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take his handful of it as its memorial portion and offer it up in smoke on the altar, with the offerings of YHWH by fire: it is a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin which he has committed from one of these, and it will be forgive him; then the rest shall become the priest’s, like the grain offering.”
This sin-offering option of using fine flour, which the poor and destitute worshippers could utilize, had a strict rule: no frankincense was to be used. Frankincense was not to be used for a sin offering. Frankincense was for worship, not atonement.
Similarly, frankincense could not be used as a guilt offering either:
…if an attitude of jealousy comes over him [the husband] and he is jealous of his wife when she has defiled herself, or if an attitude of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has not defiled herself, the man shall then bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring as an offering for her a tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall not pour oil on it nor put frankincense [l’vonah] on it, because it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of reminder, a reminder of wrongdoing.
Frankincense was a soothing aroma… it was not to have anything to do with sin or guilt because there was nothing soothing about those things.
Frankincense and the First Fruits Offering
There was one other offering that required frankincense. It was the offering of early ripened things:
“Also, if you bring a grain offering of early ripened things to YHWH, you shall bring fresh heads of grain roasted in the fire, crushed grain of new growth, for the grain offering of your early ripened produce. You shall then put oil on it and place frankincense [l’vonah] on it; it is a grain offering. Then the priest shall offer up in smoke its memorial portion, part of its crushed grain and its oil with all its frankincense [l’vonahtah] as an offering by fire to YHWH.”
This first fruits offering held special significance. It was giving back to God the very first food gift of the harvest that you received from God. In essence, Yeshua was a first fruit offering. He was a perfect, pure, gift from God, the first to dwell amongst us. But we humans did not treat Him like a first fruit gift from God. We treated Him like a sacrificial Lamb, slaughtered to atone for our sins. Essentially, we offered Him as a sacrifice back to God… and painfully, God received the sacrifice to set us free from our bondage to death.
Paul put much emphasis on Yeshua (Jesus) as the perfect first fruits offering:
1 Corinthians 15:20-26
But the fact is, Messiah has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man death came, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Messiah all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Messiah the first fruits, after that those who are Messiah’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to our God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.
Yeshua was the first fruit to rise up from death into flourishing life. He was the sweetest and most soothing offering… providing new growth, new life, new fruit for His people:
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters. Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.
We are meant to be the first fruits of His creation… the soothing aroma to this stressed-out, damaged, planet. We are to be the Face of God to others, so that they want to follow the path that leads to abundant Life that only YHWH can provide.
YHWH wants to bring His seedlings home to Him. Yeshua was the Redeemer, the first of the harvest to lead the Saved home to YHWH. We who follow Yeshua on earth, will literally follow Him to YHWH’s heavenly Garden Kingdom. But before then, we are expected to grow and flourish here on earth, bearing fruit for God’s Kingdom. Yeshua preached this:
“Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself but must remain in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who remains in Me, and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”
Without Sincerity Frankincense Stinks
But… so many do not follow YHWH. They are not branches on Yeshua’s vine. They make no effort to reflect God’s face on others and they make no effort to find their way home to Him. The path they chose to be on leads to death, not life, and everything that YHWH eternally offers, they reject. They may lifelessly play the part of religious devotee, but their heart is not in it:
Jeremiah 6:20 (see also Isaiah 66:1-4)
[YHWH:] “For what purpose does frankincense come to Me [l’vonah] from Sheba, and the sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable and your sacrifices are not pleasing to Me.”
YHWH lamented about His people’s behaviour towards Him, He pointed out that, unlike them, He did not weary them with heartless obligatory worship offerings of frankincense:
[YHWH:] “Yet you have not called on Me, Jacob; but you have become weary of Me, Israel.
You have not brought to Me the sheep of your burnt offerings, nor have you honoured Me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, nor wearied you with frankincense [bi-l’vonah].
You have not bought Me sweet cane with money, nor have you satisfied Me with the fat of your sacrifices; rather, you have burdened Me with your sins, you have wearied Me with your wrongdoings.
I, I alone, am the one who wipes out your wrongdoings for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
Worship without heart and sincerity stinks. It is not a soothing aroma to God. But YHWH loved His people, even when they did not show love to Him. YHWH promised to forgive His people and blot out their sins from His memory, if they were willing to be forgiven. These people were His image bearers, His beautifully planted garden, His bride and He wanted nothing more than to bring them back home to Him.
In Solomon’s poem about the love between a groom and his bride, the bride was described a flourishing garden:
Song of Songs 4:12-15
“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 [l’vonah], myrrh, and aloes, along with all the finest balsam oils.
You are a garden spring, a well of fresh water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.”
YHWH sees us as a well-watered Garden full of growth potential and available to fill the world with good, Godly, nourishment. We are His bride, bringer of flourishing goodness, but we need help, we cannot bring the goodness on our own accord. First we needed YHWH’s Anointed One to set us free from the chains of death. We cannot set others free until we, ourselves, are free.
When Yeshua died for us, as the sacrificial lamb, He set us free. But He had to be born first. Yeshua came, God with Us, as a helpless infant… fully relying on His earthly parents to care and raise Him. The gifts of the Magi came to Him when He could barely do anything for Himself. Those gifts would have funded the journey His family would be forced to take, as political refugees, to Egypt.
The Prophecy of Frankincense
Long before Yeshua’s arrival on earth, the prophet Isaiah made this statement:
“Raise your eyes all around and see; they all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, and your daughters will be carried on the hip.
Then you will see and be radiant, and your heart will thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you, the wealth of the nations will come to you.
A multitude of camels will cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba will come; they will bring gold and frankincense [u-l’vonah], and proclaim good news of the praises of YHWH.”
We do not know how many Magi came on their camels to meet the little child who would become the Servant King that would save humanity. Many assume there were only three Magi because only three gifts were listed in the account. More likely there was a large contingent of travelling Magi, following star signs, and finding a child that they immediately worshipped. They would be the first Gentiles to worship Yeshua as King of kings and Lord of lords. Isaiah foresaw that these future foreigners would bring gold and frankincense, and would proclaim the good news of YHWH… and it was Good News indeed!
The birth of Yeshua was a sensory overload… the sounds of barn animals, the sight of worshipping foreigners with incredible gifts under a glowing star, the smell of sheep and shepherds masked by the soothing aroma of frankincense. The story has a lot to devour, but the simplicity is this: God loves you and He wants to bring you home, free of charge… that’s the gift that Yeshua has laid at your feet. Will you take it?
Next week: Everlasting Father