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Holman Bible Dictionary


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Perfumed unguents or salves of various kinds used as cosmetics, medicine, and in religious ceremonies. The use of ointments and perfumes appears to have been a common practice in the Ancient Near East, including the Hebrews.

Terminology The Old Testament uses various words to describe ointment. The most common, shemen , simply means oil (Genesis 28:28; Hosea 2:8 ). The Old Testament does not distinguish between oil and ointment. In the New Testament, muron , “ointment” (Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3-4; Luke 7:37-38 ) was a perfumed ointment.

Manufacture The base for ointment was olive oil. Olives were very common in Palestine; however, perfumed salves were very expensive. A great demand arose for ointments as people attempted to protect themselves against the hot wind from the desert and the arid condition of the land.

The preparation of ointments was the job of skilled persons trained in the art of producing perfume. Bezaleel and Aholiab were appointed by God to prepare the sacred ointment and the incense used in worship (Exodus 31:1-11 ). While the blending of perfumes and ointment for secular use was probably done by women (1 Samuel 8:13 ), priestly families were responsible for the production of the large amount of ointments necessary for Temple use (1 Chronicles 9:30 ). In the postexilic period a group of professional people in Jerusalem were skilled in the manufacture of perfumed ointments (Nehemiah 3:8 ). These people were called “apothecary” (KJV) or “perfumers” (RSV, NIV; Exodus 30:25 ,Exodus 30:25,30:35; Exodus 37:29; Ecclesiastes 10:1 ). Their function was to take the many gums, resins, roots, and barks and combine them with oil to make the various anointments used for anointing purposes. In many cases, the formula for these ointments and perfumes was a professional secret, handed down from generation to generation. Egyptian and Ugaritic sources have shown that water mixed with oil was heated in large pots (see Job 41:31 ). While the water was boiling, the spices were added. After the ingredients were blended, they were transferred to suitable containers. See Mark 14:3 ). Dry perfumes were kept in bags (Song of Song of Solomon 1:13 ) and in perfume boxes (Isaiah 3:20 NRSV; NIV: “perfume bottles”; KJV: “tablets”).

Ingredients Various spices were used in the manufacturing of ointments and perfumes: aloes (Psalm 45:8; John 19:39 ); balsam (Exodus 30:23; 2 Chronicles 9:1 ); galbanum (Exodus 30:34 ), myrrh, or more literally mastic or ladanum (Genesis 37:25; Genesis 43:11 ); myrrh (Esther 2:12; Matthew 2:11 ), nard (Song of. Sol. Matthew 4:13-14; Mark 14:3; KJV: “spikenard”), frankincense (KJV: “incense”; Isaiah 60:6; Matthew 2:11 ); balsam or balm (Genesis 37:25; Jeremiah 8:22 ); cassia (Exodus 30:24; Ezekiel 27:19 ), calamus (Exodus 30:23; Song of Song of Solomon 4:14; NRSV: “aromatic cane”), cinnamon (Exodus 30:23; Revelation 18:13 ), stacte (Exodus 30:34 ), and onycha (Exodus 30:34 ). Onycha, an ingredient derived from mollusks found in the Red Sea, was used in the mixture to be burned on the altar of incense. These spices were used as fragrant incense in worship. They were also mixed with oil to produce the holy anointing oil and to produce cosmetics and medicine.

Value Most of these spices were imported by the people who lived in Palestine. The great variety of spices used in the manufacture of ointments gave rise to merchants who traded in expensive spices and perfumes (Genesis 37:28; Ezekiel 27:17-22 ). In biblical times, Arabia was one of the principal traders in aromatic spices. Spices were also imported from Africa, India, and Persia. Perfumed ointments were highly prized. Solomon received an annual payment of perfume as tribute from his subjects (1 Kings 10:25 ); the queen of Sheba brought many costly spices as gifts to Solomon (1 Kings 10:2 ); Hezekiah, king of Judah, included valuable perfumed ointment and spices as part of his treasure (2 Kings 20:13; Isaiah 39:2 ). When Mary anointed Jesus with a pound of costly ointment, Judas Iscariot rebuked Jesus because the ointment was worth the equivalent of one year's salary (John 12:3-8 ).

Use Many personal things were perfumed with spiced ointment. The breath was perfumed (Song of Song of Solomon 7:8 ), probably with spiced wine (Song of Song of Solomon 8:2 ). The garments of the king were perfumed with myrrh, aloes , and cassia (Psalm 45:8 ), or myrrh, frankincense, and “with all powders of the merchant” (Song of Song of Solomon 3:6 ). The bed of the prostitute was perfumed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon (Proverbs 7:17 ).

One of the most important uses of ointment in the Old Testament was in religious ceremonies. The manufacture of the anointing oil consisted of mixing olive oil with myrrh, sweet cinnamon, calamus, and cassia (Exodus 30:22-25 ). This ointment was considered to be holy; anyone who manufactured the sacred oil for use outside the worship place was to be cut off from the people (Exodus 30:33 ). See Oil , Anoint . Many individuals were anointed with the sacred ointment. The anointing of a person was viewed as an act of designation of that person to the service of God.

The shield of a soldier was anointed with oil (2 Samuel 1:21 ) as a symbol of dedication to God. Jacob anointed the pillar at Bethel, and the site where God appeared to him became a holy place (Genesis 28:18; Genesis 35:14 ).

Ointments were used in burial rites. See Burial .

Many people in the Ancient Near East believed strongly in the curative power of oil. See Jeremiah 8:22; Mark 6:13; James 5:14 ) and as unguents for wounds (Isaiah 1:6; Luke 10:34 ). The law of Moses commanded the person healed of leprosy to be anointed with oil (Leviticus 14:15-18 ,Leviticus 14:15-18,14:26-29 ).

Ointments were used as cosmetics for protection of the skin. Perfumes were used to counteract bodily odor. The whole body was usually anointed with perfume after bathing (Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20; Ezekiel 16:9 ). Perfumes were used inside the clothes (Song of Song of Solomon 1:13 ) and by women who desired to be attractive to men (Esther 2:12 ).

Claude F. Mariottini

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Ointment'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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