Use of myrrh was recorded throughout the Bible. In Genesis (37.25), Joseph was sold to Ishmaelites, who included myrrh in their trade caravan. Esther (2.12) completed a 12-month beauty treatment, which included myrrh, before she was taken to King Xerxes. Myrrh perfumed the robes of a king (Psalm 45.8) and the bed of an adulteress (Proverbs 7.17). Myrrh was catalogued seven times in Song of Songs to describe the Lover, the Maid (Bride), and Solomon’s gardens. In Revelation (18.13), John listed myrrh as a commodity no one would buy after Roman fell.
Despite the various times myrrh was identified in the Bible, three times stand out:
- The earliest is in Exodus. Myrrh was a component of anointing oil used in the tabernacle (Exodus 30.22-33). This same anointing oil was used in the temple in 1st century Jerusalem.
- Myrrh was a gift that the wise men brought to Jesus at his birth (Matthew 2.11). There, myrrh symbolized the deity of Jesus; he was the Son of God. Also, myrrh represented “gifts;” God gave his son as a gift to mankind. Thirty-three years after Jesus’s birth, Jesus gave his life as a gift for mankind. In turn, the gift that Jesus wants from each of us is that we belief in him as risen Savior. When we belief in Jesus as Savior, we accept God’s gift of his son and Jesus’s gift of his life.
- Myrrh was present at Jesus’s burial. Following the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’s body in linen saturated with myrrh and aloes (John 19.39). Then, they laid Jesus’ body in a tomb carved in rock.
Likely New Testament myrrh was from a different plant than in the Old Testament. Further, different plant species were used to make myrrh in different countries. Most myrrh in the Roman Empire came from the Commiphora myrrha plant; however, in Israel the plant used to make myrrh was the C. abyssinica (C. habessinica, myrrh tree, Arabian myrrh, Yeman myrrh). Probably, the myrrh used by Nicodemus and Joseph was from the C. abyssinica plant. The Hebrew word for myrrh is môr or môwr which means bitter because myrrh had a bitter taste.
The Plant Product
Myrrh is a dried resin from myrrh trees. In present day Israel, pilgrims can view myrrh trees in the Biblical Landscape Reserve. The myrrh plant is a small tree that grows up to twenty feet tall. The trunk (bole) is as tall as thirteen feet. When myrrh resin is harvested, lateral cuts are made on the tree trunk or branches. An aromatic gum resin seeps from the wounds. When exposed to air, gum hardens forming irregular-shaped yellow or brown globules. The globules smell pleasant, but, taste bitter. Today, myrrh is sold by vendors in the bazaar in the old city of Jerusalem. Most the sold myrrh is sharp-edged, marble-size pieces.
Reflection: The Greek word for myrrh is smurna, which translates “strengthened for.” At Jesus’s birth, the Magi brought Jesus a gift that symbolically strengthen him for his life on earth. Considering how Jesus was persecuted on earth, a gift that even symbolically strengthen him was a superlative gift.
Copyright 10/11/2018; Carolyn A. Roth