This small painted limestone incense burner, measuring roughly 10 cm on each side, comes from Yemen, historically a major centre of incense production and trade. It is of a traditional type widely used from the late fifth century BCE to the first century BCE.
On its top, darkened by use, is a shallow recess for burning, and listed on its sides are Sabaic words for four aromatic substances: rnd dhb ncm qst. These terms describe specific resins, barks, roots, and plants according to their colour and ‘sweetness’. Similar burners name different substances: so far thirteen nouns have been recorded (Robin 1994: 25–30), and whilst their identification is problematic, their variety offers a glimpse into the importance of perfumes in the ancient world. Although we commonly use the word incense (‘that which is burnt’), the term is generic, and was applied to a number of aromatics, often blended together.
In Exodus 30, God gives strict directives for the composition of the sacred anointing-oil and the most holy and exclusive incense to be burnt ‘in the tent of meeting, where I shall meet you’ (v.36 NRSV). The blend specifies stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense, ground to a powder and mixed with salt. Stacte, galbanum and frankincense are botanical resins, whilst the mysterious onycha, much debated, has recently been shown to be derived from the opercula of the shell murex, a by-product of the dye industry for purple and tekhelet (biblical blue). Yarns dyed purple and blue are prescribed in Exodus for the textiles of the Tabernacle (26:36; 27:16) and the high priest’s garments (28:5). Chemical analysis of burnt opercula shows substances essential for fixing the smell of incense and effective for purification purposes.
Thus, God delights in incense that is (in the words of the eucharistic offertory prayer) both ‘fruit of the earth’, and the ‘work of human hands’. In burning it, we offer Him thanks and praise.
But in offering this praise we must also be mindful of the ecological and social stewardship God has entrusted to us. If the ancient trade in aromatics came with an environmental and a human cost, nowadays the very survival of Boswelia sacra (the tree that yields frankincense) is under threat as its habitat suffers the impacts of frequent conflict and environmental damage.
Benkendorff, Kirsten. 2017. ‘Modern Science Tackles a Biblical Secret—The Mystery Ingredient in Holy Incense, 12 December 2017’, www.theconversation.com, [accessed 21 August 2019]
Robin, Christian. 1994. ‘Les plantes aromatiques que brûlaient les Sabéens’, in Parfums d’Arabie, Saba. Arts—Littérature—Histoire—Arabie méridionale 1 (Aix-en-Provence), pp. 25–30
30 “You shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of acacia wood shall you make it. 2A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth; it shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height; its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3And you shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and its sides round about and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold round about. 4And two golden rings shall you make for it; under its molding on two opposite sides of it shall you make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. 5You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 6And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with you. 7And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. 9You shall offer no unholy incense thereon, nor burnt offering, nor cereal offering; and you shall pour no libation thereon. 10Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year; with the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations; it is most holy to the Lord.”
11 The Lord said to Moses, 12“When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. 13Each who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. 14Every one who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. 15The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the Lord’s offering to make atonement for yourselves. 16And you shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting; that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for yourselves.”
17 The Lord said to Moses, 18“You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base of bronze, for washing. And you shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, 19with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, lest they die. 21They shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die: it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his descendants throughout their generations.”
22 Moreover, the Lord said to Moses, 23“Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred and fifty, and of aromatic cane two hundred and fifty, 24and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin; 25and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; a holy anointing oil it shall be. 26And you shall anoint with it the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, 27and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, 28and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils and the laver and its base; 29you shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy. 30And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 31And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32It shall not be poured upon the bodies of ordinary men, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an outsider shall be cut off from his people.’ ”
34 And the Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), 35and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; 36and you shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. 37And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the Lord. 38Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”