Monday, December 12, 2011


The Wise Men Present Their Gifts
Hello My Friend and Welcome.

Today we examine myrrh, the third of the three gifts the Wise Men brought to the infant Jesus. If you missed our earlier posts in this series, you can see Gold, The King of Metals HERE and our post on Frankincense HERE.
Dried Myrrh
Like Frankincense, myrrh is a resinous exudate. It comes from the North African Cammiphora tree. It is also harvested by slashing the bark allowing the sap to exude and dry. Myrrh had multiple uses in the ancient world. It served as a fixative in perfumes to make the scent last, as an emollient skin lotion, and a salve for burns and abrasions. The word myrrh is derived from an Arabic word for bitter. It was also added to bitter wines to make them more palatable. However, its most common usage, and the one it is most often associated with, was as a primary ingredient for the Egyptian embalming process known as mummification.

I’d like to pause here for a slight detour. So much of the Bible can be viewed through multiple lenses. The process is known as hermeneutics. While there are many systems, I’m going to limit myself to only two points; the factual, or historic, meaning and the symbolic meaning. In the case of Matthew’s account of the Magi, the historical understanding is unambiguous.

Symbolically, the gifts are usually interpreted as Gold being indicative of Kingship. In other words, the Christ Child was destined to be the great King in the lineage of David, the promised Root of Jesse from Isaiah 11:10. Frankincense, known to the Jews of that era as levona, was burned daily on the altars of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was presented to him because of his role as the eternal High Priest referenced in Hebrews 7:20. The gift of myrrh has always been interpreted through its use as an embalming ointment, signifying that He was born to die for the sins of the world. Myrrh is specifically mentioned as one of the burial spices that Joseph of Arimathea brought to anoint the body of Jesus in John 19:39.
Harvesting the Dried Sap
With your indulgence, I’d like to diverge a little further and examine the process known as embalming. It was a method of preservation of the body practiced primarily by the Egyptians. In their system, all internal organs were removed along with blood and brain tissue. Other cultures of that day merely anointed the body with various spices before burial to slow the process of decay.

Embalming in the modern sense developed during the Civil War as a way to allow the bodies of fallen soldiers to be shipped home for burial. Dr. Thomas Holmes embalmed his first body in 1861 and is considered the father of modern embalming. His method consisted of injecting a mixture of arsenic and water into the arterial system. Arsenic effectively killed the microorganisms that contributed to decomposition. Formaldehyde replaced the arsenic in the early 20th century due to the health risks of arsenic, but Holmes’ process remains essentially unchanged.

This is important because people often say that myrrh was used for embalming and Joseph of Arimathea embalmed the body of Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth. A primary tenet of Judaism is that the body must be buried intact. If the person has suffered a particularly violent death, his blood soaked clothing is buried with him. That was true in the First Century and it remains true today.

If you have seen The Passion of the Christ you may remember the scene in which Claudia Procula brings towels to Mary after Jesus has been scourged. Together these women sop up the blood that was spilled on the floor around the whipping post. This is a symbolic representation of what is mentioned above. In John’s Gospel he speaks of entering the tomb and seeing the napkin that covered Jesus’ head. It was a standard practice of the time to cover a seriously injured person’s face with a cloth to shield his injuries from view. It would, of course, have become saturated with blood and was therefore buried with him after it was removed.

Esther Approaches the King in One Night with the King
In addition to Matthew’s Birth Narrative, myrrh is mentioned a number of times in the Hebrew Bible. It appears several times as a perfume in the Song of Songs. It also has a place in the Book of Esther (Hadassah in Aramaic). You know the story. The King removed Vashti from the throne and begins a search for a new Queen. One of the women chosen to audition for the role is a Jewish girl by the name of Esther. Meanwhile Haman, the evil Prime Minister, is plotting to kill all the Jews. He has singled out Mordecai, Esther’s cousin and adopted father, for execution. She must go to the King and plead for her people. Interestingly, during Esther’s time of preparation prior to meeting with the King, for six months she received a daily anointing of oil of myrrh. Esther 2:12

Our Christmas series continues on Wednesday with the enjoyable and informative post, St. Nicholas vs. Santa Claus.

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.

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