By Avraham Ben Hod.
“On coming to the house, (the wise men) saw the child with his mother Miryam, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They then opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of frankincense and of myrrh”(Matt 2:11)
The story of the wise men coming from the East looking for, and finding, the “one who has been born king of the Jews” is familiar to many at this time of the year. What is probably less well-known is the nature of the gifts that they presented to this child, Yeshua, and in particular, the gifts of frankincense (Gk. libanos , Heb. lebona ) and myrrh (Gk. smurna , Heb. mor ). It is interesting that there are close similarities in the Greek and Hebrew names for these two plant resins.
Frankincense, as its name reveals, was used primarily for incense in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple (Exod. 30:34-35). The white resin (Heb. lavan means “white”) exudes upon deep incisions in the bark of Boswellia trees ( Boswellia sacra ) which grow naturally in Somalia and in the southern part of the Arabian peninsular. Upon wounding of the bark the resin forms pearl-like drops which harden before being harvested.
The spiny and bushy tree of Myrrh ( Commiphora myrrha , or C. gileadensis ) also grows in Somalia and the southern part of the Arabian peninsular. Exudation is accomplished in the same way as with frankincense and the reddish-yellow to reddish-brown, or red, tears of aromatic resin are collected and sold to the pharmaceutical and perfumery markets. Myrrh is very bitter to the taste (Heb. mar means “bitter”) and is astringent as well as acting as an antiseptic. It was used in the past as a perfume (Psalm 45:8), as one of the ingredients of the anointing oil for the priests of the Tabernacle (Exod. 30:23) and also for embalming purposes (John 19:39). We read about its latter use in the story of Nicodemus bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes (about 34 kilograms in weight) to prepare Yeshua’s body for burial. It is interesting that Yeshua, while he was on the cross, declined to drink a mixture of wine and myrrh which was presumably offered to alleviate his severe pain (Mark 15:23).
We do not know how much gold, frankincense and myrrh were presented to Yeshua, however these gifts surely provided a necessary source of livelihood for the young family when they had to flee to Egypt prior to Herod’s massacre of the boys of Bethlehem. There are those who point to the possible symbolic, or prophetic meaning in those treasures brought to Yeshua, in acknowledging him as King (gold), in the fulfilling of his priestly role (frankincense) and as a pointer to his death and burial (myrrh).
This season is a good time to ponder on the gifts of the wise men, but more importantly to consider the greatest gift of all that anyone can receive, in that Yeshua came into this world as a man to save fallen humanity and, through his death, to enable us to become sons and daughters of his Kingdom.
Upon your visit to Israel it is possible to see both the Boswellia (Frankincense) and Commiphora (Myrrh) trees thriving in close proximity to the northern end of the Dead Sea at Kibbutz Almog. Guy Erlich, the farmer whose vision and passion it is to grow these Biblically important trees, is very happy to introduce them to all who are interested. He also believes, along with others, that the Commiphora gileadensis tree (myrrh, also the Balm of Gilead) is the “afarsemon” which was grown extensively at Ein Gedi and Qumran at the time of Yeshua. The highly aromatic oil which was produced from the resin of this tree constituted a major export from the Land of Judea.