What Is Frankincense?

Learn why this costly spice is a gift fit for a king

Frankincense
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Frankincense is the gum or resin of the Boswellia tree, used for making perfume and incense. It was one of the ingredients God instructed the Israelites to use in making the pure and sacred incense blend for the most holy place in the tabernacle.

Frankincense

  • Frankincense was a precious spice with great significance and worth in ancient times.
  • The fragrant gum resin obtained from balsam trees (Boswellia) can be ground into a powder and burned to produce a balsam-like odor.
  • Frankincense was a key part of worship in the Old Testament and a costly gift brought to the baby Jesus.

The Hebrew word for frankincense is labonah, which means "white," referring to the gum's color. The English word frankincense comes from a French expression meaning "free incense" or "free burning." It's also known as gum olibanum.

Frankincense in the Bible

Frankincense was a key part of the sacrifices to Yahweh in Old Testament worship. In Exodus, the Lord said to Moses:

“Gather fragrant spices—resin droplets, mollusk shell, and galbanum—and mix these fragrant spices with pure frankincense, weighed out in equal amounts. Using the usual techniques of the incense maker, blend the spices together and sprinkle them with salt to produce a pure and holy incense. Grind some of the mixture into a very fine powder and put it in front of the Ark of the Covenant, where I will meet with you in the Tabernacle. You must treat this incense as most holy. Never use this formula to make this incense for yourselves. It is reserved for the Lord, and you must treat it as holy. Anyone who makes incense like this for personal use will be cut off from the community.”  (Exodus 30:34–38, NLT)

Wise men, or magi, visited Jesus Christ in Bethlehem when he was a year or two old. The event is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, which also tells of their gifts:

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11, KJV)

Only the book of Matthew records this episode of the Christmas story. For the young Jesus, this gift symbolized his divinity or his status as high priest. Since his ascension to heaven, Christ serves as high priest for believers, interceding for them with God the Father.

In the Bible, Frankincense is often associated with myrrh, another expensive spice that features prominently in Scripture (Song of Solomon 3:6; Matthew 2:11).

A Costly Gift Fit for a King

Frankincense was a very expensive substance because it was collected in remote parts of Arabia, North Africa, and India and had to be transported long distances by caravan. Balsam trees from which Frankincense is obtained, are related to turpentine trees. The species has star-shaped flowers that are pure white or green, tipped with rose. In ancient times, the harvester scraped a 5-inch long cut on the trunk of this evergreen tree, which grew near limestone rocks in the desert.

Gathering frankincense resin was a time-consuming process. Over a period of two or three months, the sap would leak from the tree and harden into white "tears." The harvester would return and scrape the crystals off, and also collect the less pure resin that had dripped down the trunk onto a palm leaf placed on the ground. The hardened gum might be distilled to extract its aromatic oil for perfume, or crushed and burned as incense.

Frankincense was widely used by the ancient Egyptians in their religious rituals. Small traces of it have been found on mummies. The Jews may have learned how to prepare it while they were slaves in Egypt before the Exodus. Detailed instructions on how to properly use frankincense in sacrifices can be found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

The mixture included equal parts of the sweet spices stacte, onycha, and galbanum, mixed with pure frankincense and seasoned with salt (Exodus 30:34). By God's command, if anyone used this compound as personal perfume, they were to be cut off from their people.

Incense is still used in some rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Its smoke symbolizes the prayers of the faithful ascending to heaven.

Frankincense Essential Oil

Today, frankincense is a popular essential oil (sometimes called olibanum). It is believed to ease stress, improve heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, boost immune function, relieve pain, treat dry skin, reverse the signs of aging, fight cancer, as well many other health benefits.

Sources

  • scents-of-earth.com. http://www.scents-of-earth.com/frankincense1.html
  • Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Edited by Stephen D. Renn
  • Frankincense. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 817).
  • Frankincense. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 600).