Perfume in the Bible

Perfume, the English word perfume is derived from two Latin words, per, meaning through, and fumus, meaning smoke (the English words fuming and fumes, meaning burning and smoking, are from the same "fume" as in perfume). While perfume literally means through the smoke, it has come to mean "a pleasant cosmetic fragrance." Although ancient people used "perfume" in various forms, the Hebrew word of the Scriptures, pronounced ktoret (קטורת), that is often translated as "perfume," also means smoke, or more specifically, sweet smoke (i.e. incense). Other non-burning "perfumes," from flowers and spices, were known and used. The use of perfumes was common among the Hebrews, and the Orientals generally, before it was known to the Greeks and the Romans.

Moses speaks of the art of the perfumer in Egypt and gives the composition of two perfumes, the first perfume was rather an anointing oil, to anoint priests and sacred vessels of the tabernacle: “Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassia—all according to the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil. Then use it to anoint the tent of meeting, the Ark of the Covenant law, the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand. You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be holy” (Exodus 30:23-29).
The other perfume, called incense, was composed of stacte, the onyx, or odoriferous shell-fish, of galbanum, and incense, each of equal weight. It was sacred and inviolable, and it was forbidden, on pain of death, for any man whatever to use it: “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, 35 and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. 36 Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. 37 Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the LORD. 38 Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people” (Exodus 30:34-38).

The Hebrews had also perfumes for embalming their dead, as they used myrrh, aloes, and other strong and astringent drugs, proper to prevent infection and corruption.visit Spices in the Bible - Burial Spices

In addition to these perfumes, there are others noticed in Scripture. Those for example King Hezekiah preserved in his repositories. ”And Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and shewed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not” (2 Kings 20:13) and those burned with the body of king Asa : “ Then in the forty-first year of his reign Asa died and rested with his ancestors. They buried him in the tomb that he had cut out for himself in the City of David. They laid him on a bier covered with spices and various blended perfumes, and they made a huge fire in his honor (2 Chronicles 16:13-14).

Judith perfumed her face when she was to appear before Holofernes: “And she washed her body, and anointed herself with the best ointment, and plaited the hair of her head, and put a bonnet upon her head, and clothed herself with the garments of her gladness, and put sandals on her feet, and took her bracelets, and lilies, and earlets, and rings, and adorned herself with all her ornaments” (Book of Judith 10:3).
Book Esther recorded: “Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics” (Esther 2:12).

The lover in Song of Songs says that the perfumes of his spouse surpass the most excellent odors: “How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume more than any spice! Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon. You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices” (Song of Songs 4:10-14).

The voluptuous woman described by Salomon says: “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon” (Proverbs 7:17).

The Book of Wisdom, one of the deuterocanonical books (books and passages of the Christian Old Testament that are not part of the Hebrew Bible), encourage one another to the use of the most luxurious and costly perfumes: “Let us fill ourselves with costly wine, and ointments: and let not the flower of the time pass by us” (Book of Wisdom 2:7).

Isaiah reproaches Judea, whom he describes as a faithless spouse to God: “You went to Molek (or the King) with olive oil and increased your perfumes” (Isaiah 57:9).

God compared the Kingdom of Israel and Judah to sisters who were prostitutes. He prophesied Judah’s punishment. Ezekiel’s lack of mourning was a sign to Judah. Ezekiel seems to accuse the Jews with having profaned the odors and perfumes, whose use was reserved to sacred things, by applying them to their own use: “You sat on an elegant couch, with a table spread before it on which you had placed the incense and olive oil that belonged to me” (Ezekiel 23:41).

Amos inveighs against the rich men of Ephraim, who drank costly wines, and perfumed themselves with the most precious oils: “You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:6).

To avoid perfumes, scents and unctions, was esteemed a part of mortification. (See Esther 14:2 "And when she had laid away her royal apparel, she put on garments suitable for weeping and mourning: instead of divers precious ointments" ; Daniel 10: 2-3: “At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over”.)
Solomon says: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.” (Ecclesiastes 10:1). For five centuries now 'a fly in the ointment' has meant a small defect that spoils something valuable or is a source of annoyance. The modern version thus suggests that something unpleasant may come or has come to light in a proposition or condition that is almost too pleasing; that there is something wrong hidden, unexpected somewhere.

Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), Roman Historian and author of Natural History, wrote at the beginning of Book 13, that the use of perfume was due to the Persians: “they soak themselves in it, and quench the odour produced from dirt by its adventitious attraction. The first case I am able to discover was when a chest of perfumes was captured by Alexander among the rest of the property of King Darius (King Darius III of Persia; 380 to 330 BCE) when his camp was taken."

The Egyptians imported products to elaborate their ointments and perfumes from different places and the Bible gives an account of Joseph Jacob’s son, who was sold by his brothers to some essences merchants that, from the territories of Gilead, they lowered to Egypt to sell their products (Genesis 37:12-36).

Apothecary, Perfumer, Confectionaries (Hebrew, rokeach, רקח; Arabic, عَطَّار).

Apothecary, from the Latin apothecarius, meaning a shopkeeper, is today generally defined as "a health professional trained in the art of preparing and dispensing drugs”.
The Hebrew word in the Bible ‘rokeach’ (רקח) meant to perfume (hence the reason why some translations of the Bible use the word perfumer rather than apothecary) as in to prepare spices, or a compound of spices (Hebrew, rokeach, רקח; Arabic, عَطَّار).
In the Bible an apothecary was someone who prepared the holy anointing oils and incense.

  1. Exodus 30:25
    Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil.
  2. Exodus 30:35
    and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred.
  3. Exodus 37:29
    They also made the sacred anointing oil and the pure, fragrant incense—the work of a perfumer.
  4. 2 Chronicles 16:14
    They buried him in the tomb that he had cut out for himself in the City of David. They laid him on a bier covered with spices and various blended perfumes, and they made a huge fire in his honor.
  5. Nehemiah 3:8
    Uzziel son of Harhaiah, one of the goldsmiths, repaired the next section; and Hananiah, one of the perfume-makers, made repairs next to that. They restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall
  6. Ecclesiastes 10:1
    As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.

Confectionaries (an outdated term of perfumer)
Only in
  1. 1 Samuel 8:13
    And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.