Hyssop

HYSSOP hĭs’ əp (אֵזוֹב, H257, ὕσσωπος, G5727). Hyssop is mentioned eleven times, nine times in the OT as ēzôb and twice as “Hyssōpos” in the NT. The most striking reference is in John 19:29, when our Lord was given vinegar in a sponge put on hyssop. It is also, however, definitely connected with the blood used in sacrifices, and Paul when speaking of Moses in Hebrews 9:19, 20 says: “He took the blood of calves...and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book and all the people, saying ‘This is the blood of the covenant...’.”

Directions are given by Moses to take a bunch of hyssop and dip it into the blood of the lamb that was in the basin, in order to be able to apply it to the lintel and the two sideposts of the front door of the house (Exod 12:22). This was the beginning of the Passover.

The reference in Psalm 51:7, “purge me with hyssop,” obviously refers to the application of the blood of the lamb, for it is only, Scripture says, with the shedding of blood that there can be remission of sin.

In the description of Solomon’s wisdom given by God, it says: “He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall” (1 Kings 4:33). This makes it clear that the plant concerned must be one that would grow between the stones of a wall.

The picture in Numbers 19:6 is that of separation and cleanliness. The hyssop does not have blood upon it, but a piece of scarlet cloth, undoubtedly indicating the blood of remisson.

To discover the true name of the plant, one must examine carefully the references. (1) It should be bushy; (2) liquid should easily cling to its leaves; (3) it should grow easily in a wall; (4) it would be useful if it were aromatic; (5) it could be a “purifier”; (6) it should grow well in Egypt (where the Israelites first used it); in the desert (where again they used it at the Passover service, year by year, on the way to Israel); and in Pal. (where it would have to be used at the Passover service each year).

As far as Egypt is concerned, there are indications that it was the Sorghum grass (see Grass). In the case of Solomon’s reference, it could easily be the Capparis sicula (see Desire). This plant is found in the Sinai desert, and grows on the walls of Jerusalem. It would have been possible to have used the end of a branch of this shrub to transfer the vinegar in the sponge to the Lord Jesus. Capparis is a straggling, deciduous shrub with white flowers, tinged red on the outside, that fade before mid-day.

The hyssop grown today is Hyssopus officinalis. This produces blue flowers from June to September, plus aromatic leaves. When these, with the flowers, are infused in hot water, they are used as an expectorant. This plant does not grow in Pal. or Egypt, and so cannot be the Scriptural plant.

Those who believe the plant was the Marjoram argue (1) that it grows easily in walls; (2) that it has hairy stems and leaves, which would hold water or blood well, and (3) that it is pleasantly aromatic. The Marjoram could be either Origanum maru, of Syrian origin, or Origanum aegyptiacum, from Egypt.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

A plant used for ritual cleansing purposes; a humble plant springing out of the wall (1Ki 4:33), the extreme contrast to the cedar.

The common hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) of the Natural Order Labiatae, an aromatic plant with stomatic properties, cannot be the hyssop of the Bible as it is unknown in Palestine, but allied aromatic plants of the same Natural Order have by Maimonides (Neg. xiv.6) and other Jewish writers been identified with it. Probably hyssop is identical with the Arabic zat`ar, a name applied to a group of aromatic plants of the genus marjoram and thyme. They would any of them furnish a bunch suitable for sprinkling, and they have the important recommendation that they grow everywhere, being found even in the desert. Post thinks of all varieties the Origanum maru, a special variety of marjoram which favors terrace walls and rocks, is the most probable.

The proposal (Royle, Jour. Royal Asiatic Soc., VII, 193-213) to identify the caper (Capparis spinosa) with hyssop, which has been popularized by the works of Tristram, has not much to recommend it. It is true that the caper is very commonly seen growing out of walls all over Palestine (1Ki 4:33), but in no other respect is it suitable to the requirements of the Biblical references. The supposed similarity between the Arabic ’acaf ("caper") and the Hebrew ’ezobh is fanciful; the caper with its stiff, prickly stems and smooth, flat leaves would not furnish a bunch for sprinkling as serviceable as many species of zat`ar. It has been specially urged that the hyssop suits the conditions of Joh 19:29, it being maintained that a stem of caper would make a good object on which to raise the "sponge full of vinegar" to the Saviour’s face, the equivalent of the "reed" of Mt 27:48; Mr 15:36. For such a purpose the flexible, prickly stems of the hyssop would be most unsuitable; indeed, it would be no easy matter to find one of sufficient length. It is necessary to suppose either that a bunch of hyssop accompanied the sponge with the vinegar upon the reed, or, as has been proposed by several writers (for references see article "Hyssop," EB), that hussopo is a corruption of husso, "javelin," and that the passage should read "They put a sponge full of vinegar upon a javelin."

E. W. G. Masterman

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See also

  • Plants