PERFUME. The ancients were fond of sweet perfumes of all kinds (Prov 27:9) and used them in various ways on their bodies and belongings.



The sources of perfume, incense, and ointment in the OT were in the vegetable kingdom and the list of such sources (aloes, almug, balm, bdellium, calamus, cassia, cinnamon, etc.) reflects the extent of Heb. trade and commerce (Arabia, India, Persia, Ceylon, etc.). This trade is reflected in OT passages (Gen 37:25; 1 Kings 10:10; Ezek 27:22). Perfume could be produced from sap, bark, flower, or root.

So strong were the better kinds of ointments, and so perfectly were the component substances compounded that they have been known to retain their scent for centuries. Sometimes it was produced in a powdered form Song of Solomon, perhaps like a sachet powder. The first maker of perfume mentioned in the Bible is Bezalel (Exod 37:1, 29), and the profession became highly developed in Israel as elsewhere. When Israel asked for a king, Samuel warned that their king, among other demands, would take their daughters “to be perfumers and cooks and bakers” (1 Sam 8:13). Certain sons of the priests were responsible for mixing the perfumes for incense (1 Chron 9:30).

The Bible mentions various containers for perfume and ointments. The dry material was simply kept in a bag (Song of Solomon 1:13), and Isaiah 3:20 mentions “perfume boxes.” The ointment Mary used on Jesus (Matt 26:7) was kept in an alabaster jar.


The liturgical uses were many and varied (see Incense). In the NT, perfume as an incense is a symbol of the knowledge of Christ (2 Cor 2:14) and the self-sacrifice of Christ (Eph 5:2).


Davies, JEA, XXVI (1940), pl. 22, p. 133; R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, III (1955), 9, 10; G. W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh in Ancient South Arabia,” JAOS (1958), 141-152.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Perfumes were mixed by persons skilled in the article In the King James Version these are called "apothecaries" (raqqach). The Revised Version (British and American) "perfumer" is probably a more correct rendering, as the one who did the compounding was not an apothecary in the same sense as is the person now so designated (Ex 30:25,35; 37:29; Ec 10:1).

Today incense is used in connection with all religious services of the oriental Christian churches. Although there is no direct mention of the uses of incense in the New Testament, such allusions as Paul’s "a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smell" (Eph 5:2; Php 4:18) would seem to indicate that it was used by the early Christians.

The delight of the people of Syria in pleasant odors is recorded in their literature. The attar of roses (from Arabic `iTr, "a sweet odor") was a wellknown product of Damascus. The guest in a modern Syrian home is not literally anointed with oil, but he is often given, soon after he enters, a bunch of aromatic herbs or a sweet-smelling flower to hold and smell. During a considerable portion of the year the country air is laden with the odor of aromatic herbs, such as mint and sage. The Arabic phrase for taking a walk is shemm el-hawa’, literally, "smell the air."

See Incense; Oil; OINTMENT.

James A. Patch

See also

  • Ointments and Perfumes