My article on “Ointment,” published in the Holman Bible Dictionary, is available online. Below is an excerpt from the article.
Perfumed unguents or salves of various kinds used as cosmetics, medicine, and in religious ceremonies. The use of ointments and perfumes appears to have been a common practice in the Ancient Near East, including the Hebrews.
Terminology. The Old Testament uses various words to describe ointment. The most common, shemen, simply means oil (Genesis 28:28; Hosea 2:8). The Old Testament does not distinguish between oil and ointment. In the New Testament, muron, “ointment” (Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3-4; Luke 7:37-38) was a perfumed ointment.
Manufacture. The base for ointment was olive oil. Olives were very common in Palestine; however, perfumed salves were very expensive. A great demand arose for ointments as people attempted to protect themselves against the hot wind from the desert and the arid condition of the land.
The preparation of ointments was the job of skilled persons trained in the art of producing perfume. Bezaleel and Aholiab were appointed by God to prepare the sacred ointment and the incense used in worship (Exodus 31:1-11). While the blending of perfumes and ointment for secular use was probably done by women (1 Samuel 8:13), priestly families were responsible for the production of the large amount of ointments necessary for Temple use (1 Chronicles 9:30). In the postexilic period a group of professional people in Jerusalem were skilled in the manufacture of perfumed ointments (Nehemiah 3:8). These people were called “apothecary” (KJV) or “perfumers” (RSV, NIV; Exodus 30:25,Exodus 30:35; Exodus 37:29; Ecclesiastes 10:1). Their function was to take the many gums, resins, roots, and barks and combine them with oil to make the various anointments used for anointing purposes. In many cases, the formula for these ointments and perfumes was a professional secret, handed down from generation to generation. Egyptian and Ugaritic sources have shown that water mixed with oil was heated in large pots (see Job 41:31). While the water was boiling, the spices were added. After the ingredients were blended, they were transferred to suitable containers. To preserve the special scents of the ointment, alabaster jars with long necks were sealed at the time the ointment was prepared and then broken just before use (Mark 14:3). Dry perfumes were kept in bags (Song of Solomon 1:13) and in perfume boxes (Isaiah 3:20 NRSV; NIV: “perfume bottles”; KJV: “tablets”).
Read the article in its entirety by visiting Study Light online here.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary