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The Elusive Queen of Sheba: Harems, Incense and Perfume

But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites — from the nations of whom the LORD had said to the children of Israel,”You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David. 1 Kings 11:1-5

No small harem

While King Solomon was on the one hand keenly concerned with international trade (which was favorably advanced by his treaty with Hiram of Tyre and now possibly with the queen of Sheba), his interest in spices also assumed a more personal and immediate focus. Though hard to imagine, his harem had reached an astounding proportion—seven hundred women of first rank (wives and princesses) and three hundred concubines, many of whom were non-Israelite worshipers of pagan gods. It seems that foreign trade brought with it “a toleration of heathen customs and religious views,”[1] which in turn created a constant demand for incense and spices.

Lamentably, Solomon himself gradually adopted a form of idolatrous worship involving the Sidonian goddess, Ashtoreth (a moon-goddess sometimes referred to as Aphrodite by the Greeks and Romans), as well as Milcom.1 Kings 11:8 records that he built high places dedicated to these pagan gods where his wives (and perhaps Solomon himself) could burn incense and sacrifice.

The timeless allure of perfume

On a purely physical level though, if there was a luxury near and dear to the heart of a woman…and her king, it might have been perfume. The origin of perfumery is hard to pinpoint, though the genesis of the word itself (i.e., per through fumus smoke) suggests it was first sensed when burning resins from fragrant woods such a bdellium, balsam, myrrh and frankincense. Records indicate that early perfumes took the form of an oily or solid buttery substance created by combining natural oils like olive, almond, sesame, or animal fats with a saturation of fragrances.[2] While used regularly by priests in their religious functions, higher classes such as the women of Solomon’s harem[3] also enjoyed such extravagances.

Perhaps the most revealing primary source concerning the power of such sensory delights is from the pen of Solomon himself in the “Song of Songs.” Possibly written early in his forty-year-reign, Israel’s king composed an epithalamium or nuptial song—an expression of a bridegroom to his bride. In chapter one, verses twelve through fourteen, the Shulamite bride speaks: “While the king is at his table, my spikenard sends forth its fragrance. A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts. My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blooms in the vineyards of En Gedi.”

Esther (public domain)

Esther (public domain)

Another indication of what may have gone on within the confines of Solomon’s royal household is found in the book of Esther. Though hundreds of years later, it seems plausible that the procedures for preparing the initiates to a king’s harem might have been something similar. The Woman’s Study Bible (1995) notes: “During the Persian period and even among some Arabian tribes in this century, women would build a small charcoal fire in a pit in the floor. A fragrant oil, such as that from sandalwood, cloves, myrrh, or rose, would be placed in the cosmetic burner and heated in the fire. The woman would crouch naked over the burner with her robe draped over her head and body to form a tent. As she perspired, her open pores absorbed the fragrance of the oil. By the time the fire burned out, her skin and clothing would be thoroughly perfumed” (p. 786, “Beauty Preparations: Esther’s Make-Over”).

Considering the size and beauty demands of Solomon’s household, it is safe to conclude that the queen of Arabia’s treasure trove of spices would have been enticing, to say the least.

Common Ancient Spices

CinnamonCinnamon bark (Publicdomainpictures.net) Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of Cinnamomum verum, a small evergreen tree reaching about 15m tall. The spice itself is prepared by growing the tree for two years and then cutting it to ground level. New shoots form from the roots which are eventually stripped of their bark and left to dry naturally. Only the inner bark is used leaving long cinnamon strips which curl into rolls (“quills”) as they dry. Read more at Celtnet: http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/spice-entry.php?term=Cinnamon Native to Sri Lanka and southern India.
Cloves

cloves-20122_1280

Clove trees are members of the Myrtaceae (Myrtle) family. The name derives from French clou, a nail, as the dried buds, which forms the spice itself, vaguely resemble small irregular medieval nails in shape. Native to Indonesia. Harvested primarily in the Spice Islands and Madagascar, today this spice is also grown in Zanzibar, India, and Sri Lanka.
Frankincense

640px-Frankincense

A fragrant gum resin from trees of a genus (Boswellia of the family Burseraceae) of Somalia and southern coastal Arabia that has been used in incense for religious rites, perfumery, and embalming. Native to southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa.
Myrrh

Myrrh-wikipedia-public-domain

Myrrh is the aromatic resin of a number of small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora, which is an essential oil termed an oleoresin. Myrrh resin is a natural gum which has been used throughout history as a perfume, incense and medicine. It can also be ingested by mixing it with wine. It was so valuable in ancient times that it was, at times, equal in weight value to gold. (Wikipedia, Myrrh) Indigenous to southern Arabia, Abyssinia, and the land of Punt (understood to be a region in East Africa at the south end of the Red Sea, opposite the modern Arabian port of Aden and extending southward along the Somali coast).
Pepper (black)cracked-black-peppercorns The dried fruit of the flowering vine, Piper nigrum, a member of the Piperaceae (pepper) family. The pepper vine is a native of southwestern India and has been traded from there since prehistory.

[1] Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, 1 Kings 11:1.

[2] Early processing methods included pressing the ingredients (much like the way olives were pressed for oil), plants being placed in a sheet of cloth and twisted until the aromatic materials were drained from the source, and cold and hot steeping. http://www.wysinfo.com/Perfume/Perfume_history.htm.

[3] Much later than the time of Solomon, Classical Greeks saw the beginning of a distillation process which led to Greece becoming the first manufacturers of liquid perfume (not, however, the perfume associated with our modern day.) Some of their commonly used fragrances were rose, saffron, frankincense, myrrh, spikenard, cinnamon and cedar wood. Some of these may have been included in the offerings the queen of Sheba brought to Solomon hundreds of years earlier.

Achsah: The Daughter Who Asked for More

Caleb watched as distant figures, shimmering like a mirage from the arid Negeb, gradually assumed familiar shapes, and he waited. It was his lovely daughter, Achsah, with her new husband. She was no longer under his protective care in the family compound near Hebron. She now dwelled with the one who had won her hand by his acts of bravery and courage—Othneil, slayer of giants, conqueror of Debir. Caleb wondered why they were coming.

How it all began[1]

Over forty years before, Caleb, Joshua, and ten others, leaders all of Israel’s twelve tribes, embarked on a reconnaissance of the land of Canaan, one commissioned by the LORD through Moses. Their mission? Spy out the land, and its inhabitants. Were the Canaanites a people strong, or weak? Many, or few? Did they dwell in fortified strongholds, or tents? Was the land fertile? Were there ample forests for Israel’s needs?

English: Joshua and Caleb, as in Numbers 13

English: Joshua and Caleb, as in Numbers 13 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was around the month of Elul, the season for the first grape harvest. What better time to bring back samples of the ripening fruit of the land? Above all, Moses exhorted them to be of good courage. Much depended on their findings, as would soon become evident.

The twelve tribal emissaries set out immediately, and for forty days furtively scouted the land, covering some 300 miles[2] before returning to their launch point, Kadesh-barnea. En route they saw date palms, pomegranates, ripening grapes, all thriving in abundance. There was ample pasture for sheep and cattle, and fields suitable for growing barley and wheat. Olive and fruit trees dotted certain regions of countryside. The coastline provided fishing, and perhaps even dye works. Canaan, indeed, was full of resources and promise.

Its inhabitants, however, were an entirely different matter—especially the hulking sons of Anak!

An ill wind

 “We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey,” the returning  spies reported to eager ears. “Nevertheless the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there.” Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites—all formidable and well-armed—would have to be dealt with as well.

Anak! Apprehension swirled through the ranks of Israel. Caleb quieted the people, then exhorted them, saying, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.” The agitators would have none of it, and retorted, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. . . . The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”

With weeping and wailing, Israel turned on Moses and Aaron, demanding new leaders, and refusing to enter Canaan. Moses and Aaron, in shock and horror, fell on their faces before the unruly assembly, undoubtedly recognizing a grievous affront to the LORD, their Deliverer.

Only two of the twelve, Joshua and Caleb, confronted the growing spirit of revolt, warning the tribes not to rebel against the Lord. They implored them rather to trust that “if the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us . . . .” Those words only moved the mob to violence, and cries of, “Stone them! Stone them!” filled the air. Little did the tribes of Israel realize that their own fates were sealed in the wake of that murderous intent. The LORD had had enough!

And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me. Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the LORD, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. But your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection. I the LORD have spoken this. I will surely do so to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die'”[3] 

To be continued…


[1] Please read Numbers 13 for the entire account.

[2] I estimate that the trip northward was roughly 150 miles based on an atlas scale. The envisioned round-trip could have covered approximately 300 miles using that scale.

The ageless pursuit of health

In previous posts we explored general public health conditions in the Roman Empire and the province of Palestine. While there were obvious concerns and attempts to provide sanitation and control disease, the fact is, life often hung precariously in the balance.

Life is short

Lynn H. Cohick, in her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (2009) provides grim data: “Using statistics from modern, preindustrial communities to estimate demographics in the ancient world, we find that the average life expectancy was twenty-five years” (119). Dr. Paul Kitchen is a little more optimistic: “If a person lived beyond the dangerous years of childhood, he or she might expect to live until the fifties….However we know that few people lived beyond the biblical threescore years and ten.”[1]

Sickness was a constant threat, and its first line of treatment is strangely familiar—the help of extended family, and home remedies (many of which were probably passed down through generations). That failing, a physician was sought, depending on the family’s ability to pay.

General practitioners

According to Dr. Kitchen, physicians of the day wore several different hats, acting as pharmacist, physiologist, doctor/physician, and surgeon. They traveled (perhaps on a circuit), made home visits, and performed surgery on location when necessary.

Alfred Edersheim notes that “among the regular Temple officials there was a medical man, whose duty it was to attend to the priesthood who, from ministering barefoot, must have been specially liable to certain diseases. The Rabbis ordained that every town must have at least one physician, who was also to be qualified to practice surgery, or else a physician and a surgeon.” [2]

Regarding treatment options, Edersheim continues: “Cold-water compresses, the external and internal use of oil and of wine, baths (medicated and other), and a certain diet, were carefully indicated in special diseases” (page 152). Page twenty-two of Dr. Kitchen’s article contains a table of suggested remedies available to 1st century doctors in Palestine.[3]Here are a few that might have been of particular interest to mothers and families:

Feverfew

Feverfew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Headache: chamomile, aloe, lemon balm, pepper
  • Wound care: balsam, olive oil, wine, honey, balm, myrrh or frankincense, hyssop, juniper, fig sap, yarrow oil
  • Fever: wormwood
  • Morning sickness: cumin, feverfew
  • To improve lactation: castor oil, fenugreek
  • Anxiety: fennel
  • Sore feet: wormwood
  • Worms: laurel, wormwood

Wikipedia adds these for more general use: [4]

  • Elecampane: used to help with digestion
  • Garlic: beneficial for health, particularly of the heart
  • Fenugreek: used in the treatment of pneumonia
  • Silphium: used for a wide variety of ailments and conditions—especially for birth control [5]
  • Willow: used as an antiseptic

Some common treatments mentioned in the Bible

Holman’s Bible Dictionary notes:

“The illness of Hezekiah was treated by applying a poultice of figs (Isaiah 38:21). Hezekiah almost certainly had some type of acute bacterial infection of the skin. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, these dangerous infections could cause death. Although it is unlikely that the figs had any medicinal value, they were probably applied in the form of a hot compress. Heat is an effective treatment for infections of the skin. …Medical care in biblical times frequently employed the use of different kinds of salves and ointments. Olive oil was used widely, either alone or as an ingredient in ointments. The use of oil for the treatment of wounds is mentioned in Isaiah 1:6 and Luke 10:34. Oil also became a symbol of medicine, and its use was coupled with prayer for the ill (Mark 6:13; James 5:14).”[6]

Did you say cabbage?

Here is an interesting bit of trivia: “Cabbage has been grown in the West since approximately 400 BC. It is a plant that has high therapeutic qualities. Since ancient Greek times cabbage was used as a remedy for the digestive system, skin problems, fever, and a fortifier for aching joints. The Romans used to eat raw cabbage when indulging in too much alcohol, to avoid getting drunk. Cabbage was always on hand for treating most family problems….”[7]

One last question

One might ask if there were hospitals during this period of time. The answer is yes, but not like the familiar high-rises we visit today. The Romans built such facilities to care for their wounded soldiers. Separate buildings like barracks were constructed within the camp, mainly to keep the smell and screaming of the injured from demoralizing their sleeping comrades. Some of the larger camps featured operating rooms, baths, kitchens, latrines with running water, and a dispensary.[8] There is evidence that one such hospital existed in Jerusalem.

It took some time before hospital facilities became available to the general population. Again, from Dr. Kitchen: “Before the Christian era there is no evidence of hospitals or sanatoria for the sick in villages or in Roman cities in that day. Most medicine was practiced by the patient’s bedside. It was a personal or family affair and there is not sense of public duty towards the sick.”

In summary

The Gospel accounts record wonderful instances of crowds of the sick and afflicted thronging Jesus to experience His miraculous healing. Sadly, though, throughout much of the Roman Empire, even in Palestine, most had no access to such a blessing. Instead, they relied on Roman administrators to introduce engineering innovations designed to improve public health, and to slow the spread of disease.

Ordinary families depended on their own resources to deal with all-too-familiar sicknesses, and death. Wives, mothers, and female family members were the principal caregivers in such cases.

It is hoped these brief excursions into life in 1st century Palestine have given readers a new appreciation of its women, and the daunting and often heart-breaking challenges they faced.


[2] Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Alfred Edersheim (1994), Updated edition, Hendrickson Pub., page 151

[3] See Note 1.

[5] Lynn H. Cohick mentions a discussion by the Greek physician, Soranus of Ephesus, addressing  the topic of contraceptive measures. These reportedly included the use of olive oil, cedar resin, or honey on the opening of the uterus, or plugging the opening with fine wool (page 150).

[8] Kitchen, page 6, “Did hospitals exist in towns in the provinces of the Empire?”

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