Spikenard oil, also called nard oil or simply as anointing oil, has been used since ancient times. It has been the base for perfumes, it has been used in funerals, it has been used to anoint people, and it even has medicinal uses. However, most people know very little about it, even though it’s mentioned in the Bible.
Spikenard oil in the Bible
King Solomon wrote about spikenard plants in Solomon 4:13-14:
13″Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates With choice fruits, henna with nard plants, 14 Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, With all the trees of frankincense, Myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices
It is important to note that it is mentioned along with of cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh. What do these have in common? They are all highly fragrant. Indeed, spikenard is quite strongly fragrant and most of its uses have been relating to its aroma.
John gave a more detailed description that showed the value of spikenard oil in John 12:1-8:
12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Understanding the value of nard
John identifies that pure nard is an expensive perfume, which Mary poured on the feet of Jesus and wiped them off with her hair. How expensive the perfume was is clarified to be worth a year’s wages for about a pint or half a liter. This isn’t the measurement used back then, but it is how much it would be in our measurements today.
The amount of money that was actually listed was 300 denarii for that pint flask. The average worker at the time made about one denarius for working for 12 hours. Put in another way, that little bottle of spikenard oil was worth 3,600 hours of work. In the US today, if the average worker makes $9 per hour, that would put the value of the spikenard at $32,400 for a pint!
What is spikenard oil?
Anointing oil is an essential oil of the crushed roots of the spikenard plant (Nardostachys jatamansi). There are actually a number of species of spikenard plants and these are types of valerian. The species listed here is known as ‘true spikenard’.
The plants grow to about three feet tall and the roots are rhizomatous. These rhizomes are crushed and distilled to make the oil, which has a yellowish or amber color. This oil is tremendously fragrant and just a few drops are enough to fill a room with the aroma.
Spikenard oil was considered to be a luxury item two thousand years ago and its scent was ideal for use on deceased people because it covered less agreeable odors. It was also used at weddings of the wealthy because as the bride would sweat during the ceremony, she would simply give off the aroma of nard.
Reason for the expense
True spikenard is expensive primarily because it grows in the Himalayas of Nepal and India, at an altitude of between 10,000 and 17,000 feet. It isn’t an easy to obtain plant, though the distillation process isn’t and wasn’t too difficult. Getting it required someone to climb high into the mountains and then to dig up the plants to get to the rhizomes.
Impact on other scriptures
With all this information, the Bible story of Elisha and the Widow’s Oil suddenly has a lot more impact. This is the story, found at 2 Kings 4:1-7:
1 A certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, saying, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD. And the creditor is coming b to take my two sons to be his slaves.” 2 So Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” And she said, “Your maidservant has nothing in the house but a jar of oil.” 3 Then he said, “Go, borrow vessels from everywhere, from all your neighbors – empty vessels; do not gather just a few. 4 “And when you have come in, you shall shut the door behind you and your sons; then pour it into all those vessels, and set aside the full ones.” 5 So she went from him and shut the door behind her and her sons, who brought the vessels to her; and she poured it out. 6 Now it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not another vessel.” So the oil ceased. 7 Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debt; and you and your sons live on the rest.”
Now, think about this for a moment. A lot of people mistakenly think that the oil mentioned was olive oil. It couldn’t have been olive oil. Even with all those extra vessels (imagine a houseful of flasks, big containers, and jugs filled with oil), this wouldn’t have been enough to pay off the debt and give enough left over for the widow and her sons to live on for many years.
Consider, too, that the deceased husband was being trained to be a priest. Ask yourself what kind of oil would be appropriate for a cleric to have? Anointing oil makes the most sense. In other words, the houseful of containers ended up filled with anointing oil; pure spikenard oil.
Wow! The widow would, in essence, become one of the first oil baronesses in history, selling spikenard oil. It goes to show that God doesn’t do things just partway. Through Elisha, he made sure that the widow and her sons were set for life.
It even goes a step further. Spikenard oil, being a luxury item that wasn’t easy to get, was rare. It is entirely conceivable that the pint flask of nard that was poured on the feet of Jesus by Mary could have come from the Widow’s oil reserves. The Bible does not say, one way or the other, but it would be fitting since it was God who made it possible for the widow to have all that nard oil in the first place.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? I’ll end with a final thought. Nard oil is wonderfully fragrant. A few drops would be enough to make a room smell good. With a house filled with containers of nard oil, imagine how the house must have smelled. In fact, since a few drops were enough to fill a large area with the smell, it wouldn’t have just been the widow’s house that smelled wonderfully. The whole neighborhood would have been scented with nard oil. I have no doubt that God knew this long before he did it. Indeed, the widow’s house would have been recognized as being blessed by God, long before anyone came far enough to actually see the building.