January 17th, 2020
Cinnamon and Myrrh is a love poem in which the beloved is compared to things of fleeting glory. In the poem, the loved one is portrayed as that which will abide. Beyond the reign of kings, beyond their wars, beyond the authority of an ancient classical priestess or a sibyl, is a love that holds fast and never falters. Stronger than the columned halls of sanctuaries and longer enduring than the trade routes of the Silk Road is a love that is impermeable to time and its finely woven grains of sand.
But isn’t that how a great romantic love always feels for us? Don’t we acknowledge and endlessly celebrate the passion of romance? In our culture, we write popular songs about it and maybe even tend its fires a little too closely in movies. Perhaps it appears as if romantic love is the one true thing in the world or (if we admit it) as if our soul mate is the only functioning padding or filling that will satisfy a sort of broken emptiness within us? And yet theologians have told us that we have a God shaped hole in our hearts that can only be filled by the Divine. So that while we continue to seek only mortal, temporal love our soul remains unfulfilled and it may long for something else unspoken and in vain. In despair, we might find fault with our partner or curse our occupation.
However, if we place our search for love in the hands of God, we may just find a source of joy that can bring us the sort of peace we desire, the sort of love that never fails us, that never gives up on or abandons us. Romantic love is rightly cherished but it doesn’t have the final say on who we are as individuals or even couples. Romantic love sells movie tickets but it doesn’t necessarily offer us the final, once in a lifetime, ultimate truth. Only God can wake our soul up to a love that transcends time, the universe, and even physical reality. And thus, this traditional love poem Cinnamon and Myrrh is also an allegory for the love of God.
Then she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great quantity, and precious stones. There never again came such abundance of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. 1 Kings 10:10
Also take for yourself quality spices—five hundred shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels), two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane. Exodus 30:23
For the ancient Israelites, a shekel was a common name for units of weight to measure a commodity such as grain. By the time of Christ’s birth in 6-4 BC, a shekel referred to a pure silver coin that was minted in Phoenicia and used for the Temple tax in Jerusalem because of the purity of its metal. One half a shekel was the head price a man paid to the Temple each year. Scholars have suggested that the “thirty pieces of silver” that stole Christ’s life were thirty shekels. By contrast, a prutah (a small Jewish copper coin) would buy a pomegranate in the market place. Or you could pick a pomegranate in a field for absolutely nothing.
In the Roman Empire, by 77-79 AD, a pound of cinnamon cost up to 300 denarii (a standard Roman coin, also made of silver). By contrast, under the Edict of Maximum Prices issued by the Roman emperor Diocletian (in 301 AD), a barber charged a man two denarii communis for a haircut. A denarii communis was a portion of a denarii (perhaps 20 cents to a dollar), used for easy exchange in currency. The following prices are abbreviated to denarii, from denarii communis, as is the custom with scholars. But remember, these denarii are only a small portion of the standard coin, in their way like a penny to a dime.
So, to illustrate, a carpenter made 50 denarii a day while a farm laborer, with food, was paid 25 denarii. One could purchase about ¾ of a pound of beef for eight denarii or that much in chicken for 60 denarii (but really, most Romans ate pork). A pint of spiced wine cost 24 denarii or a more reasonably priced beer could be bought for four denarii. An egg was cheap at one denarii. In these examples, we can see how the importation of foreign spices was out of the price range for most of the Roman farm or laboring classes, who would have to save up to 120 denarii for just for one pair of boots. Just to show how much other luxury goods might cost, purple silk (used only at the direction of an emperor) cost up to 150,000 denarii for close to a pound of fabric.
In the poem, how does the high price of cinnamon and myrrh relate to Christ’s sacrifice of himself for our sake alone? What is worth more: the love with which our God cherishes us or the possession of many goods that confer status, comfort, and ease? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21): Where is your treasure, in luxury items, in status, or in God? It may surprise us that spices were presented as great a gift as gold to exceptional people, like the baby Jesus by the three Wise Men. In order to see how the richness of spice was used and portrayed in ancient times read Psalm 45:8 or the Song of Solomon 4:13, 14.
To see how wealth can be perverted, read the example of spices portrayed as morally corrupt indicators in Proverbs 7, especially in verse 17. The extraordinary gift of love that is Christ Jesus allows for the spread of spiritual treasure to everyday, ordinary people (the Gentiles), as well as to the ancient Israellites, so that in this love we’re all as wealthy as kings. While we may not be able to afford all the spices or luxuries of this world, each one of us is rich in God’s great love. What do you think is the “spark of art” that allowed for God’s love to be inscribed within our veins? Could we say that it's the Holy Spirit that makes us rich in God's love throughout our days?
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