| imagine a little Jewish girl, wandering among the hundreds of thousands of Jews just arriving in Jerusalem for Passover Week the week Jesus was killed, and I imagine this little Jewish girl, playing just outside the east gate of the city near the Mount of Olives, brushing up against a small stray donkey and wondering to herself: Why does this little donkey smell like perfume? Why does this little donkey smell like perfume?
Now the perfume that would have emanated from this little donkey—a donkey’s colt, actually—would not have been like the perfumes we smell today. The fragrance wasn’t necessarily sweet, as we know it. It was more earthy, more warm and musky. But this fragrance would have been very special to that little Jewish girl—to all Jewish people. Because those who had ever had the privilege of smelling pure nard, who knew anything about it, would know just how precious it was.
Nard, or spikenard oil, was imported from far, far away; it was taken from the spikenard herb that grew in what we know today as the Himalayan mountains in India. Nard oil was very exotic. Jewish people, perhaps blushing a little, would have read sensual descriptions of nard perfume in the Song of Solomon—“While the king, my lover, was at his table, my spikenard sent forth its fragrance” (1:12). To have just a small amount of nard would have been considered a great luxury; a whole pound or pint of nard would cost the equivalent of a fortune, worth perhaps $20,000 today.
That’s why it would have been so curious that a donkey’s colt would have smelled like nard. This wouldn’t have made any sense. To a Jew, the only possible reference point for a colt smelling like extravagant perfume would be found in 1 Kings 1, which described how the newly anointed King Solomon, the son of King David, was drenched in regal perfumes and rode into Jerusalem, where the people shouted, “Long live King Solomon; save now King Solomon.” Or put another way, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
This was the only conceivable time that a colt would have smelled like perfume—the entrance of the King of Israel himself. Indeed, in the ancient Near East, the majesty of a king was expressed not only by what he wore—his jewels and robes—but by the royal perfume that surrounded him. During royal processions the rich fragrance would announce to the multitudes that a king was passing by: “Who is this coming up from the desert . . . perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant? Look! It is Solomon’s carriage, escorted by sixty warriors, the noblest of Israel” (Song of Solomon 3:6, 7). Israel’s king would be so covered with the fragrance that it would have spread even to the animal he was riding on.
But Israel hadn’t had a real king in a very long time. So why would this particular colt, at this particular Passover week, smell like nard perfume? Who was responsible for this? What on earth was going on?
Author’s Note: A study on the anointing of Jesus with nard perfume, followed by His triumphal entry on a colt into Jerusalem, can be enhanced beautifully with nard itself. I ordered pure spikenard oil from the Web (a very small amount costs $13.95) and during our worship service, we dispensed the perfume with diffuser lamps throughout the room for a beautiful experience. We found it deeply meaningful to realize that Jesus would likely have smelled like nard the entire final week of his life, giving off the fragrance of royalty wherever he went. The Hebrew word for “Messiah,” of course, means “anointed one.”
Andy Nash is a journalism professor and lay pastor. His new book is a spiritual memoir titled Tabgha: Stumbling Through Failure to a Deeper Faith. (Go to www.tabgha.org to view a book trailer.) The above column was posted April 1, 2010.