Calamus is mentioned several times in the Bible, especially in relation to the holy anointing oil used to consecrate the tabernacle, priests, and kings in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for calamus is kaneh bosem which refers to an aromatic cane or reed plant that grows in wetlands throughout the Ancient Near East.
Calamus has been the source of much intrigue, speculation, and debate among Bible scholars over the years. Some have suggested that calamus refers to the plant we know as cannabis or marijuana. However, upon closer examination of the Scriptural texts and historical and archeological evidence, it becomes clear that the Biblical calamus actually refers to the fragrant reed called Acorus calamus.
In this comprehensive blog post, we will examine the key Biblical passages about calamus, its use in ancient cultures, linguistic considerations from the Hebrew and Greek, and insights from archaeological evidence. By the end, we will have a solid understanding of what calamus was and its significance for worship and consecration in the Bible.
- Calamus was a fragrant reed plant used to make the holy anointing oil in the Tabernacle to ordain priests and consecrate furnishings and objects.
- The Hebrew word kaneh bosem refers to an aromatic cane or reed, not cannabis.
- Archaeological evidence confirms Acorus calamus was widely traded in ancient times and prized for its fragrance.
- Calamus oil represented wisdom, discernment, honor, and the presence of God in Biblical times.
- The anointing oil consecrated objects and people for divine service and symbolized their authority and calling from God.
What is Calamus?
Calamus is the name applied to several different marsh and wetland plants that have aromatic and medicinal qualities. The variety referred to in the Bible is Acorus calamus, commonly called sweet flag or sweet cane. It is a tall, reed-like plant that can grow up to 6 feet high in wetlands and along riverbanks across North Africa, the Middle East, India, and Asia.
The key identifying feature of Acorus calamus is its intensely fragrant aroma. All parts of the plant, including the leaves, stems, roots and rhizomes, give off a sweet, spicy, and woody scent when crushed. This highly fragrant oil has been extracted and used for medicinal, religious, and cosmetic purposes since ancient times in many cultures.
Calamus has been found in prehistoric archaeological sites in Europe dating back to the Mesolithic era. Evidence indicates early humans have been collecting and utilizing this aromatic marsh plant for thousands of years, likely first in Asia and the Middle East.
The ancient Egyptians imported calamus oils and incorporated the plant in their religious ceremonies. Calamus roots have also been found in clay jars inside tombs as part of the burial goods intended for use in the afterlife.
Calamus in the Bible
Calamus is mentioned four times in the Bible, exclusively in relation to the holy anointing oil used to consecrate the Tabernacle, furnishings, and priests to God’s service. The first Biblical mention of calamus is in Exodus 30:22-25:
Moreover the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “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, five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. And you shall make from these a holy anointing oil, an ointment compounded according to the art of the perfumer. It shall be a holy anointing oil.” (NKJV)
Here God gives Moses instructions for making the holy anointing oil that will be used to consecrate the Tent of Meeting, Ark of the Covenant, table and lampstand, altar of incense, altar of burnt offering, and the basin. This oil was to be composed of liquid myrrh, cinnamon, calamus (translated here as “sweet cane”), cassia, and olive oil.
Calamus is specifically called “sweet cane” or “sweet-smelling cane” indicating it was chosen for its highly aromatic qualities. This would produce an anointing oil with an exotic and luxurious fragrance, suitable for consecrating objects and persons to the service of the Almighty God.
The next two mentions of calamus are identical. In Exodus 35-38, calamus is again listed as a component of the sacred anointing oil per God’s instructions:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. And you shall beat some of it very fine, and put some of it before the Testimony in the tabernacle of meeting where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. But as for the incense which you shall make, you shall not make any for yourselves, according to its composition. It shall be to you holy for the Lord. Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 37:29-38)
Calamus was a holy, set-apart oil meant only for worship of Yahweh in the Tabernacle. God prohibited using any of the ingredients, including calamus, to make perfume or incense for personal, common use.
The final reference to calamus in the Old Testament is in the Song of Solomon 4:14, where it is used in a metaphor to represents the sweetness and desirability of the Beloved’s kisses and speech:
Spikenard and saffron, Calamus and cinnamon, With all trees of frankincense, Myrrh and aloes, With all the chief spices – A fountain of gardens, A well of living waters, And streams from Lebanon. (Song of Solomon 4:14-15)
Based on these key passages, we gain insight into the significance of calamus oil in the Biblical context. In the New Testament, calamus is not directly mentioned by name. However, Jesus of Nazareth is referred to as the Christ (Messiah) or “Anointed One” indicating he embodied the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying and consecrating power upon his life and ministry (Luke 4:18-19).
The Meaning of Hebrew Kaneh Bosem
The Hebrew word translated as “calamus” or “sweet cane” is kaneh bosem (קָנֶה בֹשֶׂם). This term appears to refer to a sweet-smelling marsh reed plant used for its aromatic qualities. Kaneh is the Hebrew word for reed, cane, stalk, branch or measuring rod. Bosem means fragrance, balsam, spices, or sweet smell.
Kaneh bosem literally translates to “fragrant cane” or “aromatic reed.” Some proponents of the cannabis theory have suggested bosem refers directly to the cannabis plant. However, there is no linguistic or historical evidence to support this claim. Bosem denotes any plant substance that gives off a pleasant aroma.
In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, kaneh bosem is translated into the Greek kalamos (κάλαμος). The Greek kalamos refers specifically to a marsh reed plant known as Acorus calamus, or sweet flag. This provides definitive evidence as to the true identity of the Biblical kaneh bosem.
Archaeological Evidence for Acorus Calamus
Further confirmation that the Biblical calamus is Acorus calamus comes from archaeological evidence. The ancient trade and use of Acorus calamus by Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and other Middle Eastern cultures is well-documented.
Acorus calamus is indigenous to wetlands across northern Africa, the Middle East and central Asia. Archaeological recovery of calamus rhizomes stretches back over two millennia, confirming its long history of trade and use in Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Calamus oil was also found in small alabaster decanters excavated from ancient Judahite houses. These 3700-year-old artifacts match the time period of Moses and date to the era the Tabernacle was constructed. Their presence in ordinary houses suggests calamus plants were harvested locally and the aromatic oils were sold commercially in Israel.
Based on current evidence, it is historically and scientifically reasonable that the ancient Hebrews had access to and used Acorus calamus for its essential oils. The trade and cultivation of this aromatic marsh plant was commonplace in the Ancient Near East when the books of Exodus and Song of Songs were written.
The Significance of Calamus Anointing Oil
So what was the spiritual significance of using calamus-infused olive oil to anoint the Tabernacle objects and ordain priests? As one of the components of the holy anointing oil, calamus oil represented:
- Holiness – It was set apart and consecrated exclusively for use in the Lord’s house to ordain priests.
- Wisdom – Its pleasant aroma was thought to stimulate the mind and heighten spiritual wisdom and discernment.
- Honor – The precious oil conveyed honor and authority to those anointed to serve in God’s Tabernacle.
- Divine Presence – The fragrant smoke from calamus signified the sweet presence of God dwelling among his people.
The application of this specially formulated anointing oil accomplished two key purposes:
- It consecrated and sanctified items such as the furnishings, altars, and priestly garments, setting them apart solely for Yahweh’s purposes.
- It ordained and authorized those called and chosen by God – such as Aaron and his sons – to serve as holy priests ministering before the Lord on behalf of the Israelites.
Therefore, calamus and the other aromatics used in the holy anointing oil were deeply symbolic. Together, their fragrance represented God’s divine blessing, wisdom, favor, and commissioning power on those called to his service.
What can we learn from the Biblical use of calamus? God takes worship very seriously and calamus points to the importance of consecrating spaces, objects, and people to the Lord’s service through prayer and anointing. Everything in the Tabernacle was to be fully devoted to glorifying Yahweh and facilitating worship by his covenant people.
God remains worthy of our highest praise, adoration, and reverence. May our hearts and lives exude the sweet fragrance of Christ to others, just as calamus oil diffused the sanctuary with its exotic, holy aroma.
Though the original recipe for the holy anointing oil has been lost, we can still experience God’s consecrating presence through prayerful study of his Word and the inner working of the Holy Spirit. As 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 says:
For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.
May the Lord continue to sanctify us wholly – spirit, soul, and body – for his glory. Amen.