Hyssop and rituals of cleansing (Psalm 51)


Bilderesultat for origanum syriacum

Illustration: The Biblical Hyssop; Origanum syriacum

The hyssop of the Bible is not the European Hyssop officinalis but Origanum syriacum, sometimes referred to as “Bible hyssop” or “Syrian oregano”. A variety of oregano or marjoram that grows in rocky soil in Israel, it has hairy, grey leaves that absorb liquid well – probably accounting for its use in rituals involving cleansing.

In Leviticus 14 a person with a skin disease was to be ritually cleansed by means of two clean birds, hyssop, a piece of scarlet cloth and some cedarwood. Under a priest’s direction one bird was to be slaughtered and the other, along with the hyssop, yarn and cedar, dipped into the blood. The individual would be sprinkled with the blood (apparently using the hyssop) and the living bird released.

Hyssop was also used for wiping sacrificial blood on the lintel and doorposts of Israelite houses in Egypt at the time of the first Passover (Exodus 12:21-22), as well as in a cleansing ritual involving a red heifer (Numbers 19:6). Because of its association with purification rites, David in Psalm 51:7 asked in his prayer for forgiveness to be cleansed with hyssop.


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