Revision 2.3 “Frankincense and Lehi’s Trail”

Revision 2.3 “Frankincense and Lehi’s Trail” July 20, 2020


Elephantine, Aswan, Egypt
A 2012 Wikimedia Commons photo by Marc Ryckaert, showing the south end of Elephantine Island in Aswan, where a Jewish temple once stood.


Frankincense is a fragrant gum resin consisting of small white chunks and beads that can easily be ground into a powder. When burned, this powder gives off a pleasant odor like that of balsam. The resin, milky white in color, was probably produced in the central district of Hadramawt, along the Indian Ocean coast of southern Arabia. From there, it was exported to Palestine and other parts of the Mediterranean world. The caravan routes for transporting Ara­bian incense and the products of Africa and India began in Sheba, the modern Yemen. The main route went north via the valleys and oases of the peninsula, through Mecca, and to Ma’an, where it split into two branches. One of these went west to Gaza and Egypt and the other north to Damascus.

The importance of this trade cannot be overestimated. The temples, and later the churches, of the eastern Mediterranean were hungry for frankincense, as were upper-class private dwellings. (The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, condemns a rich and unrigh­teous woman who sat “upon a stately bed, and a table prepared before it, whereupon thou hast set mine incense and mine oil.”)[1] Frankincense was used extensively in the rituals of the temple at Jerusalem.[2] It was a major and essential ingredient of the incense that was holy to the Lord, and the use of this incense for any unauthorized purpose was expressly forbidden in the law of Moses.[3] Such incense was burned on a specially dedicated and designed altar of incense by the high priest each morning and evening.[4] That altar stood just before the veil of the holy of holies in the temple, flanked on one side by the altar of “the bread of the presence” and on the other by the seven-branched candelabra.[5] Once a year the high priest was directed to carry a censer of burn­ing incense as he entered the holy of holies and approached the mercy seat.[6] But the substance also played a role in the ordinary daily service of the temple. Of the Levites, the Old Testament says, “They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law: they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon thine altar.”[7] Frankincense and oil were added to the cereal offerings.[8] Frankincense was placed with the “bread of the presence” before the holy of holies.[9] Such extensive use required large amounts of the precious material. In Herod’s day, we know that the temple con­sumed more than 600 pounds of incense each year, specially pre­pared according to a secret formula. Huge stores of the substance were kept in the temple treasury.[10]

The fragrance of the incense symbolized the prayers of God’s people, ascending upward to the divine throne. “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense,” says the Psalmist, “and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”[11] This notion continued into New Testament times. John the Revelator saw the four beasts and the twenty-four elders of his vision fall down before the Lamb of God, “having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.”[12] When, however, the worship of the temple or the Church became merely an empty form, when the people lacked the proper spirit of sincere worship and devotion, the prophets were there to relate the Lord’s condemna­tion. Thus, in the days of Lehi, the prophet Jeremiah lashed out against such empty and meaningless worship: “To what purpose cometh there to me incense from Sheba? . . . Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet unto me.”[13]

[1] Ezekiel 23:41.

[2] Also at the derivative Jewish temple at Elephantine in Egypt. On this, see “Advice of the Governors of Judah and Samaria to the Jews of Elephantine,” in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 2d ed. (Princeton: Prince­ton University Press, 1955), 492. Many critics of the Book of Mormon, incidentally, have ridiculed the idea that a pious Jew, such as Nephi is alleged to have been, would ever have dreamed of building a temple outside of Jerusalem (2 Nephi 5:16). The Ele­phantine temple, however, which was located near Aswan in upper Egypt, shows that the Book of Mormon is plausible on this point, and that its critics are incorrect. It was probably constructed at almost exactly the same time that Nephi built his temple in the Americas and func­tioned with the apparent approval of the authorities at Jerusalem. See Hayim Tadmor, in H. H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 179-80; also Bezalel Porten, “Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine?” Biblical Archaeol­ogy Review 21/3 (May/June 1995): 54-67, 76-77. Later, yet another Jewish temple, that of Onias, was built at Leontopolis.  [Update references]

[3] Exodus 30:9, 34-38; Leviticus 10:1-3.

[4] Exodus 30:1-10. Luke 1:8-11 reflects this practice, although it suggests that, by the time of Christ, other priests were permitted to officiate in this service in place of the high priest.

[5] K. Galling, “Incense Altar,” in George Edward Buttrick, et al., eds., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. and a supplement (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962-1976), 2:699-700, supplies references for the idea that at least one type of Israelite incense altar was itself borrowed from Arabia.

[6] Leviticus 16:12-13. The censers of ancient Israelite temple worship were of an inter­esting form, with the incense itself often resting in a “hand,” carved in cupping shape, at the end of a long handle that had been hollowed out to allow air to pass through in order to keep the incense burning. See L. E. Toombs, “Incense, Dish for,” in George Edward Buttrick, et al., eds., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. and a sup­plement (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962-1976), 2:698-99, for a very brief article on the sub­ject, with further references. The angel of Revelation 8:3-4 stands at the altar with a censer from which the prayers of the Saints ascend, mingled with incense. An intrigu­ing image, I think, for Latter-day Saint temple-goers.

[7] Deuteronomy 33:10.

[8] Leviticus 2:1-2, 14-16; 6:14-18; compare Isaiah 43:23; Jeremiah 17:26; 41:5.

[9] Leviticus 24:7.

[10] 1 Chronicles 9:29; Nehemiah 13:5, 9.

[11] Psalm 141:2. Anciently, it was common to raise the hands heavenward as a gesture of prayer, as we today fold our hands or our arms. Some may find this significant. I do.

[12] Revelation 5:8; compare 8:3-4; also Luke 1:10. The marginal note in the KJV to the word “odours” suggests “incense” as an alternate reading, which is precisely correct.

[13] Jeremiah 6:20.


It was not only in the divinely revealed ordinances of the temple that frankincense played a central role. Incense was an important part of the worship of other deities as well,[1] and it had other functions besides worship in the strictest sense. In Israel, incense helped to purify from the plague, and it may have been thought to have a sanitary influence in places of slaughter and sacrifice.[2] Certainly its aroma must have been preferable to the smell that would otherwise have filled the temple, which, for all its holiness, was like a huge slaughterhouse. But even if it served such a prosaic function as covering up the stench of the sacrifices, the offering of incense is always portrayed as a very holy ritual wherever it occurs in the Old Testament.[3] In Babylon, frankincense was offered to highly esteemed mortal men as a token of respect and goodwill.[4] (Its high price alone would make sure that it was not offered to just anybody) In Israel, frankincense was offered to the Lord by private people for the same reason—when, of course, they could afford it. Thus, donations of frankincense were made to the tabernacle in the wilderness and to the temple. And, as everyone knows, the wise men offered “gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” to the infant Jesus.[5]

Obviously, any substance as valuable as frankincense would gen­erate a lucrative trade. When John the Revelator described the wealth of Babylon, frankincense was one of the commodities he listed in order to give his readers an idea of the almost unbelievable extent of Babylon’s riches.[6] King Solomon, who was also famous for his wealth and glory, profited specifically from his commerce with Arabia.[7] This was a very active trade, requiring a great deal of travel through difficult ter­ritory, and it’s noteworthy that the Old Testament seems to have a fairly detailed knowledge of Arabian geography.[8] (Such biblical place names as Dedan, Bumah, Ephah, Midian, Ophir, Sheba, Tema, and Uz are either known or widely thought to be located in Arabia.) The classical geographer Strabo writes of caravan traders “in such num­bers of men and camels that they differ in no way from an army.”[9]

But Solomon, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Babylonians were at the outer ends of the frankincense trade routes. What of the people actually living in Arabia? The great wealth of Arabian merchants is mentioned at several places in the Bible. “Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?” asks the Song of Solomon.[10] Ezekiel refers to “Sabaeans from the wilderness, which put bracelets upon their hands, and beautiful crowns upon their heads.”[11] Arabian merchants are routinely linked by the Old Testa­ment with gold and silver, incense, spices, and precious stones.[12]

From a Latter-day Saint perspective, the most interesting thing about the frankincense trail that ran along the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula is that it seems to have been followed by the prophet Lehi during his flight from Jerusalem. The account in 1 Nephi is astonishingly accurate in its depiction of both the manner of the Lehi party’s travel and the route they took.[13] Even “Nahom,” mentioned in the Book of Mormon as the burial place of Ishmael— which is, by the way, a highly appropriate name for someone travel­ing through the Arabian desert—has now been shown to have existed in Arabia in just the right place at exactly the right time.[14]

[1] Leviticus 26:30-31; 1 Kings 11:7-8; 2 Kings 22:17; 23:5; 2 Chronicles 34:25; Jeremiah 1:16; 7:9; 11:13; 19:13; 32:29; 44:15-30; 48:35; Ezekiel 6:13.

[2] Numbers 16:46-48.

[3] The offering of incense could serve as an occasion of revelation, as is shown in the well- known story of Zacharias (Luke 1:5-23) and in the lesser-known account of John Hyrcanus, related in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13:282-83 (13:10:3 in the Whiston translation).

[4] Daniel 2:46.

[5] Numbers 7:14, 20; Jeremiah 17:26; Matthew 2:11.

[6] Revelation 18:13.

[7] 1 Kings 10:15.

[8] J A. Thompson, “Arabia,” in George Edward Buttrick, et al., eds., The Interpreter’s Dic­tionary of the Bible, 4 vols. and a supplement (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962-1976), 1:181.

[9] Strabo, Geographica, 16:4:23.

[10] Song of Solomon 3:6; compare 4:6, 14. Compare Ezekiel 38:10-13.

[11] Ezekiel 23:42.

[12] 2 Chronicles 9:14; Isaiah 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20; Ezekiel 27:22.

[13] Some interesting Latter-day Saint studies of this question have appeared. Hugh Nib­ley’s discussion in Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites is a superb starting point. Lynn M. and Hope Hilton actually traveled through Arabia in search of Lehi’s trail and published a highly interesting and well-illustrated account of that journey in a book of the same name, published by Deseret Book in 1976. In my judgment, their proposed route for Lehi seems to be fundamentally correct. Eugene England’s article “Through the Arabian Desert to a Bountiful Land: Could Joseph Smith Have Known the Way?” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 143-56, argues that the Book of Mormon account of Lehi’s journey across the Ara­bian peninsula has to have been written by an eyewitness and that the detailed knowl­edge of the ancient frankincense trail that it reveals was unavailable to outsiders in the 1820s. William J. Hamblin, “Pre-Islamic Arabian Prophets,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer, (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1983), 85-104, surveys the nonbibli­cal prophets connected by the Qur’an with pre-Islamic Arabia and speculates that one of these may have been Lehi himself.  Warren P. and Michaela J. Aston have plausibly refined the Hiltons’ findings in two papers, published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and titled, respectively, “And We Called the Place Bountiful” (Provo: FARMS, 1991) and “The Place Which Was Called Nahom” (Provo: FARMS, 1991) and, most recently, in their book In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi’s Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994). Some critics have objected that 1 Nephi mentions no camels. But this represents no serious problem, since the use of camels to cross Arabia would have been so obviously neces­sary that it would hardly have required mention. When I say to someone today that I plan to drive to Denver, he is unlikely to ask me what I’m going to drive — a car, perhaps? or a dogsled?  The answer to that question is clearly understood. Significantly, the common Arabic verb rahala, which today means simply “to depart,” or even “to travel,” and which can be applied to travel by airplane, by boat, and by automobile, originally meant specifically “to saddle [a camel].” It would not have been necessary to mention camels any more than, when we speak of baptism, to specify water as opposed to gasoline or molten lead.  [Expand and update references.]

[14] 1 Nephi 16:34.



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