GEMS FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT
THE HYSSOP PLANT is mentioned twelve times in Scripture1—ten times in the Old Testament and twice in the New. The most familiar reference may be Psalm 51:7, where David writes, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
Of the twelve verses in which hyssop is mentioned, nine have to do with ceremonial purifications. In Leviticus 14, for example, hyssop is used to ritually purify homes cleansed of mold, and lepers cured of leprosy. In Numbers 19, hyssop is part of the red heifer sacrifice, and later in the chapter is used to sprinkle water on those defiled by touching the dead.
As for other passages and contexts . . .
In Exodus 12, at the first Passover, hyssop is used to smear blood on the lintel and doorposts of Israelite homes. In 1 Kings 4, hyssop is listed as part of Solomon’s botanical lore: “Also he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree of Lebanon even to the hyssop that springs out of the wall.” And in John 19 a hyssop stalk is used to raise a sponge to the crucified Christ’s parched lips.
What is the significance of
hyssop in Scripture?
Most botanists identify biblical hyssop with a species of plant called Origanum syriacum, commonly referred to as Syrian oregano, or za’atar—a bushy perennial that grows prolifically in the Middle East. Part of the mint family, this plant has highly aromatic leaves, grows as tall as three feet, and produces white or pale pink flowers in spring.
For millennia, oregano has been used as seasoning and has been prized for its health benefits. Numerous studies have shown it to be anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal, and useful for treating a variety of ailments, especially those caused by infections or inflammations.
Hyssop is a “purifier.” And this may help explain its use and significance in certain Bible passages. For example, in Psalm 51:7 David says, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” Why hyssop? Because hyssop is an internal cleanser, and therefore symbolic of the internal or spiritual cleansing, the “clean heart” (Psalm 51:10) that David seeks in this confessional psalm—the cleansing power of God’s forgiveness.
As noted above, hyssop is used in Leviticus 14 and Numbers 19 to ceremonially purify once-moldy homes, cured lepers, and Israelites who came into contact with corpses. As a medicinal cleanser, hyssop perfectly symbolizes ceremonial and spiritual cleansing. But who knows? Given the antibacterial and antiseptic nature of hyssop, it may also have been intended as a biological cleanser in these infectious settings.
In Exodus 12:22, hyssop is used as a brush to apply lamb’s blood to the lintel and doorposts of Israelite homes—something to which the plant’s stalk, leaves, and blossoms are well suited. But given the purifying nature of hyssop, surely more is meant. Using hyssop to apply the blood points to the purifying, protective power of the blood itself; and ultimately, to the atoning blood of Christ.
Even in John 19, the use of hyssop to give the crucified Christ a drink may be as symbolical as it is practical. For after this drink, the Savior would speak the three words that changed our lives and proclaimed our salvation: “IT IS FINISHED.” His blood, the True Hyssop, cleansed us from our sins and washed away our guilt.
As John wrote: “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
(1 John 1:7)
Mark Weis is pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Lemmon, South Dakota.