Hyssop is one of the better-known plants of the Bible referred to in ten places in the Old Testament and two in the New, of which one is a reference to the Old. This plant, or a product of this plant, formed an important part of the Passover (Exodus 12:22), ceremonial cleansing from skin disease (Leviticus 14), and the red heifer offering (Numbers 19). It is perhaps in reference to the latter that David mentions hyssop in Psalm 51:7. The New Testament reference is in John
19:29 (discussed below). Hebrews 9:19 refers to the ceremonial cleansing of the children of Israel and mentions hyssop. Interestingly, this use of hyssop is not specifically mentioned for this incident in the Old Testament, but it seems to be a common instrument for handling a sponge, which will help us to clarify John 19:29. The remaining reference, I Kings 4:33, is the only Old Testament verse which does not mention hyssop in a ceremonial use. It is also one of the most puzzling verses dealing with hyssop. This is the crux in the study of hyssop.
This study deals with the botanical identity of the plant known as hyssop and the two problematical verses, I Kings 4:33 and John 19:29. There have been many studies on hyssop (in lit.), more than could be reviewed here.
Hyssop, ezov in Hebrew, must have the following features according to the Scriptures where it is mentioned. It should grow on a "wall" (I Kings 4:33). The plant and/or its extracts should be useful for purgatives. In both Leviticus 14 and Numbers 19, hyssop is associated
with cedar wood implying a purgative use. Moreover, it may have been commercially available perhaps in the same way it is today (see discussion below). This could explain the use of the plant by the children of Israel in the Nile Delta prior to their departure from Egypt. A corollary is, that as a general principle, God did not require his people to be trained botanists who would have difficulty determining the plant components of the offerings. It is not certain (as it would
seem on first glance) that it must be able to hold moisture, like a paint brush; wool or another material could have been used as a sponge in the application of the blood of the Passover lamb to the door (Exodus 12), the hyssop serving as an instrument to handle the sponge in order to avoid losing some of the moisture in applying it. 0 For all of these uses, Origanum syriacum, a plant known in English as Syrian hyssop and a relative of the well-known kitchen herbs oregano and marjoram, seems the most likely candidate.
Yet, modern Bible scholars still express uncertainty about the actual identity of hyssop and some suggest that it could be caper (Capparis spinosa) a very common shrub in the Middle East. The only evidence for this is the verse in 1 Kings 4:33 referring to hyssop (ezov) growing from a wall. This has often been assumed to be a masonry wall, similar to those commonly seen in the older parts of cities in the Middle East where caper is so common. The problem is that this description does not apply to Origanum syriacum, as it never grows out of stone walls. To suggest, however, that Solomon was thinking of caper, only complicates the matter as there is a different word for caper in Hebrew (ab'ionah). A further problem with caper is how it is used. The fruit, a soft berry like structure when mature, was apparently used as an aphrodisiac. The fruits would have to be dried - certainly a messy, tedious if not impossible task. Lastly, Palestinians we have interviewed never use any part of the caper plant for food or condiment.
Just the opposite is true of Origanum syriacum, known in Arabic as za'atar and one of the most widely used and valued herbs of the Palestinians. A typical Palestinian breakfast is bread dipped in olive oil and za'atar. It is available in dried form in almost any Arab market as a mixture of hyssop, sesame seeds, salt and sometimes olive oil and other ingredients. The flavor is rather like that of a pizza! We asked the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim which plant they use for sprinkling in their Passover rites, and their answer was za'atar.
Is the riddle unsolvable? In 1 Kings 4:33 it seems that esov cannot be hyssop as this does not grow out of a stone wall, which caper does; but in other references not the slightest doubt can exist as to hyssop meaning Origanum syriacum. and by no stretch of imagination caper could be meant. But there may still be a solution. The Hebrew word used in I Kings 4:33 is qir, and while it is the word frequently used for wall (e.g. Leviticus 14: 37; 1 Kings 6:5 and many other places), this use does not preclude reference to natural ledges such as are common in the mountains [(Numbers 22: 25; 1 Samuel 25: 22; Isaiah 22: 5 (?)] may be examples). In this verse, Solomon is speaking of natural history, not man-made objects so that reference to a masonry wall would be out of context. Indeed Origanum syriacum is most frequent on rocky ledges and outcrops in the mountains, rock formations which can reasonably be described as walls.
One final problem in the identity of hyssop remains and that is in John 19:29. The word here is the same as that in Hebrews 19 and there seems little doubt that hyssop is meant. The problem seems to be in how the hyssop was used. There are several possibilities. The first is that the sponge was put on a long stalk of the hyssop plant. This is unlikely due to the small stature of hyssop; it would nearly be impossible to find a stem more than a meter long and even then the stem often branches. The Greek words meaning "binding it to hyssop" might also suggest that the hyssop plant was a kind of holder for the sponge. This is plausible because of the growth habit of the hyssop where a sponge could be put in the center of the much-branched plant. Why this would be necessary is unclear. Could the hyssop have been used as a kind of sedative, much like myrrh in Mark 15: 23? The essential oil in Origanum might possibly have the effect of softening the sharp taste of the vinegar. But perhaps there is also a connection with the use of hyssop as a broom (in this case with scarlet wool, which would function very well for sprinkling of water) in Hebrews 9.