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What is an alabaster box?

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Question: "What is an alabaster box?"

The Bible speaks of an alabaster box in the two incidents involving women, one of whom was Mary of Bethany, who brought ointment in the box to anoint Jesus. The Greek word translated “alabaster box” in the KJV, as well as “flask,” “jar” and “vial” in other translations, is alabastron, which can also mean “perfume vase.”

The fact that both women carried an alabaster box of ointment with which to anoint Jesus as He was eating a meal has given rise to a certain amount of confusion about these two separate incidents involving two different women. Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8 all speak of the same event involving Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, at the home of Simon the leper, probably a leper who had been healed by Jesus and had become one of His followers. This event occurred in Bethany just days before the crucifixion, which is why Mary came to anoint Jesus for the event to come. "She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial" (Mark 14:8). Mary is never referred to as a sinner in any of the accounts of her. Nor does it say she was weeping.

On the other hand, Luke 7:36-50 speaks of the house of Simon the Pharisee rather than the house of Simon the leper. This event occurred about a year before the crucifixion in the area around Galilee (Luke 7:1, 11). The woman here was forgiven of many sins, but her name is not given. While Mary of Bethany possessed insight as to the upcoming death of Christ, the woman of Luke had no such insight; she exhibited just loving worship of the One who forgave her of her sins. There certainly are many similarities in these incidents that have caused some confusion, one of which is the presence of an alabaster box.

Alabaster was a stone commonly found in Israel. It was a hard stone resembling white marble and is referred to as one of the precious stones used in the decoration of Solomon’s Temple (1 Chronicles 29:2). In Song of Songs, the beloved man is described as having legs like “alabaster columns” (ESV) or “pillars of marble” (NIV, KJV). So the container the two women used to carry the perfumed oil was made of a white, marble-like substance. Ointment, oils and perfumes used to be put in vessels made of alabaster, which kept them pure and unspoiled. The boxes were often sealed or made fast with wax, to prevent the perfume from escaping. When Mary broke open her alabaster box, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). Alabaster was a strong enough substance to keep the oil or perfume completely contained until the time of its use.

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