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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 1

WHAT WAS "BRIMSTONE"?

JOHN V. MYERS

Copyright 1983 by Lewis M. Greenberg & Warner B. Sizemore

Editor's Note: This article was first written by the late Dr. Myers in August of 1 - 4. It has been revised and edited by Dwardu Cardona in June of this year. - LMG

Omitting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which may well have involved an explosion-produced rain of burning sulfur,(1) the Bible contains fourteen statements or implications that the fiery substance which fell in past catastrophes, or is to fall in the last days, was brimstone - i.e., presumably, sulfur. The Bible also contains nineteen references to the unquenchability of this fiery substance - that is, to its ability to burn while floating on water. With a specific gravity of 2.07, sulfur is simply not credible as a substance which will burn on water. But if not sulfur, what could the Biblical "brimstone" have stood for?

We begin our search for the solution to this mystery with an examination of one of the visions of John of Patmos wherein is revealed where the fiery substance came from:

"When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

"Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne;

"And the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.

"Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, loud noises, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake."(2)

Before analysing this passage, let us make an enquiry concerning the Hebraic institution of offering "incense" upon the "golden altar":

"The offering of incense, or burning of aromatic substances, is common in the religious ceremonies of nearly all nations (Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, etc.), and it is natural to find it holding a prominent place in the tabernacle and temple-worship of Israel. The newer critical theory that incense was a late importation into the religion of Israel, and that the altar of incense described in Exodus 30:1 ff. is a post-exilian invention, rests on presuppositions which are not here admitted, and is in contradiction to the express notices of the altar of incense in I Kings 6:20, 22; 7:48; 9:25; cf. 2 Chronicles 4:19 . . . The incense used in the tabernacle service . . . was compounded according to a definite prescription of the perfumes stacte, onycha, galbanum and pure frankincense (Exodus 30:34ff.)

. . . In the offering of incense, burning coals from the altar of burnt offering were borne in a censer and put upon the altar of incense (the "golden altar" before the oracle), then the fragrant incense was sprinkled on the fire (cf. Luke I :9ff.)."(3)

Stacte is a fragrant resin obtained from some species of cistus, or "rockrose". Onycha is the horny plate that covers a species of mussel found in the lakes of India which, when burned, emits a musky odor. Galbanum is a pleasantly aromatic gum resin derived from certain umbelliferous plants. Frankincense (from the Old French for "pure incense"), as used by the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, was a gum resin now called olibanum which was derived from certain trees of the genus boswellia found growing on the limestone of South Arabia and Somaiiland. Thus, three of the four ingredients in the incense burned on the golden altar were gum resins. Gum resins are mixtures of gum and resin obtained from plants or trees by incision. Resins burn readily because they contain volatile oils.

When the angel of John's vision, therefore, "took the

censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth", he was showering the Earth and its inhabitants with sticky, burning resin.

Incense was not only burned but was also given as a gift to show esteem as in the well-known case of the three Magi and the child Jesus:

"When they had heard the king [Herod] they [the Magi] went their way; and Io, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.

"When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh."(4)

Incense was also burned as an offering to Venus as the Morning Star. Thus we find it written in the Popul Vuh, the Bible of the Mayans of Central America:

"Behold, then, the dawn, the appearing of the sun, the moon and the stars.

"Balam-Quitzé, Balam-Acab, Mahucutah and Iqui-Balam were happy when they saw the Morning Star. It came out first with shining face, when it came out first before the sun .

"At once they unwrapped the incense which they had brought from the East and which they intended to burn, and then they untied the three presents which they intended to offer.

"The incense which Balam-Quitzé brought was called Mixtan-Pom, the incense which Balam-Acab brought was called Caviztan-Pom; and the one Mahucutah brought was called Cabauil-Pom. The three had their incense. They burned it and immediately began to dance in the direction of the East.

"They wept with joy while they were dancing and burning their incense, their precious incense.''(5)

As we did with the Hebrews, let us enquire about the "precious incense" which the priests of the Maya burned to the Morning Star. As Adrian Recinos stated:

"Instead of the incense of the East, the Quiche [the most important nation of the Guatemalan Mayas] burned a variety of aromatic substances on the altars of their gods: turpentine, or the resin from the pine, which they called col; pom, which is the copalli of Mexico; [and] the gum called noh, which is another resin, according to Ximénez . ."(6)

Copalli, or copal, we should add, is a hard lustrous resin obtained from various tropical trees and used today in the manufacture of varnishes.

Guatemala is separated from the land of the Bible by eight thousand miles, including an ocean. The burning of resins among the Quiche could not have been a practice borrowed from the Egyptians, or Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, or Israelites. It is not, therefore, improper to assume that the practice owed its origin to some experience which was shared by the inhabitants of both the Old and the New World. This belief is fortified by the fact that the Popul Vuh describes an incident which, while rendered in completely different garb, seems to duplicate God's punishment as described by John of Patmos:

"But they [the first men created by God] did not think, did not speak with their Creator and their Maker, who had made them, who had created them. And for this reason they were killed, they were annihilated. A great quantity of resin fell from the sky . . ."(7)

That this occurred during a time of cataclysm is confirmed by the next following description:

"And this was to punish them because they had not thought of their mother, nor of their father, the Heart of Heaven, whose name was Huracan. And for this reason the face of the earth was darkened and a black rain began to fall, a rain by day, a rain by night . . .

"In despair they ran this way and that; they tried to climb to the roofs of the houses and the houses fell down and threw them to the ground; they tried to climb the trees and the trees threw them far away; they tried to enter the caves and the caves closed up before them . . .

"At this time there was very little light on the face of the earth. There was not yet a sun."(8)

In a newer and more literal translation, M. S. Edmonson renders the operative Quiche word q'ol as "glue", but explains in a note that it can also mean "incense" and "resin".(9) According to Racinos, q'ol, or col, is pure resin.(10)

The Quiche, however, do not, like John of Patmos, describe this rain of resinous substance as having fallen in flaming form. Is it possible that in some parts of the world the substance did not ignite or do we have here a confirmation of the contention that details of cosmic catastrophe are more accurately preserved in the collective unconscious - as in the eschatological vision of John of Patmos than they are through cultural transmission?

At this point one might ask: What has any of this to do with brimstone? The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has this to say about "brimstone":

"The word translated 'brimstone' [gophrith] probably referred originally to the pitch [ resin] of trees, like the cypress. By analogy it has been rendered 'brimstone' because of the inflammability of both substances.''(11)

The Hebrew dictionary in Strong's Concordance has it similarly:

"Gophrîyth, gof-reeth'; prob[ably] fem[inine] of [gopher]; prop[erly] cypress-resin; by anal[ogy] sulphur (as equally inflammable): - brimstone.''(12)

It appears then that when the Old Testament speaks of a rain of "fire and brimstone" from heaven, it is not really specifying burning sulfur but burning resin. Thus, not only is the accuracy of John's vision established, it is also obvious that the only difference between the Hebraic and Quiche perception was an environmentally determined one: The Hebrews described the substance as cypress resin, the Quiche as pine gum.

This confusion between brimstone and resin was still evident by the time of the New Testament. In Greek, "brimstone" was called "theion". In his Greek-English lexicon, J. H. Thayer defined the word in this manner:

[Theion] . . . apparently the neut[er] of the adj[ective] [theios] i.q. [The same as] divine incense, because burning brimstone was regarded as having power to purify, and to ward off contagion . . . brimstone . . ."(13)

It is our opinion that Thayer reversed the direction of semantic transfer. We believe that it was the apotropaic virtue of the burning of incense which, in time, became attached to the burning of sulfur. "Theios" means "divinity" or "deity", and is so used by Paul.(14)

A form of resin is also known as pitch which is obtained through the distillation of wood tar, notably that of the pine. Non-resinous pitch is also obtained from coal tar. The name, however, is also applied to the natural mineral substances normally called bitumen or asphalt which is the same as naphtha. Might not this resinous substance, which fell burning from the sky, therefore, have been a rain of fiery naphtha, or petroleum, as adduced by Immanuel Velikovsky?(15) Might not the pitch of trees, or resin, have been used as a substitute by ancient man in memory of such events? And might not the practice of offering and burning incense have derived from a desire to placate the angry god(s) in heaven?

REFERENCES

1. "Cities of the Plain," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, 1946), Vol. 1, pp. 660-661.
2. Revelation 8:1-5.
3. "Incense' (see note No. 1), Vol.III, p. 1466.
4. Matthew 2:9-11.
5. Popul Vuh, 3:9.
6. A.Recinos, Popul Vuh: Las Antiguas Historias del Quiche (Mexico), 1961), p. 176
7. Popul Vuh, 1:3(emphasis added).
8. Ibid., 1:4.
9. M. S. Edmonson, The Book of Counsel: The Popul Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala (New Orleans, 1 - 1), p. 26.
10. A.Recinos, loc. cit., n. 17.
11. "Brimstone" (see note No. 1), Vol . l, p. 522.
12. J. Strong, "Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary," Abingdon's Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville,1894-1981), p. 28 of dictionary section (entry No.1614).
13. J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (N. Y., 1889), pp. 284-285.
14. Acts 17:29.
15. I. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (N. Y., 1950), pp. 53-58.

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