The psalmist says “purge me with hyssop” –clean me with a scrubby aromatic plant.
Mediterranean Hyssop— Hyssopus officinalis is a pungent-leafed bush with blue flowers that is used medicinally, mostly in teas as an expectorant, antiseptic and for cough relief. But the qualities that the bible ascribes to Hyssop: it grows in walls, can hold moisture, has a long, stiff stalk, has a purgative effect, appear in no one plant. Other suggested candidates for biblical Hyssop include caper, Syrian oregano, and za’atar a word which Palestinians use for a family of aromatic herbs (and the ubiquitous condiment made from their dried leaves).
In scripture Hyssop is associated with Cedar—the two aromatic plants are paired ingredients in cleansing rituals and they are contrasted as opposite poles on spectrum of Solomon’s plant wisdom, with Hyssop representing the small, local and ordinary.
So we have a biblical mandate for or at least a reference to, using a plant for spiritual cleansing.
In Leviticus, Numbers and Exodus, Hyssop is used to cleanse from leprosy, from contact with the dead and at Passover Hyssop was used to protect the houses of the Hebrews.
Biblical instructions for cleansing with Hyssop involve either fire, water, blood or some combination of these.
Burning Hyssop has some parallels to plains First Nations’ practice of smudging with aromatic medicinal plants like sweet grass and sage. There has been recent attention given to the scientific affirmation of the anti-bacterial effects of this long-held traditional practice.
The instructions for using Hyssop to purify by sprinkling, with water and blood includes careful provision for the return and disposal of plant and animal elements involved in the cleansing. In the Christian tradition this practice has evolved to sprinkling with holy water.
Many aromatic plants produce natural insecticide and fungicides. Perhaps the cleansing practices, which biblical scholars call cultic and which First Nations practitioners on Coast Salish territory would call cultural, are connected to properties of the plants. The idea that seemingly obscure Levitical code instructions might be rooted in ancient plant wisdom with a modern cognate in Indigenous knowledge makes the text seem more accessible and relevant and offers exciting possibilities for other bioregional readings.
In Lent, as we ponder our collective ecological sins, this Psalm of repentance bears a reminder of the many traditions of plant wisdom that have been diminished, lost and destroyed.
Laurel Dykstra is the curator of Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on ecological themes in the Revised Common Lectionary.
Image Caption: Hyssop, Salerno Herbal approx. 1300