What is alabaster? What are the stories in the Bible with an alabaster box?
Alabaster is a strong, dense stone, similar to marble, that can be found in Israel and the surrounding areas. The word "box" is also translated "flask" or "vial." Alabaster is a beautiful, precious stone, and was used to add beauty to Solomon's temple (1 Chronicles 29:2), and the bride in Song of Solomon used the description "alabaster columns" to describe the well-formed, strong legs of her lover (they are called pillars of marble in more modern versions) (Song of Solomon 5:15). Because of its beauty and strength, alabaster was often used for storing precious perfume.
Two stories in the Bible mention an alabaster box of perfume. The two stories are very similar: both involve a woman who brings an alabaster box of perfume or ointment with which to anoint Jesus, and both women bring the alabaster box to Jesus while He is sitting down at a meal in the house of a man named Simon (a common name at that time). But they are two different women and occurred at two different times. There is also a third account of Jesus being anointed, but no alabaster flask is mentioned (John 12:1–8).
The first woman who brought an alabaster box to anoint Jesus was called "a sinner" which meant she was living a sinful lifestyle, perhaps of prostitution. She approached Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50). Her name is not known, but she is said to have been forgiven of much sin. Jesus compares the love of this woman, who was forgiven much and therefore loved much, to the weak love of Simon and the other Pharisees, who loved Jesus little because they thought their sins were also little, and that they had little need of forgiveness. The sinful woman's willingness to give Jesus the treasured ointment in her alabaster box is a symbol of her great love and need for Jesus—something the Pharisees could not understand, because of their pride. As Jesus elsewhere said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17).
The second story is also about an unnamed woman. It occurs at the house of Simon, a man whom Jesus had healed of leprosy (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9). When the woman anoints Jesus with the oil from the alabaster box, He blesses her, saying, "she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her" (Mark 14:8–9). This was a case of amazing faith—the woman had likely been listening to Jesus during His ministry, and believed what He said: that He would die and be raised again (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34). The other disciples did not seem to believe it would happen. They perhaps thought He was speaking figuratively. But this woman apparently believed Him—despite how confusing it must have been to her based on the common expectations of the Messiah. Jesus' blessing is an indication that this woman's faith is a faith that every believer should emulate (Mark 14:3–9).
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