“Hey, we’re running low on cinnamon. Could you pick some up the next time you swing by the market?”
For more than a thousand years in Western history, such a request would have been incomprehensible. Spices were exotic and rare – among the most valuable commodities on earth. Today we take for granted that for a few dollars we can replenish our supply of cinnamon any time we want.
Things were different for medieval Europeans. Aside from the welcome presence of salt, meals were comparatively bland. When spice traders first introduced novel tastes like ginger, cloves, and black pepper, demand for more of these extraordinary flavors quickly escalated to a level of desperation.
The problem was supply. The plants that produced the most delightful spices grew far away on remote islands in the South Pacific.
Nutmeg and mace thrived on only nine tiny volcanic islets between Borneo and New Guinea. Cloves were limited to just six specks of land in the Moluccas. Since there are 16,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, spread over 735,000 square miles, it’s no wonder it took European sailors a long time to discover what they came to call the Spice Islands.
From the early 1400s to the early 1500s, the residents of those islands could be forgiven for thinking they had hit the jackpot. Here came traders carrying precious metals and tools for bartering. Arabs and Europeans gladly parted with gold and silver in exchange for tons of pepper, cinnamon, and turmeric.
The marketplaces of Italy, France, and Britain were far away, however. It wasn’t easy traversing thousands of miles over land or sea. Such journeys were exceedingly dangerous, and militia were required to provide security.
There were “middlemen” at every stage of the journey, each taking a financial cut. By the time nutmeg reached Europe it had been marked up approximately 60,000 times its original price. During Roman times, Pliny the Elder noted that cinnamon was worth 15 times its weight in silver. And at one point during the heyday of the spice trade, a ton of cloves could be sold for two tons of gold.
Unsurprisingly, there was significant financial incentive to cut out the middlemen. In his book Spice: The History of a Temptation, Jack Turner notes, “There was a time when grown men sat around and thought of nothing but black pepper. How to get it. How to get more. How to control the entire trade in pepper from point of origin to purchase.” It was a high stakes enterprise. Social historian Bill Bryson observes that nobody would have died if their diet didn’t include spices, but plenty of people died trying to procure them.
When Christopher Columbus approached the Spanish court with his plan to sail west, one of his primary talking points was the possibility of finding a shortcut to the Spice Islands.
Spices were highly prized during Bible times, too – although not as much for food as for fragrances.
At his birth, Jesus received gifts of frankincense and myrrh. Shortly before his death he was anointed with a sweet-smelling spice called spikenard (or just “nard”), which was derived from the roots of a local plant. This rare scent is mentioned several times in the Old Testament book of Song of Songs, where the Lover’s words in 4:13-14 may be loosely translated, “Darling, you smell like spikenard.” We may assume that turn of phrase came in second as an ancient Middle Eastern pick-up line, trailing only, “Well, here I am. What are your other two wishes?”
Why were spices worth so much?
They were hard to get. The demand kept growing because the supply was so limited. As a general rule, when people find it hard to get their hands on what they deeply desire, they become desperate, almost haunted with yearning, and therefore willing to go to extreme measures.
But when time and technology solved the supply issue, bringing plenteous quantities of cinnamon to European and American kitchens, the demand rapidly declined. Now we take spices for granted. We don’t get bent out of shape if a child accidentally spills the nutmeg on the counter. No one spends his life thinking about how to get more black pepper.
Which brings us to the ebbs and flows of our appreciation for the real greatest treasure on earth.
When we first grasp the depth of God’s love for us – his willingness to forgive our dumbest mistakes and to pick up the cumulative tab of the world’s sin on the cross – most of us are overcome with wonder and awe. We promise God that we will never stop giving thanks.
But over time we become accustomed to God’s grace. After all, the supply is endless. It’s always there. It’s God’s job to love me, right?
So we begin to take for granted the privilege of knowing the Creator, talking to him at any given moment, and savoring the gifts of his grace and mercy.
But God will not be taken for granted.
The Bible’s authors have a remedy for our struggles. We are to seek the Lord at all times.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).
Seeking isn’t just for spiritual beginners. The life of seeking never ends. God calls us to seek greater and greater depths with him every new day.
In so doing, the wells of our wonder and gratitude will be refilled.
And we’ll never again take for granted that following Jesus is the real spice of life.