“The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of men’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done’ ” (Genesis 8:21, NASB).
Noah’s thanksgiving sacrifice following the drying up of the flood pleased God as a “soothing aroma.” Was God actually calmed by Noah’s sacrifice? The word for soothing in the text is the Hebrew nihoah, a clear play on the name Noah, and is always attached to the odor of sacrifices. Jehovah was pleased by Noah’s obedience and willingness to stand alone while surrounded by corruption.
From earliest Biblical history, smell metaphorically described emotion, even for Jehovah God. The creation of man (Genesis 1:31), the destruction of man in the flood (Genesis 6:5,6), and the new beginning after the flood are linked by references to the senses of sight and smell. Though the Lord was greatly displeased with what he saw of man’s decline prior to the flood, the sight of Noah’s righteousness (Genesis 6:9), and the soothing smell of his post-flood sacrifice, greatly pleased Him.
Smell an Important Influence
Similar to our other senses, smell allows us to both discover and feel something. Smell can bring on feelings of pleasure or disgust. Smell inspires imagination.
Studies have concluded that people can remember with 65 percent accuracy a unique smell after a year. When we catch a whiff of bread or cookies baking, we can easily recall many years past when we were in our mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen. Sometimes memories of seemingly forgotten past events will pop into our mind spontaneously when we suddenly detect a certain smell. Marcel Proust, in Remembrance of all Things Past, wrote that a bite of a Madeleine vividly brought about childhood memories of his aunt giving him the same small cake before going to church on Sundays. Abrahamson and Freedman, in A Perfect Mess: the Hidden Benefits of Disorder,” wrote, “Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”
Dr. Alan Hirsch, of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, has conducted multiple studies on the effect of smell on human behavior. “The part of the brain that smells and tastes is part of the emotional brain where our personality lies,” he said in an interview with Men’s Health magazine. Dr. Hirsch’s experiments show that smell influences even our perception of time. The smell of coffee, for example, led to perceiving a shorter amount of time passing than the lingering aroma of baby powder. Retailers located in a shopping mall put the pleasurable fragrance of perfume near the front of the store so that customers will enter and linger there.
In The Education of Desire: towards a Theology of the Senses, Auschwitz survivor Barbara Hyett wrote of her experience during the Nazi imprisonment of Jews. “The ovens, the stench, I couldn’t repeat the stench. You have to breathe. You can wipe out what you don’t want to see. Close your eyes. You don’t want to hear, don’t want to taste. You can block out all the senses except smell. In this case, smell brought about nausea.”
These examples show how different smells can either bring about emotional pleasure or emotional pain. Passions are aroused by smell. In scripture, smell is used metaphorically as a moral indicator. Actions may be sweet and pleasant to God, or they may bring about indignation and disappointment.
Acceptable sacrifices and good conduct are called a “sweet smell” or “savor” (Exodus 29:18, Ephesians 5:2, Philippians 4:18). Contrarily, an offensive smell is associated with bad character (Jeremiah 48:11). In our attitudes and actions, we create a unique scent to God and to others.
The Smell Test
English has a common expression, “there’s something fishy about this,” meaning that there is something not quite right about whatever situation we are referring to, although it is as yet indefinable. This, in turn, is based on an English idiom, “the smell test.” This means that we can use our common sense — moral, ethical, or spiritual — to suggest whether something seems authentic or credible. If it just doesn’t sound or feel right, it is said to “fail the smell test” — our innate sense of propriety. We judge it to be illegitimate, fraudulent, or questionable at best.
This technique has common application in dealing with the proliferation of information coming our way over social media. In just two decades the Internet has become an indispensable information utility. For those who know how to search and filter it, the explosion of widely available information is exciting and empowering. However, for those who cannot distinguish fact from clever fiction, it becomes bewildering, misleading, or even frightening.
Scriptural Smell Tests
“For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14).
Paul tells us that we train our spiritual senses through study and application. God wants us to have a keen spiritual “nose.” Paul instructs us to become skillful with the word of God so that we can sniff out evil and at the same time be able to detect the aroma of God (2 Corinthians 2:14 NET). The Psalmist said, “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11 ESV). When Jesus responded to the criticism of the Pharisees, he quoted scripture (Matthew 22:29). We likewise ought to answer criticisms in the same way. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV). We sharpen our discernment by being able to recall and reason on God’s Word. Very little will get past us and we will find that we are better able to handle challenging situations. We will find ourselves gaining more victories in spiritual things!
A Fragrant Aroma to God
Good character is displayed by a true Christian and is rated as the primary way one testifies to the Lord’s goodness and leads others to Christ. “But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and who makes known through us the fragrance that consists of the knowledge of him in every place. For we are a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing — to the latter an odor from death to death, but to the former a fragrance from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16 NET).
“Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour” (Ephesians 5:1, 2).
God is pleased with sacrifice that is given in the name of Jesus and is driven by obedience to Him (1 Samuel 15:22). “And he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God’ ” (Luke 16:15). God discerns our obedience to him through the willingness of our sacrifice. Those who observe us should see evidence in our lives that we are making true efforts to fulfill our consecration. We demonstrate our obedience by serving our brethren and helping them in their own efforts to serve God.
All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad (Psalm 45:8).
If we are living for Christ and through Christ, our life will put forth a sweet fragrance. There will be a clear indication in our lives that we are following after Jesus. Family, acquaintances and coworkers may not live their lives as we do, but they should note our efforts to serve God and a lifestyle that demonstrates the cause of Christ first on our priority list. In ancient Rome, it was customary that battle victories were celebrated with parades through the city to the sound of music and the smell of incense. Citizens who lived away from the parade route did not see the pomp and circumstance, but they smelled the incense aroma and knew that Rome had been victorious. Likewise, our associates can discern our commitment to Biblical virtues (Philippians 4:8). They can detect our joy, and they can discern our victorious spirit even though they are not sure of its source. “For we are a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15).
When Smell Changed Biblical History
“And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said unto him, My son: and he said unto him, Behold, here am I. And he said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death: Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison; And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die” (Genesis 27:1-4).
“And his [Jacob’s] father Isaac said unto him, Come near now, and kiss me, my son. And he came near, and kissed him: and he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said, See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed” (verses 26-27).
Esau had traded his birthright to his younger twin Jacob for a bowl of his brother’s stew. When Rebekah overheard Isaac, she counseled Jacob to pose as Esau in order to receive the follow-up blessing from the nearly blind Isaac.
Isaac had poor vision but surmised that he was talking to Esau because of the smell of the field on his son’s clothing. While Jacob’s deception may seem perplexing to us at first, Jehovah had already told Rebekah that the “the elder would serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). For reasons unknown at the time, God had selected Jacob over Esau as the channel for the Abrahamic blessing that would be passed through subsequent generations. Having already forfeited his inheritance rights, Esau should have told his father about this and not sought a blessing (For a detailed discussion, see Reprint 1624). It was Isaac’s recollection of the scent of Esau that led him to conclude that Jacob was his older brother.
In her book, A Natural History of the Senses, author Diane Ackerman writes, “Each person has an odor as individual as their fingerprint. A dog can identify this odor easily and recognize its owner even if he or she is one of a pair of identical twins.” Helen Keller, blind and deaf while still a toddler, noted, “human odors are as varied and capable of recognition as hands and faces.” It is no wonder that Isaac valued the smell (and the touch) he recognized over the voice he heard in determining that it was indeed Esau sitting before him (Genesis 27:27).
Smell in the Tabernacle
“Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; he shall burn it every morning when he trims the lamps. When Aaron trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. There shall be perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations” (Exodus 30:7-8 NAS). “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take for yourself spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, spices with pure frankincense; there shall be an equal part of each. With it you shall make incense, a perfume, the work of a perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. You shall beat some of it very fine, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I will meet with you; it shall be most holy to you” (Exodus 30:34-36).
Onycha (Greek, onus), along with equal parts of stacte, galbanum, and frankincense, was a component of the consecrated ketoret (incense) used in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 16) and later in the Temple. Although exactness respecting the onycha of antiquity cannot be determined with certainty, it is highly likely that it had a distinguishable fragrance (2 Chronicles 13:11). On the annual Day of Atonement, the incense was to cover the Mercy Seat in the Most Holy before the high priest entered into the presence of Jehovah (Leviticus 16:13). Each component of the incense was beaten so small as to be indistinguishable from the other components.
Tabernacle Shadows (page 56), suggests that the incense was a symbol of Jesus’ complete and perfect sacrifice in doing God’s will. This incense was used only prior to the first animal sacrifice, the bullock. The second offering,the Lord’s goat, which represented the complete Gospel Age church, was pleasing to God only because of the sweet smell of the first offering. Note the following comment from Pastor Russell.
“While prayers, adorations, and praises are the most direct offerings of ‘incense’ to the Lord, nevertheless, He has so arranged matters that we cannot offer these sincerely and acceptably except as we have His spirit; and if we have His spirit, we will at the same time that we offer this incense on the golden altar be offering also upon the brazen altar in the ‘court,’ good works — ‘doing good unto all men as we have opportunity, especially to the household of faith’ (Galatians 6:10)” (Reprint 2551).
Once we give up our own will to follow the will of Jesus, we will feel compelled to find opportunities for activity amongst the Lord’s people. There is a suggestion that each component of the incense offered in the Tabernacle represents an element of the sacrificial life. Stacte is distillate resin, better known as myrrh, which means “bitter.” Myrrh was one of the presents given to Jesus as a child (Matthew 2:11). It indicated that Jesus would have many difficult experiences as the sin offering. Indeed, as was proven throughout his ministry, Jesus exercised
complete faith in his father. Likewise, when bitter experiences strike us, we must exercise true, heartfelt faith in God: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15).
Despite the ignominy of being crucified as a blasphemer, Jesus was a willing sacrifice and never wavered from his mission to provide a ransom for man. Jesus never doubted his Father. Onycha has been suggested to represent
perfect love — the willing sacrifice of Jesus. Likewise, our love is perfected in how much we are willing to sacrifice on behalf of our brethren. “Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16 RV).
A brother in Christ, when first meeting another, asked, “Are you a brother in the head or in the heart?” That is a powerful question. Each of us would do well to examine ourselves along this line.
- Do we enjoy our interactions with our brethren for the mere intellectual examination
of God’s Truth?
- Do we take personal satisfaction when our response stumps an opponent on a point of Truth?
- Or, are we deeply moved by the compassion of Jesus and the knowledge that even the vilest sinner will have an opportunity to learn of God under the favorable circumstances of the Millennial Kingdom?
- Are we seeking a deep fellowship with our brethren and helping them to overcome the world?
Sharpening Our Spiritual /Sense of Discernment
How do we best discern the proper direction for our consecrated life, sharpening our sense of spiritual smell? Consider these questions before going forward.
(1) Why do I want to engage in this activity in the first place? If the answer is a selfish one and does not include a distinct spiritual purpose, then reconsider. Our fellowship depends on each to help carry the burden of responsibility (Galatians 6:5). Knowing that others are depending on you will give you a greater sense of commitment and accountability. If what you are considering benefits only you, reconsider.
(2) Do important aspects of this activity incorporate the personal fundamentals of what I believe? If the activity conflicts with beliefs, morals, or family values, then it will be difficult to justify the activity as spiritually helpful
(3) Does engaging in this activity complement other important aspects of my life, for example, scheduling, cost, sacrifice of family time? If the sacrifices appear to be too great, figure out how to lessen the load and still meet obligations (1 Samuel 15:22).
(4) Do you currently possess the knowledge and the skill to accomplish this activity? If not, do you have the time to research, learn, and practice until you get it done? (Luke 14:28).
(5) Does the mere thought of doing this fill you with joy and anticipation? If not, why not? (Romans 12:11).
(6) Will this activity make a difference for the better in the spiritual lives of those you care about? (Hebrews 6:10).
(7) Are there any small voices in your head telling you that you are going the wrong way? Listen to these voices, because it is your spiritual sense of smell indicating that something is wrong. Return to question one (Galatians 5:13).