Our sense of smell is a powerful thing, keen enough to save us from a smoky fire, attract us to an inviting meal, or even transport us to another time and place.
The scent of baby powder can leave parents awash in memories of cuddles and giggles – and diaper changes, too – which evoke their own recollections.
An airborne trace of Estee Lauder perfume may conjure visions of a grandmother all dressed up for church, while the stench of a cigar or cherry-sweet pipe smoke may bring grandpa to mind.
Olfactory memories can resurrect memories we didn’t know we had, like the lingering smell of floor cleaner used by the janitors in our elementary school, or the alluring scent of honeysuckle and the first time we held its tiny trumpet to our lips to taste its sweetness.
Scientists are finding ways to recreate odors that go much farther back, scraping residue from ancient oil lamps or altars and analyzing it with gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify its chemical makeup.
An article at CNN.com describes the work of Barbara Huber, at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Germany. Huber’s study of scrapings from 5,000-year-old Saudi Arabian incense burners has identified myrrh, frankincense, and pistachio resins. She is working with perfumers to try and recreate the ancient scents.
Sean Coughlin, a researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences, is reproducing perfumes from antiquity by following recipes found in Egyptian texts and inscriptions. Will he discover the secret of Cleopatra’s irresistible allure?
Modern archaeologists who study biblical sites use similar techniques. Back in the 1960s, a team led by Yohanan Aharoni uncovered an eighth century BCE temple in Arad, where two limestone incense altars stood before a small Holy of Holies containing a monolithic stone representing the deity.
An initial analysis of residue from the altars was inconclusive, but a study published in 2020 used more advanced techniques. That research found that the larger altar had burned frankincense mixed with fat, the typical way it was prepared for slow burning. The smaller one, surprisingly, held cannabinoids derived from hashish mixed with dried animal dung, giving new meaning to the term “high priest.”
Have you ever noticed how important smells are in biblical stories? The book of Exodus contains a recipe for the special scented oil used for anointing priests and sacred objects. The recipe used enough myrrh, olive oil, and various spices to make nearly two gallons of the “fine oil” (Exod. 30:22-25), sufficient to anoint all the temple hardware and have plenty left over to run down Aaron’s beard and drip onto his clothing.
And what was the point of burning sacrifices? The word for a “whole burnt offering” (‘ōlâ) is derived from a verb meaning “to go up,” so it means “something sent up,” and a related verb for the practice of offering the sacrifice, hiqtîr, means literally “to send up in smoke.” The idea was that God would smell the tantalizing aroma of fat dripping onto the charcoal and be pleased with the offering, just as we are attracted to smoky pit-cooked barbeque.
Genesis 8 claims that when Noah disembarked from the ark, he built an altar and sent up burnt offerings. “And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done’” (Gen. 8:21).
That must have been a powerful aroma. In a Babylonian flood story, a counterpart to Noah named Utnapishtim also sent up burnt offerings, after which “the gods swarmed above it like flies,” having forgotten that they needed humans to feed them when they sent the flood (from Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic).
Biblical writers did not think God was nourished by inhaling sacrificial smoke, but they did imagine that God would smell the aroma and find pleasure in it.
Ritual regulations in Leviticus describe how whole burnt offerings were to be washed in water and “Then the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD” (Lev. 1:9, 13). Similar references to God being pleased by the smell of burnt offerings appear in Exodus 29:18 and 29:41, along with more than 30 additional places in Leviticus and Numbers.
Ezekiel accused the Israelites-in-exile of having taken the gifts of God and offered them to foreign gods (Ezek. 6:13, 16:19), but promised that “As a pleasing odor I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples, and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered; and I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations” (Ezek. 20:41).
That pointed to a metaphorical shift in which the renewed people, and not their sacrifices, would constitute the pleasing aroma. Ezekiel’s thought was in keeping with earlier texts insisting that the sacrifices truly pleasing to God were not burnt offerings, but right living (compare 1 Sam. 15:22, Ps. 51:17, Amos 5:24, and Mic. 6:6-8).
The Apostle Paul kept the olfactory analogy going when he called on the Ephesians to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).
Paul likewise charged the believers in Corinth to make their own lives an echo of Christ’s work: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15).
We may use deodorants, perfumes, or colognes to improve the smell of our bodies, but the more important bouquet relates to our behavior. Does our living raise a stink, or a pleasing aroma to God and to others?
If we can create that sweet scent, we’ll have really done something.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.