Saturday, October 20, 2012

Smelling as Superior Discernment in Hebrew Bible: God and the Senses (8)

I am thinking of compiling some bibliography for my "God and the Senses" series.  And to start things off, I just read the following article:  Arie Shifman, "'A Scent' of the Spirit:  Exegesis of an Enigmatic Verse (Isaiah 11:3)," JBL 131:2 (2012):  241-9.  In it, he discusses whether an enigmatic word should be read as "spirit" (רוח) or "scent" (ריח), noting that though most commentators either omit translating completely to avoid the issue or prefer "spirit," while "scent" would complete a highly sensual passage that also refers to sight and sound.  If "spirit," it is noteworthy that this word actually appears in verb form as a hiphil, and that would make it a hapax legomenon.  On the other hand, the hiphil of "scent" is well-attested. 

In any case, whether or not breath/spirit or inhalation through the nose is what is being captured in this verse, what caught my attention in the reading was how smelling was often used as the higher sense of discernment over sight and sound: 

"Why should the sense of smell be superior to sight and sound?  Once explanation is that in the Bible divine reaction to human behavior is often described in terms of acceptance of the "sweet savor" (ריח ניחוח; e.g., Gen. 8:21; Lev 4:31; Ezek 6:13; 16:19; 20:41).  Other interpretations relate to the odor of anointing oil, which symbolizes kingship (e.g. 1 Sam 10:1; 16:13; 1 kgs 1:39; 2 Kgs 9:3) or wisdom.  Talmudic lore teaches that, unlike the other senses, smelling a pleasant fragrance deserves a prayer of thanksgiving:  'What is it that the soul enjoys but the body does not?  It is the sense of smell" (b. ber. 43b)."

And he keeps going on with further examples all the way to W.H. Auden.  I should note that smelliness seems to pervade much of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, I think due to the mixture of spices mentioned in Exodus 30:34-36.  I refer to this in my work as the scent of the most holy.


Deane said...


And if the sweet savour in the divine nose conveys acceptance, I guess that divine anger, when expressed nasally, is a sort of olfactory rejection of people - the nasal equivalent of the oral 'spitting (you) out'.

Jared Calaway said...

Indeed: "I swore by my wrath (literally "nose") they shall never enter my rest."

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating, Jared!

Unknown said...

Dr Arie Shifman has passed away on 24 of september.
It was the last article he wrote.