When we are asked by leaders in our congregations to do something or to believe something in regards to Scripture, we should always be like the Bereans and test everything against Scripture itself (Acts 17:11)... the whole of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If a person feels "led by the spirit" to speak, behave, or believe a certain way, they should test that spirit (1 John 4:1) and see whether what that spirit is telling them to do is in agreement or disagreement with Scripture.
Let us take a journey together through Scripture and see what it says about the soothing aroma of sacrifice... a "walk in the Word" so to speak. As we take this walk, may we say, believe, and do what is right, be merciful in our speech and actions, and walk humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8).
Scriptural quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. Bolded text or other emphases in the Scriptural references are the author's.
A Soothing Aroma
In numerous places in Scripture we find animal sacrifices described as a "soothing aroma" (e.g. Numbers 29:13, Ezekiel 20:41, and others). The American Heritage Dictionary defines the two words, soothing and aroma, as follows:
1. To calm or placate.
2. To ease or relieve (pain, for example).
1. a. A quality that can be perceived by the olfactory sense: the aroma of garlic and onions. See synonyms at smell. b. A pleasant characteristic odor, as of a plant, spice, or food: the aroma of roses. See synonyms at fragrance.
2. A distinctive, intangible quality; an aura: the aroma of success.
"See that you make them after the pattern for them, which was shown to you on the mountain."
- Exodus 25:40
With these definitions we might be tempted to fall into the trap of common pagan thinking: G-d is some angry Being whose blood lust must be placated with the blood of animal sacrifices that are subsequently burned up before Him.
If we did so we would be wrong.
Everything in the physical temple/tabernacle was given as a picture of the spiritual tabernacle. G-d instructs Moshe to make the tabernacle "as was shown [him] on the mountain" (Hebrews 8:5 quoting Exodus 26:30). So what is the picture that is painted in Scripture for us by the phrase "soothing aroma"? Let's see where the phrase is first used in Scripture.
First Use of Soothing Aroma
It seems to be a common expectation that the "soothing aroma" of animal sacrifices is first mentioned in the Levitical Law. That is, after all, where we find the instructions for animal sacrifice in the tabernacle, right? The first reference is not found there but is actually found in one of the earliest stories of Scripture... the story of Noach.
Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 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 man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.
We can make a few observations about this offering:
- The offering was voluntary. G-d did not ask for it or command it.
- The offering was from clean [i.e. kosher] animals
- The offering was an olah [the Hebrew word used to describe the offering]
"What's an olah", you ask? Let's take a look.
...the smell of cooking beef on the grill is very pleasant (and mouth watering!)
As anyone who has attended a barbecue can testify, the smell of cooking beef on the grill is very pleasant (and mouth watering!). We might be tempted to think that G-d enjoys the smell of a steak being grilled in the back yard. The type of offerings where the "soothing aroma" is mentioned, however, are the olah offerings: offerings that are completely burned up on the altar and go up in smoke. Olah comes from a Hebrew word which means "to go up". Everything is consumed... nothing is left but ashes. The offering goes up in smoke before G-d.
As anyone who has grilled meat can confirm, the smell of cooking beef on the grill is very pleasant but the smell of burnt meat is very unpleasant. Why is it that Scripture describes these olah offerings as "a soothing aroma"?
Burnt meat stinks!
We should consider the spiritual implications rather than the physical.
Everything that is given as an olah is completely given over to honor G-d. The offering is completely burned up before the Lord. The person bringing the offering derives no personal benefit from it unlike some other offerings in which the offerer and/or priest get to partake. The olah is wholly given over to G-d. It is an outward sign that the person bringing the offering is willing to be obedient to G-d even though they personally derive no benefit.
It is this degree of obedience that G-d finds pleasing rather than the physical burnt offering itself. We see this clearly stated in 1 Samuel:
1 Samuel 15:22
Samuel said, "Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings[olah] and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.
So why does Scripture say this is a soothing aroma why not just say it is "soothing"? Olfaction (the sense of smell) is the sense that is most closely related to memory. Taste, sight, touch, and sound may stir memories and cause us to hunt for a specific recollection. The smell of something, however, often brings an immediate and powerful recollection.
So what is it that the obedience of an olah that is wholly given over to G-d brings to His mind? His son, Yeshua, who was wholly given over to the will of G-d and who served as our sacrifice to bring peace between G-d and man. In savoring the obedience of an olah G-d is reminded of His own Son and it is of soothing to Him.
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Footnotes1. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved. [back]
2. ibid. [back]