The problem of a “pleasing aroma” to God


Everyone else will just assume this is another example of a mean God who thinks that even the death of His own Son is fragrant.

To me, that loaf of freshly baked bread would be a pleasing aroma.  

However, in the Bible, we read this –

Eph 5:1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

That’s from a letter Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus.  For anyone reading that out of context, it sounds just plain awful.  Unfortunately, for too many people, even reading it in context, they’d think it was awful.

With that in mind, here’s the entire quote, from which the opening sentence is taken –

As I’ve pointed out many times, we lose an incredible amount of what was intended when we just read our English translations of the Bible without bothering to find out what they mean.  Some will just assume there’s something more to “fragrant offering”.  Some will even look it up.  Everyone else will just assume this is another example of a mean God who thinks that even the death of His own Son is fragrant.

The author?  That would be me.

Let’s go back, way back to Genesis – and try to figure out what that means.

Old Testament

You may remember, from the Old Testament, there are times when the Bible talks about a “pleasing aroma” to the LORD.  It’s from passages like these –

Ge 8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

This, after the flood waters receded and Noah’s family was able to leave the Ark.  Maybe it reminds you of the smell of a BBQ?  That’s certainly a pleasing aroma.

Lev 2:1 “ ‘When someone brings a grain offering to the LORD, his offering is to be of fine flour. He is to pour oil on it, put incense on it 2 and take it to Aaron’s sons the priests. The priest shall take a handful of the fine flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial portion on the altar, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the LORD. 3 The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the offerings made to the LORD by fire.
Lev 2:4 “ ‘If you bring a grain offering baked in an oven, it is to consist of fine flour: cakes made without yeast and mixed with oil, or wafers made without yeast and spread with oil. 5 If your grain offering is prepared on a griddle, it is to be made of fine flour mixed with oil, and without yeast. 6 Crumble it and pour oil on it; it is a grain offering. 7 If your grain offering is cooked in a pan, it is to be made of fine flour and oil. 8 Bring the grain offering made of these things to the LORD; present it to the priest, who shall take it to the altar. 9 He shall take out the memorial portion from the grain offering and burn it on the altar as an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the LORD. 10 The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the offerings made to the LORD by fire.’ “

Grain – oil – bread – more pleasing aromas.

Nu 15:8 “ ‘When you prepare a young bull as a burnt offering or sacrifice, for a special vow or a fellowship offering to the LORD, 9 bring with the bull a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with half a hin of oil. 10 Also bring half a hin of wine as a drink offering. It will be an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the LORD. 11 Each bull or ram, each lamb or young goat, is to be prepared in this manner. 12 Do this for each one, for as many as you prepare.’ “

Meat, bread and wine.  It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe – maybe not.

Being people, unless you’re a strict vegetarian, don’t eat carbs and don’t drink – you’ll probably think all of this would smell delicious.

The thing is – God’s not a person!  Why would we expect God to look at these things only as a “pleasing aroma” – like we would.  Maybe there’s something more too it?  Sure – God could certainly consider it a pleasing aroma.  And why not – He created us, knows what we think is pleasing, so it wouldn’t be surprising that both we and God would consider these sacrifices to be pleasing aromas.

We could even leave it like that – just a pleasing aroma.  The thing is – by New Testament times, we know that these sacrifices were a build up to the ultimate sacrifice – Jesus – and His sacrificial death on the cross.

And that brings us to where we started –

It’s something I used while working on an article that’s soon to be published – Revelation: Introduction – part 2.  I’ll put in a link in a few days, when it’s available.  Rather than reproduce a huge chunk of that article here, let me just say it came up because of a reference to Isaiah 22:2-3.

Isa 11:2  And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and might,
The spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;  

Isa 11:3  And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD:  1)The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version., Is 11:3). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

We were looking at different translations of these verses, and ended by looking at exactly what was meant by the original Hebrew word that’s translated in the KVJ as “quick understanding“.  The NIV translates that same Hebrew word as “delight“.  This should bring up a question of what was that original word supposed to mean?  How can one word be translated by someone as “quick understanding” and by someone else as “delight”?  It certainly could be delightful to have quick understanding – but either of them, by themselves, wouldn’t bring up the same picture.  It’s like – if I said “quick understanding” – you might first think of some word like “smart” or “Intelligent”.  But if I said “delight” – I seriously doubt that you’d come up with quick understanding, “intelligent”, or “smart”.  It would more likely have something to do with one of our five physical senses.

I just set myself up with the perfect segue – so here’s what that Hebrew word actually was and what it meant –

You can see the word highlighted in blue, and the NIV translation at the top.

Here’s how that word is used in the Bible –

7306 רִיחַ [ruwach /roo·akh/] v. A primitive root; TWOT 2131; GK 8193; 11 occurrences; AV translates as “smell” eight times, “touch” once, “quick understanding” once, and “accept” once. 1 (Hiphil) to smell, scent, perceive odour, accept. 1A of horse. 1B of delight (metaph).  2)Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

And there we see the word “smell”.  Yes – “quick understanding” is there, but is that the best meaning to take from the word, given what was trying to be portrayed in the thought?  As I said, quick understanding is certainly part of what someone might be delighted by.  But smell?  Where does that come in?

When we read the Christian Bible, we see words translated, and seldom see other possible meanings.  When Jewish people read their scriptures (and Isaiah is part of their scripture) they look at all possible meanings, and then rule out the ones that don’t make sense – as opposed to us, who usually get the one that the translator picked.

Well – here it is – when looking at both the context and the more colorful language used back then, as opposed to the bland / watered down words we use today (like where love means anything from I love steak to I love playing video games to I love my spouse to I love God) – where it’s pretty much impossible to tell what’s really being said, then we see this for the passage in Isaiah –

accept, i.e., receive an object or accept a situation, as a figurative extension of smelling a pleasing aroma (Lev 26:31; 1Sa 26:19; Isa 11:3; Am 5:21+);  3)Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

And so, we see that while the sacrifices may very well have been a “pleasing aroma”, in that they smelled good – the larger meaning is that the sacrifices were accepted by God.  Indication of the correctness of that conclusion can be seen in passages like this one –

Lev 26:27 “ ‘If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, … and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings.’ “

I know – it’s partially out of context.  That’s because the words I left out were to show the wrath of God towards those of His people who continually, after many, many warnings, continued to disobey.  That’s a topic for another day – but my point here was to look at what was said about the offering. 

What’s said here is that God will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of the people’s offering, because the offerings weren’t really meaningful.  Sure – they still smelled the same as if the people were deeply committed to God – at least as far as the nose is concerned.  But what God is saying is that since the people made “sacrifices” that weren’t really sacrifices, they would not be accepted by Him.  It’s like when someone does something to us – says “I’m sorry – but you know full well the person isn’t the least bit sorry.  You’re not likely to accept it.  It was the same with the “sacrifices” made by people who had no interest in following God – they meant nothing – and God refused to accept them.

Now, when we look at the verses from Isaiah, we can see something a bit more complete –

Isa 11:2  And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and might,
The spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;  

Isa 11:3  And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD:  4)The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version., Is 11:3). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

When we have the spirit of the LORD – the Holy Spirit – in us, we are accepting (understanding and delighting in) the awesomeness (fear) of the LORD.

The New Testament

OK – that was kind of a scenic route – but it was important to lay the groundwork for understanding how Paul could possibly write –

Eph 5:1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

The Old Testament theme of the sacrifices being a pleasing aroma could probably be accepted at face value, although it means so much more.  But this one – Jesus dying on the cross – how could that have been anything that smelled even remotely good?  Some Christians may be turned off by this statement.  Non-Christians who previously had no concept of what I just explained wouldn’t get it at all.  It makes it sound like some kind of child sacrifice to pagan gods.  What kind of loving God would be liking the smell of His Son dying?

The only way to make sense of this is to realize that a number of things are going on –

  1. God does love us.
  2. He is also a just God.  Justice must be done for all the wrong that has been done in the world.
  3. Because of His love for us, God offered His Son as payment for all that wrong we did.  
  4. Justice will be served, but we don’t pay – we receive this gift from God, if we accept it.  Oddly enough – that’s us looking at Jesus sacrifice on the cross as a “pleasing aroma” – again, not because it literally smells good to the nose, but because we accepted the offer of salvation by grace.
  5. God also knew something that we can’t – something that we can only hope for, as Paul did – that Jesus death was only temporary, because we would be resurrected – brought back from the dead – and that Jesus would return to Heaven.  That doesn’t lessen the pain or suffering that Jesus went through.  And it doesn’t lessen what the Father had to watch while all this was being done to His Son.  

And that’s what this verse really means.  It’s actually a beautiful verse – one of great hope.  But if we don’t know what it means – it seems like a brutal / obscene statement.

Finally, ultimately, it also means that Jesus sacrifice was accepted as payment for our sins.  It was a fragrant / pleasing aroma.

Eph 5:1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

You may have noticed, the first phrase of the verse asks us to be imitators.  We learn more about that in the very next verse –

2Co 2:15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.

In this verse – Paul is telling us, the believers – that God views us in the same way – a pleasing aroma.  While we’re going through this life, especially when things are happening to us because of what we believe, I’m guessing we don’t have the thought that we’re a pleasing aroma to God as the first thing popping into our heads.  There’s a good chance it never has.  In spite of having read these verses countless times before – I don’t remember ever having thought of that when I was having problems.  It probably will now though.  And, I have to say, being considered in the same way as Jesus (although in a so much smaller and imperfect way) is being in good company.

Conclusion

By now – hopefully the Christians who weren’t already aware of what these passages meant have now learned something.  Something very hopeful, especially in times of trouble.

For the non-Christians – I pray you have also learned something, and that this will help to change your view of what you maybe thought was a heartless God.

Paul wrote about both of those possibilities in the very next verse.  No surprise.

2Co 2:16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.

Yes – some will get it – and smell the fragrance of life – and great hope.

But – others will not get it – and will sense the smell of death – and hopelessness.  However – it doesn’t need to be the second one.  The offer of hope is made to all.  Yes to all.  And even especially to those of you who think they don’t deserve it (truth is, none of us do).  All you need to do is smell it – the pleasing aroma – the hope – Jesus.

And so, what we can have, is where a life where it’s all about pleasing aroma – acceptance.  God accepting Jesus’ suffering and death as payment for our sins – a fragrant aroma.  Us, accepting Jesus suffering and death as payment for our sins – a pleasing aroma.  And because of that. us as the fragrance of life.

Pretty awesome, isn’t it?

Series Navigation<< The problem of truthThe problem of not knowing >>

References   [ + ]

1, 4. The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version., Is 11:3). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
2. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
3. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Please leave a comment - it's nice to hear from you