For the week of March 25, 2023 / 3 Nisan 5783
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23
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And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:9)
Do you have a favorite smell? I have heard it said that our sense of smell supplies one of the strongest memories human beings possess. Whether we believe in aromatherapy or not, it is difficult to deny how various fragrances can have a profound effect upon us. Some fragrances may spark our appetite, while other may excite us, clear our minds, or help us relax.
As we begin Vayikra, Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, for another year, we regularly read about God’s emotive response to certain offerings. This is termed, according to the translation I’m using here, the English Standard Version, as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. This gives the impression of some sort of pleasure response on God’s part. Before I address what may be going on here specifically, I want to discuss more generally what Scripture means when it refers to God’s having what appears to be very humanlike experiences.
Many theologians assert that such references are a type of metaphor (figure of speech) called personification or anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is when nonhuman creatures or objects are portrayed in human-like ways. Examples commonly found in books and movies, include talking animals, toys, or cars. Personification is when the actions of a nonhuman creature or object are described in humanlike ways. This is so, when weather “threatens” or pain “shouts.” Most examples like this when pertaining to God would be categorized as personification, such as when he regretted making Saul king (see Shmuel/Samuel 15:11) or one day exulting over his people with singing (see Zephaniah 3:17).
It is important to understand how these and many other examples of God’s having or expressing humanlike attributes or emotions represent what he is experiencing. Through history many have undermined the power and meaning of such metaphors by asserting that God can’t be affected by human behavior. They conclude that these metaphors are used for our sakes alone in order to confront our beliefs and behaviors, while God himself is absolutely unmoved. If God can be affected by his creation, how would he then retain control?
Philosophically, I see the problem. But the Bible doesn’t attempt to fully satisfy our desire for an exhaustive philosophical system. Instead, it provides what we need to know in order to live effective, godly lives. That includes, in God’s wisdom, all sorts of descriptions of himself that are humanlike.
Isn’t that God’s way of coming down to our level, so that we can understand that which is completely beyond our comprehension? To some extent, yes. However, when God reveals himself in these ways, what’s the point if they don’t represent reality? When the second Psalm tells us God laughs at the conspirators (see Psalm 2:4), if he isn’t really laughing, what then is he doing? If God is as unmoved as some say he is, then it seems to me what we are left with is nothing more than a mechanical universe, while created by God, is simply behaving according to design. God isn’t involved, even though he is ultimately responsible for creation’s impersonal reactions.
But is that the reality the Bible reflects? Is not God personally involved in human affairs? Does he not communicate to and through people? Is it not more reasonable to accept that God actually experiences the emotions as told us through Scripture? I suggest that our human experiences are a real though comparably feeble reflection of what God is experiencing. Our emotions, therefore, are a taste of what God is truly feeling.
Once we accept that God is experiencing something very real in response to properly instituted offerings, we are able to look more carefully at the expression “pleasing aroma.” The word translated as “pleasing” (nee-kho-akh) is derived from the word “noo-akh,” meaning “to rest” or “to settle down.” This is why some translations prefer “soothing aroma.” It’s not just that God likes these offerings, it’s that they sooth him, the picture being one of God’s being agitated by sinful behavior but calmed by the act of sacrifice. Of course, we know from other parts of Scripture that it wasn’t the offering itself that made the difference, but the heart of the person making the offering.
And so it was with such a heart that Messiah himself not only gave himself but did so as an example to us all. As we read in the New Covenant Writings, “Conduct yourselves in love, just as the Messiah loved us, and gave himself for us, as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2; New Testament for Everyone). The great universal effect accomplished by the Messiah’s sacrifice is to be reflected in the healing aroma of our lives.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated