The Offerings: A Pleasant Aroma to Hashem
What is God?
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If one were to make a list of the top ten antiquated things in the Bible, the top spot would probably go to sacrificial offerings. Sacrificial offerings are simply everywhere in the Bible. From Noah’s offering after the flood to Abraham’s many altars, including one that Elohim challenged him to sacrifice his own son, to Moshe’s construction of the Tabernacle, to the various prophets and holy men, to the glories of the first and second temples, these offerings are a constant theme. To deny their central role in Israelite religious beliefs is to deny the Torah and the Tanakh. Any attempt by later rabbinic authorities to minimize their importance is just a desperate effort to fit the Torah into a more modern way of life.
Given that these offerings are all over the Torah, and given that we don’t have the time and desire to explain their details and their real function in ancient Israelite society, we are going to focus strictly on the image of God that they reveal. What does the need to sacrifice animals, to pour wine or oil libations on an altar, to offer incense in the inner chamber of the Tabernacle, to bring bread or flour as a devotional gift, say about the God who desires all this? It’s a tough question. It’s a question that almost invariably is swept under the table in Jewish circles, either by ignoring it or by re-interpreting it all through a more recent mindset. They look for ethical subtleties, mystical insights, philosophical rationalizations, spiritual metaphors – anything but the burnt meat and sweet-smelling spices that they actually were. Let’s cut through the rhetoric.
Aside from all the details, there is a fairly common phrase in the Torah that expresses precisely what Hashem’s feelings are in regard to the offerings. The phrase, which interestingly is hardly ever found in the rest of the Tanakh, is re'ah niho'ah, or ‘a pleasant aroma’ to Hashem. This phrase comes up almost 40 times in the Torah, making it among the most common phrases in the text. This was an important thing to whomever it was that received, wrote, read, or revered the Chumash. We’ve seen this phrase already. When Noah brought his offering of gratitude following his emerging from the Ark after the flood, ‘Hashem smelled the pleasant aroma, and Hashem said in His heart I will not again curse the ground because of man…’ (Genesis 8:21). It comes up almost 20 times in both Leviticus and Numbers, always in the context of an offering, and always associated with something burning on an altar, either incense, grain, wine, oil, or meat. The first three chapters in Leviticus have this phrase in almost every paragraph, as the Biblical divine reaction to the offerings.
We promised that we would cut through the rhetoric. We want to look the beast right in the eye. No watered down, sanitized, modern re-readings of an antiquated but highly significant Biblical ritual. So here we go. The Bible, in addition to being an ancient work of tribal history, reveals the Israelite outlook on God and man. The relationship between the two was absolutely crucial to these people. It was not like the common modern Jewish take on God, which varies from flat out atheism and ridicule, to questioning, to passing interest, all the way to sincere devotion to a totally abstract being who cannot be pictured or imaged, but whose help can be called upon in moments of need. The ancient relationship was much more palpable, like the relationship between a king and a subject. There was no question as to who called the shots in the relationship. But there was also no question that those who didn’t call the shots could occasionally do some arm twisting if necessary.
In addition to whatever relationship man had with God, there was also a constant ripple of rivalry to God in the air. This came in the form of idolatry. Idolatry had the advantage in that a god or gods that could be seen and felt, at least through some medium. The earth produced crops, the rain fell from the sky, and wombs bore their fruitful offspring, all because of direct intervention of divine forces. If these forces could be seduced or induced or cajoled, to provide a favorable supply of these things, all was good in the world. If not, it may be time for a new god. Those gods were as real as the rain and the dirt. They very possibly were the rain and the dirt. They needed appeasement and payment for their services. If they provided food, they required food in return. If they granted victory in battle, they would demand appropriate remuneration in the form of enemy soldiers or captured women. The gods needed to feel as appreciated for their own exploits as any man would want to feel for his.
The Israelite religion competed with all this. Hashem, the Jewish God, did all those things that the pagan gods did, and He demanded more from His followers. He demanded an enormous amount. Permitting no other gods was a drastic demand, enough to kill the interest of all but those who experienced His power first hand. But Hashem was a personal God, who could penetrate into the deepest recesses of the human soul. To do this, Hashem had to possess a second element of ‘personal’ – to be a person. This would have been nothing new for an Israelite, or a polytheist for that matter. Of course the gods had personalities. How else did they interact with human beings? Hashem was no different. Hashem had desires, emotions, ideas, plans, even feelings. To the mind of a Hebrew/Israelite 3,000+ years ago, this would have been painfully obvious.
So it only made sense that among the feelings Hashem would have was a longing for the smell of thoroughly cooked meat and smoking incense. Any person would long for such a smell, so why should Hashem be any different? That Hashem was the Creator and that people were creations presented no great objection to this idea. Does this lend physicality to God? Yes is does. Is that a problem? To us, perhaps yes; to them, perhaps, no.
There are many references to God in the Torah that suggest physicality. There are also many that suggest emotions. Jewish theology and philosophy later considered these suggestions to be anathema and had to re-interpret the Torah to fit their beliefs. Traditional Jews today almost unanimously believe that God has no physical component and is not subject to human emotions. They maintain that any scriptural references indicating otherwise are nothing more than the Torah’s way of enabling us physical and emotional beings to relate to what Hashem was all about. This is a perfectly valid approach and it fits much better into the post-Biblical mindset.
But it isn’t the only approach. The theology presented in the Bible was the theology of the era. It was what people believed. They believed that God got angry and lost patience and liked the smell of burnt offerings. That image, the image of a God with physical and emotional components, was their image of God. That was a very real and very important image of God and one that played a vital role in the long transition from polytheistic idolatry to ethical monotheism to mystical unity. It was correct, for its time.
Perhaps we are not quite correct in assuming that the perceived reality of God is the same as the reality of DNA or atoms or anything else in the physical universe. We believe that these things have not really changed much in their basic nature since the time that they first came into being. This may not be so with God. God's perceived reality may change with the times – casting a physical image at one point in human history and casting a non-physical image at another. Is it not possible that God’s image is determined in some way by the human perception of God? The image is not God. The image is how we perceive God. But then again, the color blue that we perceive is not the ‘thing’ that generates this image in our minds. This is the idea of an image. It is real in that it is the reality that we perceive, but it is not the actual thing. God may very well be an example of this same phenomenon on a grand scale. God can have an ‘absolute’ reality that is hidden from us, but also have a perceivable reality through the various images that we perceive. Those images change with the lenses that God’s creations have on their ‘mind’s eye’. One of these lenses is expressed through Biblical idea of God enjoying the smell of the offerings.
God smelled the fragrance and was pleased. God reoriented human destiny following the flood upon enjoying Noah’s offering. It enabled God to see things differently even though things hadn’t necessarily changed all that much. The offerings at the Tabernacle and the temples may have had this same effect. The Israelites and their Jewish successors perceived the image of God being pleased with their offerings. And so it was - God was indeed pleased.
Perceiving the Image
Admittedly, this is quite radical. It may contradict certain cherished notions about God’s reality and God’s unchanging nature. It also acknowledges a completely different notion about God’s Biblical image than more recent trends in rabbinic Judaism are willing or able to stomach. We make no apologies for these radical suggestions, and only ask that the suggestions be dealt with on their own merit and not rejected outright only because they violate long-standing tradition. The Bible was written/received 3,000 or so years ago, according to tradition. People 3,000 years ago did not have the same perception of God that we do.
What are we supposed to do with an image that we can no longer relate to, assuming that to be the case? For one thing, we might consider expanding our own narrow horizons of which images of God are perceivable, and not insist that whatever particular image we have generated is the only show in town. But there is more. This very Biblical image, the image of a fragrance-loving deity, might also help us in perceiving our own images of God. We also may perceive God as reacting to our thoughts and deeds.
It is likely that most ‘believers’ actually think that God does react to their actions, their thoughts, their deepest needs, and their prayers. They want God to have feelings. How else could God possibly understand their feelings and deal with them in the sensitive manner they should expect from their Creator? So God reacts to things. If asked what would make God feel good about them and want to help them in some way, modern people probably would not list burnt offerings as strong candidate. They might list good deeds, heartfelt prayer, kindness towards others, saving the planet, or any of dozens of other universal ‘godlike’ things. They might list things that are particular to a religion, such as rituals or holy actions. Jews might include the study of ancient rabbinic texts or eating certain meals at the right time, or not eating when it isn’t the right time. God, according to this image, sees and perceives these things and feels that something is right about the situation. It may seem a little presumptuous for us to expect God to pay attention to our little lives and our little attempts at appeasement, but this image remains among the most powerful.
Does God’s image really change with the changing perceptions of those who image God? How can God’s image be dependent on mere creations? Shouldn’t it be permanent and absolute?
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