The God-character in the Torah often lashes out in fits of rage. Sometimes this anthropomorphic “God” kills offensive individuals, and sometimes “He” wipes out hundreds or thousands of people, the innocent with the guilty.
Moses succeeds in talking God down into relative calmness after the Israelites worship the golden calf in the book of Exodus/Shemot,1 and twice more in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.2 But the smell of aromatic smoke is an even more effective way to soothe the God-character.
This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, ends with a schedule of offerings to be burned on the altar. God begins the list by telling Moses:
“Command the Israelites, and you shall say to them: You must pay attention to my offerings, my food—to my fire-offering of my reyach nichoach—to offer [it] to me at its appointed time.” (Numbers 28:1-2)
reyach (רֵיחַ) = scent, odor, fragrance, aroma. (From the same root as ruach, רוּחַ= wind, spirit, mood.)
nichoach (נִחֺחַ) = soothing, calming. (From the root verb nuach, נוּחַ = rest, settle down in peace and quiet.)
reyach nichoach (רֵיחַ נִחֺחַ) = soothing scent.
The phrase reyach nichoach appears ten more times in the schedule of animal and grain offerings that follows.3 Although the God-character no doubt appreciates the sacrifice of potential human food and the pouring of libations, the scent of the smoke is a key element.
The First Soothing Smoke
The smoke from burned offerings first reaches God as a reyach nichoach in Genesis/Bereishit, after the God-character has become so upset by the violence and corruption of humans (and perhaps other carnivores) that He decides to destroy all life on earth.4 God makes an exception only for the obedient Noah and the other occupants of his ark.
After the flood recedes, God tells Noah to empty out the ark. Then Noah finally does something on his own initiative, building an altar and burning up some extra animals he brought along as an offering to God—perhaps in imitation of Abel, whose animal offering God turned toward.5 (See my post Noach: The Soother.)
And God smelled the reyach nichoach, and God said in His heart: I will never again draw back to doom the earth on account of the human, for the impulse of the human heart is bad in its youth … (Genesis/Bereishit, 8:21)
The clouds of smoke probably remind God of Abel’s grateful sacrifice of sheep, before humankind turned bad. Reassured, God concludes that at least some adults want to serve Him.
The phrase reyach nichoach appears again three times in the book of Exodus,6 seventeen times in Leviticus, and eighteen times in Numbers, always in descriptions of animal and grain offerings to God.
The God-character’s temper flares again in the next Torah portion, Korach, which begins with two simultaneous coups against Moses and Aaron. God deals with the Reuvenite leaders by making the earth swallow them and their families, and with Korach’s 250 Levites by burning them up in a conflagration. The next day the remaining Israelites complain about all the deaths, and God tells Moses:
“Take yourselves out from the midst of this community, and I will consume them in an instant!” (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:10)
Once again, God wants to annihilate the entire Israelite people—and presumably start over again with only Moses and Aaron and their families. This time Moses tells Aaron to stop the plague by taking his incense pan out into the community.
Aaron took it, as Moses had spoken, and he ran into the middle of the congregation, and hey!—the pestilence had already started among the people! He put on the incense and he made atonement over the people. And he stood between the dead and the living, and the pestilence was stopped. (Numbers 17:12-13)
The God-character has already killed 14,700 people when Aaron’s incense checks His rage.
At the end of the portion Korach, God instructs the Israelites to offer the firstborn of every cow, ewe, and nanny goat at the altar, “… and you shall burn-into-smoke their fat as a fire-offering for reyach nichoach for God.” (Numbers 18:17)
At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Israelites join the local Moabite Midianites in worshiping their god Baal-Peor. When a Reuvenite man brings a Midianite princess (possibly a priestess of Baal-Peor) right into God’s tent-sanctuary to copulate, the God-character’s fury boils over. Aaron’s grandson Pinchas dashes into the tent chamber and stabs a spear through the copulating couple.7
And the pestilence was stopped from over the Israelites. And the deaths in the pestilence were 24,000. (Numbers 25:8-9)
The God-character rewards Pinchas, but remains angry in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. God orders Moses to attack and kill all the Midianites who worship Baal-Peor—an order carried out in next week’s portion, Mattot.8 After addressing several other matters, God remembers the soothing scent of smoke in Numbers 28:1-2 (above).
Maybe the God-character finally realizes He has a quick temper and an anger management problem. If the Israelites soothed Him with a reyach nichoach at regular intervals, He might stay calmer.
God requests two daily offerings, plus additional offerings every seventh day (Shabbat), every new moon, and on six special occasions during the year (now called Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret). The daily offerings and the additional offerings on the new moon, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret are all labeled as either “a reyach nichoach, a fire-offering for God” or “a fire-offering of reyach nichoach for God”.
Smoke and the gods
Why does the God-character in the Torah calm down when He smells the smoke of an animal, grain, or incense offering?
The book of Ezekiel provides a clue. Three times in Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites at home and in exile are flocking to foreign altars and giving mere idols a reyach nichoach.9
Burning animals at altars for local gods was standard religious practice in ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia. The epic of Gilgamesh includes a story in which Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah, emerges from his boat after the flood and offers a sacrifice to the gods. When he lights a fire of myrtle, cane, and cedar wood, the odor reaches the nostrils of the gods and gives them pleasure.10
Since many humans enjoy aromatic smoke from incense or from a barbecue, it is natural to assume an anthropomorphic god enjoys it, too. Just as an angry king about to punish someone might be appeased by a delightful gift, an angry anthropomorphic god might be appeased by a gift of fragrant smoke. Since the God of Israel and the gods of Canaanites and Mesopotamians were envisioned as living in the sky, smoke was one of the few gifts that would be sure to reach them.
Have we discarded the idea of an anthropomorphic god today? Not entirely. Both atheists and theists often think of God as a super-human being living in a “heaven” coexistent with our world. Atheists prove that this super-being cannot exist, while most religious people explain that an anthropomorphic god is either one manifestation of the real God, or a helpful image in our own minds, not to be confused with the real God.
There are still some fundamentalists who believe in the angry, punishing God portrayed so often in the Hebrew Bible and inherited by Christianity and Islam. The rest of us tend to view God as either loving (a helpful anthropomorphic image), or without emotion (because God is not really a super-human).
Yet we sometimes find ourselves disturbed by our own irrational anger, and the impulsive actions we commit as a result. We do not want to be made in the image of the angry, temperamental God-character. What can we do to become calmer human beings?
Smoking is not the best answer. But making regular offerings to God could be. Jews no longer burn animals on an altar to soothe God’s temper, thank God! But we are asked to pray at the appointed times listed in Pinchas: daily, weekly, monthly, and on annual holy days. I have found that when I pray thoughtfully, searching out inner meanings of some words and adding my own heartfelt longings, my prayer soothes my own spirit and lifts my soul closer to God.
May everyone who needs the blessing of calmness find a good way to receive it.
- Moses talks God out of annihilating the Israelites and starting over again with only Moses’ descendants in Exodus 32:9-14 and 32:25-35. See my post Ki Tissa: Fighting or Singing? God may be testing Moses to see whether he will argue for the Israelites; but on the other hand, God does kill an untold number of them with a plague, even after the Levites have slain 3,000 guilty people.
- In Numbers 14:11-35 (Shelach-Lekha) God threatens to wipe out all the Israelites because they do not trust God to help them conquer Canaan and refuse to cross the border. Moses talks God down, and God makes them wait 40 years instead. God’s next threat to annihilate all the Israelites is in Korach, reviewed above.
- Numbers 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27 and 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36.
- Genesis 6:11-13, 6:17.
- Genesis 4:3-5.
- Exodus 29:18, 29:25, and 29:41.
- See my posts Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1 and Balak: Carnal Appetites.
- See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.
- Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, 20:28. In Ezekiel 20:41, God says that when all Israelites restrict themselves to serving their own God on the holy mountain of Israel, then God will accept the people themselves as a reyach nichoach.
- Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4.