What can you give God, when God has given abundantly to you?
Burning something is the standard method for expressing gratitude to God in the Torah. God loves the smell of smoke, whether it comes from animal fat burning on the courtyard altar, or incense burning on the golden altar just inside the Tent of Meeting.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh, God tells Moses the ritual for consecrating both the courtyard altar and the new priests, a ritual that includes a lot of fat burning.1 After burning the fat parts of a bull and all of one ram, the priests to be ordained must hold up the fat parts of the “ram of ordination”, along with its right thigh and three kinds of grain products.
Then you shall take them from their hands and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar, on top of the rising offering, for a soothing fragrance before God; it is a fire-offering for God. (Exodus 29:25)
The end of the Torah portion describes the construction of the incense altar and decrees that the high priest must burn incense on it twice a day.2 Apparently God needs a lot of soothing.
Only a few psalms and the writings of a few prophets indicate that one can also worship God through words. See my post: Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.
Serving God through words also has a precedent in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis. In the chapter in my book on the portion Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and explains that they are not to blame for throwing him into a pit and selling him as a slave all those years ago, because it was all part of God’s plan to bring the whole family down to Egypt during the seven-year famine.3
He intends to reassure his older brothers, but they are not thrilled to hear that they have no free will. Joseph kisses them and sobs on their necks, but they merely become able to speak to him.4
The author of Psalm 40, like Joseph, expresses his religious attitude by giving verbal testimony about divine providence.5 Unlike Joseph, he later becomes insecure and reminds God:
I did not conceal your righteousness in the middle of my heart;
I spoke of your reliability and your deliverance.
I did not conceal from a great assembly your loyal kindness and your fidelity.
You, God, you will not hold back your compassion from me;
Your loyal kindness and your fidelity will always guard me. (Psalm 40:11-12)
Faith in divine providence is easy in hindsight, as it was for Joseph. But when troubles are still threatening you, you need to keep reminding yourself of your belief, like the author of Psalm 40. And when someone else tells you not to worry about your past crime because it all worked out for the best, you may feel cheated of a chance to make amends, like Joseph’s brothers.
- Exodus 29:12-25.
- Exodus 30:1-9.
- Genesis 45:4-8.
- Genesis 45:15.
- We can assume the speaker is a man because he is allowed to speak to a “great assembly”, something no woman could do at that place and time.
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