15 Mar 2023

Isaiah 11.3: The Smell(s), Yes, the Smell(s), the Smell(s)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Discipleship, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Isaiah, Jesus, Mission

I have decided to share this post in the spirit of feasting and thanksgiving (I actually wrote this in November). Most of our homes this time of the year are filled with aromas. Bread, pies, turkey, stuffing, and some times ham. The mention of them brings wonderful associations to our minds.

The psalmist implored Yahweh in prayer,

open my eyes so that I may
behold wondrous things in your torah

(Ps 119.18).

The Lord of the Word will do just this when we are disciples (i.e. learners).

As I’ve been working my way through the wonderful text in Isaiah 11, I have been stumped at verse 3. The NRSV and NIV read

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

Translation is a tricky business. It is far more complicated than looking up a supposed definition in the back of Strong’s Concordance (Words do not have a single definition rather they have semantic range, the words relate to one another grammatically which impacts the meaning of the sentence as a whole).

Several questions come to the forefront in verse 3. Is this describing the “shoot’s” (v.1) own sense of duty before God? Or is it describing the “shoot’s” happiness in finding the fear of the Lord in others?

That was my initial question. But my question only got more complicated when I decided to dig. When you look at the Hebrew of verse 3 it is difficult to figure out what is going on.

The word “delight” in the NIV/NRSV and others was not what I was expecting. “riyah” is a word that is related to “ruah” (breath/spirit) that is used four times in the context. Isaiah seems to be playing around with fact.

riyah, in various forms, is used in relation to aromas like incense associated with sacrifices. It highlights the sense of “smell.” Aromas associated with sacrifice are called “pleasing aromas” throughout the Hebrew Bible. The term is used seven times in Song of Songs describing the oils and perfumes of the woman. Thus in Song of Songs 4.10 we read,

How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the FRAGRANCE of your oils than any spice!

Sometimes the opposite can also be said. God does not like stinking odors. God declared, through Amos, that he will not “smell” Israel’s sacrifice because they are now odious (Yahweh does not accept them is the lame translation). Injustice makes worship “stink” and Yahweh reject it (just as we would a skunk).

The sense of smell is pretty powerful in most of us. We react strongly to both unpleasant odors and pleasing aromas. At Thanksgiving and other times of cooking, with turkeys in the oven, stuffing, bread, pies and lots of other delights fill our nostrils with wonderful aromas … most of us will go out of our way to inhale the pleasing “delights” of the smells. “Delight” is a good word for our emotional response to the aromas, the smells, we inhale.

Isaiah says the “shoot” (11.1) smells the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is an aroma. Like God delighting over a pleasing sacrifice, so the shoot delights, his nostrils sense the aroma of devotion to Yahweh. Aromas draw us in just as the Man found the aroma of the Bride “intoxicating” in Song of Songs 4.10.

This is a Spirit inspired gift. It is this endowed gift that enables the shoot to judge not by his eyes or ears but by what he smells (the rest of verse 3).

The old Geneva Bible in 1560 rendered the text as “shal make him prudent.” The Tanakh “he shall SENSE the truth.”

The Spirit endowed Shoot can smell those whose lives, regardless of appearances, are pleasing sacrifices to the Lord. Paul, that dyed in the Hebrew Scriptures Pharisee Apostle, twice uses the Septuagint’s translation of our term. Once to describe the aroma of Messiah’s own sacrifice and the invitation to imitate King Jesus’s smell (Eph 5.1-2) and the generosity of the Philippians is this pleasing smell to God (Phil 4.18).

I always find the aromas of the grill and kitchen to be a “delight.” And when they hit my nose, I inhale deeply and want more.

I am so glad I dug into this text … I can almost smell it.

One Response to “Isaiah 11.3: The Smell(s), Yes, the Smell(s), the Smell(s)”

  1. JT Says:

    This is a very thoughtful blog article, Bobby. It was worth waiting for! The richness and depth of the Word never ceases to amaze. Thanks for “digging” (and smelling).


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