by Lois Tverberg
They said to them, “May the LORD look upon you and judge you, for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us. (Exodus 5:21)
The Hebrew language is very vivid and poetic because it uses physical imagery to describe the intangible, instead of abstract terms. Instead of being stingy, a person is “tight-fisted,” and instead of being stubborn, a person is “stiff-necked,” like an ox that refuses to let a yoke be put on by arching its neck.
One humorous example is that of the word ba’ash (ba-ash) which means “to be a stench; to emit a stinking odor.” The word was used to describe the Nile after the fish died when it turned to blood (Exodus 7:18). In the same story the Israelites use it in their anger at Moses after Pharaoh increased their labors. They said to Moses, literally,
May the LORD look upon you and judge you, for you have made our aroma to be a stench in the eyes of Pharaoh and his servants…
Often the word ba’ash is used when one person is despised by another because of something obnoxious they have done: a very graphic description! We have strong emotional responses to beautiful aromas and terrible smells, and the ancients used this idea to describe being praiseworthy and attractive as compared to being repulsive.
Interestingly, in the New Testament Paul uses this imagery as well:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)
When I was an immature believer, I remember that many Christian things “smelled bad” to me. I assumed that Christian authors would be judgmental and rude, and that religious people were hypocritical. I often sense that attitude in nonbelievers too — the more outwardly religious Christians are, the more they tend to convict and irritate those who are immature or unsaved. We smell like Christ: if a person rejects him, they will find us unattractive as well. This is something we need to take in stride when the world isn’t always kind.
On the other hand, just as we smell like Christ, Christ smells like us! Some Christians are rude and vindictive, or dishonest in business. To the world who doesn’t know Christ, this is a potent witness against him. We should always remember that our words and actions are an aroma that goes out into the world.
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).