Smoking is a controversial topic among Christians today. Some view it as a harmless personal choice, while others see it as a dangerous addiction that should be avoided. In seeking guidance on this issue, many look to the Bible for insight. But did people actually smoke tobacco or any other substance in biblical times? Let’s take a closer look.
The Bible does not explicitly mention smoking tobacco, cigarettes, or any other modern methods of ingesting smoke. Tobacco is a plant native to the Americas that was not introduced to Europe until the 16th century after Columbus’ voyages. Widespread smoking of tobacco developed in the centuries after that. Since the events described in the Bible predate the introduction of tobacco to the Eastern Hemisphere, we can safely conclude that none of the people mentioned in the Bible smoked tobacco.
However, the Bible does mention burning incense and other aromatic substances for ritual or enjoyment purposes. In the ancient world, burning incense, herbs, and spices was common practice across many cultures and faiths. The smoke produced from these substances when ignited could have been inhaled, intentionally or inadvertently. So while the people of the Bible did not smoke tobacco or modern style cigarettes, they did burn materials and likely inhaled some amount of smoke.
- The Bible does not mention tobacco, cigarettes, or other modern methods of smoking
- Tobacco originated in the Americas and was not known in biblical lands until after Columbus
- People in Bible times did burn incense and other aromatic substances
- The smoke from burning incense and spices was likely inhaled on occasion
In the rest of this article, we will explore biblical references to the burning of incense and aromatic substances, analyzing what the people of the Bible may have smoked or inhaled, intentionally or not. We will examine the purposes behind burning incense in ceremonies and rituals and consider how this may relate to smoking today. Let’s continue exploring what the Bible says about smoking and inhaling fumes.
- Burning Incense in Biblical Worship
- Non-Ceremonial Incense Burning
- Does Burning Incense Equal Smoking?
- Case Studies: Biblical Characters Who May Have Inhaled Smoke
- Principles for Christians Regarding Smoking Today
Burning Incense in Biblical Worship
The burning of incense is mentioned frequently throughout the Old Testament in relation to ceremonies and rituals carried out by the priests and people of Israel. God provided specific instructions for designing places of worship that included accommodations for burning incense. Here are some examples:
When God gave instructions for building the Tabernacle, the mobile place of worship used by Israel before the construction of the Temple, he provided explicit details for places to burn incense (Exodus 25:1-40, NKJV):
“You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood.” (Exodus 30:1)
“Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” (Exodus 30:7-8)
God gave exact specifications for the incense altar and commanded that it be kept burning perpetually. The burning of incense at the Tabernacle was confined to the priests and was part of the daily rituals of worship.
When Solomon constructed the Jerusalem Temple to replace the portable Tabernacle, the Bible again records that accommodations were made for burning incense:
“Then he made two cherubim of olive wood, which he overlaid with gold, and he carved wings of them so that the wings of the one cherub touched one wall and the wings of the other cherub touched the other wall. And he put the cherubim inside the inner chamber. So the wings of the cherubim were stretched out so that the wing of the one touched one wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall. And their wings touched each other in the middle of the room. He also overlaid the cherubim with gold. Then he carved all the walls of the temple all around—both the inner sanctuary and the main sanctuary—with carved engravings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. He also overlaid the floor of the temple with gold, both the inner sanctuary and the holy of holies. For the entrance of the inner sanctuary, he made doors of olive-wood; the lintel and doorposts were one-fifth of the wall. He also made two doors of olive-wood for the entrance to the main sanctuary; and he carved cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers on them and overlaid them with gold, applying it smoothly on the carved work. And he built the inner court with three rows of hewn stone and a row of cedar beams.” (1 Kings 6:23-36)
The Temple had a special inner room called the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The high priest would burn incense in this area once per year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:12-13).
The layout of the Tabernacle and Temple with designated areas for burning incense reflected spiritual truths about God’s desire to commune with his people. The smoke ascending heavenward symbolized the prayers of God’s people rising to him (Psalm 141:2). It also signified God’s presence coming down to dwell among his people (Exodus 40:34-38).
So the ceremonial burning of incense played an important symbolic role in the worship life of ancient Israel. The smoke produced was not for casual recreational enjoyment, but purposefully ascribed spiritual significance.
Non-Ceremonial Incense Burning
In addition to ceremonial purposes, burning incense and aromatic substances was also practiced in ancient Israel and the broader Near East for non-religious functions:
Incense could be burned simply to produce a pleasant aroma. The pages of the Bible reference fragrant spices like frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, and roses:
“I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk.” (Song of Songs 5:1)
“I arose to open for my beloved, And my hands dripped with myrrh, My fingers with liquid myrrh, On the handles of the lock.” (Song of Songs 5:5)
“His cheeks are like a bed of spices, Banks of scented herbs. His lips are lilies, Dripping liquid myrrh.” (Song of Songs 5:13)
“Who is this coming out of the wilderness Like pillars of smoke, Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, With all the merchant’s fragrant powders?” (Song of Songs 3:6)
People would burn these pleasant-smelling plants either for everyday enjoyment or special occasions like weddings (cf. John 2:9).
The smoke from burning plants was also thought to serve a medicinal purpose. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, his sister Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a perfume whose fragrance filled the house (John 12:3). People commonly believed the fumes released from spices like nard could treat illnesses and drive out evil spirits.
Burning incense could also practically mask foul odors from lack of sanitation or social customs like keeping animals indoors. Smoke from sandalwood and cinnamon would override unpleasant smells.
So while ceremonial purposes remained dominant, people in Bible times did burn aromatic plants for everyday enjoyment, medicinal treatment, and masking odors. This produced smoke that could be casually inhaled.
Does Burning Incense Equal Smoking?
The activity of burning incense or spices undoubtedly exposed people to smoke that they likely breathed in. But can we equate this to “smoking” in the modern sense of intentionally inhaling tobacco or drugs? There are a few factors to consider here:
As covered, the majority of incense burning mentioned in Scripture served a spiritual purpose unlike recreational smoking today. The smoke was a byproduct of religious rituals rather than the goal in itself. Most references connect incense burning to these ceremonies and symbolism.
The burning of incense was restricted to priests and the Tabernacle/Temple in biblical accounts. Lay people did not produce incense smoke casually in everyday life like modern smoking. It was a unique function of religious leaders.
3. Amount of smoke
The thin wisps of smoke produced from incense burners differed greatly from aggressively inhaling cigarette smoke into the lungs. The exposure was more passive rather than intentional.
4. Lack of addictive substances
Incense and aromatic spices did not contain highly addictive substances like nicotine that compel users to inhale regularly. There was no chemical dependency factor.
So while it’s plausible people in the Bible inhaled some smoke from burning incense, it meaningfully differs from habitual recreational smoking today. The practice served spiritual symbolism rather than addiction, took place in restricted religious ceremonies, involved limited smoke inhalation, and lacked dependence-forming chemicals.
- Though incense burning produced smoke, it significantly differs from modern recreational smoking in its purpose, exclusivity, amount of smoke, and lack of addictive chemicals
Case Studies: Biblical Characters Who May Have Inhaled Smoke
While scripture does not explicitly state that people in Bible times smoked or casually inhaled incense fumes, we can plausibly deduce places where smoke inhalation could have occurred. Let’s consider a couple biblical characters who may have breathed in smoke as part of their cultural context.
As the first high priest over Israel, Aaron dutifully burned incense at the Tabernacle daily as commanded by God (Exodus 30:7-8). The confined space within the Tabernacle would have filled with smoke each time he performed this ritual. Even though the incense produced a pleasing aroma, extended exposure to the smoke could have been unpleasant or harmful. Aaron likely coughed on occasion or accidentally inhaled some fumes. So frequent incense burning plausibly exposed him to smoke inhalation regularly.
Babylonian and Persian Kings
The books of Daniel and Esther from the Exile Era record that kings like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Ahasuerus, and Darius enjoyed luxurious possessions and foods. Burning rare and exotic incense could have been another royal extravagance for these wealthy rulers (cf. Song of Songs 3:6). While the smoke from expensive frankincense or sandalwood would add pleasant ambiance to the palace, it could also be casually inhaled by royal residents like Daniel or Queen Esther. The confined living quarters again made smoke exposure likely at times.
So priests like Aaron and kings living in luxury were two groups perhaps more prone to casual smoke inhalation in Scripture based on proximity. The average Israelite likely encountered incense smoking much less frequently. But the bottom line is we have no definitive proof of recreational-style smoking in the Bible.
- Priests like Aaron and kings like Nebuchadnezzar were plausibly exposed more often to smoke from burning incense, but there is still no solid evidence of recreational smoking in the Bible
Principles for Christians Regarding Smoking Today
Since habitual recreational smoking is not modeled in the Bible, what principles should Christians draw about smoking today? Here are a few key guidelines:
1. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
This means we should care for our physical health out of honor to God. Smoking is indisputably harmful to the body, so participating in this destructive habit displays poor stewardship of our physical temple.
2. We must avoid addictions (1 Corinthians 6:12)
The addictive nature of nicotine in tobacco makes smoking an unwise choice. Christians should resist life-controlling substances.
3. Consider fellow believers around you (Romans 14:13-23)
Smoking may not only harm our own bodies but also negatively impact fellow Christians through secondhand smoke or influential example. We should avoid letting nonessential practices like smoking encourage others toward harm.
4. Let your conduct reflect your devotion to God (1 Peter 1:13-16, 2:11-12)
When people associate smoking with unhealthy addictions, participating can present a poor witness and diminish our gospel influence. We want to live uprightly to bring glory to God.
5. Use wisdom and discernment (Proverbs 2:10-11)
The health risks of smoking are now conclusively proven. Christians should use wisdom in evaluating smoking’s dangers rather than foolishly ignoring warnings.
The Bible does not forbid smoking outright since it predates modern tobacco use. But upon applying scriptural principles, Christians should at minimum carefully consider risks of smoking and whether it reflects wise Christian living and testimony. Many conclude abstaining completely is the wisest choice.
- Biblical principles about caring for our bodies, avoiding addictions, considering our influence on others, reflecting God’s glory in our conduct, and using discernment should compel Christians to at minimum carefully consider the dangers of smoking if not abstain completely.
In summary, while the Bible does not record definitive accounts of people smoking or casually inhaling incense for enjoyment, the burning of aromatic spices in biblical times plausibly exposed priests and kings to some smoke in their living environments that could be inhaled. However, this markedly differs from the intentional recreational inhalation of addictive tobacco smoke today. Careful application of biblical principles regarding our bodies, addictions, conduct, and discernment should lead Christians to at minimum cautiously evaluate any smoking activities because of proven health dangers. While the Bible cannot definitively settle debates about smoking’s ethics, relevant scriptural truths and wisdom can guide believers to make godly decisions that both demonstrate love for neighbor and bring glory to God even in this gray area.