Smells play an important role throughout the Bible. Both good and bad odors are mentioned frequently, often symbolizing blessing or cursing, purity or impurity. In a time when modern sanitation did not exist, foul odors could be pervasive. Understanding the cultural context helps illuminate why scents, pleasant or unpleasant, carried spiritual meaning.
The sense of smell, often overlooked today, was far more acute in ancient times. Without today’s products for personal hygiene, offices, dwellings, and even places of worship contained malodorous smells we would find offensive. The ancient Hebrews closely associated odors, whether fragrant or foul, with virtue or sinfulness.
Pleasant aromas in Scripture represent holiness, righteousness, and God’s blessing. Conversely, foul smells typify evil, death, idolatry and judgment. While we no longer attribute spiritual symbolism to smells, studying Bible passages on scents provides insight into Hebrew poetry and cultural values.
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- Pleasant scents symbolize righteousness, life and God’s blessing
- Unpleasant odors represent sin, death and God’s judgment
- The altar of incense produced a fragrance pleasing to God
- People and places associated with evil often emitted foul smells
- Virtuous people are described as spreading the aroma of life
Pleasant Aromas Represent Holiness and Life
The Old Testament records God’s instructions for constructing the tabernacle and its furnishings. The tent sanctuary’s innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies, housed the Ark of the Covenant and the presence of God dwelt there. Burning sweet incense on the altar produced a fragrant aroma that shielded the high priest from God’s glory when he entered this inner sanctuary.
And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. (Exodus 30:7-8 NKJV)
The Lord provided detailed guidelines for creating this unique blend, calling it “holy and fragrant incense.”
And the Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you. (Exodus 30:34-36 NKJV)
The incense was combustible and produced a fragrant odor when burned. God called his sacred tent “the Tent of Meeting filled with My glorious fragrance” (Exodus 29:43 ISV). The tabernacle furnishings constantly diffused the sweet scent of sanctity.
The treasured perfume nard, derived from an exotic plant, also represented righteousness. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with this costly oil, the house “was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3 NKJV). Jesus said her sacrificial act Would be preached throughout the world.
And there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. And the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. (Matthew 26:7-13 KJV)
Unpleasant Odors Represent Sin and Death
While sweet scents characterize holiness and life, foul odors symbolize sin, idolatry, and death in Scripture. The psalmist describes sinners and the foolish as corrupt and stinking.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:1-3 NIV)
When humanity becomes utterly sinful before the flood, God regrets creating them.
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. (Genesis 6:5-6 NKJV)
Idolatry particularly provoked God’s judgment and associated with foul odors. The prophets warn Judah and Jerusalem that its idol worship will bring dire consequences. Ezekiel’s vision of idolatry within the Lord’s temple includes imagery of putrid scents.
Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then said he unto me, Hast thou seen this, O son of man? turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations than these. And he brought me into the inner court of the Lord’s house, and, behold, at the door of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east; and they worshipped the sun toward the east. Then he said unto me, Hast thou seen this, O son of man? Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? for they have filled the land with violence, and have returned to provoke me to anger: and, lo, they put the branch to their nose. Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them. (Ezekiel 8:14-18 KJV)
The prophets warn that God will turn fertility into foul stench because of Judah’s sins.
“Therefore the showers have been withheld, and no spring rains have fallen. Yet you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame. Have you not just called to me: ‘My Father, my friend from my youth, will you always be angry? Will your wrath continue forever?’ This is how you talk, but you do all the evil you can.” (Jeremiah 3:3-5 NIV)
“Therefore I will take away her vines and fig trees, which she claimed as her wages for prostitution. I will make them into a thicket, and wild animals will eat from them. I will punish her for the days of the Baals when she burned incense to them, put on her rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers. But she forgot me.” This is the Lord’s declaration. (Hosea 2:12-13 CSB)
Because of Judah’s idolatry, God promises, “I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals; and I will lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there” (Jeremiah 9:11 NIV). Through Jeremiah, the Lord warns he will make the land a desolation where “the stench of their corpses will rise” (Jeremiah 19:7 NIV).
When Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees their inward corruption makes them “unmarked graves” (Luke 11:44 ESV), his original listeners envisioned the stench. Visible tombs warned passersby against ritual impurity.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28 ESV)
The Aroma of Life Spreads Through God’s People
Not only does Scripture associate foul odors with sin and death. It describes the righteous as perfuming the world with the sweet smell of life in Christ.
Paul tells the Corinthian church that Christ’s knowledge spreads through believers like a sweet perfume. He contrasts this with the stench of death among those perishing.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? (2 Corinthians 2:14-16 NIV)
As Christians spread the Gospel, they diffuse the beautiful fragrance of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. However, not everyone welcomes this sweet scent. To those rejecting Christ, believers carry the odor of death leading to judgment.
This metaphor of spiritual stench and sweetness recurs as Paul urges the Ephesians to holiness:
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God…For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. (Ephesians 5:1-7 NIV)
In contrast to the stench of evildoers facing God’s wrath, followers of Jesus spread the sweet aroma of sacrificial love.
The musician and priest Asaph describes drawing near to worship God in the sanctuary “freshened by the fragrance of your anointing oil” (Psalm 92:10 ISV). Through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, Christians carry the sweet perfume of Christ wherever they go. Paul prays for the Philippians, “I pray that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, so that you may approve the things that are superior and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9-11 CSB)
Implications for Today
For contemporary readers, the Bible’s associations of good and evil with certain scents can seem obscure. Aromas that symbolized righteousness to the ancient Hebrews do not necessarily trigger similar spiritual responses today.
However, examining these biblical references provides meaningful insights into Scripture and Hebrew culture. It increases modern understanding of language, poetry, and imagery in the text. Comparing perfumes and stenches in the Old and New Testament also illuminates continuity across the biblical canon.
Most importantly, these odor references reveal humanity’s innate need for cleansing from sin and moral impurity. As Paul proclaimed, “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved” (2 Corinthians 2:15 NIV). When people receive Jesus’ sacrifice for sins, they become the fragrance of Christ to the world. By following Christ’s example of selfless love, believers spread the aroma of life amidst spiritual decay.
Though we no longer ascribe inherent virtue or vice to specific smells, Scripture’s linkage of scents with moral and spiritual realities calls us to turn from the foul odor of sin. Through Christ, Christians diffuse the sweet savor of the knowledge of Jesus everywhere we go.