What Does God Smell Like?

March 15, 2005 | 41 comments
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I like smells. I sniff my wife when she is not looking. (It really annoys her.) I came home from work late tonight and went in to look at my sleeping son. I bent down and kissed his brow and drank in the wonderful smell of a clean and sleeping little boy. For me smell is the most powerful trigger of memory. In short, I think that our noses are under appreciated organs and that smell is a big deal. So what does God smell like?

If you read the scriptures you will notice that they are full of imagery describing what God looks like or sounds like. There is the voice thundering over Mt. Horeb, the sight of the Father and the Son appearing to Joseph in the Sacred Grove, and even Jesus insisting that his disciples feel the wounds in his hands and in his feet. Joseph Smith even said that “the truth tastes good.” In short, all of our senses seem to get into the act in the encounter with the divine (Ok taste is a bit of a stretch), except for smell.

We do know that there was incense in the tabernacle as well as at the temple. I have always assumed that it was to cover the stench of the sacrifice. (Remember the Temple of Herod killed as many cows each day as a large slaughter house.) And there is the symbolism of smoke ascending to heaven. Other Christian denominations have gotten into the sacred smell game as well. There is a wonderful, heavy smell to Greek Orthodox churches or Catholic churches that follow a traditional liturgy. And of course, the wise men brought fankencense and myrrh.

Sterling McMurrin reported that an old-time Mormon farmer in Arizona once informed him that the devil smelled like an old wet dog. McMurrin thought that this was superstitious nonsense, but it always has struck me as an important and useful fact to know. Still, none of this gets to the issue of what God smells like.

So here is my request for the next prophet who has a theophany: please report to me on the scent. In the mean time, I welcome speculation about the smell of God.

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41 Responses to What Does God Smell Like?

  1. danithew on March 15, 2005 at 10:36 pm

    I don’t know what God smells like, but since I’m going to guess and speculate wildly, I’ll refer you to a special recipe for the tabernacle incense:

    Exodus 30:22-25
    22 Moreover the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
    23 Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels,
    24 And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin:
    25 And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.

    This incense is referred to in Hebrew as ketoret and there are all kinds of Jewish commentaries on the significance of the smell of this incense. At least one of the ingredients has a remarkably unpleasant smell and so the commentaries are actually concerned with explaining why an unpleasant odor would be included in the mix.

    Also, the ketoret offering was made twice daily and the materials used for each offering added almost up to 2,000 pounds!

    Here’s a link to some commentary I googled up:

    http://www.breslov.org/dvar/siddur/ketoret_1.html

  2. Sal on March 15, 2005 at 10:39 pm

    Just to throw us all for a loop, I’m quite sure God (or at least heaven) smells like freshly roasted coffee. Mmmmm.

  3. Wilfried on March 15, 2005 at 10:44 pm

    2 Corinthians 2:15 says
    “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish”.

    The New International Version renders this as
    “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing”.

    And that brought some Christian writers to the concept of How to smell like God.

    Symbolic, yes, but in our theological concept of a physical God, it may have an extra dimension. Who knows?

  4. danithew on March 15, 2005 at 10:45 pm

    By the way, if you’re googling about ketoret, the spelling qetoret should also be used. I found another link that looks quite promising as it seems to offer loads of commentary on various aspects of the qetoret (scroll down after hitting the link):

    http://www.oller.net/qetoret.htm

  5. danithew on March 15, 2005 at 11:02 pm

    Sorry to comment so much on this … I haven’t thought about this incense issue in years and its fun to catch up again on it. The recipe for the tabernacle incense is made exclusively for the temple and the people of Israel were not supposed to replicate it or mimic it for their own personal use (in non-temple contexts) or for use by anyone else:

    Exodus 30:31-33
    31 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, This shall be an holy anointing oil unto me throughout your generations.
    32 Upon man’s flesh shall it not be poured, neither shall ye make any other like it, after the composition of it: it is holy, and it shall be holy unto you.
    33 Whosoever compoundeth any like it, or whosoever putteth any of it upon a stranger, shall even be cut off from his people.

    The foul-smelling ingredient that is included in the mix is called galbanum and that part of the recipe doesn’t show up until verse 34 of the same chapter:

    34 And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight:

    Thanks for the post Nate … now I’m going to have this on my mind for some time to come.

  6. Jeremy on March 15, 2005 at 11:12 pm

    I thought the devil was supposed to smell like sulpher.

  7. Bryce I on March 15, 2005 at 11:19 pm

    I am reminded of the lovely carol Quelle est cette odeur agreable.

  8. Jeff on March 15, 2005 at 11:45 pm

    how can the devil smell like anything at all? he doesn’t have a body, and as far as I know, spirits aren’t capable of producing scents.

  9. David Rodger on March 15, 2005 at 11:52 pm

    Smell is the most evocative of all senses. See “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (In Remembrance of Things Past) Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, is triggered by the smell and taste of a madeleine (a little French cake).

    I wonder what the pre-existence smelled like?

  10. Mephibosheth on March 16, 2005 at 1:20 am

    I seem to remember Joseph Smith reporting that sometimes the presence of an evil spirit was accompanied by a foul smell.

  11. Steve L on March 16, 2005 at 2:14 am

    Well spoken, he who exterminates the shameful thing.

    The Old Testament, which is wonderfully sensory-soaked, is full of God talking about his “sweet savour.” The burnt offerings (the original sweet savour™) are spoken of (sometimes, at least) as being only for God’s corporeal satisfaction. While that may not be exactly true, it does appear (as others have already pointed out) that God is in some way interested in pleasant smells. Anyway, good post and comments. Truly this is food (or incense?) for thought.

  12. Sheri Lynn on March 16, 2005 at 2:29 am

    There’s no smell in the world better than a baby’s hair. My youngest is 7 and I can still recall exactly what each child smelled like, more clearly than I can remember anything else about them as babies. I expect that anything that works well down here has its counterpart in heaven–be it computer networks, nap-kitties and lap-dogs, tides, eclipses, chemistry, free-market economies, or the distinctive smells of individuals in different moods and places.

  13. Nate Oman on March 16, 2005 at 8:24 am

    Danithew: Thanks for the ketoret references. Facinating stuff. It also occurs to me that we have at least one ritual in the church where we bless our sense of smell. One interesting thing is that the scents associated with the temple were also the scents that were associated with wealth.

  14. Paul Mortensen on March 16, 2005 at 8:56 am

    I think He smells like honey. It’s sweet, life-sustaining, and is the only food that never spoils. Plus there are dozens of references in scripture to a “land of milk and honey”. I guess that might mean that Christ smells like milk.

  15. diogenes on March 16, 2005 at 9:02 am

    how can the devil smell like anything at all? he doesn’t have a body, and as far as I know, spirits aren’t capable of producing scents.

    Well, for that matter (no pun intended), without a physical body, he can’t be seen with the natural eye, either. You have to be really spiritually in tune to catch the sight — or, doubtless, the smell — of a spirit.

    If as Joseph Smith says, spirits are composed of a more refined type of matter, then no doubt the scents they throw off are more refined as well.

  16. Silus Grok on March 16, 2005 at 9:12 am

    Sandalwood.

    I can relate, Nate: I live through my nose… and love the world that I live in. I, too, sniff people… and I don’t always do it as discreetly as I ought… I have achieved legendary status among friends for feats of olfactory prowess (including a little incident during a recent trip to San Francisco, when I found a store by its smell).

    At any rate, you asked what God smelled like… and the first thing that popped into my head / nose was “sandalwood”. Not the awful tinctures you find in stores… but the warm and heady perfume of the actual wood.

    Thems my 2¢.

    (Amazing post, Nate!)

  17. Chris Williams on March 16, 2005 at 10:03 am

    I suspect God smells like my wife, my children, and the other things that I hold near and dear to my heart. He probably smells like things you hold near and dear to your heart as well.

  18. danithew on March 16, 2005 at 10:05 am

    In the Apocrypha, in the book of Tobit, there is a story about a demon named Asmodeus that is killing the husbands of a young woman. Each time she is married, the husband is killed. Like a fairy-tale, seven husbands have been killed in this way.

    Finally a means is revealed (by an angel) to deter Asmodeus and drive the demon away. The means is to take the heart and liver of a specific fish and throw them onto the fire. The smell of the smoke from the burning fish heart and liver are what finally drive Asmodeus away.

  19. danithew on March 16, 2005 at 10:14 am

    Here’s a link to the book of Tobit. Chapter six (scroll down) provides the smelly solution to the Asmodeus problem:

    http://www.museumbredius.nl/tobit.htm

    One other scriptural story that involves the sense of smell is the story of Jacob and Esau. Being blind, Isaac depends on his other senses (hearing, touch and smell) to distinguish between his sons. The deception that is created to fool him takes smell into account as well as touch.

    It is interesting to note that later Laban and Leah utilize darkness to deceive Jacob in a similar manner — switching out the wife that he thinks is supposed to be there. What goes around comes around seems to be the message … I’m now wanting to go back and read the story to see if Leah was anointed with any special perfumes or smells — perhaps that played a role in the deception as well.

  20. Wilfried on March 16, 2005 at 10:36 am

    David Rodger mentioned Marcel Proust. If there is one author who pursued odor & smell as the major theme of a novel it is of course the acclaimed best-seller Patrick Suskind’s “Perfume”. For mature readers.

  21. Gary (Oz) on March 16, 2005 at 10:37 am

    I received an email recently with a cute story about the smell of God. You can find it at:
    http://www.fmsm.org/the_smell_of_god.htm

    There is also a Christian book being published called “How to smell like God”. Of course I suppose you have to buy the book to find out.
    http://www.standardpub.com/churches/news_article.php?aid=5

  22. cooper on March 16, 2005 at 10:42 am

    Mmmmm. According to danithew, God smells somewhat of fresh baked pumpkin pie! That’s a good smell. It could also be why most men smell so good wearing a slightly spicy cologne.

  23. Kevin Barney on March 16, 2005 at 10:58 am

    As fate would have it, on my morning news they did a story about a candle you can buy that is supposed to smell like Jesus, called “His Essence.” I think they make it in South Dakota or some such place. You can get the gist of the story here:

    http://wcco.com/localnews/local_story_353154430.html

    They are basing this on Ps. 45:8, “all your garments are perfumed with myrrh, aloe and cassia.” [following the typical Christian assumption that such references are to Christ, not to a human king]. They found the ingredients and made a candle out of it.

  24. danithew on March 16, 2005 at 11:12 am
  25. Nate Oman on March 16, 2005 at 11:19 am

    Given the link between taste and smell, it is interesting that the most basic Christian ritual — the sacrament — revolves around eating and hence — presumably — taste. Of course, we tend to be very careful to insure that our sacrament bread is as completely tasteless as possible, so that it becomes a ritual place holder, devoid of any concrete olfactory content. More’s the pity I say. It would be wonderful if there was some unique recipe for sacrament bread so that there was a distinct and powerful taste that was associated with the renewel of that covenant. As a temple worker I did come to powerfully associate the smell of olive oil with covenants and blessings.

  26. gst on March 16, 2005 at 12:02 pm

    Bart Simpson asked Homer what God was like after Homer saw Him in a dream. Homer: “Perfect teeth, nice smell–a class act all the way.”

  27. Ana on March 16, 2005 at 12:09 pm

    My best dreams contain the scent of the white ginger lily that was in bloom when I visited Hawai’i in August 1996. That gets my vote for the most glorious earthly scent, and one I could imagine in the divine realm. Clean baby is a contender, though. And sweaty little boy has a special place in my heart, though I don’t really think God smells like one.

  28. Davis Bell on March 16, 2005 at 12:17 pm

    On an unrelated note, I read that astronauts report that space has a very strong smell of burnt metal.

  29. Gilgamesh on March 16, 2005 at 12:18 pm

    Taste is not a stretch at all -

    Remembering that the fruit of the tree of life is the love of God- Lehi gave us a sense of what God’s love tastes like,

    “And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted…”

  30. annegb on March 16, 2005 at 12:19 pm

    Nate, you are a very sweet guy.

  31. sFW on March 16, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    I posit that God has no smell.

    1. None of the prophets have mentioned God having a smell.

    2. Having a glorified and perfected body, God would not give off odor but be clean — clean and pure has no scent.

  32. Mark Simmons on March 16, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    Regarding evil spirits I don’t know about foul smells but I’ve heard the temperature drops in a room when they’re present … I SEE DEAD PEOPLE!

    Regarding a scent associated with God, why would He only have one scent? That’s like saying He has only one emotion. Perhaps a more developed anti-Nicean view of God is a God with a body, parts, passions … and scents.

  33. Mark Bigelow on March 16, 2005 at 2:41 pm

    How about lavender roses, lilacs, honeysuckle, and most definitely plumeria?

  34. J. Stapley on March 16, 2005 at 2:54 pm

    John Taylor JD 11:76-77
    Again, the power of smell is very peculiar; perfumes of various kinds will last for years, and their various odors can be distinguished by you. Take, for instance, a Tonquin bean, or a rose. The former is very small, and yet it continues to emit or exude, year after year, myriads of small, infinitesimal particles, without any sensible diminution, all of which are charged or impregnated with its own peculiar aroma; and convey this delicate, impalpable matter to the organs of the nose, and so exquisitely sensitive are the nerves associated with the nasal organ, that the minuteness of this touch, and the peculiar odor of the Tonquin bean, the rose, or any other peculiar aroma, is conveyed as distinctly to the understanding as words or signs of any kind can convey impressions to the human mind. This is, indeed, mysterious, yet strictly demonstrative, although, like the capacity of the eye, it approaches the spiritual or ethereal.

  35. Kingsley on March 16, 2005 at 3:07 pm

    “1. None of the prophets have mentioned God having a smell.”

    Or back hair. It is interesting to wonder what context a prophet might bring up God’s smell in. Or his gums, for that matter, or his toenails. & they have never told us if he trims his beard or if stays neat & comely all by itself.

    “2. Having a glorified and perfected body, God would not give off odor but be clean – clean and pure has no scent.”

    What about roses? Little laughing brooks? Freshly bathed babies? What about the way the air smells that first moment in March when you suddenly remember, Oh yes, spring is coming?

  36. Bryce I on March 16, 2005 at 4:55 pm

    Speaking of sacrament bread (Nate Oman, #25):

    http://www.cphpost.dk/get/86354.html

  37. Doc-Kwadwo on March 17, 2005 at 8:47 am

    Adults in Southeast Asian cultures tend to sniff little children on the head, instead of kissing them. My wife is half Vietnamese, and borrowing a page from her mother, I have taken to mixing smooches in with some heartfelt sniffs of the noggin. It is relaxing and beautiful.

    I think God might smell like my wife’s hair.

  38. Kurt on March 17, 2005 at 11:20 am

    Its your lucky day!

    Couple Sells Candles That Smell Like Jesus
    Product Flying Off Shelves
    A South Dakota couple makes and markets candles they say smell like Jesus.

    http://www.nbc10.com/news/4287825/detail.html

    Complete with pics and video.

  39. JKS on March 17, 2005 at 11:57 am

    I do not have a strong sense of smell. My husband does, so he loves the smell our babies’ new baby smell. He still loves their scent.
    He can smell people smoking in cars around us. At work, he knows who is coming toward his cubicle by their scent. He’s a regular party trick.
    He has to tell me when a child needs a diaper change. He has to tell me when something goes bad in the fridge.
    I am oblivious to the smells around me. I rarely wear perfume because it seems unneccessary. I can never choose a perfume, because although I can smell the difference between scents, they have little meaning to me. I don’t like or dislike any of them. I am apathetic about them.

  40. The Mirth on March 17, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    I wager that God smells the way Adamic reads.

  41. Eric Soderlund on March 22, 2005 at 11:22 am

    It is a well attested fact that the devil smells like “Sex Panther” cologne.