the uses of incense in the ancient israelite ritual

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  • The Uses of Incense in the Ancient Israelite RitualAuthor(s): Menaem HaranSource: Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 10, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1960), pp. 113-129Published by: BRILLStable URL: .Accessed: 10/03/2014 09:05

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    MENAHEM HARAN Jerusalem, Israel

    1. The spices were, for the most part, the products of distant lands - Southern Nubia and Arabia-but for centuries, as is well known, they were brought along the caravan routes to the centres of civil- ization of the Fertile Crescent and even to the Mediterranean coun- tries 1). The use of spices, or of a mixture of their fine powder (which is the "incense", Heb. qetoret, of the Old Testament) was a regular feature in the religious rites of all the Ancient World. It is against the background of this widespread practice that the rites of the Old Testament are to be viewed.

    In the ritual practices of the Old Testament spices are used in three different ways, all of which can possibly be traced back to parallels with the cults of the Ancient Orient. In the following pages we shall consider these uses one by one.

    A. Spices as a Supplement to Sacrifice 2. The first of these ritual uses of spices took the form of adding

    the powder of the spice as a supplement to a sacrifice, namely a meal- offering (minhdh). In this case, the spice was usually part of the "memorial portion" ('aZkdrdh) of the meal-offering, and as such was burnt up on the altar. The spice generally employed in meal-offerings was frankincense (lebondh, Lev. ii 1, 15; vi 15 et al.). There is no instance of spices being added to sacrifices of animals or birds, but possibly in these cases it was customary to scatter some spices on the altar from time to time, to catch fire and mingle with the smoke of the offerings and thus ameliorate the stench of the burning flesh. Of course, in the case of an animal or bird sacrifice, no spice was offered up by the sacrificer himself nor demanded of him. But the

    1) See M. L6HR, Das Rducheropfer im AT (Schriften der Konigsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft, Halle/Saale, 1927), pp. 155-158, 160-163. Vetus Testamentum X 8

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  • M. HARAN

    priests may have seen to it that the altar was not without some trace of spices, the delicate fragrance of which turned the thick smoke into something like the finer fumes of the "incense" (qtotret). This would explain the frequent use of the verb gtr in the hipll conjugation, to indicate the burning of the fat and the sacrificial portions, a usage which is especially characteristic of P's style 1). It may also be that the "pleasing odour" which, in Biblical descriptions, accompanied the burning of the sacrifices and which God was accustomed to savour, is a further indication that the smoke was not merely that of burnt flesh, but was usually blended with a more fragrant odour of some spices 2).

    B. The Censer Incense (The Ordinary Incense) 3. The second use of spices took the form of offering them as a

    separate sacrifice. In several passages of the Old Testament, where both spices and meal-offerings are mentioned, it is difficult to decide whether a separate spice-offering is meant, or whether the spices are regarded merely as a supplement to the meal-offering (Is. xliii 23-24; Jer. vi 20, xvii 26, xli 5; also Neh. xiii 5, 9). But there are other passages, especially in the Priestly sources, in which the existence of a separate spice-offering is clearly recognized. In every one of these passages the noun qetoret ("incense") is used, indicating the mixed powder of ground spices which gives off a fragrance when burnt.

    4. A separate incense-offering is mentioned by Ezekiel in his vision of the seventy elders in the Temple, led by Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan (Ezek. viii 10-11). The prophet denounces them for the idolatrous intention of their deed, for its being performed before "every form of creeping. things, and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel", portrayed upon the wall round about. But the act of offering incense as such is not regarded by him as unfit for legitimate ritual. In two other apparent references to a

    1) Occasionally, also, in other sources than P, e.g. 1 Sa. ii 15-16, 2 Ki. xvi 15. On the use of this verb in the hipWcl and in the pi'cl see below, 6.

    2) Hence even the burning of those meal-offerings which contained no frank- incense (namely, the one which served as a substitute for a sin-offering [Lev. v 12] and the one offered by an unfaithful wife [Nu. v. 26]) nonetheless might be expressed by the verb qfr in hipcil. An animal sacrifice is also apparently meant

    by the "incense (qetoret) of rams" mentioned in Ps. lxvi 15. LOHR (op. cit., pp. 169-170) was baffled by this use of the verb qtr in connection with sacrificial portions of animal offerings.


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    separate incense-offering-xvi 18, xxiii 41-Ezekiel again denounces this offering because it was made to idols, but at the same time he calls it "mine incense", thereby implying that the incense itself was fit to be offered to the God of Israel.

    5. In P there are several unmistakable references to a separate incense-offering. Nadab and Abihu intended to make an offering of incense in their censers (Lev. x 1-3). They were punished because they offered it to Jahweh in "strange fire", i.e. fire other than that which was kept burning on the altar for the Daily Sacrifice 1). Nadab and Abihu apparently took their fire from somewhere outside the altar-area and placed it in their censers, as it is stated: "each took his censer and put fire in it". We may contrast with this the order given by Moses to Aaron in Nu. xvi 46: "Take your censer, and put fire thereinfrom off the altar"; cf. also Lev. xvi 12. In retrospect, too, the only crime ascribed to Nadab and Abihu is the use of strange fire (Nu. iii 4, xxvi 61). In their offering up of incense as such P finds nothing illegitimate.

    A similar case is that of Korah's two hundred and fifty followers: these met their doom, according to P, because they sought to usurp the functions of the priesthood - not for their actual deed of offering up incense in censers (Nu. xvi 16-18). Here, too, this offering in itself is completely acceptable to P as a genuine ritual act; indeed, it is precisely because the act is ritually legitimate that it can serve as a test of the fitness of Korah and his company to officiate as priests. After all, Aaron also offers up incense in his censer, like them, but is not harmed. It is worth noting, incidentally, that the fire used by

    1) IBN EZRA gives a similar explanation ad loc. P assumes that the fire that came forth from before the Lord on the eighth day of the consecration ceremony (Lev. ix 24) continued to burn on the altar and was carried by the Israelites till they reached Canaan. Indeed, in none of the ritual acts mentioned by P is fire brought from outside the altar. The wording of Lev. i 7 ("and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar") seems to lack juridical coherence, so that no definite conclusion can be drawn from it. Or perhaps the meaning should be something like this: the priests are to fan the continual fire on the altar higher so that it would consume the individual burnt-offering which in this case is an entire bullock. Elsewhere it is explicity stated that the fire on the altar must never be allowed to go out, even at night (Lev. vi 9, 12-13). The Jewish sages expounded Lev. i 7 to mean that "it is a positive duty to bring some ordinary fire (to the altar)" (l7Tn I ItD X1 IS1M, Talmud Babli, Yoma 21b, 53a and parallel passages). However, it is hard to reconcile this interpretation with the plain meaning of P's words. The incident of Nadab and Abihu, in which the central point is the heresy (as conceived by P) of bringing fire to the altar from outside, was also correctly explained by W. W. VON BAUDISSIN, Gescbichte des Alttestamentlichen Priesterthums, Leipzig 1889, p. 22.


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  • M. HARAN

    Korah's faction was also taken from outside the altar-area and was, therefore, unfit to continue in ritual use, as we learn from the command given to Moses in Nu. xvi 37: "and scatter the fire far and wide". However, the sin of Korah and his followers in using this fire was overshadowed by their still more heinous attempt to usurp the priestly function.

    Another separate incense-offering made by Aaron, according to P, was that by the aid of which he stopped the plague (Nu. xvi 47-48). Again, at the consecration of the Tabernacle, each of the twelve princes brought a spoonful of incense (Nu. iii), which must also have been inten