The Nose (Wrath) of God

“Wrath” is one of those old-fashioned words that progressives like me tend to turn up our noses at.  “Wrath” is so Old Testament, …not very “God is love.”

So when I came across the word “wrath” the other day in my reading, I decided to look it up in Strong’s Exhaustive Bible Concordance.


One of the Hebrew words often translated as “wrath” is the word “nose.”

There are actually SEVERAL Hebrew words which get translated as “wrath.”

keh’·tsef — a noun which means “anger, indignation, foam.”  Foam 🙂

kä·tsaf’ — a verb which can mean “anger, displeased, furious, to be enraged.”

‘aph — a noun which literally means “nose.”  

Wait… the “Nose” of God?

Actually, it’s not so strange as it smells.

Close your mouth and quickly blow through your nostrils. What emotion is that? It’s indignation, exasperation.  “Ex-asperate” literally means to “blow out.”  Add a disapproving head-shake and you’ve got “wrath.”

There are numerous Bible passages (and ill-tempered preachers) that make God’s “wrath” synonymous with destruction. But let me ask you this: when YOU blow your nostrils in righteous indignation and anger, does it mean you want to DESTROY the person you are angry with, really? Or do your better-angels tell you to get over your anger and look for a way to heal and reconstruct?

Mine either. Anger wants to destroy! …or at least strike back. But aren’t we suppose to get over our anger? To not let the sun go down on it? (Eph 4:26 if you need a prooftext.)

I DO believe Jesus offered many correctives to the Old Testament way of thinking about God, and if you do too then we must ask, “How does Jesus blow his nose?”

I was going to stop here, but like a lot of word studies, one discovery leads to another and I couldn’t help but think how the concept of “nose” (wrath) and the biblical metaphor of “smells” permeates (!) the Bible.

According to the Bible, smells are important to God (metaphorically speaking of course)

A few quick examples (there are many more)…

The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart” that he would never again curse the ground nor destroy all living things with a flood. (Gen. 8:21; 9:11; 15-16).

“They (believers) are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. (Phil. 4:18).

Of those engaged in pagan rituals, God said, “Such people are smoke in my nostrils (Isa. 65:5).

And every time someone gets anointed in scripture you can be sure that the oil was aromatic, including the oil the women brought to anoint Jesus’ dead body.

Sometimes smoke comes out of God’s nostrils, like when he goes after enemies like an angry, raging bull.

Smoke rose from his nostrils;
consuming fire came from his mouth.
burning coals blazed out of it….
The valleys of the sea were exposed
and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at the rebuke of the LORD,
at the blast of breath from his
nostrils. (2 Samuel 22:9, 16)

Sometimes, the blast from God’s nostrils saves, such as when Moses and his sister Miriam sang a song of praise to God after they’d crossed the Red Sea.

By the blast of your nostrils
the waters piled up…
The enemy boasted…
But you blew with your breath,
and the sea covered them. (Exodus 15:8-10)

Worship practices in the Temple were directed at God’s nose. For example, all the burnt offerings rising to God were sprinkled with incense; Exodus 30 prescribes it.

 “And on it Aaron will turn fragrant incense into smoke; each morning when he tends the lamps, he will turn it into smoke.”

Frankincense and other aromatics were sprinkled on altar bread and the Altar of Incense’s hot coals.  (This is the very altar Zechariah was tending when Gabriel appeared to him with the promise that his wife would give birth to the forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist.)

Why make things smell good? Because they believed God was pleased (and appeased) by the sweet (read: “acceptable”) smell of their prayers and offering rising to the heavens.

The idea is that sin stinks to God’s nose.
This is what all the “UNCLEAN” remarks in the Bible are trying to get at –things that are “fouled” or rotten usually smell bad. The smell of dead bodies to the stink and muck of pigs, to festering seeping wounds and unclean feet — the Hebrews saw and smelled all these things as OUTWARD signs of inward conditions, namely SIN.  Clean hands meant a pure heart (Psalm 24:4); so too apparently are clean feet, the kind Jesus gave to Peter.

These concepts of “unclean and stink” are even subliminally part of our baptism rituals and phrases like “clothes of righteousness.”

Part of the problem with stink (and sin) is that after a while you can’t smell your own. Physically speaking, there’s a reason for this. We have smell receptors in our noses that our brains are constantly sniffing for new dangers: predators, rotting food, infected wound, an intruder whose body odor isn’t familiar to us.  Our brain filters out the “normal” smells. This is why you can’t smell your own body odor (or sin) as well as other people can.  Interestingly, my grandmother had a saying when she wanted to take someone down a notch. She’d say, “you think yours doesn’t stink?”  (Did she ever consider I might be suffering from Hyposmia? (physicallydiminished sensitivity to my own sin-smell ????)

Another cool thing about our olfactory receptors is that they are wired directly into the “primitive” part of our brain, bypassing the thalamus which usually sends signals to our higher functions. It’s an evolutionary thing. Our flight or fight system literally reacts to smells (or ignores them) before we are cognitively aware of them. This is a good thing if something is sneaking up behind you or you smell something burning, but it’s not very helpful at detecting sins, errr… smells you have grown used to.

Spiritually and physically speaking there’s a reason why we can’t (or don’t want to) smell our own sin. Jesus explained it this way using another sense: we can see the specks in other people’s eyes but have grown used to the LOG in our own. We have grown INSENSITIVE to the smell of our own sin and the presence of our own logs.

From a biological and psychological perspective, I think we have to let ourselves off the hook for this insensitivity. And maybe that’s why God has to forgive us too.  We are biologically designed to ignore our own smell and logs.  It’s a “survival” thing, a primitive adaptation, a flaw that’s only revealed when somebody finally speaks the truth in love to us about our stench and logs. Funny thing is…   we’re ALSO good at covering each other’s sins, just ask Noah’s sons Shem and Japheth about that (Gen 9). This is why salvation is such an unearned gift, we literally can’t help the way we stink and smell.

But unlike our own, God’s sense of smell cannot be fooled, …which is pretty much the entire message of the Old Testament:  we stink, God will forgive.

Here’s a picture of the Saving Nose of God.

I hope you don’t think this article stinks. Bible Word Studies are fun.

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