When I contracted a breakthrough case of COVID this past summer, along with other mild symptoms, I completely lost my sense of taste and smell. My spouse remarked to me that I didn’t have any taste to begin with, but I’m uncertain what she meant by that. In any event, losing two of my five senses was profoundly disorienting. All these many weeks later, I am just now slowly regaining them.
It wasn’t just my appetite that was effected. Without the capacity to smell, the world felt severely muted to me. I couldn’t take in our freshly ground arabica beans in the morning. I wasn’t able to catch the whiff of mowed grass as I walked by a neighboring lawn. I lacked the ability to detect when my children needed a bath (hint: with them it’s every day.)
Our olfactory senses aren’t just for pleasure though; they are an evolutionary result, designed to protect us, and help us thrive. Lining the insides of our noses are millions of neurons, allowing us to perceive, according to a 2014 study, at least one trillion different smells. We don’t just smell smoke from a house fire. We also can smell decay which alerts us to infection or death. We can smell other’s emotions emitted through sweat glands. Our potential for finding a mate also is based in part on smell and genetic compatibility. The smell of babies is so powerful that one study on motherhood presented the women’s thalamus lighting up, signaling emotional connection, when they inhaled the scent of someone else’s newborn. Our sniffers open up the world to us and offer us the rich diversity of life.
All of which led me to ponder how smell functions in the Bible. In the beginning, God breathes into the nostrils of the first human fashioned from dust, and gives him life. Notice God didn’t say or touch anything. God simply blew holy breath up a nasal cavity. When it comes to human creation, it seems the nose gets top billing over the other senses.
Just a few chapters later, when Noah emerges from the Ark on dry land, he makes an offering to God for his safe deliverance. The scripture says, “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’” (Genesis 8:21)
Job tells his friends in his final discourse to them that the Spirit of God is in his nostrils. (Job 27)
In the New Testament, Mary and Martha are very upset that their brother, Lazarus, is dead. But they are not keen on the idea of Jesus bringing him out of the grave. As they tell Jesus, “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” (John 11:39)
It seems the biblical witness invites us to understand smell not just as a human experience, but as a place of divine encounter. Our ability to breathe in creation, and interpret meaning out of it, is a gift. Which means our noses can function as witnesses to God’s presence in the world. We can sniff out holy possibilities, and by doing so, point others to the pleasing odor of God’s reconciliation and redemption.
As my own snout continues to heal, that smells like Good News to me.