Noah's Sacrifice

Translating puns

…an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD.

Lev 1:9

This phrase “sweet savour” shows up repeatedly in the first several chapters of Leviticus, variously translated as “sweet aroma”, “pleasing aroma”, “soothing aroma”, “pleasing odor”, “sweet fragrance”, etc. In the Hebrew, it is reach nichoach (pronounced rey’-akh nee-kho’-akh—the kh is like the ch in Bach). You’ll notice that the Hebrew is alliterative, so translations like “sweet (or soothing) savour” capture that well. Reach comes from the verb root riach—”to blow or breath in, specifically through the nostrils; to smell” (the same root for ruach, translated as spirit, breath, or wind.) The idea is as if something is breathing out (as opposed to giving off) its aroma, which is then breathed in by another. I don’t know any word in English that approaches this idea from the same angle. Nichoach comes from a root that translates “to rest, settle down, be quiet”. So, it is sweet, soothing, or pleasant in the sense that it brings rest or calm. “An aroma of rest” gets the alliteration and the denotative sense of nichoach, but not the out-breathing of the scent.

That is just some of the difficulty translating the words and sounds. What about puns? The phrase first shows up in Genesis 8:21, after Noah has left the ark and has built an altar to offer up ascension offerings to the Lord: “And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake…” The context here gives additional layers of nuance. We have already seen the ruach of God at work in the early chapters of Genesis, and especially in the flood narrative. God says, “my ruach shall not always strive with man…” (6:3) and then determines to “destroy all flesh, wherein is the ruach of life…” (6:17; cf. 7:15, 22). After the flood had done its cleansing work, God caused a “ruach to pass over the earth and the waters assuaged” (8:1). As you’ve probably guessed, the name Noah also comes from the same root as nichoach. He was the one that would bring rest; he was the one righteous man found in his generation; he obeyed God in all that he commanded. When the story says that God breathes-in (riach) the reach nichoach, it is punning with ruach noach, the spirit of Noah. God breathes in the Spirit of the Rest-Bringer and rolls back the curse that he had laid over creation.

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.



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