Clearing the air about smudging, burning incense, witchcraft & the Bible
Cultures evolve and erode over time; the traditions of man, his ideologies and geographical locations are easily influenced by internal and external elements. Cultural and traditions are based on universal truths but universal truths exist beyond cultural traditions. These truths established from the beginning are not contingent upon the desires of man, his ideals/actions and or traditions; when humanity deviates from adhering to universal truths we experience the judgments or simply the effects/consequences of our actions.
Universal truths alternatively are natural laws that govern the universe; these truths are the program/code of our earthly experience. In spite of what language you speak or cultural difference you may have we can all agree that fire is hot, seed-time brings harvest, night precedes day, birth and death are a part of life and the list goes on.
There are a myriad of creation stories from different cultures that share common themes such as a divine being speaking the world into existence, man being formed from dirt/clay, humanity being created by a divine power and the list goes on. Regarding our purpose if we look at the biblical account we learn that; Adam (mankind) was created to guard and to keep the already established order in the garden called Eden (Gen 2). The reader is given the layout of Eden in addition to the do’s and the don’ts for living there. In Genesis 2:17 we are introduced to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, this tree shared center stage with the tree of lives in the midst of the garden; the former was off-limits. The Edenic climate changes shortly after the narrative reveals (Chapter 3) that the “serpent” שׁחנָּה (nachash) became םוּער (crafty) and used its craftiness to draw Eve’s attention toward the “forbidden tree.”
Subsequently, Eve and Adam partook of the “forbidden fruit”, lost their access to the garden and compromised their connection to the Creator. Biblically their “fall” marked mankind’s deviation from the right course; it opened the door to a world of truth and lies. In this post-Edenic world the imagination of man cast images of new “gods,” it is to these “gods” that man the world over bows down to, pays reverence to, and attributes their understanding of the knowledge of good and evil to.
To understand their importance we have to understand the state of the world the nation was commissioned to serve. The children of Israel are “chosen” to complete an assignment.
Genesis 6:5 And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. 7 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.
Noah and his family were chosen as the remnant, (Gen 6:8) he begot three sons, of the three; Shem, Ham and Japheth, Shem’s lineage was “chosen.” Noah’s blessing states “Blessed be the LORD God of Shem.” Shem’s lineage continued for nine generations until Abraham; Abraham was the progenitor of Israel. Abraham came from an idolatrous household (Joshua 24:2). The Creator selected him because of his will to separate from the falsehood of idolatry and enter into a covenant (Gen 12). Abraham’s obedience illustrated his faith and made him qualified to receive a promise from the Creator. Abraham and his descendants would be blessed, they would become a great nation and would inherit the land that spanned from the river of Egypt to the River Euphrates (Genesis 15:18).
How does this all relate to culture and Israel and laws?
Following the neighbor’s kids! Bad influences have and continues to influence humanity to transgress universal laws. This susceptibility to “evil inclinations” can be linked directly to the craftiness of the “serpent.” (Gen 3:4) For this reason and others there are many laws recorded the prohibition of “following the nations.”
Lev 18:1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Lev 18:2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, I am the LORD your God.
Lev 18:3 After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances.
Lev 18:4 Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God.
Abomination is something disgusting or abhorrent; the item, action or thought that pushes us further from the Creator; abominations create a distance from the created and the creator.
How to differentiate what is a universal truth shared by all and what is an abominable, detestable practice of the nations? The text does not leave us clueless; in Deuteronomy 18 we find an extensive list of detestable admonitions;
• Sacrificing children in the fire
• Uses Divination
• Observer of times
• An Enchanter
• A Witch
• A Charmer
• A Consulter with Familiar Spirits
• A Wizard
• A Necromancer
Hollywood makes it easy to visualize these abominations; Harry Potter a famous wizard, Whoppi Goldberg’s character “Oda Mae Brown” a medium/necromancer in the movie Ghost, even a television series named Charmed where witches act as mediums who use divination and witchcraft to “fight evil.” Pop culture has done a lot of the leg work hiding these abominations in plain sight. If you will let’s take a moment to look deeper at each listed abomination.
Sacrificing your children in the fire was an actual practice done by worshipers of idols/foreign gods. M-lech was a Canaanite deity associated with child sacrifice. We can find extra prohibitions about this practices in several places some of which are in the following verses; (Lev 18:21, Lev 20:2–5). This practice falls under infanticide, it can be argued whether modern day abortions fall under sacrificing unborn babies to a modern day diety; this may be a topic for another day.
One who “useth divination” or as it states in Hebrew “one who divines divination” קֵסם קָסִמים
H7080 (Qof-Samech-Mem) properly to distribute, that is, determine by lot or magical scroll; by implication to divine
This person “distributes” information using the natural/spiritual realm to determine the future and or past. The method of divinization can vary from culture to culture; (tarot cards, animal entrails, cowry shells, casting lots, crystal balls, diving bowls, divining mirrors, etc.) Regardless of the medium/technique all the activities remain the same at its core; One who distributes information about the past, present or future using a tool of divination.
In (Gen 45) Joseph had a cup that he used to “drinketh, and whereby indeed he divineth.” In the case of Laban, Jacob’s father in law he learned by “experience” that he was blessed by of Jacob’s presence, in both of these situations the words “divineth, and “experience” should properly be translated as learning through שִׁחְנ (nachash), sounds familiar? It is important to note here that nachash in different forms, as a noun it can be translated as “serpent,” as a verb it can be translated as “divination” and as a adjective it can be translated as “bright/brazen.”
The “observer of times” or as it states in Hebrew מֹעְנִנים the root of the word being (ayin-nun-nun) meaning to cover, cloud over or act covertly. Some definitions include consulting the clouds in order to use them as signs aka astrology.
Astrology is the study of the movements and relative positions of celestial objects as a means of divining information about human affairs and terrestrial events. In short astrology is “the search for meaning in the sky.”
Israel was given this prohibition during the time of Moses, history reveals they did not heed this law. During the time of the prophets the people were warned continually about this particular abomination, “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. (Jer 10: 2) Instead of trusting in the council of the Creator the children of Israel leaned on their own understanding, allure of knowledge and “the ways of the nations,” prevailed continually. The prophet Isaiah also chastised the people for disregarding the prohibition, “All the counsel you have received has only worn you out! Let your astrologers come forward, those star-gazer who make predictions month by month, let them save you from what is coming upon you.”(Is 47:13)
It should be noted that according to New Testament writer Matthew “wise men” found baby Jesus/Yeshua’s birth site by tracking “his star in the east.” This was a practical illustration of how the nations read the stars to interpret events. To read more about how Israel continued to take part in these abominations see; 2 Kings 21:6, 2 Chron 33:6 , Is 2:6, Is 57:3, Jer 27:9 and Micah 5:12.
The “enchanter” or as the Hebrew states וְּמַנֵחשׁ the root being nachash (nun-chet-shin) as a verb one who whispers, hisses a magic spell, performs magic. The term “augur” is used in association with this definition the term means; a person who conjures from signs or omens, one who predicts, prophet, soothsayers.
*According to Roman history Augur was the name of one of the members of a religious college “whose duty it was to observe and interpret the signs (auspices) of approval or disapproval sent by the gods in reference to any proposed undertaking”
The “witch” or as the Hebrew states וְּמַכֵשּׁף the root word (caf-shin fay sofet) to whisper a spell to enchant or practice magic/sorcery. This word is also translated as sorcerer throughout the text.
Magic being, “the art of producing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.; the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature”
Sorcery being, “the art, practices, or spells of a person who is supposed to exercise supernatural powers through the aid of evil spirits; black magic; witchery.”
A number of ancient cultures relied on “magicians” and “enchanters” to divine on their behalf, the magicians of Pharoah/Kings were very prominent in the stories of Moses in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon.
The “charmer” or as the Hebrew states ְוֹחֵבר חֶבר root word (chet-bet-resh) one “charming a charm” or activating a charm to bind some to the words or desires of the charmer. A charm is better visualized as an item that is used for magical purposes such as the infamous voodoo doll or jewelry imbued with “magical powers”
The “consulter with familiar spirits” or as the Hebrew states אלשֵׁוֹ בוֹא or “asking/inquire of a spirit/soul of deceased.” This abomination is illustrated in the story of Saul and witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28). This practice has been glorified in recent times on reality television shows such as, Long Island Medium (Theresa Caputo), Medium (Allison Du Bois) and Living With the Dead (Ian Lawman) just to name a few. These shows glorify the ability of the mediums to connect with the souls of the deceased and translate messages to the living.
The “wizard” or as the Hebrew states ִֹעִנידּיְו the root (yod-dalet-ayin) meaning to know. The wizard is the “knowing one” who uses this knowledge to conjure or practice sorcery.
☠️The final abomination is “necromancy” or as the Hebrew statesְ שׁרדוֵֹ אל םיתמִּהֵ “one inquiring to the ones being dead” below is some more information as it relates to necromancy;
Necromancy (/ˈnɛkrəmænsi/) is a practice of magic involving communication with the deceased — either by summoning their spirit as an apparition or raising them bodily — for the purpose of divination, imparting the means to foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge, to bring someone back from the dead, or to use the deceased as a weapon, as the term may sometimes be used in a more general sense to refer to black magic or witchcraft.
There is a common thread that runs through the Deuteronomy 18 list of abominations, they all have to deal with ascertaining knowledge, using knowledge in a way that has been deemed universally illegal. The list addresses the person with the knowledge and the person who seeks the knowledge classifying these actions as abominable; it leads one to meditate on the issue that arose in the garden concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Through the tree mankind has gained access to hidden knowledge, over time they have used it to empower themselves and oppress others. I can continue in this vein, however, given that this article is aimed at customs in general and “smudging” in particular we will begin to explore whether this practice in particular falls in any of the above prohibited categories.
Cultural Norms, All false or nah?
“The offering of incense was common in the religious ceremonies of nearly all ancient nations, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, etc. (Zondervan Bible Dictionary 1967)
Plants that produced “sweet savor” were often used as medicine, protection, purification, cosmetics, and for “religious” ceremonies. In a biblical article about incense the author notes “purification and protection are two closely connected ideas in the use of incense all over the near east. It is the burning of incense the fumigation which purifies and protects.” (Freedman 1992)
The idea that incense or burning of an odoriferous plant has the ability to purify and protect has cross cultural significance. The Native American version of this ancient practice of healing and purification termed “smudging” by some Natives it is also known as the “Clearing Way Ceremony.” The healing ceremony calls for the burning of certain plants such as (tobacco, sage, sweet grass, cedar, juniper or lavender) the healing smoke is said to “purify people, ceremonial grounds, homes, and sacred objects or to send messages to a greater spirit.” (Portmann, Garret 2006)
Purification through burning?
These practices have long been discarded as witchcraft, superstition and the like, until in recent times their claims have been proven by the scientific community. In a study 2007 exploring whether medical smoke reduces air-borne bacteria researches discovered the following:
“We have observed that 1hr treatment of medicinal smoke emanated by burning wood and a mixture of odoriferous and medicinal herbs (havan sámagri=material used in oblation to fire all over India), on aerial bacterial population caused over 94% reduction of bacterial counts by 60 min and the ability of the smoke to purify or disinfect the air and to make the environment cleaner was maintained up to 24hr in the closed room.”
Throughout antiquity herbs known for their medicinal properties were used in similar ways; cedar, frankincense, myrrh, sage and the like. Let’s take a look at some of the herbs/plants used for incense or purification in antiquity.
According to the medical community;
Frankincense oil is effective as an antiseptic, and even the fumes or smoke obtained from burning it has antiseptic and disinfectant qualities that eliminate the germs as the smoke filters them out.
The word myrrh comes from the Arabic word “murr” meaning bitter. The oil is a yellowish, orange color with a viscous consistency. It is commonly used as a base for perfume and other fragrances. Two primary active compounds are found in myrrh, called terpenoids and sesquiterpenes, both of which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. (1) Sesquiterpenes specifically also have an effect on our emotional center in the hypothalamus, helping us remain calm and balanced. Both of these compounds are under investigation for their anticancer and antibacterial benefits, as well as other potential therapeutic uses.
Surprisingly, cedar wood essential oil has anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antifungal, tonic, astringent, diuretic, sedative and insecticidal properties. (1) It’s no wonder why cedars are so often mentioned in the Bible, symbolizing a source of protection, wisdom and abundance. (2)
Sage is among the above mentioned herbs revered for its medicinal properties, “studies have also shown that burning sage increases clarity and awareness, heightens wisdom, improves moods and enhances the memory and quickens the senses.”
A bad wrap? Smudging vs. Incense Burning
Smudging by definition includes but is not limited to the following; to smolder or smoke, to emit smoke or to make a smoky environment to drive away insects. Incense bundled or loose herbs/pants when burned upon coals made to smolder which creates a cloud of smoke.
The word incense comes from Latin for incendere meaning “to burn,” functionally burning incense/plants and smudging incense/plants are the same thing.
Are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israelites) prohibited from smudging/burning incense?
“Smudging is a way to connect the material plain to the realm of the spirits.” One has to wonder if this statement is a universal truth or a philosophy of man. In the Egyptian pyramid text, utterance 267 it reads: “A stairway in the sky it is set up for me that I may ascend on the smoke of the great censing…”
Amongst Native American healing system it is said that the “cleansing smoke can aid in sending messages to a greater spirit.”
In the biblical text incense burning was a fundamental part in the worship of the Creator within the confines of the tent of meeting. As it relates to the assertion that the smoke of incense connects the spiritual and the physical Torah reveals,
Exo 30:6 And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee.
Exo 30:7 And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it.
The “it” in this case is the, altar to burn incense verse one the instructions for the incense altar were given explicitly to the sons of Aaron to carry out. In the midst of the smoke from the proprietary holy incense blend, (Ex 30:34) the Creator says he will meet with the priest.
We see three separate cultures attesting to the belief in and assertion that there is a spiritual/physical connection that can be facilitated by smudging/incense burning.
Let’s hone in on incense burning in the bible, the Hebrew word קְטֹרֶת translated as incense/perfume the root being (qof-tet-resh) which translates as “to burn” or “turn into fragrance by fire.” Reference to this practice appears over one hundred and twenty times in the Old Testament. The first mention of burning perfume spices for “religious” use appears in (Ex 25:6).
Exo 25:6 Oil for the light, spices for anointing oil, and for sweet incense,
The incense that the priest were commanded to burn unto the Creator was highly regulated, it was a proprietary blend not to be replicated for common/personal use, any deviation from it when used to offer to the Creator would be deemed “strange fire”.
Exo 30:9 Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon.
The Korah rebellion recorded in (Numbers 16) clearly illustrates the violation of this law. To be clear burning incense for personal use was not highly regulated, but the burning of incense unto the Creator and or other deities was. In addition to offering “strange fire,” the nation of Israel took the custom of offering incense and used it to entreat other “gods.”
1Ki 3:3 And Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father: only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places.
1Ki 11:8 And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods.
2Ki 15:4 Save that the high places were not removed: the people sacrificed and burnt incense still on the high places.
2Ki 22:17 Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and shall not be quenched.
Isa 65:3 A people that provoketh me to anger continually to my face; that sacrificeth in gardens, and burneth incense upon altars of brick;
Isa 65:7 Your iniquities, and the iniquities of your fathers together, saith the LORD, which have burned incense upon the mountains, and blasphemed me upon the hills: therefore will I measure their former work into their bosom.
Jer 11:17 For the LORD of hosts, that planted thee, hath pronounced evil against thee, for the evil of the house of Israel and of the house of Judah, which they have done against themselves to provoke me to anger in offering incense unto Baal.
There are more supporting verses but we get the point, incense burning in general is an ancient custom/tradition, Israelite’s also shared the concept of burning incense in “religious” and “private” spaces for protection and purification as well as, “connecting to the spiritual realm.” Regarding “religious use” the nation of Israel often drew the Creator’s ire for worshiping other “gods” in this way.
But what if you are not burning incense in the temple, on high places to or for any “god.” What about the personal use of beautifying your home, space, clearing negative energy, warding off “evil spirits” and the like?
Is it sin?
Does the biblical text speak of using the natural to repel the spiritual? In the case of Saul when he fell out of grace with the Creator an “evil spirit” was sent to trouble him. Saul’s servants advised that he should get a “cunning player of the harp” to play for him so that he would be well/good. The ancients thought the music of the harp had calming properties; the person “wise” in playing was called to soothe his soul and give him some reprieve from the evil spirit.
In another story available in the apocryphal book of Tobit there was a young woman named Sara who was troubled by “evil spirits.” She was said to be given seven husbands all who died in the marriage chamber before consummation; the cause of death, “a devil named Asmodeus had killed them, at their first going in unto her.” Sara prayed and the angel Raphael was sent to heal her of this “evil spirit.” The angel appeared as a man and accompanied Tobias on a journey to recover a loan on his father’s behalf. On the voyage the angel gave Tobias some information on how to rid Sara of the evil spirit that plagued her.
Tobias 6: 7 Then Tobias asked the angel, and said to him: I beseech thee, brother Azarias, tell me what remedies are these things good for, which thou hast bid me keep of the fish? 8 And the angel, answering, said to him: If thou put a little piece of its heart upon coals, the smoke thereof driveth away all kind of devils, either from man or from woman, so that they come no more to them.
I recommend reading the entire story to understand the context, however, the point of this recounting it to draw attention to the natural smoke from a fish organ being used to drive away an undesirable spirit. Keep in mind this was not to attract, summon, call and communicate with “evil spirits” it was said to drive them away. Would this story and that of Saul fall under the abominations listed in Deuteronomy 18?
Negative energy/vibration, offensive smells and the like are a part of daily life. The foul smell that seeping from under the bathroom door after someone lay’s it down, the rotting smell of a dead or dying corpse, the unsettling sound of chronic pain of a loved one, the presence of a disembodied soul seeking to attach to the living can all be perceived as negative energy. Are we allowed to address negativity within our environment without violating the laws and statues placed before us in the biblical text?
There is a practical side to beautifying/cleansing your space, home, work area from things that cause imbalance physical/emotional/spiritual. Prayerfully, we take the time to “rightfully divide the word of truth,” in order to separate forbidden practices from permissible ones.
Native American Traditional Healing