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The Symbolic Significance of the Use of Incense in the Ancient Egyptian and Israelite Rituals

  • Korean Journal of Old Testament Studies
  • Abbr : KJOTS
  • 2018, 24(4), pp.180-203
  • DOI : 10.24333/jkots.2018.24.4.180
  • Publisher : Korean Society of Old Testament Studies
  • Research Area : Humanities > Christian Theology
  • Received : October 15, 2018
  • Accepted : November 10, 2018

SunMyung Lyu 1

1백석대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

Olfaction, namely the sense of smell, is a liminal sense that is difficult to name, describe, or localize. This difficulty is also what makes incense a complex, ambiguous, and richly implicative ritual means. The ancient Egyptian practices regarding incense are by far the closest precedence of and comparative materials for the ancient Israelite counterparts, and they actualized the most intricate symbolisms through its funerary use of incense. The Egyptian symbolic system, however, could not be absorbed into the Israelite faith, because the latter was founded upon monotheism and the ontological chasm between the divine and the human. Israel accepted the significance of incense as a marker of the divine realm and a communicative medium between God and man, and accommodated it into Hebrew ritual system in ways that would allow at once the transcendence and immanence of Yahweh. This was fitting because incense was the best conduit to mark the elusive presence of God, which, although overwhelming, is not to be localized, which is both ambiguous and conspicuous, and which is conductive of danger as well as grace. Israel accepted the significance of incense as a marker of divine realm and a communicative medium between God and man, and accommodated it into its ritual system in ways that would allow at once the transcendence and immanence of Yahweh. This kind of complexity is found in the New Testament, as incense refers not only to prayer to God but also Christ the divine-human mediator and to Christians as His captives. This was fitting because incense was the best conduit to mark the elusive presence of God, which is not to be localized although overwhelming, is ambiguous but obviously present, and transmits danger as well as grace.

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