This question was inspired by this recent answer which offered a translation of the first part of Isaiah 11:3:

and his smelling is with the fear of Yahveh...

I was surprised to find that none of the translations included in biblegateway.com include anything about smelling. (See also, Rashi.) Most are close to the NASB:

And He will delight in the fear of the Lord...

From what I can figure out, there are (at least) two different sources of discrepancy. One is translational/interpretive. Quoting from the link provided in the aforementioned answer:

The word for "delight" (v’haricho) has the same root as the word "smell," (rayach).

I'm not exactly sure whether this means to indicate that they are easily confused or that there is a dual meaning intended. It continues:

The Sages interpreted this to mean that the Mashiach will be able to judge through the sense of smell.

The NET notes offer this related but distinct interpretation:

[I]t is possible that “the fear of the Lord” is likened to incense. This coming king will get the same kind of delight from obeying (fearing) the Lord, as a deity does in the incense offered by worshipers.

Another issue is that some consider the entire clause to have been accidentally added by scribes. The NET notes continue:

Some regard [the incense explanation] as strained in this context, and prefer to omit this line from the text as a virtual dittograph of the preceding statement.

  • How can we determine whether this clause is original to the text?

    • If so, was smelling a part of the intended meaning?

      • If so, how should we understand the role of smell in the argument?

3 Answers 3


The issue is whether Isaiah 11:3a might be better translated as "and his smelling is with the fear of Yahveh," as proposed in the answer to another question. I refer to "The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary," which is highly regarded in the English-speaking Jewish community. It translates 11:3a as "And he shall be animated by the fear of the Lord." There is no hint of 'his smelling', but neither does it say 'delight', so The Complete Jewish Bible does not really tell us whether to use one meaning or the other. Without disputing The Complete Jewish Bible, I will propose that 'delight' is the appropriate translation here, and not far removed from that Bible's translation. Although that is the primary meaning, there is probably an underlying play on words. A Hebrew reader would notice that the word used, v’haricho (English: 'delight'), and the word for smell have a common root, then that Isaiah says he will not judge by his sight or by his hearing.

Most Christian Bibles translate this along the lines of "He will delight in the fear of the Lord," or "He will delight in obeying the Lord." From a Christian perspective, these translations are anomalous if Isaiah was really talking about the Messiah (as also is animated by the fear of the Lord"). Although improbable, translating the Hebrew word v’haricho (English: 'delight') as involving smelling, simply because of a shared root, would be enigmatic but at least avoid the anomaly of the usual translations in having Jesus in fear of the Lord, or obeying the Lord.

On the other hand, if Isaiah was talking about a future king who would be pious and obedient to God, the usual translations work quite well. The next step is to look at the context and see whether Isaiah was talking about a future king or prophesying a future Messiah. This means looking all the way back to Isaiah chapter 9. It also helps to understand that Israel and Judah had often been rivals and sometimes bitter enemies, although modern Judaism tends to skim over this. Israel's defeat by Assyria came about because the northern kingdom threatened to invade Judah, which looked to Assyria for assistance.

Isaiah chapter 9 tells about the impending defeat of the enemy, Israel (9:12,14): “Aram on the east and the Philistines on the west devour Israel with open mouth … Therefore the Lord will cut off from Israel head and tail, branch and rush in one day.” In chapter 10, God regrets the total destruction of Israel, and Isaiah predicts that a few will return (10:21), assuring the people of Jerusalem that they will not suffer the same fate (Having defeated Israel, Assyria turned its attention on Judah). So, the defeat and dispersal of the Israelites is the broader context.

Jumping ahead to verses 11:11-13, Isaiah says the dispersed people of Israel (or 'Ephraim') will return from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Ethiopia, Elam, Shinar, Hamath and faraway islands, and there will be peace between Israel and Judah. In other words, peace will reign, so much so that (Isaiah 11:6) "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."

The specific context is now in verses 11:1-3. Since Jesse is the father of David, a rod out of the stem of Jesse means a descendant of David. We choose between a future king and Jesus. In 11:2-3, The Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD shall rest upon him and he delight in obeying the Lord. The KJV says that the Spirit actually gives him this understanding, but most translations simply make it implied. All this describes an ideal king, but it does not seem appropriate for the Son of God to need to be given wisdom and understanding in the fear of God. Verses 11:3b-4 describe what is expected of this king - that he will judge with righteousness and will kill those he finds wicked.

Taking the ordinary meaning of the words in their fullest context, there is no room for "smelling is with the fear of Yahveh" and therefore no need to wonder what it could possibly mean. In recognising that Isaiah was talking about a king, a rod out of the stem of Jesse, Christians lose a possible prophecy of Jesus, but do not need to find obscure meanings in the text. Isaiah 11:3 does not involve smelling.

  • You have said quite a bit about why you think Christians are wrong to take this as a prophecy about Jesus, but I don't see an answer to the actual question. What Hebrew word is used there, and what is the correct understanding of its usage? -1 for now.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 22:06
  • @Jas3.1 My last sentence was, " Isaiah 11:3 does not involve smelling." I arrived at that conclusion by an exegesis of three chapters of Isaiah. I pointed out that if Isaiah was talking about a Messiah, 'smelling was a possible if unlikely meaning, but that if he was prophesying a future king there is no justification for that interpretation. Then I showed that he was prophesying a future king. Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 23:03
  • @Jas3.1 I did not state the Hebrew word because the word forms part of the question. For clarity, I have now included this in my answer, along with its ordinary meaning. Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 23:07
  • 3
    I think your answer is based on a strawman. The idea of "smelling" does not come from Christian theology, it comes from reading the Hebrew. "Delight" is an odd rendition of the word, but both Christians and non agree it fits better. That is why the Christian translations read that way. The question is how people (Christian and non) get "delight" from the Hebrew word for "smelling".
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 0:01

I think others are over-complicating the text.

Verse 3 says:

.וַהֲרִיחוֹ בְּיִרְאַת יְהֹוָה וְלֹא לְמַרְאֵה עֵינָיו יִשְׁפּוֹט וְלֹא לְמִשְׁמַע אָזְנָיו יוֹכִיחַ

Judaica Press translates the first clause as:

"And he shall be animated by the fear of the Lord,"

This is based on Rashi's translation of the Hebrew to Old French:

"And he shall be animated by the fear of the Lord: He shall be filled with the fear of the Lord. [ed enos mera il luy in O.F., and He shall be enlivened."]

The second part of the verse is translated by Judaica Press as

"and neither with the sight of his eyes shall he judge, nor with the hearing of his ears shall he chastise."

This clause seems to be the heart of your question. Rashi explains that the Messiah will be blessed with God's wisdom and therefore be able to judge those before him without resort to his natural senses.


The Idea in Brief

There appears an apparent dittography between Isaiah 11:2 and Isaiah 11:3, however, the Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX translations do not seem to support the view. The "smelling" therefore appears to be an idiomatic expression expressing delight according to other passaged in the Hebrew Bible where the same idiomatic expression occurs.


The critical apparatus of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) suggests that the phrase "And He will delight in the fear of the Lord" (NASB) found in Isaiah 11:3 was dittography. Please see the image below (and click to enlarge for better viewing).

Isaiah 11:3

Please note the "a--a" comment in the Critical Apparatus, which references the Hebrew words boxed in the first yellow box in the first image (above) enclosed by the two superscript "a" letters. The critical apparatus, which appears at the foot of the same page, appears as follows. Please see the image below (and click to enlarge for better viewing).

Critical Apparatus

Please note that the editors of the BHS annotate the comment in abbreviation (in Latin) as follows: "dttg, dl," which means: "dittography, to be deleted." That is, there appears to be similarity with the preceding verse. Please see the image below (and click to enlarge for better viewing).

Apparent Dittography

Please click here for another possible variant of the apparent dittography.

So the editors of the BHS understood an apparent dittography. In addition to the dittography, the editors of the BHS also indicate their observation regarding the first Hebrew word in the second clause, which reads in multiple manuscripts (Septuagint, Septuagint by Symmachus, Targum edited by Sperberi, Vulgate, etc.) as "לא" (without the waw) and not וְלֹא (with the waw). The nuance is that with the missing waw, there was no clause preceding the word which would have necessitated the conjunction. Thus multiple manuscripts (Septuagint, Septuagint by Symmachus, Targum edited by Sperberi, Vulgate, etc.) did not "see" any clause preceding which would have required the conjunction waw. Ergo, the clause "And He will delight in the fear of the Lord" (NASB) that appears in the Masoretic Text is "dittography, to be deleted."

The Critical Apparatus of the BHS does not take into account any references to the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is, when the BHS appeared in 1977 (and republished in 1984), access to the research surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls was not available as today. Thus there is no critical inclusion of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the BHS. For example, the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) dates from ca. 125 BCE, and is the earliest surviving Hebrew text of Isaiah in existence. The following image comes from the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) -- please note that the phrase "And He will delight in the fear of the Lord" (boxed in yellow) appears exactly as found the Masoretic Text. Please also note the conjunctive waw is apparent (circled in green). Please click the image below to enlarge for better viewing.

The Great Isaiah Scroll

Finally, as already noted by the editors of the BHS, the texts of the Septuagint omit any conjunction in the second clause of Isaiah Isaiah 11:3. However, the Septuagint texts indicate that there is a clause preceding in this verse (notwithstanding that there is no conjunction to connect both clauses of this same verse in the Septuagint). In other words, the translators of the Greek Septuagint were translating something.

That something is an expression that cannot be translated in a literal "word-for-word" sense, because the phrase is idiomatic. This idiomatic expression is also idiosyncratic, which is why an apparent dittography from the preceding verse is the most convenient explanation.

For example,

to be continued...

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