This iconic narrative from the Judeo-Christian tradition is full of olfactory references that are topical today:
As Jacob went up to kiss him, Isaac smelled the fragrance of his clothes. With that, he blessed him, saying, “Ah, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field that the LORD has blessed! …
The story alludes to numerous senses, as the image of this post clearly illustrates: Isaac touches Jacob’s arm, Jacob’s blindness, the eye-contact between Jacob and Rebecca …
Sensory identity checks
In fact, one can read the narrative as an escalating sequence of sensory identity checks: Isaac starts with a sound check: “Which of my sons are you?'”. Apparently, the sound was not a sufficient proof of his identity. Therefore, Isaac moves on to the sense of touch: “Come closer, my son, that I may feel you, to learn whether you really are my son Esau or not.” At this point Isaac is able to compare he touched with the sound of the voice he heard. And the two sensory modalities (i.e. sound & touch) do not match. Isaac is irritated: “Although the voice is Jacob’s, the hands are Esau’s”. Yet, the process of identity checks seems to be completed or at least interrupted. Thus, Issac asks for the meal.
But after the meal the question of identity pops up surprisingly again, when Esau kisses his farther Isaac. At this point Isaac smells the clothes which belong to Esau and finally accepts that the person in front of him is Esau. Isaac then blesses Jacob with the blessing that is meant for Esau:
“Therefore God give thee of the dew of heavens, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: Let people serve thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.”
Isaac regards the body-odor as a reliable fingerprint that distinguishes his younger son Jacob from his elder son Esau. In his recent monograph on the anthropology of the senses the French scholar David Le Breton speaks of smell as a “highly discriminatory sense”. Accordingly smells define at once the difference between union or rupture, sympathy or hate. In the case of Isaac the smell discriminates his son Jacob from his son Esau.
Moreover Rebecca is smart enough to cover Jacob’s hands and the smooth part of his neck with the smelly goatskins. She basically fakes the body odor. This trick enables Jacob to commit the identity theft.
A careful reading reveals the significance of the body-odor at least at two levels:
Scent as masquerade
In our days we have all heard of some artificial smells, aromas, fragrant materials in shopping malls or product scents that try to make us believe in some authentic qualities. Thus, a whiff of fruity notes might suggest some qualities of freshness, though tins or other packages are displayed on the shelves. Or the scent of a bakery evokes the image of a traditional baker craft, though in “real terms” the products on sale are the output of a highly industrialized value chain. Coming back to the iconic narrative the message is clear: Smells can overpower other sensory information. The scent masquerade can perfectly work!
Isn’t it amazing that this trope of contemporary scent marketing can be traced back to the very beginnings of our narrative traditions?
Ambivalent about the value of olfaction
But there is even more to the story of Isaac and Jacob: The story is told from the perspective of an omniscient author. Thus, the reader learns how effective scent can fake and mislead. Therefore, telling this story in a religious and often moral context implies a second message that becomes manifest a numerous metaphors in Western languages: There is something “fishy” or “stinky”. Thus, one can argue that this story also lays the foundation for the scepticism and reservation that characterizes Western thought on the sense of smell. Even more, this narrative of smell as the decisive sense raises the question, why the animalic and low status of the sense of smell has been unanimously shared in Western thought. This seems to be a broader intellectual implication of this iconic narrative.
Image source: The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 143. Isaac blessing Jacob. Genesis cap 27 v 27. Eckhout.jpg (https://commons.wikimedia.org)