When it comes to odd phrases in the Bible, branch to the nose" is one of the most unusual and difficult to understand. Where it originated from and its exact meaning is not entirely known. And attempts to translate it from the original Hebrew has brought about much disagreement and confusion.
From Bishop John Parkhurst (Linguist): Under the entry zemôr – meaning to cut off or to prune as a vine. "I observe... that the Vulgate translation of (the word) them is the most faithful and literal. Adplicant ramum ad nares suas (means) they apply the branch to their nostrils. I should rather say nose." ("A Hebrew and a Chaldee Grammar", p.168. Published 1829, London).
Holding a bundle of twigs before the face is an ancient religious custom most often associated with the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. However other cultures, such as the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Hindus, Greek, Romans (as well as some earlier European groups) all used twigs and twig bundles in their pagan worship ceremonies; especially in the worship of the sun and fire.
From Strabo: "In Cappadocia (Turkey), there is the sect of the Magi fire-worshipers called Pyraethi. (In) that country are also many temples of the Persian gods. There are also Pyraethea (fire-shrines) worthy of description. In the center of them there is an altar, and on it much ashes, where the Magi guard the inextinguishable fire. Daily entering these shrines, they (the priests) sing invocations for nearly the space of an hour, holding a bundle of slender tamarisk wands in their hands before the fire. I have seen this myself." ("Geography", Book 15, Chapter 3, Sections 14-15. (Modern translation). First edition published 7BC., Greece.)
From Dr. Thomas Hyde: The Flamines or the Fire-priests of the ancient Romans also carried bunches of such twigs in their hands in their (religious) ritual." ("Historia Religionis Veterum Persarum"; Published 1760, Latin edition.)
From Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron: "Barsom is a bundle of twigs; in Kiman (Persia). They are twigs of the pomegranate, the tamarisk or the date. The number of twigs required for the barsom is fixed on that part of the liturgy which the priest celebrates. The barsom is held together by a band called evanquin; this band must be taken from a green tree. Date or palm branches are usually employed, which as well as the barsom, are consecrated with particular ceremonies. The number of twigs required differ in different services. The Shyest Ne-Shayest (Hindu) enjoin that neither more nor less that the requisite number should be used. The celebration of the Yasna requires 23 twigs of which 21 form a bundle. ("The Zend-Avesta - Description of the Holy Utensils of the Persians", Part III, p.20. Published 1771, French Translation.)
From Dr. Martin Haug: " They (Parsis*) have such a custom...of arranging...the bundle of sacred twigs (Barsom) that with three, that with five, that with seven, and that with nine stalks; those which were as long as to go up to the knees, and those which went a s far as the middle of the breast." ("Essays on Sacred Language, Writings and Religion of the Parsis", p.189. 3rd. ed. Published 1878, London.)
One of the most significant areas of disagreement concerns how and why the twig bundles were used. Some scholars think they were a symbol of greeting or honor, while others think they were used to cover the mouth. And still others believe they were used as a type of wand.
From Thomas Lewis, Cleric: "The most reasonable exposition is that the worshipper with a wand in his hand was wont to touch the idol and then apply the stick to his nose and mouth in token of worship and adoration." ("Origines Hebraeae - The Antiquities of the Hebrew Republic", VOL III, Book 4. Published 1714, London.)
From Professor Friedrich von Spiegel: "Twig bunches were used by the priests as veils "so that the bright rays of the sun might not be polluted by human breath." ("Aran", 3:571,572. Translated from German. Published 1863.)
From Dr. Benjamin Boothroyd: "Lo, they send forth a scornful noise through their nostrils." (Ezekiel 8:17, last part.) ("The Holy Bible - Translated from Corrected Texts of the Original Tongues", p.793. Published 1836, London.)
The preceding quotation raises several interesting questions. Was the scornful noise brought about by breathing normally through the tied twigs with the unintended result being a shrill whistle? Or was the noise an intended aspect of the worship ceremony? One commentator proposed that the scornful noise was a purposeful action meant to insult God; sort of like blowing the tongue at him.
The last area of disagreement concerns whether "putting the branch to the nose" is literal or figurative. Some Bible interpreters believe the phrase is not describing a physical action but is rather a figure of speech used by God to describe how he views the insolent behavior of the people. He takes their actions to be as the ancient counterpart of the modern offensive gesture of thumbing the nose.
From the LXX – Septuagint: "And he said to me, Son of man, thou hast seen this. a little thing to the house of Juda to practice the iniquities which they have practiced here? for they have filled the land with iniquity: and, behold, these are as scorners." (Ezekiel 8:17. Translated from the Greek.)
Along with those who agree that the phrase is symbolic, are the group who disagree that the phrase describes the people's insulting actions towards God. Rather, they think it is an idiomatic phrase that God used to describe the inevitable result of the people's continued idolatrous behavior, that they were adding fuel to their punishment fire.
From Rev. John Lightfoot: "Several other ways the Rabbins and others (translate), but for my part I would render (the Hebrew) not by nose or nostrils, but by anger: so should be the sense; 'They commit these abominations, filling the lad with violence, and have turned to provoke me; and behold they send the branch of the wild vine to my wrath, or to their own wrath. In the same manner that any one puts wood to the hearth…that it (the fire) may the quicklier be burnt, so do these put the branch to my wrath that I may burn the more fiercely." ("Hebrew and Talmudic - Exercitations upon St. John", Vol 3., Ch. 15:12, p.404. Gandell Edition. Published 1859, Oxford.)
Branch to their nose may never be translated and understood to everyone's satisfaction. However, based on the results of the extensive research associated with it, it is reasonable to conclude that it is multi-layered phrase that is heavy with both facts and symbolic meanings. With a few succinct words it tells an entire story of actions, reactions, warnings and pronouncements of judgement.
The action taking place in this verse is that Israel has immersed itself in idolatry and God is furious.
*Followers of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster who lived in India.
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