Monthly Archives: September 2017

Exodus 30: Precious Things for the Sacred not the Secular

Erection of the Tabernacle and Sacred Vessels by Gerard Hoet (1728)

 Exodus 30: 1-10 The Incense Altar of Gold

You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. 2 It shall be one cubit long, and one cubit wide; it shall be square, and shall be two cubits high; its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3 You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top, and its sides all around and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around. 4 And you shall make two golden rings for it; under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall hold the poles with which to carry it. 5 You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 6 You shall place it in front of the curtain that is above the ark of the covenant,1 in front of the mercy seat2 that is over the covenant,3 where I will meet with you. 7 Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, 8 and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations. 9 You shall not offer unholy incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. 10 Once a year Aaron shall perform the rite of atonement on its horns. Throughout your generations he shall perform the atonement for it once a year with the blood of the atoning sin offering. It is most holy to the LORD.

This chapter finishes the description of the holy things that are to be created for the service to the LORD in the tabernacle. On first glance, it seems a random collection of things put at the end, but upon closer inspection there is an order in this chapter. The incense altar is the final golden items described and this small (roughly 1 ½ foot square) altar is near the holiest space and is used to provide a fragrant offering of incense (described at the end of the chapter) before the place where the LORD is to meet Moses or the high priest. The incense is to be set upon the altar every morning and evening and like everything else this altar is portable. An additional part of the priesthood’s job is to maintain this continual offering of incense before the LORD.

Exodus 30: 11-16 The Census of Silver

11 The LORD spoke to Moses: 12 When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the LORD, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. 13 This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD. 14 Each one who is registered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD’s offering. 15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you bring this offering to the LORD to make atonement for your lives. 16 You shall take the atonement money from the Israelites and shall designate it for the service of the tent of meeting; before the LORD it will be a reminder to the Israelites of the ransom given for your lives.

The Hebrew Scriptures are of a mixed mind on taking censuses. On the one hand there is the census mentioned here and at the beginning of the book of Numbers where the people are enrolled in obedience to God’s command. On the other hand, in 2 Samuel 24 when David conducts a census it is a sin against God that results in a plague. Perhaps the answer lies in the reason for the census and how it is done. Here and in Numbers the census is an act of worship and devotion where, especially here, the people are measured by the gift they bring. The donation of a shekel allows the census to be taken without counting heads or viable soldiers but instead by measuring the gifts. In contrast, when David orders the military leaders to measure the population in 2 Samuel it is specifically a counting of how many soldiers are available and a measurement of the strength of his kingdom. As Rabbi Sacks can remind us, “The danger in counting Jews is that if they believed, even for a moment, that there is strength in numbers, the Jewish people long ago would have given way to despair.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 267)

Perhaps the wisdom for our time may be the difference between counting gifts and counting resources. We live in a world of accounting, where resources are counted and measured and it is ultimately a worldview based on scarcity. When we attempt to catalog all that we need to ensure nothing is missing and our world becomes based on measuring people, money, or possessions then we can become fixated on securing our own future. The scriptures point to a different type of reality where God is the one who provides for the needs of the people and the offering they provide is a way of giving thanks for the gifts that God has given. It is a way of measuring the gifts that people bring, it is a way that can be more grateful for what has been received rather than fearful of what one doesn’t have.

Exodus 30: 17-21 The Basin of Bronze

17 The LORD spoke to Moses: 18 You shall make a bronze basin with a bronze stand for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it; 19 with the water1 Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the LORD, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. 21 They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die: it shall be a perpetual ordinance for them, for him and for his descendants throughout their generations.

We have moved from a golden altar to a silver offering to a bronze basin. Here the basin is described in a very plain manner, it is of the lowest precious metal and is used for the functional, but necessary, washing. This ordinary thing provides a way of preparation for the extraordinary ministry of the priest. Being washed in the water of the basin becomes a necessary preparation for the work of ministry.

Stepping back from the tabernacle itself there is perhaps some reflection that we Christians can do about the way in which our own baptism prepares us for the callings that God has for us. As a pastor my calling is an extension and only possible because of the work that God has done with water and promise. I am continually called back to my baptism which prepares me for the work of ministry that I do daily. Here with the bronze basin and the water the priest is prepared for the work with the holy by things that are both mundane and essential.

Exodus 30: 22-38 Anointing Oil and Incense

22 The LORD spoke to Moses: 23 Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, 24 and five hundred of cassia — measured by the sanctuary shekel — and a hin of olive oil; 25 and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. 26 With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant,1 27 and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, 28 and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand; 29 you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy. 30 You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, in order that they may serve me as priests. 31 You shall say to the Israelites, “This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be used in any ordinary anointing of the body, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33 Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an unqualified person shall be cut off from the people.”

34 The LORD said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (an equal part of each), 35 and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; 36 and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant1 in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. 37 When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the LORD. 38 Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from the people.

Spices in the ancient world are as valuable as gold and silver, and here these precious spices are used both for an anointing oil and for the incense used in the tabernacle. The anointing oil is used over all the implements of the tabernacle and over Aaron and the priests. This is to be specifically and only used in the tabernacle and its service. The place is to have a unique odor that is not to be copied for mundane things. In a similar way the incense is a unique and precious blend to only be used in the tabernacle. Both are holy things set aside for a specific purpose.

As a Christian the myrrh used in the anointing oil and the frankincense used in the incense remind me of the story of the magi bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus and his parents as they paid him homage. On the one hand, these are very valuable substances but on the other hand gold, frankincense and myrrh are all used in the tabernacle for the most holy.

Aside: Holy and Sacred in our Secular Conversations

Over the past weekend there was significant controversy when players, coaches and owners in various ways kneeled, locked arms or stayed in the locker room during the national anthem. Within some people’s outrage the language of sacred and holy about the anthem or to the flag was used and I think we need to pay attention to the way in which our language reflects that which we worship. As a Christian I cannot say that the flag or the anthem or any secular ritual are sacred things nor do I worship my nation. But I also think the contrast in the way this language is used in times of controversy and the blasé way we typically use these items is also worth calling attention to.

As a veteran I spent a lot of years where proper respect for a flag was very important. I have always felt uneasy about the way in which the flag was used in clothing, or the modifications that people felt free to place upon the flag. For example, the blue lives matter flag where a blue bar replaces one of the red bars in the flag, or there is a person in my neighborhood who flies an American flag with the “don’t tread on me” snake emblem placed on top of it. These are all things that are improper (not to mention wearing the flag as clothing, as a bag or bandanna or many other ways it is frequently used) within the code that I had to learn as a soldier. I understand that for many people who may either be primarily secularist or for whom their Christianity is a subset of their patriotism (which one should wonder then, is it really Christianity, but I digress) references to the flag as holy or sacred or to patriotic acts as taking on these same meaning may be a part of their ‘faith.’ Yet, I am puzzled by the way in which people will take one type of ‘disrespect of the flag’ as patriotic and the protests on Sunday are somehow unpatriotic. I know these are emotional issues but we also need to acknowledge that sometimes our emotions are being played to let one thing be ok and another not.

Yet, for the Hebrew Scriptures that which is holy or sacred is used only for holy and sacred purposes. The incense or anointing oil is not to be imitated for secular use. The penalty for misusing sacred things for secular purposes is being cut off from the people. We live in a secular society where certain rights, particularly the right of free speech, are highlighted as values to be protected. One can value something secular or feel that a secular ritual to invest things like anthems or flags with religious language and fervor is a short step away from the worship of the gods of a land or nation.

Exodus 29: Ordination and Offerings

Michael Schmitt, the High Priest Aaron (1912)


Exodus 29: 1-37 Consecration and Ordination

Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests. Take one young bull and two rams without blemish, 2 and unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil. You shall make them of choice wheat flour. 3 You shall put them in one basket and bring them in the basket, and bring the bull and the two rams. 4 You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and wash them with water. 5 Then you shall take the vestments, and put on Aaron the tunic and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and gird him with the decorated band of the ephod; 6 and you shall set the turban on his head, and put the holy diadem on the turban. 7 You shall take the anointing oil, and pour it on his head and anoint him. 8 Then you shall bring his sons, and put tunics on them, 9 and you shall gird them with sashes1 and tie headdresses on them; and the priesthood shall be theirs by a perpetual ordinance. You shall then ordain Aaron and his sons.

 10 You shall bring the bull in front of the tent of meeting. Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the bull, 11 and you shall slaughter the bull before the LORD, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, 12 and shall take some of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and all the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar. 13 You shall take all the fat that covers the entrails, and the appendage of the liver, and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, and turn them into smoke on the altar. 14 But the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.

 15 Then you shall take one of the rams, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, 16 and you shall slaughter the ram, and shall take its blood and dash it against all sides of the altar. 17 Then you shall cut the ram into its parts, and wash its entrails and its legs, and put them with its parts and its head, 18 and turn the whole ram into smoke on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the LORD; it is a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD.

 19 You shall take the other ram; and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, 20 and you shall slaughter the ram, and take some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear and on the lobes of the right ears of his sons, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet, and dash the rest of the blood against all sides of the altar. 21 Then you shall take some of the blood that is on the altar, and some of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his vestments and on his sons and his sons’ vestments with him; then he and his vestments shall be holy, as well as his sons and his sons’ vestments.

 22 You shall also take the fat of the ram, the fat tail, the fat that covers the entrails, the appendage of the liver, the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, and the right thigh (for it is a ram of ordination), 23 and one loaf of bread, one cake of bread made with oil, and one wafer, out of the basket of unleavened bread that is before the LORD; 24 and you shall place all these on the palms of Aaron and on the palms of his sons, and raise them as an elevation offering before the LORD. 25 Then you shall take them from their hands, and turn them into smoke on the altar on top of the burnt offering of pleasing odor before the LORD; it is an offering by fire to the LORD.

 26 You shall take the breast of the ram of Aaron’s ordination and raise it as an elevation offering before the LORD; and it shall be your portion. 27 You shall consecrate the breast that was raised as an elevation offering and the thigh that was raised as an elevation offering from the ram of ordination, from that which belonged to Aaron and his sons. 28 These things shall be a perpetual ordinance for Aaron and his sons from the Israelites, for this is an offering; and it shall be an offering by the Israelites from their sacrifice of offerings of well-being, their offering to the LORD.

 29 The sacred vestments of Aaron shall be passed on to his sons after him; they shall be anointed in them and ordained in them. 30 The son who is priest in his place shall wear them seven days, when he comes into the tent of meeting to minister in the holy place.

 31 You shall take the ram of ordination, and boil its flesh in a holy place; 32 and Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram and the bread that is in the basket, at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 33 They themselves shall eat the food by which atonement is made, to ordain and consecrate them, but no one else shall eat of them, because they are holy. 34 If any of the flesh for the ordination, or of the bread, remains until the morning, then you shall burn the remainder with fire; it shall not be eaten, because it is holy.

 35 Thus you shall do to Aaron and to his sons, just as I have commanded you; through seven days you shall ordain them. 36 Also every day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement. Also you shall offer a sin offering for the altar, when you make atonement for it, and shall anoint it, to consecrate it. 37 Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar, and consecrate it, and the altar shall be most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become holy.

The week that I am thinking about these texts I have also been preparing to preside at an installation service for a new pastor in my conference. For a modern ordination, at least in the Christian tradition, is far less elaborate than the ritual that is described here. This is a public rite that lasts for seven days as Aaron and his sons are set aside for the ministry in the tabernacle. Not only are there special garments that are prepared (previous chapter) and the tabernacle itself with all its furnishings (chapters 25, 26 and 27) but now the people, vestments and furnishings must be set aside for the ministry in the tabernacle.

As I mentioned in the previous chapter when discussing the vestments, this process of setting aside Aaron and his sons for the priesthood and the elaborate preparation and consecration become a new beginning after Aaron’s incident with the golden calf. The rite of setting aside Aaron and his sons grants them a new start so that they might be holy before the LORD and continue to offer up the sacrifices that the people might be holy.

The community offers up the produce of their fields and flocks as gifts that are used to be a part of the service. There are three specific offerings lifted up: a sin offering, a burnt offering and an offering of ordination. The bull becomes the sin offering and is the first one offered. Ritually the sins of Aaron and his sons are laid on the head of the bull and then the bull is killed and consumed partially by fire and partially is left outside of the camp. This offering becomes a place where Moses symbolically acts as a priest for Aaron and his sons and acts as an intercessor between them and God, just as they will later act as intercessors between the people and God. The first ram is also consumed by the fire and as a burnt offering is to be pleasing to the LORD while the final ram has a portion set aside for Aaron and his sons to eat.

The ritual use of the blood of an animal may seem abhorrent to us today but was very normal in ancient times. When most of our meat comes shrink wrapped in a grocery store we may find it unimaginable to have blood sprinkled on us or place on our ear lobe or poured out on the altar, but in the ancient world this was life paying for life. The blood was never to be consumed by the Hebrew people, it was always poured out for God for that was where the life was believed to reside. Here the life of animals are used as a way to set aside these people as priests for their service to the LORD.

Exodus 29: 38-46 Offerings and the Presence of God

 38 Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old regularly each day. 39 One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening; 40 and with the first lamb one-tenth of a measure of choice flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering. 41 And the other lamb you shall offer in the evening, and shall offer with it a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD. 42 It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43 I will meet with the Israelites there, and it shall be sanctified by my glory; 44 I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priests. 45 I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. 46 And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God.

Scholars may disagree on what the exact reason sacrifice was so prevalent in ancient cultures and there may have been a multitude of understandings among different cultures about sacrifice and its meaning. Yet, every religion has some manner in which the best one has (and in an agricultural culture this is the produce of the fields and the animals of the herd) and committing it to the LORD. Perhaps some understood this as a way of feeding or appeasing their gods, others may have seen it as a demonstration of their dedication to the deity they worshipped or a way of currying favor with their god. Yet, for the Hebrew people there is also the understanding that these are also ways of demonstrating their continued obedience to the God they believe travels with them each day. The tabernacle becomes a place where God’s presence will dwell among the people and the priestly actions become ways in which they mediate between the holy God and the people who are also set aside to be holy but the continual action of the priests. Just as Aaron and his sons will be consecrated, now their perpetual action becomes a way of consecrating the people as a priestly nation.


Exodus 28: The Vestments for the Priesthood of Aaron and his Descendants

Michael Schmitt, the High Priest Aaron (1912)

Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests — Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 2 You shall make sacred vestments for the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron. 3 And you shall speak to all who have ability, whom I have endowed with skill, that they make Aaron’s vestments to consecrate him for my priesthood. 4 These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a checkered tunic, a turban, and a sash. When they make these sacred vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests, 5 they shall use gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen.

 6 They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, skillfully worked. 7 It shall have two shoulder-pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together. 8 The decorated band on it shall be of the same workmanship and materials, of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. 9 You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, 10 six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. 11 As a gem-cutter engraves signets, so you shall engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel; you shall mount them in settings of gold filigree. 12 You shall set the two stones on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance. 13 You shall make settings of gold filigree, 14 and two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall attach the corded chains to the settings.

 15 You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work; you shall make it in the style of the ephod; of gold, of blue and purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen you shall make it. 16 It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. 17 You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of carnelian,1 chrysolite, and emerald shall be the first row; 18 and the second row a turquoise, a sapphire1 and a moonstone; 19 and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; 20 and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper; they shall be set in gold filigree. 21 There shall be twelve stones with names corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. 22 You shall make for the breastpiece chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; 23 and you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece. 24 You shall put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece; 25 the two ends of the two cords you shall attach to the two settings, and so attach it in front to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod. 26 You shall make two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. 27 You shall make two rings of gold, and attach them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder-pieces of the ephod, at its joining above the decorated band of the ephod. 28 The breastpiece shall be bound by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a blue cord, so that it may lie on the decorated band of the ephod, and so that the breastpiece shall not come loose from the ephod. 29 So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart when he goes into the holy place, for a continual remembrance before the LORD. 30 In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the LORD continually.

 31 You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. 32 It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a coat of mail, so that it may not be torn.  33 On its lower hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the lower hem, with bells of gold between them all around —34 a golden bell and a pomegranate alternating all around the lower hem of the robe. 35 Aaron shall wear it when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the LORD, and when he comes out, so that he may not die.

 36 You shall make a rosette of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the LORD.” 37 You shall fasten it on the turban with a blue cord; it shall be on the front of the turban. 38 It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take on himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering that the Israelites consecrate as their sacred donations; it shall always be on his forehead, in order that they may find favor before the LORD.

 39 You shall make the checkered tunic of fine linen, and you shall make a turban of fine linen, and you shall make a sash embroidered with needlework.

 40 For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics and sashes and headdresses; you shall make them for their glorious adornment. 41 You shall put them on your brother Aaron, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests.42 You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh; they shall reach from the hips to the thighs; 43 Aaron and his sons shall wear them when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; or they will bring guilt on themselves and die. This shall be a perpetual ordinance for him and for his descendants after him.

In North Africa during the 4th Century there was a schism that emerged within Christianity known as Donatism. In a time where Christians were no longer a persecuted church there were many individuals both lay and clergy who had, under persecution, denounced their faith while others had been imprisoned or martyred. The Donatists felt that clergy especially needed to be without fault for their ministry to be effective. For the Donatists, clergy who had denied their faith were unable to serve as a pastor. The conflict centered on whether it was the person or the office that made the ministrations of the priest effective and while the early Catholic church decided on the office of priesthood making the ministrations effective and not the character of the priest there are Donatists of every age who want to make priests into prophets, yet here in Exodus we have the setting aside of Aaron and his sons for the ministry of priesthood directly before Aaron fails dramatically in what his role will be.

Moses and the prophets who come after him will not have the vestments, ephods, breastplates, headpieces and all the elaborate garments that Aaron and his sons will have crafted for them as they fulfill their role within the tabernacle on behalf of the people of Israel. The type of relationship that Moses and other prophets have with the LORD will be rare, and yet there is a need for people to lead the community in worship. The clothing they wear sets them apart from everyone else, they are robed more richly than even kings would be, their garments are of incredible detail and workmanship and full of symbolism as they represent the people before their God. Aaron and his sons will not be perfect and yet they are to represent and bear the judgment of the people of Israel before God. The ephod and the breastplate also seem to have some functional role within the worship and the discernment of the will for the people of God.

On both the ephod and the breastplate there is the continual representation of the entire people before the LORD as the priest ministers. The priest acts not on their own behalf but on behalf of the entire people they intercede for. The engraved stones serve as a reminder for the priest, the people and for God of identity of the people in relation to God. The priest intercedes for the priestly kingdom. The precious stones remind us these tribes are God’s treasured possession. even though Aaron and his descendants will be consecrated to be holy to the LORD, the headband reminds both the LORD and the people that they are by extension ‘holy to the LORD.’

There is danger in the priestly role as well, for the priest intercedes for the people and must approach the holiest of spaces. Within the garments there are safeguards to protect the priest, bells sewn onto the robe that would ring as the priest approached the holiest of spaces and the undergarment to prevent the priest from accidentally exposing himself in the presence of God and the holiest items in the tabernacle.

Even though I come out of a liturgical tradition I don’t cling to the symbols of office the way that some pastors and priests do. Perhaps it is an arrogance on my part to not feel the need to be set apart by vestments that are a symbol of my office or simply comfort within my role. Yet, I do see the value in these vestments or symbols that let others know who I am and what my role is. I serve in the capacity I do not because of my own perfection or because I have lived a spotless life but simply because I trust that God and the community has called me. On behalf of the community I do serve in the capacities as priest/pastor and sometimes prophet. Clothes may not make the man (or woman) but sometimes they do grant them some of the power of the office to which they have been called.

Exodus 27: The Court of the Tabernacle and the Altar

Erection of the Tabernacle and Sacred Vessels by Gerard Hoet (1728)

Exodus 27: 1-8 The Altar

You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide; the altar shall be square, and it shall be three cubits high. 2 You shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. 3 You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and firepans; you shall make all its utensils of bronze. 4 You shall also make for it a grating, a network of bronze; and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. 5 You shall set it under the ledge of the altar so that the net shall extend halfway down the altar. 6 You shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze; 7 the poles shall be put through the rings, so that the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. 8 You shall make it hollow, with boards. They shall be made just as you were shown on the mountain.

Most people assume that the sacrificial rites were at the center of the religion of the ancient Jewish people, yet this assumption is incorrect. The altar for sacrifice is placed outside of the tabernacle itself in the court of the tabernacle. The altar is made out of lesser materials than the materials used for the ark of the covenant and the lampstand and the table where the bread of the presence is placed. Instead of gold, bronze is used to overlay the acacia table and poles that make up the altar. The sacrifice is done in that space between the holy place of the tabernacle and the common space where the people live, work and worship.

The altar itself is massive, roughly seven and a half feet square and four and a half feet tall. It is also a significant departure from the low stone or earth altars discussed earlier in Exodus. Also at four and a half feet tall the priest would need some type of stair or pedestal to stand upon to be able to use the altar. This new altar is a departure from the open, simple and very modest temporary altars. Yet, it is also very functional for use with larger animals and for regular use. Perhaps the altar was placed closer to the front of the court of the tabernacle so that the priest when he ascended the stairs would be facing away from the tabernacle and not have to worry about exposing himself when climbing the stairs.

As a Christian, I also think this provokes some interesting thoughts about the way in which we arrange things in our worship spaces. Many traditions will call the fixture in the front of their worship space an altar, and particularly for a Catholic perspective where they can talk about the sacrifice of the mass this makes sense. From a Lutheran perspective, we may officially call the fixture a table but many people still consider it an altar even though we have a different perspective on exactly what communion is and what it is for. Many older churches have this table or altar pushed against the back wall there the pastor or priest faces away from the people (and presumably toward God) but most newer church buildings place the altar away from the wall and the pastor/priest faces the people. The architecture and where the pastor/priest faces makes a theological point about the character of worship and who the act is for. From a Lutheran perspective, the act of communion is primarily for the people, and for the ancient Jewish people there is a part of the sacrificial act which is for the people since much of the sacrifice was not burned up but eaten by the family or the priests. From a Catholic perspective, the sacrifice is offered up before God as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, and from the ancient Jewish perspective there is also the element of the sacrifice raising up a pleasing odor to God. Ultimately all of these traditions attempt to give glory and offer up their best to the God they attempt to serve faithfully.


Exodus 27: 9-19 The Court of the Tabernacle

9 You shall make the court of the tabernacle. On the south side the court shall have hangings of fine twisted linen one hundred cubits long for that side; 10 its twenty pillars and their twenty bases shall be of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands shall be of silver. 11 Likewise for its length on the north side there shall be hangings one hundred cubits long, their pillars twenty and their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands shall be of silver. 12 For the width of the court on the west side there shall be fifty cubits of hangings, with ten pillars and ten bases. 13 The width of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. 14 There shall be fifteen cubits of hangings on the one side, with three pillars and three bases. 15 There shall be fifteen cubits of hangings on the other side, with three pillars and three bases. 16 For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework; it shall have four pillars and with them four bases. 17 All the pillars around the court shall be banded with silver; their hooks shall be of silver, and their bases of bronze. 18 The length of the court shall be one hundred cubits, the width fifty, and the height five cubits, with hangings of fine twisted linen and bases of bronze. 19 All the utensils of the tabernacle for every use, and all its pegs and all the pegs of the court, shall be of bronze.

Over the past couple years, I have learned a lot about church design because I was involved with planning, and now executing an expansion to the congregation I serve. There is a lot of work and planning that goes into utilizing the resources that people commit to the church and to attempting to design space faithfully. One thing I have learned that designing sanctuary space or holy space is much more expensive than designing office space or fellowship space. Holy space attempts to communicate something of a connection to God and it frequently uses various types of precious things: metalwork, art, stained glass, high ceilings or large windows. Typically, when you build a church these are the first things that you design and build since they serve the central functions of worship where the other spaces serve a supporting function. That doesn’t mean these other spaces are unimportant but for religious spaces the highlight of their function is for worship and the most precious resources go into those places. The design of the tabernacle reflects this. The tabernacle itself uses primarily gold and gold overlaid pieces of furniture, clasps, and utensils. For the court, the primary metals used becomes bronze and silver.

The tabernacle’s walls are twice the height of the court’s walls and would be seen from the exterior of the structure, and yet this courtyard does provide a buffer between the holiest place of the tabernacle and the mundane place where the people live. It is an open-air area which is very common in ancient dwellings and temples since much of the activity would be outside. The court of the tabernacle is larger, roughly 150 feet by 75 feet, than the tabernacle but still not a huge space by modern standards of building. Yet, the structure is primarily a place where the priests would be and not the people, like in modern worship spaces, and the structure had to be portable so that also puts a severe limit on the size of the structure.

Exodus 27: 20-21 The Lamp

20 You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. 21 In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant,1 Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by the Israelites.

An olive oil lamp that is to be tended by the priests is to provide light outside the tent of the tabernacle perpetually burning during the night, or perhaps perpetually depending on how the translation is rendered. Either way the lampstand outlined previously now is given its function and a part of the role of Aaron and his sons is to maintain this light and keep the lampstand burning. In many churches, they keep perpetual candles going as a symbol of the presence of God or as a reminder of the eternal light of God. Most of these in modern churches are long burning candles that are replaced regularly rather than an oil lamp, but the distinctive lampstand becomes an important symbol for the Jewish people as discussed in Exodus 25: 23-40.