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.