We draw near the end of Yahweh’s first of seven speeches to Moses with instructions for his dwelling place amid the Israelites. We’ve had architectural instructions and ceremonial instructions. What remains to be done?
Observation of Exodus 30:1-38
Most repeated words: make (17 times), Lord (13x), offering (11), holy (10), not (8), when (8), give (7), incense (7), meet/meeting (7), shekel (7)
- no clear patterns or categories stand out on the list this time
Yahweh’s first speech (begun in Ex 25:1) ends with the paragraph about the incense altar (Ex 30:1-10).
- If I allow familiarity, or the sheer detail of Exodus 25-30, to glaze my eyes over, I’ll miss the crucial observation in Ex 30:11 (“Yahweh said to Moses”) that distinguishes the speeches.
- The altar is made from wood covered in gold (Ex 30:1-3), a square shape if looking down from above.
- Like the rest of the furniture, it has rings and wood poles covered in gold, to make it portable (Ex 30:4-5).
- Its location will be “in front of the veil,” which is both “above the ark” and “in front of the mercy seat” (Ex 30:6).
- Aaron is to burn incense on it every morning and evening (Ex 30:7-8).
- The incense must be made from the authorized recipe. No animal, grain, or liquid offerings are to be burned here (Ex 30:9).
- Aaron is to make atonement for this altar annually so it will be most holy to Yahweh (Ex 30:10).
The second speech covers the census tax (Ex 30:11-16).
- Any numbering of the people must include payment of a ransom to avoid a plague (Ex 30:11-14).
- The tax is no respecter of persons, and it provides atonement (Ex 30:15).
- This atonement money supports the tabernacle’s activities and makes atonement for the populace (Ex 30:16).
Yahweh’s third speech describes the bronze washbasin (Ex 30:17-21).
- It goes outside, so priests can wash their hands (Ex 30:17-19).
- Twice, we’re told their washing will prevent their death (Ex 30:20-21).
Yahweh’s fourth speech describes the anointing oil (Ex 30:22-33).
- Yahweh wants not just any oil, but a specific recipe (Ex 30:22-25).
- This oil should be poured over both furniture (Ex 30:26-29) and priests (Ex 30:30).
- This special oil must not be used on ordinary people nor for ordinary purposes (Ex 30:31-33).
Yahweh’s fifth speech describes the incense to be burned (Ex 30:34-38).
- Another unique recipe, to be kept inside, “before the testimony,” presumably next to or near the incense altar (Ex 30:34-36).
- As with the anointing oil, the incense must not be used for any other purpose but this “most holy” one (Ex 30:37-38).
Interpretation of Exodus 30:1-38
Some possible questions:
- Why do we return to another piece of furniture inside the tent?
- What does it mean for the incense altar (Ex 30:10) and the people’s lives (Ex 30:15-16) to have atonement?
- Why do the census tax, washbasin, anointing oil, and incense all have their own speeches?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- The first speech covered the structure and furniture (Ex 25:1-27:19) before turning to the priests and their duties (Ex 27:20-30:10). Concluding the speech with the incense altar puts the altar squarely in the priestly section. And the text supports this categorization, as the instructions focus not only on how to build this altar (Ex 30:1-6) but also on how the priests will use it (Ex 30:7-10). The “priestly” section of this long speech began with the priest’s duty to keep the lamps burning every evening (Ex 27:21); it now ends with the duty to burn incense both morning and evening—a task explicitly connected with the corresponding duty to light the lamps (Ex 30:8). I’ll note when we get to chapter 37 that, in the construction work, the incense altar is grouped with the other furniture pieces inside the tent. This shows us that the placement away from those items here—in chapter 30, not in chapter 25—has a purpose. And that purpose is to show how “priestly” this incense altar is. Burning incense produces smoke (which preserves the priest’s life by concealing the ark of the covenant from him on the Day of Atonement—Lev 16:13). This smoky cloud will be kept going both morning and evening, reminding us of another smoky cloud, burning day and night, when God meets with his people. Of course, I refer to the pillar of cloud representing the glory of Yahweh (Ex 13:21-22), which became the glory-cloud on the mountain top (Ex 19:16). The idea now, which concludes Yahweh’s first speech, is that a major role for the priests is to create a replica of Yahweh’s glory-cloud, inside the tent, which can go on the road with the people. This makes the inside of the tent a metaphorical mountain top.
- The word “atonement” is used in Exodus only in chapters 29, 30, and 32. In chapter 29, it referred to what resulted from the animal sacrifices during the priests’ ordination service. The blood was dumped all over the outside altar (Ex 29:12, 16) and then painted on the priests’ right ear lobes, thumbs, and big toes (Ex 29:20) before also being splashed onto the priests’ clothes (Ex 29:21). This ritual connects the priest to the altar, as both are now covered in the blood. All of this is called the “atonement made at their ordination and consecration” (Ex 29:33). So “atonement” has to do with purifying and inaugurating by means of covering. Coming back to chapter 30, then, we see that atonement is made for the incense altar when it is purified by being covered with blood (Ex 30:10)—we see this ritual in action in Leviticus 16:18-19. Similarly, then, the people are atoned for (purified through covering) when they pay the half-shekel ransom for their lives when a census is taken. Without such covering, there cannot be purity. Incidentally, this explains why it was so wrong for King David to number the people, and why a plague results from the numbering, in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. He never collected the half-shekel to ransom their lives and provide atonement for them. Joab even understands that the numbering causes guilt for Israel (1 Chr 21:3), for which they need something to cover them or take their place (1 Chr 21:26-30).
- The Lord clearly wants there to be seven speeches. The third one (washbasin that prevents death) connects with day 3 of creation (waters recede so land can produce life). The fourth speech (oil to inaugurate priestly rulers) corresponds to day 4 of creation (appointing sun, moon, and stars to rule over day and night). Beyond that, I won’t push any potential creation connections too far. We’ll see plenty more in the next chapter. This structure portrays the tabernacle as a new creation.
Train of thought:
- Priests use incense altar to simulate Yahweh’s glory cloud every morning and evening.
- To be purified, God’s people need to be covered by paying a tax.
- Priests washed clean won’t die.
- For the system to work, both furniture and priests need to have the right oil dumped on them.
- To be purified, God’s people need to be covered by paying a tax.
- Proper incense supplies the priestly duties to simulate the glory cloud.
Main point: Yahweh provides every resource required to take his show on the road: purifying both people and priest, so he can be united with them day after day.
Connection to Christ: Jesus purifies his people. He is the great high priest. He does all this by covering them (making atonement for them) with his own blood.
My Application of Exodus 30:1-38
I’ll do more involved application in a few weeks when I wrap up the section of tabernacle instructions. But for now, I am amazed at:
- God’s glory being made (somewhat) accessible.
- Provision of a pure priest.
- Provision of purity for me.
- Covering for all my sin.
- Inclusion and union with this same God through Jesus Christ.
My application is simply: Wow.
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