Exodus 30:34-38 has a fairly neat inclusio at the beginning and end:
A. Yahweh said, v. 34
B. Four spices, equal parts, v. 34
C. Incense, v. 35
D. Holy, v. 35
. . .
D’. Most holy, v. 36
C’. Incense, v. 37
B’. Not in same measure, v. 37
A’. Holy for Yahweh, v. 37
Two sections lie outside this structure. One is the central command of this section: “put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I will meet with you” (v. 36). The other concludes the passage, a negative command prohibiting the use of this mixture in any profane setting (v. 38). This incense is burned at the one place where Yahweh meets with his people.
“Spice” in v. 34 translates the Hebrew sam, which is often as an adjective, “fragrant” or “sweet,” to modify “incense” (cf. Exodus 25:6; 30:7). In Exodus 30:34, it is used absolutely: Yahweh tells Moses to mix three kinds of fragrances with frankincense (samim is used twice in v. 23: “Take for yourself fragrances . . . fragrances and frankincense,” thus distinguishing frankincense from the others three). As noun or adjective, sam is used twelve times in Exodus, a hint that the twelve tribes are themselves fragrances set before Yahweh.
The specific fragrances are impossible to identify. Two of them are used only here, and the third, state (nasaph) is used only once elsewhere. The numerology seems to be more important than the specific ingredients. Four components are listed, in equal parts (“each with each shall be”), and four is the number of earthly and cosmic space - the “four corners of earth” and the “four winds of heaven.” A total of seven words are used in the list: fragrances, stacte, onycha, galbanum, fragrances, frankincense, pure. And seven is, of course, the number of cosmic time. The making of incense is the making of a world, and the making of a world is the making of a fragrant thing. As the 4 x 7 incense exists to be burned as a sweet aroma to Yahweh, so the 4 x 7 world is turned into aromatic glory by the fire of the Spirit.
Of the components of the incense, only frankincense (lebonah) is found in other parts of the Old Testament. The name itself suggests purity (laban is “white”) and the mountain forests of Lebanon. Frankincense is added to all tribute offerings (Leviticus 2:1-2, 15-16) and placed on top of each stack of showbread (Leviticus 24:7). The latter confirms an association between incense and Israel, since there is frankincense on each of the twelve loaves on the golden table. In the Song of Songs, Solomon’s traveling couch comes from the wilderness perfumed with myrrh and frankincense (Song of Songs 3:6), like the tabernacle itself ascending to the land, and the trysting place of the lovers is a mountain of myrrh and frankincense (Song of Songs 4:6), a spiced garden of eros (Song of Songs 4:14-16). Frankincense is one of the treasures brought to Zion by the nations (Isaiah 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20) and by worshipers on pilgrimage (Jeremiah 17:26). Frankincense in the tabernacle marks it as the bower of Yahweh where He meets with His Bride. The temple turns Moriah into a mountain of frankincense and spices, a giant altar burning with sweet fragrances that ascend to heaven.
The Hebrew word for incense is qetoret, from qatar, “to turn to smoke,” the normal verb for sacrificial burning (as opposed to saraph). Different parts of a sacrificial animal are used in different ways - some turned to smoke on the altar, some eaten, some burned outside the camp. Incense is pure potential burningness; it exists only to be translated into smoke. It’s made of fragrants in order to be transformed to fragrant smoke. Fragrant smoke arises from the golden altar continuously (Exodus 30:1, 7-9), making the tabernacle a tent of sweet burning. The theology of incense is rooted in a theology of glory. Incense is potential glory-cloud; burned, it produces a replica of the dense cloud of Yahweh’s presence. Incense is burned continuously on the golden altar as a sign that, even when invisible, the cloud fills the house. Incense produces a cloud “before the testimony” (Exodus 30:36), as the glory cloud hovers above the testimony.
This is why incense marks the place of Yahweh’s meeting with his people (Exodus 30:36). It’s burned “in the tent of meeting (‘ohel mo’ed) where Yahweh promises to meet (‘ivva’ed, from ya’ad, root of mo’ed). The tabernacle is a tent of appointment, where Yahweh promises to be present to His people. To say the same thing, the tabernacle is a tent of incense. The link between incense and encounter is expressed in the Psalms, where incense is a symbol of prayer (Psalm 141:2). The theology of glory and the theology of prayer should be thought through together. In the tabernacle system, prayer isn’t a practice of throwing words to a distant God. Rather, prayer is an echo of Yahweh’s presence. In prayer, Yahweh’s descending glory meets with the ascending glory of incense. Cloud meets cloud, glory encounters glory.
Prayer is incense in another sense too. When plague breaks out among the Israelites, Aaron offers incense in a censer to protect from Yahweh’s wrath (Numbers 16:41-50). Similarly, on the day of atonement, the high priest offers incense before he enters the Most Holy Place before the ark (Leviticus 16:12-13). Incense creates a smoke screen, a protective barrier between Yahweh and His people. Once again, the theology of glory is at the root. When Yahweh sees evil, He’s roused to wrath; when the priest produces the image of His glory, He is satisfied and forgives. In the new covenant, incense is, like sacrifice, is humanized. We form the screen of glory that turns Yahweh from His wrath.
The tabernacle incense is “measured” (bematkuntah, “according to measure,” Exodus 30:37), and so, like all measured things, “holy” (qodesh is repeated four times, 30:35, 36 [2x], 37). In fact, it’s “most holy” (v. 36), which means it is exclusively Yahweh’s, like the most holy furniture and the most holy place and most holy food. For that reason, no one is allowed to make incense of the same proportions for use outside the sanctuary (30:38). As with the anointing oil (30:33), anyone who makes the same incense for other sues is cut off from Israel (30:38). Yahweh makes human beings to be makers, but our making has to conform to God’s word, which sometimes commands, “Do not make.”
Exodus 30:34-38 is the fifth of the seven speeches in Exodus 25-31, thus linking it with the fifth day of the creation account. On Day 5, Yahweh speaks to make the waters teem with living souls (nephesh chayyah, Genesis 1:20) and creates the great sea monsters (1:21). He also makes birds appear above the earth on the face of the firmament (1:20). Day 5 sees the first souls, and is also the first of three days when Yahweh blesses creatures (1:22; cf. 1:28; 2:3). The analogy with incense seems to be visual. As fish and birds “teem” in giant, shifting clouds, so incense forms a thick, aromatic cloud above the altar. Schools of fish and flocks of birds are also created replicas of Yahweh’s glory.
Perhaps, though, there’s a more subtle analogy. Day 5 links the three zones of creation: Fish teem in the sea, birds fly above and multiply on earth, and birds fly across the face of the firmament. It’s possible that some of the components of incense come from aquatic animals (shechelet, “onycha,” may come from shells). Spices from sea and land are combined and burned, and ascend to heaven. Incense thus portrays the destiny of creation: Everything in sea, earth, and heaven is destined to be transformed in the fire of the Spirit to become a fragrant aroma, the aroma of Christ, to the Father.
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