Exodus 25:1-30:10 is one long speech from Yahweh. It begins “Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying. . . .”; Exodus 30:11 repeats that line, beginning the second of seven speeches about the tabernacle design. As I’ve noted before, the placement of the instructions for the altar of incense is odd. The other furnishings of the tent - ark, table, lampstand - are described in Exodus 25. Then the text moves to a lengthy description of the curtains and frame of the tabernacle (Exodus 25–27) and the priestly garments and ordination (Exodus 28–29) before returning to the furnishings, picking up one last stray item, the incense altar.
The oddity can be relieved by noting the parallels between the arrangement of this first speech and the seven speeches. The seven speeches follow the sequence of the days of creation. And, roughly speaking, so does the first speech. The table with its showbread fits into the Day 3 slot, when grasses and grains sprang from the earth. The lampstand constellation is in the Day 4 slot, matching the creation of the heavenly lights. Priests are created in the Day 6 section. If the pattern holds, the incense altar is a Sabbath item.
That relieves some oddity, but perhaps only creates another oddity: What hath incense to do with Sabbath? Before attempting to answer that question, let’s look at Exodus 30:1-10 in more detail.
Two observations about the arrangement of this portion of Exodus. First, it has several distinct sections, perhaps seven:
1. Construction of the altar (materials, size, shape), 30:1-3
2. Rings and poles, 3:4-5
3. Placement of the altar, 3:6
4. Incense morning and evening, 3:7-8
5. Prohibition of strange incense, 3:9
6. Day of atonement, 3:10a
7. Most holy to Yahweh, 3:10b
Second, that arrangement hints that the altar is a microcosm within the microcosmic tabernacle. That’s certainly the case with the ark of the covenant, which has three sections that correspond to the three stories of God’s created house:
1. Ark/coffer = earth
2. Cover = firmament
3. Cherubim and glory = heaven
The altar seems to have a similar structure:
1. Horns and top = heaven
2. Molding and rings = firmament
3. Below molding = earth
This is also the structure of Sinai, the holy mountain; the incense altar is a teeny Sinai within the portable Sinai-tent (and has a cloud at the top, just like the original Sinai). And the microcosm/holy mountain connection also makes the altar humaniform: The priest is an incense altar, connecting earth and heaven. This comes to fruition on Pentecost, when those who receive the Spirit are crowned with fire so they can burn with the fragrance of Christ.
I’ve discussed the significance of the rings and bars before (here). The description of the incense altar emphasizes the horns (vv. 2, 3, 10). Like the rest of the wooden altar, the horns are covered with gold. They are the peaks of the miniature holy mountain, the dazzling glory of the priest who enters the presence of Yahweh (horned like Moses). They’re emphasized here as the target for the blood on the day of atonement (v. 10). Here in Exodus 30, atonement isn’t made for the tabernacle or for Israel; Atonement is made “on the horns” of the golden altar. The altar is the highest place of normal priestly ministry, and that connecting point especially needs to be covered and kept clean.
The nearness of this altar to the presence of God is reinforced by its placement before the veil that screens the holy place from the most holy place. The phrasing of 30:6 (“in front of the veil that is near the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with you”) resembles the description of the ark itself (“you shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony. . . And there I will meet with you,” 25:21-22). Altar and ark are linked. Incense is the means for overcoming the gap between them; incense is the means for passing through the veil into the presence of the glory.
The altar is also linked with the lampstand. Each morning and evening when the priest enters the holy place to trim the wicks of the lamps, he is also to offer incense on the altar. The morning-evening pattern connects the sacrifices on the outer altar with the incense on the interior altar. Slaughtered animals enter the Lord’s presence only when the smoke of their burning is mixed with the smoke of the incense. Perhaps we have a portrait here of sacrifice offered in the Spirit of prayer; or perhaps the link of the two altars anticipates Hebrews’s claim that Jesus offered Himself to the Father through the Spirit. Morning-evening also, of course, takes us back to the creation week. Within the tabernacle, at the altar, the priest carries out the continuous work of creating and maintaining creation.
Verse 10 is the Bible’s first (oblique) reference to an annual day of atonement. This is what the golden altar is for: To receive the blood of the sin offering brought before Yahweh on the day of atonement. And this perhaps explains the Sabbath placement of this section. The day of atonement was a Sabbath event, a day of rest but also a day of rest-bringing, when Yahweh Himself shouldered the burdens of Israel. Since the altar is the target of atoning rites, all the ministry of the altar has some connection to that atonement. The daily offering of incense maintains a kind of continuous Sabbath within the tabernacle, a continuous sweet savor before Yahweh, who responds with the gift of rest.
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