Water of Life
December 7, 2020

Exodus 30:18-21 is the third of Yahweh’s seven speeches prescribing the form and furnishings of the tabernacle. It describes the laver placed in the court of the tabernacle, and corresponds neatly to the third day of the creation week, when the Lord separated the waters of the earth to allow dry land to emerge. 

Exodus 30:18-21 is a repetitive little section, using the root for “wash” four times, “water” twice, “hands and feet” twice, and “lest they die” twice. Within a frame that describes the material and placement of the laver (30:18a) and a declaration that it’s a “perpetual statute” (30:21b) is nestled a little knotted chiasm:

A. Make laver for washing (rachatz), 30:18a

B. Put (natan, “give”) it between the tent and altar, 30:18b

C. Put (natan, “give”) water in it, 30:18c

D. Aaron and sons shall wash (rachatz) hands and feet, 30:19

E. When they enter tent, 30:20a

F. they shall wash (rachatz) with water that they might not die, 30:20b

E’. or when they approach the altar, 30:20c

D’. They shall wash (rachatz) hands and feet, that they might not die, 30:21a

G. A perpetual statute, 30:21b

Note the repetitions in the chiastic portion of the passage: D, F, and D’ all use “wash”; D and D’ refer to “hands and feet”; E and E’ describe the places the priests approach or enter; D’ picks up the warning “that they might not die” that is first introduced in F. 

The laver is the last piece of furniture mentioned in Exodus 25-31:

1. Ark, 25:10-22

2. Table, 25:23-30

3. Lampstand, 25:31-40

4. Bronze altar, 27:1-8

5. Golden altar, 30:1-10

6. Laver, 30:17-21

Overall, this moves from the Most Holy Place outward to the court. The altars are not where we expect them to be. If the order were merely spatial, the golden altar would be before the bronze altar. But the text moves all the way to the courtyard (bronze altar) then doubles back to the Holy Place (golden altar) before moving out to the court again (laver). 

When we examine the arrangement with reference to cardinal directions, we have this: West, north, south, east. The ark and the bronze altar are at the extremities of the west-east axis. The final two items on the list move west to east, but within the extremities; the golden altar is the furthest east other than the ark, and the laver is the furthest west besides the altar (“between the tent and the altar”). That suggests some analogy between the golden altar and the laver. Perhaps the logic is this: As the golden altar provides the incense that allows the high priest to approach the ark at the western extreme of the tent, so the laver provides the water for the priests to approach the altar at the eastern extreme of tent.

Another logic also seems to be at work. The tabernacle furniture is described from the holiest to the least holy. The ark is clearly the holiest item in the tent, unapproachable except on the Day of Atonement. The laver is the least holy. Measurement is always a key indicator of sanctity, but we aren’t told the measurements of the laver. There aren’t any warnings about laymen approaching the laver, as there are concerning the bronze altar and the tent. 

The laver (kiyy’or) is a bronze pot containing water that priests use for cleansing as they go about their duties in the court and tent. The same term is used for the ten “basins” that Solomon constructs for the temple (1 Kings 7:27-37). Intriguingly, the word is used in the singular in 2 Kings 16:17, when Ahaz dismantles the stands and removes the “laver” from them. Apparently, the author of Kings considers the laver and the ten basins to be equivalent. The one laver in the tabernacle blossoms into ten in the temple.

But the construction of the laver and the temple basins is very different. The laver is an open container set on a pedestal; it’s a simple item. Solomon’s ten basins, by contrast, are set atop elaborately designed wheeled platforms with panels decorated with cherubim figures, palms, and wreaths. Among other things, the difference has to do with mobility. The tabernacle laver is set in place; the temple water stands probably didn’t actually move, but they’re designed to symbolize movement. The tabernacle laver is a reservoir; the temple basins form a river. In that difference is summarized the difference between the Mosaic and the Davidic order.

According to Exodus 30, the priests wash their hands and feet in the water of the laver. These are two of the appendages consecrated in the ordination rite: Their hands and feet are holy because the blood of the ram of filling was smeared on the right thumb and right big toe. Their hands and feet have to be consecrated in order to walk in holy places and to handle holy things. But holiness has to be maintained. The priests’ feet get dirty from walking; they go barefoot inside the tent (perhaps also in the court), as Moses did before the burning bush, and so need to wash off what Jim Jordan calls the “curse-prosecuting dust.” The ground is cursed “with respect to” man. Because of Adam, the ground becomes death-ground, the dust to which human beings return. Aaron and his sons cannot enter into tabernacle or approach the altar when their feet are covered with death. 

They wash their hands to handle the sacrificial offerings and incense, to trim the wicks of the lamp stand, to change out the showbread on the golden table. Their hands also can become contaminated with dirt, but the priests’ hands would also be bloody from handling sacrifices. Though blood is part of the job, they dare not enter the Lord’s presence with bloody hands.

We know the priests also washed portions of the sacrifice (Leviticus 1:9), but nothing is said about the source of the water. 2 Chronicles 4:6 distinguishes between two water sources in the temple: The ten basins provided water for washing sacrifices, while the priests washed in the water of the bronze sea. It’s likely that the priests used water from the laver to wash sacrifices during the Mosaic era. As the laver proliferated into ten basins, so it expanded and divided into two types of water source - sea and “river.”

A few details are worth noting. First, the laver is set on a base (v. 18), which means that the laver water is elevated (how much, we don’t know). That associates the water of the laver with the heavenly water, and indicates that priests are cleansed by water from above, not the ground waters from below. (Similarly, all the water in the temple is elevated, heavenly water.) The laver forms a kind of watery firmament between the altar-mountain and the heavenly tent. Priest bursts through the firmament every time they enter the tabernacle. Every time they approached the altar, they repeated the exodus by passing through the waters toward Yahweh's holy mountain. Every time they entered the tent, they anticipated the passage through the Jordan into the promised land.

Second, priests wash before entering the tent (v. 20), but the description of the placement of the laver suggests the opposite movement. The laver is placed “between the tent of meeting and the altar” (v. 18), not, as we’d expect, between the altar and the tent of meeting. The description supposes someone exiting rather than entering the tent. Perhaps we’re to conclude that the laver is “given” by Yahweh, who fills it with His heavenly water.

Third, twice the priests are warned to wash “lest they die” (vv. 20, 21). The phrase is reminiscent of the warning to Adam concerning the forbidden fruit. Entering the tent or ascending to the altar without cleansing repeats Adam’s primordial sin of seizing a privilege he’s not been given. The fact that washing protects from death indicates that the cleansing waters are also life-giving waters. Washing permits the priests to serve Yahweh safely in His house and at His table.

Finally, the rituals of the laver have baptismal implications. Priests were washed at their ordination, but they had to maintain their holy status with repeated washings. Baptism, of course, is once-for-all, but there are repeated acts of cleansing in the New Testament; “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Confession and absolution are a renewal of baptism, the new covenant equivalent of washing from the laver. If we don’t confess, dare we enter the Lord’s house and approach His table? We might also infer something about the placement of the baptismal font: As the laver was placed at the entrance of the tent, so the font, representing a rite of entry, is placed at the entry of the church sanctuary.

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