EXODUS 27:20 – 28:12
The tabernacle and its rituals were characterized by costly articles and supplies and symbolic items. The place was designated as otherworldly, beyond normal space. Gold and silver and dyed tapestries lent it an air of royalty. The personnel wore fine garments with symbolic accessories. For their time and by their standards, these were the costliest items of the day, right down to the olive oil burned in the lamps of the menorah, which was of the purest variety.
Even so, this finery falls exceedingly short of the splendor of the divine Glory (the cloud-encased fired and the feeling of awe it induced in all who drew near).
Beauty and wonder are divine qualities placed in this world to lead us to a higher existential plane. We were not made for the mundane world filled with death and characterized by lack and disarray. We sense this in moments of extreme connection with the glory of the natural world or insightful moments when we encounter the depth of the human soul.
God showed Israel in the tabernacle finery a preview of the Olam HaBa, the world to come. It is that world we intuit, the one that glorious sunrises point to, where laughter and joy originate from. All that is good here will be better in the coming world. By elevating the environment in the tabernacle, the priests of Israel created a picture of a better reality.
It’s what we long for. And one day we will know it.
Oil for the Menorah (20-21), overview of high priestly vestments (28:1-5), the ephod of the high priest (6-12).
The oil for the sanctuary menorah is a perpetual due from Israel (though Torah does not say who will provide it). It must be olive oil (as opposed to flax, sesame, or animal fat). It must be clear (zakh), which means high grade free of impurities which cause smoke and odor from the lamps.
Sarna (JPS Commentary) says that this high grade oil is produced in a mortar and pestle as opposed to the olive press, followed by straining (based on the Mishnah and consistent with the Hebrew description of the oil). In ordinary lamps for the home, people would use the lower grade oil (third pressing and later), reserving the first and second pressing for cooking (as they are more flavorful and clear). The requirement of the clearest oil, made by a special process for extra lightness and clarity, is not about functionality, but fits with the theme that only the finest elements are sufficient to be in the presence of the divine Glory.
The Torah gives detailed instructions regarding the garments of the priests and the high priest. There are eight articles of clothing needed for the high priest and the ordinary priests wear four of the same, with slight differences (see vss. 40-42). But rather than fully describing the ordinary priests’ garments, Torah summarizes them in comparison with those of the high priest. The eight vestments are: ephod (6-12), breast-piece (13-30), robe (31-35), the frontlet for the headdress/turban (36-38), the chequered tunic (39), the headdress/turban (39), the sash (39), and linen breeches (42).
Ephod is an unusual word. It comes from a root (afad) meaning “to put on tightly.” It is a sort of apron. In some texts it described a priestly garment and in some it seems to describe a type of idol (see Judg 8:27; 17:5; 18:14, 17). It is likely that the priestly apron, since it was used culturally only for sacred duties, could in and of itself by used as an idol by those who did not comprehend God’s purposes. King David wore a linen ephod (2 Sam 6:14), perhaps not as ornate as the high priest’s, but apparently to signify that he regarded himself as a priest-king (see Psa 110 for a Davidic understanding of the priesthood according to Melchizedek). The high priest’s ephod was linen woven with gold thread and blue, red, and purple yarn. The stone brooches which fastened the apron on the shoulders contained the names of the tribes engraved on lapis lazuli (like epaulets).
Divination. As it was once practiced in the ancient Near East it was an art consisting of two main types of activity: reading omens and using other means to predict future events. One of the forms common at the time involved dissecting and animal and investigating its liver or other internal organs. This was an ancient form of practices better known in modern times, such as reading tea leaves. Tasseography, as it is called, is the practice of foretelling a future event by looking at a seemingly random pattern of a smeared or colored substance.
Another part of divination was keeping careful records of unusual happenings in nature which coincided with major events such as an attack, the birth of a king, or something similar. Omenologists and “wise men” kept logs of natural signs, things such as, a new ant mound built by the city gates a few days before an enemy attack. Astrology, the art of reading the movements of stars and planets, is precisely this kind of divination.
The Bible normally prohibits such acts of divination. Deuteronomy 18:10 says “there shall not be found among you . . . anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens.”
The one exception, apparently, was in God providing the high priest of Israel with the ultimate tool for “divination,” a pouch with two items (perhaps differently colored stones), known as the Urim and Thummim. People could receive answers from God. Most likely the Urim and Thummim were used for judicial cases where a humanly arrived at verdict was difficult of impossible and for imparting other crucial information to the leadership of Israel about matters such as war.
Life is uncertain and mysterious. Don’t we all at times wish we could receive divine answers about which path to choose or how best to proceed in order to build a good future? It is no wonder that omenology was such a major cultural practice then and that it continues, even in our more “scientific” age, to influence us. The thing were are seeking is infallible knowledge, foolproof answers to guide our decisions and to lead us to happiness and success.
For the most part, there are no such answers. God, we trust, has a good future in mind for us, but presently he lets us stumble in the dark. The tools that we have for building a successful future — goodness, wisdom, and hard work — are not immune to chance, disaster, uncertainty, and the harmful results of our own shortcomings. But some of us believe that God will use all those things to bring about a greater good and that there is hope and a future for us in spite of all the hurt and pain.
Frame and chains for breastpiece (13-14), breastpiece of decision (15-21), fastening the breastpiece to the ephod (22-28), purpose of breastpiece (29), Urim and Thummim (30).
The breastpiece (חֹשֶׁן chōshen) on the high priest’s vestments was a woven pouch with a gold frame and twelve stones. The names of the tribes were engraved on them. Inside the pouch were two mysterious items known as the Urim and Thummim (אוּרִים and תֻּמִּים). One theory is that they were stones of the same size and feeling but of different colors. The high priest would receive answers from God by using the stones, for making decisions and knowing truth (see Numb 27:21).
This function of the Urim and Thummim was more important to the operation of the high priesthood and to the Torah’s system of governance than it might appear on the surface. The ability of the high priest to receive divine answers was vital. In Ezra 2:63 (also Neh 7:65), certain priests could not be validated as being of proper genealogy until a priest would arrive from Babylon (from the exile) with Urim and Thummim to verify.
The only other references to Urim and Thummim in Torah are in Leviticus 8:8 and Deuteronomy 33:8. No description of their appearance or the method by which they rendered God’s decisions is mentioned (Sarna, JPS Commentary). King Saul once desired to know the thammim (1 Sam 14:41, a variant spelling of thummim). Many modern translations of 1 Samuel 14:41 choose to follow the Greek version (Septuagin, LXX), which says both Urim and Thummim.
The Urim and Thummim, as with other items of the biblical sanctuary, are an example of a permitted item which is otherwise forbidden. They are for divination (using objects to determine divine thoughts). God gives the power of divination only to one person in Israel, his high priest.
Ordinary priests were garbed in fine tunics with turbans denoting their sacred office. The high priest was appareled in even greater finery. His robe was died blue (תְּכֵלֶת techeilet), a very costly fabric die made at that time from sea snails. He bore on his person several highly symbolic items. There was the ephod (probably an apron) containing the stones (Urim and Thummim) for divining God’s answers in judgments and matters of national importance. The breastplate with its twelve stones and the names of the tribes was on his chest. And on his turban there was a golden frontispiece that said, “Holy to Adonai” (קֹדֶשׁ לַיהוָה qōdesh l’Adonai).
Most unusual in all the decoration, however, were the bells interspersed with yarn pomegranates on the hem of his robe. The high priest would make noise when he moved about. Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) suggests that bells in some cultures may have been apotropaic, intended to ward off evil spirits. But Torah gives a different rationale for the bells on the high priestly robe: “that its sound may be heard in his entering the holy place before Adonai and in his going, that he may not die.”
This is one of two protections against death mentioned with regard to the high priest in the Torah. The other, in Leviticus 16, concerns the requirement to immediately put up a barrier of incense smoke when entering the holy of holies (inner chamber). When coming near the manifestation of God which rested in the tabernacle above the Ark, the high priest was symbolically protected by the sound of bells and a screen of incense. What was he protected from? The fatal presence of the intensity of God’s being.
It is a difficult concept to understand, that encountering God for us might be fatal. Some will imagine this is a sin and judgment issue. God is so angry with human beings for our waywardness, his wrath leaps out against us in judgment. But this seems to go against the entire purpose of God’s Presence being in the tabernacle, which was to dwell among Israel. The danger of nearness to the Presence is a mystery. In some way we cannot understand, we are not ready to be in the Presence. The intensity of his Being is too much for us in this current state of existence where death reigns in the human sphere. Something in our nature will have to be transformed in the future, when death is cast aside, in order for us to be able to bear nearness to his Glory.
Robe (31-35), the frontlet for the headdress/turban (36-38), the checkered tunic (39), the headdress/turban (39), the sash (39), linen breeches (42), requirement of wearing the vestments (43).
The robe (מְעִיל me’eel) is worn under the ephod (apron) and is woven of wool with the color techelet (the unique blue of Israel made from dye derived from snails). Its neck is reinforced, probably with leather as in some Egyptian garments (Sarna, JPS Commentary), which is the meaning of the unusual reference in vs. 32 (“like a coat of mail”). Around its hem are yarn pomegranates alternating with golden bells. The purpose of the bells is so that God will hear the sound. But it is unusual that this is required for the high priest and not ordinary priests (who wear a linen tunic, but not the robe with bells, see vss. 40-42). This has led to speculation that the bells were especially for Yom Kippur when the priest went into the inner sanctuary (this could be the meaning of vs. 35, “when he comes into the sanctuary before Adonai”).
On the high priest’s turban is a golden frontlet (vss. 36-38) inscribed with kodesh l’Adonai (holy to Adonai). Later tradition says the frontlet was two finger-breadths wide and extended from ear to ear (Sarna).
The tunic or kettonet is worn under the robe and is white linen with fringes at the hem (ordinary priests wear one as well).
The turban is white linen and a sash/belt is embroidered and we know from 39:29 it includes red, blue, and purple yarn (Sarna).
Vss. 40-42 explain the four ordinary garments of priests (tunic, sash, turban, breeches) and includes the linen breeches which also complete the eight garments of the high priest. The high priest is covered in gold, blue, red, and purple, while ordinary priests are dressed in white. Vs. 43 probably refers to all the required vestments (but could possibly be specifically about the breeches and a taboo on nakedness in the sanctuary, even nakedness beneath the tunic).
The most personal element of the ritual when an Israelite brought a sacrifice before Adonai at the temple was the leaning of the hand. Before slaughtering the animal while a priest captures the blood in a bowl, the offerer pauses briefly, leaning a hand on the head of the animal. There was no time in and Israelite’s life where a person could be any closer to God than in the act of bringing a sacrifice. The verbs for offering include one meaning “to bring near, to approach.” The offerer literally stood between the altar and the tent, only a short distance from the theophany in the inner room.
This is an expression of intent, communicating that this offering is personal, a gift from the one offering it to God.
On the one hand there is the idea of worship, the mere concept of joining in the procession and the liturgy that is culturally expected and appropriate. On the other, there is the notion of intentional concentration, even if only for a moment, to declare intent and to join in the act of worship immediately and directly. It is saying, “God this is between you and me.”
The universe shrinks down in that moment to a sort of I and Thou (to imitate the expression made famous by Martin Buber). There are moments when it is as if we are alone with God and everything that exists is about us and him, the relationship, the bond between us and our God.
The materials for the installation of the priests (1-3), ceremony of cleansing and anointing and offerings (4-18).
The installation of priests is described here and its fulfillment is recorded in Leviticus 8-9. Strangely, the order of robing is different in Leviticus (Sarna, JPS Commentary). In Exodus 29 the order is tunic, robe, ephod, breastpiece, decorated band of the ephod, turban, and frontlet of the turban. In Leviticus 8 it is tunic, sash, robe, ephod, decorated band of the ephod, breastpiece, turban, and frontlet of the turban. Also, only Aaron’s anointing is prescribed in both places, but we read elsewhere that all priests were anointed and not just the high priest (Sarna, see Exod 28:41; 30:30; 40:14-15; Lev 7:35-36; 10:7; Num 3:3).
Some theorize that there are two contradictory traditions (one in which all priests are anointed and another in which it is only the high priest). Sarna suggests another theory. Only the high priest’s head is anointed. For the other priests, the anointing consists in the sprinkling of anointing oil mixed with blood from the altar as described in Exodus 29:21 and Leviticus 8:30.
In the portion describing the sacrifices, we have the first reference to leaning the hand (laying on of hands) on an animal as part of the ritual (s’michah, which becomes the word for ordination of rabbis in later Judaism). The Torah never specifies a meaning for this leaning of the hand and various theories have been proposed (ownership of the animal, expressing the intent that the animal’s death is a substitute, etc.).
In our modern culture, sacred meals are almost an antiquated or alien idea. In America, the Thanksgiving dinner comes close to being a sacred meal. Those who share it have in common the value of gratitude for life and attend the meal with the intention of keeping tradition and expressing thanks.
In religion, examples of a sacred meal include the Jewish Passover Seder and, in a different sense, the Christian observance of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. At a Passover, attendees have a long ritual to observe, connecting them with thousands of years of history. Some elements of the meal, especially the piece of matzah known as the afikomen, are “sacred,” designated for a special purpose and meaning. On the eve of Passover, for those who observe it, there is a rule that no other food may be eaten after the afikomen until morning.
Christianity has developed from the Passover a ritual involving just the unleavened bread and wine. These elements are treated with special care and are regarded as sacred in various ways, depending on the denomination. Participants view the ingesting of these elements as an act of remembrance and devotion.
The seven day period of ordination and its daily meals in the tabernacle court was covenant ritual. The high priest wore the full vestments for seven days and was sequestered to the courtyard of the tabernacle. Blood from the ordination offering was smeared on the right ear, thumb, and big toe of the high priest and all the other priests going through ordination. The breast and thigh of the ordination sacrifice, along with various grain offerings of bread, were eaten as sacred food. Any leftovers were to be burned, because this food was designated for one purpose only: a covenant meal between God and his priests.
When people made a covenant in ancient times they generally shared a meal. We see a biblical example in Exodus 18:12 when Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, ate a meal with the elders of Israel, expressing his intention of peace and brotherhood with Israel. In the case of the priestly ordination meal, God’s participation is indicated by the place where the meal must be eaten: on the grounds of the tabernacle where the Presence resides. It was as if God himself was going them at the meal.
In the future, the whole earth will be God’s temple, as it says in Zechariah 14:9, “Adonai will be king over all the earth,” and “on that day his Name will be one.” And God will serve a banquet to all people, as it says in Isaiah 25:6, “On this mountain, Adonai, commander of armies, will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine.” And “he will swallow up death forever.”
Continuation of ordination sacrifices (19-26), the right thigh and breast are the eternal due of the priests (27-28), law of succession of the high priestly office (29-30), the priestly covenant meal with God (31-34), seven days of ordination (35-37).
This section completes the ordination ceremony instructions for the priests which is also the subject of Leviticus 8-9. In the previous section, the first two types of sacrifices for the ordination ceremony were covered (the sin or purification offering of one bull in vss. 10-14 and the burnt or whole offering of one ram in vss. 15-18). The third sacrifice of ordination is a ram following the pattern of the wellbeing offering (also known as the peace or fellowship offering).
The blood of this wellbeing offering is rubbed on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe of the priests (symbolic purification of hearing/obedience and doing/walking/serving).
Vss. 27-28 introduce an important part of the priestly income: the right thigh and breast of every peace offering made in Israel. These are the due of the priests for all time.
Vss. 29-30 are about the succession of the high priestly office. On the death of a high priest, the garments of the office pass to one of his sons. He will go through a seven day ordination ceremony like this one, wearing the garments the entire time.
The priests ate the meat of the wellbeing offering (which is boiled, not roasted) in the sanctuary precincts (a holy place). As with all peace offerings, the eating is considered a covenantal meal with God, as in the ancient custom of people eating a meal together when making a covenant. Vss. 35-37 seem to mean that the whole procedure is repeated each day for seven days (Sarna, JPS Commentary).
We call them theophanies. They are appearances of God, something he can do which we cannot, since he is the Omnipresent and no one place can truly contain him. Yet he can cause an appearance, a manifestation, a sort of projection of his Being to materialize in any place.
There are levels of intensity when we are talking about theophanies. We can see this in the experience of the Israelites and especially in comparison with the more acute manifestations experienced by Moses.
All Israel saw the theophany in the pillar of fire encased in cloud (Exod 13:20–21). Sometimes the Glory appeared to the people in other ways, such as showing up in the courtyard of the tabernacle at its inauguration (Lev 9:23–24). The people were able to bear this degree of Glory, though in Leviticus 9 they were frightened and fell on their faces.
Moses clearly saw levels or intensities of Glory beyond what other Israelites could bear. God spoke with him “face to face” (Exod 33:11). Yet Moses asked for a theophany of even greater intensity, “Please, show me your glory” (33:18). The people could not bear even the afterglow of the Glory from Moses’ face, “the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face radiated, and they were afraid to come near him” (Exod 34:30). So Moses would wear a veil until the glow diminished (Exod 34:33–35).
And there were levels which Moses himself could not bear. When the Glory came down and penetrated the tabernacle, into the inner shrine (Holy of Holies), Moses had to leave because he could not bear it (Exod 40:35). In answer to Moses’ prayer to see God’s Glory in Exodus 33:18, God replied, “you cannot see my face, for man cannot see me and live” (Exod 33:20). Elaborate measures were taken to shield Moses from the full intensity: he was hidden in a crack in the rock, God covered the crack with his “hand,” and passed by with his “back” toward Moses (Exod 33:22–23).
Therefore, when we read in Exodus 29:43, “I will meet there with the children of Israel,” that is, in the tabernacle, we are reading about a very intense form of the Presence. “And it [the tabernacle] will be sanctified by my Glory,” God says (also vs. 43).
The tabernacle will be sanctified, נִקְדַּשׁ niqdash. The meaning of religious words, like “holy” or “sacred” or “sanctified,” has almost completely been lost on us, diluted through centuries of impotent religion. God is saying it will become a ground of Otherness, a place unlike any other on earth, as if it were the very home of God. The daily practice of Israel at the shrine will involve continual and frequent purifications.
The concept of “purification” will occupy much of the book of Leviticus. What does it mean if something is pure (also called “clean”) or if something is “impure” (unclean)? How does purification work and why is the agent of purification something as gruesome as blood itself? What causes “impurity”?
For now, Exodus tells us of the morning and evening sacrifice. The first and last offering of the day established a state of purity and maintained it at all times. This was necessary because the God who dwelt here, inside this tent shrine, was none other than “Adonai, their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt in order to abide among them.”
In order to abide among them. This is God’s purpose. In the tabernacle. In the temple. In the person of Messiah. In the world to come.
The daily burnt offering (38-42), summary and theology of the Tabernacle (43-46).
The strange thing about vss. 38-42 is that they could describe simply an offering to be made each of the seven days of the ordination period for the priests yet they also turn up in Numbers 28 as the perpetual offering for all time. It seems that the first ordination period of the priests was also to inaugurate the daily offering, what becomes known as the tamid. Thus, vss. 38-42 are both about the seven days of ordination and about daily practice from then on.
Twice each day lambs were offering to start and end the daily sacrifices. The morning tamid was first and the evening tamid was last. The time for the evening sacrifice, as for the Passover sacrifice in 12:6 is בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם bein ha’arbayim, “between the evenings.” The phrase is much discussed. The sages decided it means “between the suns,” as in between noon (the zenith) and sunset. Many English translations say twilight, though this is only one interpretation. Josephus states that the Passover lambs were offered between 3 and 5 in the afternoon (Sarna, JPS Commentary).
The tamid was the basic offering of Israel, the daily worship, and came to be regarded as utmost in significance, the sign of perpetual worship and obedience to God. It is reflected in the prayer times still practiced in Judaism: shacharit and minchah, the morning and evening offerings. Note that minchah prayer is before sundown just like the evening offering and that ma’ariv corresponds to the final burning of any remaining flesh on the altar after sundown (see Steinsaltz Jewish Prayer, pg. 84).
In vss. 43-46 the section closes with a reminder of the purpose of the sanctuary of Israel. The tent-tabernacle is where God, by means of his Kavod [Glory], meets with the people. Therefore it must be kept sanctified. In other words, the blood of sacrifices will be used to cleanse the sanctuary to keep it pure for the Kavod. The theology of the tabernacle [mishkan] (and later the temple) is about a place where God’s mystical presence dwells in the midst of the people. The Kavod in the midst of Israel is like the Spirit indwelling the nation. To keep the Kavod near, Israel has to continually cleanse (sanctify) it from impurities. And the chief impurity, according to Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19, is death and anything resembling death.
Potent things often seem small. What is important in life is not always obvious. Some things take wisdom to see clearly. Our values are something we are supposed to build from life experience, parental wisdom, the combined learning of human society, and from divinely revealed things.
The incense altar of Israel was small, about three feet high and a foot and a half across. But it stood in front of the veil (possibly pavilion rather than veil) that was in front of the Ark, the place where the divine Presence resided on earth. The high priest attended to this little altar daily. The impurities of Israel, when they were not properly purified according to Torah procedures, attached to the incense altar like pollution. The blood of purification offerings (often wrongly called sin offerings) wiped this pollution away.
The smoke from the elements and fragrant essential spices that rose from the incense altar formed a screen between the priests and the divine Presence. In addition to teaching us about pollution and purification, the incense altar shows us that in the present time there is a barrier between us and God.
What are these mysteries about? They concern the meaning of all meaning, the temporarily lost connection between humanity and God. They suggest there is a way back, a way to regain the connection. After all, God invited humanity close enough for the incense altar to be needed for and for its screen of smoke and fragrance to allow nearness.
The incense altar (1-10).
This elaborate, gold-encased altar is more significant in the atonement rituals of Israel than its size would indicate. The priests set the incense altar up at the back of the Holy Place, the first room inside the tabernacle (and later the temple). It was right in front of the Holy of Holies, the inner room where the Ark and the Presence of God resided. About three feet tall and one and half feet square, covered with gold beaten on in layers using the technology of the time, it was a splendorous though tiny altar. Special incense was formulated for the shrine of Israel, which put up a large cloud of smoke as well as being fragrant through the use of fine spices and essential elements.
There is some question about what the “veil” or curtain (possibly a pavilion rather than a curtain) looked like behind the incense altar. Tradition has long assumed there was a vertical curtain (referred to popularly as the “veil”) between the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. This passage about the incense altar suggests a different possibility: “set it before the veil (הַפָּרֹכֶת haparōchet) that is over the Ark.” This is one of several passages leading Richard Elliot Friedman to speculate that priests could see the Ark and the cloud covering God’s Presence when they were in the Holy Place. The Ark and the Presence were not behind a curtain, but under a pavilion (like a sukkah or chutzpah). This view is not at all certain, but provides an interesting alternative.
Atop the incense altar was a brazier on which coals from the altar of burnt offering were placed and incense powder was poured on the coals. This would send up a cloud of smoke, obscuring the divine Presence from sight (or, if there was a curtain behind it, the smoke was an additional screen between the Presence and the priests).
How important was the incense altar? The high priest (and no other priest) attended to it daily. This was one of the high priest’s chief duties. Once a year, probably on Yom Kippur though the text does not state it, he “made atonement” or “purged” the tabernacle (and later temple) from ritual impurity on this little altar. See my commentary on Leviticus (and also my book, Yeshua Our Atonement) for more details on what “purging” and “atonement” mean. The impurity of Israel could attach itself to this altar like air pollution, especially when Israelites failed to follow purification procedures and their impurity essentially hung in the air, unresolved, polluting the place of God’s dwelling. Blood was the ritual detergent used to remove this pollution and the verb root used for atoning or purging has a basic meaning of “wiping away.”
As Sarna (JPS Commentary) observes, chapter 30 is an appendix of instructions of items related to the sanctuary and worship of Israel. It consists of five sections, beginning with instructions for the incense altar (1-10) and then the census tax (11-16), the bronze laver (17-21), the anointing oil (22-23), and the incense (34-38). Why these items are described after the sectional summary of 29:43-46 is not known. Sarna supposes that the incense altar may be mentioned after because it played no part in the priestly ordination ceremonies.