Exodus 30: Incense, a Half Shekel, and Some Oil
Exodus 30 contains still more details of the furnishing and operation of the tabernacle. Remember, Yahweh's intention is to dwell among the Israelites and to make them a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, a special people to mediate His Presence to all of creation. The bottom line of all of these tabernacle instructions is that Israel must order life, space, time, and possessions in a manner that is fitting to Yahweh's Presence.
Moses was instructed to have a special, gold covered altar built for the specific purpose of burning incense. This altar is smaller than the "general purpose" bronze altar to be used for the various animal sacrifices. It was to be placed inside the tent of meeting (as opposed to outside like the bronze altar) directly in front of the curtain that separates the holy room from the most holy room. Thus, on the holy side of the curtain was the incense altar and directly opposite it, on the most holy side of the curtain, was the Ark of the Covenant and mercy seat where Yahweh is most Present. Special incense was to be burned on this altar every morning and evening.
In Exodus we are not told exactly what this incense means - presumably it was common knowledge that did not need explained. Not being an incense burner myself, however, I need some help to understand this. That help is found in Revelation 8:1-5, especially vs. 3: "Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne." The larger picture is that the worship in heaven has come to a thirty minute silence so that God can hear the prayers of the saints. The prayers rise before the throne in the fragrance of the incense burning upon the altar. God hears the prayers and responds by sending heavenly rumblings and striking of light to earth.
I really like the incense imagery for prayer. While the priest could not see through the curtain into Yahweh's Presence, he could be assured that the fragrance of the incense passed through the curtain and permeated the air that Yahweh was breathing. We like to think of ourselves as becoming filled with the breath or Spirit of God. Here we have God breathing/inhaling the prayers of our lives. Imagine that. God breathing in the prayers and cries of our hearts, and then breathing out His Spirit upon and within us in response to those cries. Often times God seems removed, out of sight, perhaps even beyond reach. But the fragrance of our lives rises before God in prayer, penetrating the curtains of heaven. The Book of Revelation tells us that God does indeed smell the fragrance, that God listens, and that God responds through those curtains.
Note also that the incense was to be offered routinely, every morning and evening. A discipline is involved. The incense altar was not just there for times of crisis. It was not just there for times of celebration. It was there to be used every morning and every evening. Prayer was to be a constant practice if Israel is to be fit for Yahweh's Presence. Much as marriage requires disciplined communication, so also living in fellowship with Yahweh requires disciplined communication. It requires intentionality. We need to tend this golden altar routinely if our relationship with Christ is to be fit, if we are to mediate His Presence in our worlds.
Moses also received instruction about census taking. Any time a census was taken, those twenty years and older were to "pay the LORD a ransom for his life" of half a shekel. It did not matter if the person were rich or poor, the ransom was the same: a half shekel (which was not very much). This money was to be used for the upkeep and operations of the tabernacle.
At first it did not seem right to me that the poor would be required to give as much as the rich, or from the other angle, that the rich would be permitted to give as little as the poor. But I was looking at it in terms of this being a tax. It is not a tax, but a ransom, and a token one at that. By insisting that everyone pay the same half shekel ransom, Yahweh was actually declaring that no one's life is of greater worth than another's. The rich may think they are worth more, but from Yahweh's perspective their value is about a half shekel, same as the poor. Likewise, the poor may feel like they don't count for anything, but by Yahweh's count they are every bit as valuable as the rich, a half shekel. This ransom payment actually strikes against the stratification of worth according to wealth.
As a ransom payment the half shekel also reminds Israel that they are indebted to Yahweh for their freedom. In no way does the half shekel actually cover or atone for the cost of their lives, but it does help cover the costs of the tabernacle. Thus, Israel cares for Yahweh's dwelling-house among them out of their indebtedness to Yahweh for their salvation. That might not be a bad way for us to care for the upkeep of church facilities and ministries. We tend to be need oriented. We fix what needs fixed (which is far better than neglecting what needs fixed). But what would happen if we were more debt oriented, that is, living and giving in response to what the Lord has done for us rather than merely fixing the roof when it needs fixed. Perhaps our ushers would find themselves with a lot more half shekels to count. Perhaps we would give with greater gratitude and joy.
A bronze basin was also to be constructed and set outside the tabernacle proper. It was to be filled with water and used by the priests to cleanse their hands and feet before offering sacrifices and before entering the tabernacle. Purity was the issue behind this washing. It reminds me of Jesus washing Peter's feet and Peter refusing to permit Jesus to wash them. The exchange ends with Jesus telling Peter that those who have had a bath only need to have their feet washed. Though we are baptized we yet pick up a lot of dirt as we walk through this life. Continual hand and foot washing are a must if we are to be fit for the Presence of the Lord.
Moses also received instruction to have a special oil made for anointing the tabernacle, all of its furnishings, the altars, and the priests. This oil was to be used only for this purpose. They were not allowed to wear it as a perfume just because they liked the smell of it or the way it left their skin feeling. It was a sacred oil to be used for anointing things and people into the service of Yahweh.
We use anointing language in reference to the Holy Spirit. We ask to be anointed with the Spirit. I'm afraid, however, that too often we ask for this anointing with no desire or intention of entering into service. We ask for the right thing but for the wrong reason. We want a Spirit anointing because we want to enjoy a powerful service, we want a spiritual high, we want to feel good and experience an emotional joy. That's kind of like putting on sacred oil because we like the way it smells and feels. While the oil may smell and feel good, and the Spirit may bring joy, to seek the oil and the Spirit for these things alone is to violate them, and in so doing to violate Yahweh's Presence. Anointing is for service. The LORD seeks to anoint us for service with the Spirit. The question is, are we willing to receive this anointing? Are we willing to serve? Adequacy is not the issue, for the anointing, the Spirit, will make us adequate. A willingness to serve is all that is required. Yahweh's Presence mandates such willingness.
In short, to be fit for Yahweh's Presence, to be mediators of Yahweh's Presence, we need to be disciplined at prayer, we need to live and give in recognition of our indebtedness, and we need to have our hands and feet continually washed. Above all, to enter into this priestly calling we need the anointing of the Spirit.
"If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give you the Holy Spirit when you ask him."