The Word Made Fresh
1“Next, make a small altar table of acacia wood on which to burn incense, 2eighteen inches square and three feet high, finished with projecting horns on the corners. 3Cover the entire table with pure gold, and fashion a gold molding to go around it. 4Make two golden rings to attach under the molding on two sides to hold the poles for carrying it. 5Make the poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold. 6The table should be placed in front of the curtain above the chest which contains my laws, in front of the lid that covers it. This is where I will meet with you. 7Every morning when he tends the lamps Aaron shall offer incense with its pleasing aroma. 8When he places the lamps in the evening he shall offer incense again. This incense offering must be continued generation to generation. 9Do not use incense that has not been approved. Do not burn an offering on it. Do not place an offering of grain on it, nor pour a drink offering over it. 10Once a year Aaron shall apply blood from the animal sacrifice made for the forgiveness of sins to the horns of the small altar table. Every year from generation to generation this must be done to atone for the sins of the people. This ritual is especially meaningful to me.”
11Then the LORD told Moses, 12“Whenever you count the Israelites to list them, when they are counted each one must pay me a ransom for their life. Otherwise, a plague may spread among them when they come to be counted. 13So, each one as they come to be listed must pay a half shekel 14if they are twenty years old or older. 15Everyone must pay the same, whether rich or poor. 16Collect the ransom money from them and set it aside for the upkeep and use of the sanctuary tent. This will serve as a reminder to the Israelites that they have paid a ransom for their lives.”
17Then the LORD said, 18“Make a bronze basin and set it on a bronze stand to use for washing. Place it between the tent’s wall and the altar. Keep water in it; 19the water is to be used for Aaron and his sons to wash their hands and feet. 20When they enter the sanctuary or approach the altar to burn an offering to the LORD they must do this so that they may not die. 21This is a permanent rule for them and for Aaron’s descendants.”
22The LORD spoke again to Moses. 23“Take these special spices: 12 pounds of liquid myrrh, six pounds of sweet-smelling cinnamon, six pounds of aromatic cane, 24and 12 pounds of cassia (measure them using the official sanctuary scales) and a gallon of olive oil. 25Use these ingredients as a perfumer would to make a sacred anointing oil. 26Then sprinkle it on the tent and the chest that contains the law, 27and the altar table and its tools, and the incense table, 28and the large altar where burned offerings are made along with its tools, and on the basin and the stand on which it is placed. 29These things are anointed because they are very holy, and whatever touches them will become holy.
30“Aaron and his sons must be anointed and set apart to serve as my priests. 31Tell the people that from now on they must use this special oil for anointing. 32It must never be put to ordinary use on the body, and you must never attempt to reproduce it. It is special and must remain special to all of you. 33Anyone who attempts to reproduce it for personal use must be cast out from among the people.”
34The LORD said to Moses, “Gather equal amounts of sweet spices – gum resin, onycha, and galbanum, plus an equal amount of frankincense 35and blend it together as a perfumer would to make incense. Season it with pure salt. 36Beat some of it into a powder and put a portion of it before the chest containing the law in the meeting tent where I shall meet with you. Consider it a most holy thing. 37Do not mix this for your personal use. It must be kept as holy to the LORD. 38Whoever makes anything like it for personal use must be cast out from among the people.”
1-10: Instructions are given for the incense altar that is to stand in the most holy place before the ark of the covenant. It is 3 feet high and 18 inches square, plated with gold. Aaron is to burn incense on it when he enters the most holy place each morning and evening. Each year he and his successors are to mark the horns of it with blood from the atonement sacrifice (to be described later). The incense altar can be used for nothing else.
11-16: Why plague is associated with taking a census is not explained, but it could have to do with their slavery in Egypt – perhaps the Egyptians kept a careful census of them during their time of bondage so that the very idea of a census has a bad connotation. When the census is taken, each person over 20 is to be registered and to pay half a shekel, rich and poor alike. This serves two purposes. First, it provides money for the maintenance of the tabernacle. Second, it reminds them to whom they belong. The requirement that no distinction is made between rich and poor seems to us to be a form of regressive taxation, but half a shekel is not an exorbitant amount, and it is symbolic of the equal sacred worth of each regardless of economic status.
17-21: A bronze basin is to be made and placed between the altar and the tent. It is used for the priests to wash their hands and feet. Again there is a mortal threat; holy service is a dangerous calling.
22-33: A recipe is given for making oil to anoint the holy things – objects and priests with their vestments. It is to be a sacred recipe, not to be copied or used for any other purpose under threat of banishment.
34-38: A special recipe is also given for the incense that is used in holy rituals. It, too, is sacred and not to be copied or used for any other purpose.
The worship rituals of Israel are extravagant and detailed. Why do you think God would want them to be so precise about their actions? It certainly defines them as God’s people set apart for God’s purpose. Do you see ways in which our own worship – absent the animal sacrifices, thank goodness – is related to Israel’s? In their world, animals represented their wealth. In our world legal tender is still the means of sacrificing to God what is important to us so that we will be deserving of the blessings God has in store.