20 “You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. 21 In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.
1 “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 2 And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. 3 You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. 4 These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. 5 They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen.” – Exodus 27:20-28:5 ESV
The Tabernacle was no ordinary structure. It was to be God’s earthly residence and, as such, it was to be built of the finest materials according to a divinely ordained plan. And within its perimeter fence and inner walls there were a number of unique pieces of furniture that set it apart as a temple or sanctuary. There was the Bronze Altar in the courtyard, designed for the offering of sacrifices to Yahweh. Located within the Holy Place were the Altar of Incense, Golden Candlestick, and Table of Showbread. And sequestered inside the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant with the Mercy Seat resting upon it. Each of these holy objects was designed to make this tent a temple to the worship of Yahweh and, like any temple, it required priests to serve as mediators between the people and their deity.
In the case of the Tabernacle, God assigned the priestly role to Aaron and his sons. Aaron would serve as the first high priest and his sons, Nadab and Abihu, would serve alongside him. Like the Tabernacle itself and all the elements contained within it, Aaron and his sons were to be set apart and consecrated for the service of God.
Moses and Aaron were brothers and members of the tribe of Levi.
The sons of Levi were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. The descendants of Kohath included Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. The children of Amram were Aaron, Moses, and Miriam. The sons of Aaron were Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. – 1 Chronicles 6:1-3 NLT
When God had called Moses to deliver the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt, He had agreed to send Aaron, the older brother of Moses as an assistant.
“Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.” – Exodus 4:14-18 ESV
Aaron served alongside Moses during their days in Egypt as they attempted to secure the release of God’s people, then he assisted his brother as they journeyed across the wilderness to Sinai. And it was at Sinai that God set aside Aaron to serve as the first high priest of Israel and assigned his tribe to the care and maintenance of the Tabernacle.
“Bring your relatives of the tribe of Levi—your ancestral tribe—to assist you and your sons as you perform the sacred duties in front of the Tabernacle of the Covenant. But as the Levites go about all their assigned duties at the Tabernacle, they must be careful not to go near any of the sacred objects or the altar. If they do, both you and they will die. The Levites must join you in fulfilling their responsibilities for the care and maintenance of the Tabernacle, but no unauthorized person may assist you.” – Numbers 18:2-4 NLT
God’s house required careful attention. It was to be considered holy and treated with the utmost care. This was no ordinary structure so it required extraordinary measures to ensure that it remained holy and free from defilement. Every facet of its maintenance was assigned to Aaron and his relatives, with special emphasis placed on Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. These men were to serve as intercessors for the people before God, with the sobering responsibility to keep themselves and the Tabernacle itself pure and holy.
The people provided the materials used to construct the Tabernacle and its accouterments, but it was Aaron and his sons who were responsible for the ongoing care and utilization of this sacred structure and its content. God commanded the people to supply “pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn” (Exodus 27:20 ESV). This oil would have been of the highest quality, carefully purified so that it would burn with a minimum of smoke. But it was up to Aaron and his sons to pour the oil into the seven lamps located on the Golden Lampstand within the Holy Place.
Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel. – Exodus 27:21 ESV
From this point forward, Aaron and his sons would no longer be free to live their lives according to their own wills. They belonged to God and were obligated to spend the rest of their lives serving at His behest. Their role was sacred and to be taken seriously because it ensured the ongoing presence of God.
The role of the priesthood of Israel was not just ceremonial in nature. It was both practical and essential for maintaining the purity of the Tabernacle so that God’s presence would remain among His people. Aaron and his sons had to ensure that the lamps in the Golden Lampstand were always lit and properly maintained. They were also responsible for preparing the bread of the presence that was located on the Table of Showbread in the Holy Place.
“You must bake twelve flat loaves of bread from choice flour, using four quarts of flour for each loaf. Place the bread before the Lord on the pure gold table, and arrange the loaves in two stacks, with six loaves in each stack. Put some pure frankincense near each stack to serve as a representative offering, a special gift presented to the Lord. Every Sabbath day this bread must be laid out before the Lord as a gift from the Israelites; it is an ongoing expression of the eternal covenant.” – Leviticus 24:5-8 NLT
And each Sabbath, when Aaron and his sons replaced the bread of the presence with fresh loaves, they were allowed to consume the leftovers, as long as they did so in a holy place. God shared what had been dedicated to Him with His servants. These men were expected to serve the Lord day and night. They were commanded to tend the Golden Lampstand “from evening to morning before the Lord” (Exodus 27:21 ESV), so that the flames would never go out within the sanctuary of God. And the people of Israel found great comfort in knowing that God’s house was always under the watchful eye of His servants.
Years later, long after the Temple in Jerusalem had superseded the Tabernacle as the primary house of God, the people of Israel would gratefully acknowledge the priests for their role in its care and maintenance.
Oh, praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
you who serve at night in the house of the Lord.
Lift your hands toward the sanctuary,
and praise the Lord.
May the Lord, who made heaven and earth,
bless you from Jerusalem. – Psalm 134:1-3 NLT
The first men to serve in this illustrious capacity were Aaron and his sons. God hand-selected them to perform the sacred role of the priesthood.
“Call for your brother, Aaron, and his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. Set them apart from the rest of the people of Israel so they may minister to me and be my priests.” – Exodus 28:1 NLT
God had Moses “set them apart.” In a sense, He was commanding that these men be separated from the rest of the nation of Israel and given an assignment that was not to be fulfilled by anyone else. And to help accentuate the distinctive nature of their role, God commanded that they be given garments that would set them apart.
“Make sacred garments for Aaron that are glorious and beautiful. Instruct all the skilled craftsmen whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom. Have them make garments for Aaron that will distinguish him as a priest set apart for my service.” – Exodus 28:2-3 NLT
These “sacred garments” were meant to distinguish Aaron and his sons from the rest of the Israelite community. The Hebrew word for “sacred” is קֹדֶשׁ (qōḏeš), and it refers to that which is holy and set apart to God. The distinctive and beautifully crafted garments would serve as visual reminders to the rest of the Israelites that these men were agents and servants of God. They belonged to Him and were to be treated with dignity and honor. And these glorious and beautiful robes were also meant to remind Aaron and his sons that they were servants of the Most High God. In a sense, the clothes were intended to be signs of ownership and symbols of the sacred role of the priest.
“These garments were set apart for sacred duty: holy clothes for a holy calling. What the high priest wore showed that what he did – whether it was lighting the lampstand or offering sacrifices on the altar – was holy before God.” – Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved For God’s Glory
Like the Tabernacle in which he served, the high priest was robed in the finest fabrics. His garments were intended to reflect the glory of God. They were not a status symbol meant to inflate Aaron’s ego. Their glorious and beautiful design was a reflection of God’s majesty and transcendence. God’s house and servants were immaculately robed in splendor so that they might depict His glory and greatness among the people. As David later wrote in one of his Psalms, even the angels in heaven were created to bring glory and honor to God.
Honor the Lord, you heavenly beings;
honor the Lord for his glory and strength.
Honor the Lord for the glory of his name.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness. – Psalm 29:1-2 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.