Restitution and Restoration

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely—in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby— if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt. And he shall bring to the priest as his compensation to the Lord a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty.” – Leviticus 6:1-7 ESV

God continues to delineate the specific kinds of sins that require a guilt offering. In this case, He addresses the sin of theft and any acts of deception associated with the commission of the crime. It’s important to note that God considers these sins committed against another individual to have been committed against Him as well. The eighth commandment clearly prohibited stealing, so when someone stole from a fellow Israelite, they were also sinning against God Himself by breaking one of the commands found in the Decalogue.

We tend to think of stealing as a blatant act of robbery where someone takes an item that belongs to another.  People could steal another person’s property, such as a sheep or goat, or they could break into their home and take an item of value. But God includes acts of deception that include fraud or failure to keep a financial commitment. God mentions something held in trust or a pledge. This would have covered the case of someone refusing to return an item that had been entrusted to their possession by a neighbor or friend. It was like a form of deposit. According to McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia, surety was “some form of עָרִב, arb, to barter, and especially to deposit a pledge, either in money, goods, or in part payment, as security for a bargain; ἔγγυος.”

To defraud someone of their deposit was the same as theft in the eyes of God. Refusing to return a pledge after a deal was consummated was a violation of the eighth commandment. The guilty party was taking something that was not rightfully theirs to keep. And their refusal to return the money or possession involved lying and deception.

God also included another form of theft. If a person found someone’s lost property or possession and refused to return it, they too were guilty of theft. And if they covered up their act with lies or denials, they only complicated the matter. In all of these cases, God required a guilt offering. But there was a further requirement of restitution and an additional penalty of a 20 percent tax on the value of the stolen goods. And it appears that these things had to take place before the required sacrifice could be offered and atonement received. God expected the guilty party to make things right with their offended neighbor.

Jesus dealt with something similar when giving His sermon on the mount.

“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. – Matthew 5:23-24 NLT

It was wrong for a person to seek forgiveness from God before they had made proper amends with the one they had defrauded or stolen from. Full restitution was required before any sacrifices could be made. Forgiveness of the sin could not precede reparations for the damages done. Once the guilty party became aware of his crime, he was expected to make things right with the offended party that very same day. And his restitution was to be immediately followed by his presentation of the guilt offering: “a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent” (Leviticus 6:6 NLT).

Since these sins involved crimes committed against another, they required confession and proper compensation. There had to be an admission of guilt and a willingness to make amends before the sinner could expect to have his damaged relationship with God restored. But once he had done the right thing, he was free to present his guilt offering at the Tabernacle,, and he was assured of receiving forgiveness from the Lord.

“Through this process, the priest will purify you before the Lord, making you right with him, and you will be forgiven for any of these sins you have committed.” – Leviticus 6:7 NLT

Ultimately, all sin is an offense against a holy and righteous God. But many of our sins are horizontal in nature, involving transgressions against others. Six of the ten commandments deal with sins committed against others. God knew that His chosen people were going to have a difficult time maintaining a proper sense of community. Greed, lust, envy, and jealousy would prove to be constant temptations for the people of Israel, and they would result in everything from lying and deception to fraud, theft, and even adultery. They were inevitable and unavoidable. So, God instituted a guilt offering to cover these kinds of sins. And because God thought ahead, the Israelites were guaranteed the blessing of His forgiveness even when they lived in disobedience to His commands. God would graciously restore them to a right relationship with Himself, but He would also see to it that they were restored to a right relationship with one another. This is why when the Pharisees asked Jesus what was the greatest of all of God’s commandments, He replied:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:37-40 ESV

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.

Treating the Holy as Common

14 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 15 “If anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of the Lord, he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation, a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued in silver shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. 16 He shall also make restitution for what he has done amiss in the holy thing and shall add a fifth to it and give it to the priest. And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and he shall be forgiven.

17 “If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity. 18 He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him for the mistake that he made unintentionally, and he shall be forgiven. 19 It is a guilt offering; he has indeed incurred guilt before the Lord.” – Leviticus 5:14-19 ESV

Verse 14 begins a new section dealing with what has been described as the guilt offering, but what is also referred to as the offering of reparations. The focus remains on sins committed without the individual’s knowledge. While these particular sins could be committed by accident, they were still considered breaches of faith and required the guilty party to make restitution to the Lord.

The Hebrew word used to describe this kind of offering is אָשָׁם (‘āšām), and it can be translated as either “guilt” or “compensation.” What seems to set this offering apart from all the other offerings that have been discussed is the emphasis on the value of the animal to be sacrificed. God stipulated that the guilty party was to bring an unblemished ram that was of great monetary value.

The offering must be your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value with silver, as measured by the weight of the sanctuary shekel.” – Leviticus 5:15 NLT

The NET Bible translation of verse 15 implies that the sinner could also bring the cash equivalent of the ram’s value in silver and use that as an offering before the Lord.

“…he must bring his penalty for guilt to the Lord, a flawless ram from the flock, convertible into silver shekels according to the standard of the sanctuary shekel, for a guilt offering.” – Leviticus 5:15 NET

It would appear that this offering required a cash commitment on the part of the sinner. There was also a fine to be paid that was one-fifth of the animal’s value.

Once the individual became aware of their sin, they were expected to make reparations. It is unclear what is meant by “the holy things of the Lord” (Leviticus 15:14 ESV). Some speculate that these sins had something to do with the holy objects located within the Tabernacle. According to the NET Bible Study Notes, “The phrase evidently refers to anything dedicated to God by the Israelites, including the tabernacle, its furnishings, the offerings, houses, lands, and tithes.” Perhaps the sin involved someone unknowingly eating meat that had been dedicated to the priests or they could have inadvertently violated proper protocol concerning behavior in and around the Tabernacle. If they failed to treat God’s priests with proper dignity and respect, this could have incurred God’s judgment. Of course, the possible theft or mistreatment of any sacred property would also be a great offense to God.

Whatever the exact sin might have been, the guilty party was expected to compensate God for what they had done. Their real crime was that they had robbed God of glory. They had mistreated His “holy things” and, in doing so, they had diminished God’s value in the eyes of the people. Everything about the Tabernacle was to be considered holy because it all belonged to God. He had set apart the Tabernacle as His earthly dwelling place and the people of Israel were to treat His home with proper honor and respect.

As with all the other offerings, this one was intended to restore the sinner to a right relationship with God. Though he or she was guilty of having transgressed God’s pre-established standards for behavior, they could be made right with Him once again by following His prescribed plan for atonement.

Through this process the priest will purify you from your unintentional sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven. – Leviticus 15:18 NLT

Restoration was the goal. God knew that His people were going to violate His commands. He was well aware of their inability to live up to His exacting standards of conduct. So, He provided a means by which their inevitable sins could be atoned for and their broken relationship with Him could be healed.

Verse 15 describes these sins as “a breach of faith.” In Hebrew, this phrase is actually māʿal māʿal and should be translated as “trespasses a trespass.” The idea is that the person has violated a known violation outlined by God. In doing so, they crossed over a boundary that God established between the holy and the common. The Tabernacle and all that was associated with it was to be off-limits to the average Israelite. It was to be treated with awe and reverence and to be used only for holy purposes because it has been consecrated to the Lord. These sins seem to involve cases of someone dishonoring that which was holy by treating it as common or ordinary.

God will eventually task Aaron and his sons with the responsibility of teaching the people of Israel the difference between the holy and the common.

“You must distinguish between what is sacred and what is common, between what is ceremonially unclean and what is clean. And you must teach the Israelites all the decrees that the LORD has given them through Moses.” – Leviticus 10:10-11 NLT

Centuries later, God would reiterate His command that the priests teach the people to discern between the holy and the ordinary.

“They will teach my people the difference between what is holy and what is common, what is ceremonially clean and unclean.” – Ezekiel 44:23 NLT

And God will hold the priests personally responsible for their failure to teach the people how to treat the holy things of God with the honor they deserve.

“Your priests have violated my instructions and defiled my holy things. They make no distinction between what is holy and what is not. And they do not teach my people the difference between what is ceremonially clean and unclean. They disregard my Sabbath days so that I am dishonored among them.” – Ezekiel 22:26 NLT

One of the greatest sins an individual can commit is to treat the holy things of God with dishonor. To treat as ordinary that which God has set apart as His own is to disregard His wishes and to disrespect what He has deemed worthy of honor. If a priest were to take one of the holy vessels from the Tabernacle and use it for a common purpose, he would be trespassing a trespass. He would be guilty of treating the holy as ordinary. And any person who unknowingly treated that which was holy as common would stand before God as guilty and deserving of judgment. But restitution and restoration were possible. Forgiveness was available. But, as is always the case, atonement came with a price.

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.

Sin in the Camp

13 “If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord‘s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, 14 when the sin which they have committed becomes known, the assembly shall offer a bull from the herd for a sin offering and bring it in front of the tent of meeting. 15 And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the Lord, and the bull shall be killed before the Lord. 16 Then the anointed priest shall bring some of the blood of the bull into the tent of meeting, 17 and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord in front of the veil. 18 And he shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar that is in the tent of meeting before the Lord, and the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 19 And all its fat he shall take from it and burn on the altar. 20 Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. 21 And he shall carry the bull outside the camp and burn it up as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering for the assembly.” – Leviticus 4:13-21 ESV

The next mandatory blood sacrifice was in the case of the entire community committing an unintentional sin. It seems that it would have been a rare occurrence for the entire nation to be guilty of having committed the same inadvertent sin. How could an entire multitude of people have unknowingly participated in a violation of God’s law without knowing it? It’s difficult to imagine every single Israelite unwittingly or accidentally participating in the very same violation of God’s law.

But the Hebrew word for “congregation” carries a range of meanings that includes a family, crowd, assembly, or gathering. Yet the context of this passage would seem to indicate that God has the entire Israelite community in mind. The actual sin committed might be the work of a few within the community, but God would hold the entire nation responsible. Sin is like an infectious disease and has a way of spreading throughout the entire body if left undetected and untreated. So, even if the violation had been committed by only a handful of the Israelites, the entire nation would find itself impacted by their actions. The impurity of a few would leave the whole congregation in a state of impurity and in need of cleansing.

So, God provided a means of receiving atonement. He wanted His people to take seriously any form of sin within the camp, and there is a powerful example of this in the book of Joshua. When the people of Israel eventually entered the land of Canaan, God gave them a miraculous victory over the city of Jericho. But this was followed by an unexpected defeat at the hands of the much-smaller city of Ai. Joshua chapter 7 opens up with the statement: “But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things…” (Joshua 7:1 ESV).

Before they began their siege of Jericho, God had given the people clear instructions concerning their post-victory celebrations.

“Jericho and everything in it must be completely destroyed as an offering to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and the others in her house will be spared, for she protected our spies.

“Do not take any of the things set apart for destruction, or you yourselves will be completely destroyed, and you will bring trouble on the camp of Israel. Everything made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron is sacred to the Lord and must be brought into his treasury.” – Joshua 6:17-20 NLT

But one man decided to ignore God’s command and enrich himself with some of the plunder from the city. And yet, Moses records, “Israel violated the instructions about the things set apart for the Lord” (Joshua 7:1 NLT). God held the entire nation culpable for Achan’s actions. In fact, Moses notes that “the Lord was very angry with the Israelites” (Joshua 7:1 NLT).

Joshua and the rest of the Israelites were completely oblivious to Achan’s sin. So confident of certain victory over the smaller city of Ai, Joshua sent a contingent made up of 3,000 Israelite soldiers, but their mission ended in defeat. And Moses records that “the Israelites were paralyzed with fear at this turn of events, and their courage melted away” (Joshua 7:5 NLT). Joshua, shaken by this unexpected turn of events, called out to God for an explanation. He couldn’t understand why God had failed to intervene on their behalf against the Amorites living in Ai. But what Joshua didn’t know was that sin had entered the camp of Israel. Achan’s violation of God’s command had left the entire community contaminated and worthy of God’s judgment, and God pulled no punches in declaring the seriousness of the situation.

Israel has sinned and broken my covenant! They have stolen some of the things that I commanded must be set apart for me. And they have not only stolen them but have lied about it and hidden the things among their own belongings. That is why the Israelites are running from their enemies in defeat. For now Israel itself has been set apart for destruction. I will not remain with you any longer unless you destroy the things among you that were set apart for destruction. – Joshua 7:11-12 NLT

While Achan’s sin had been anything but accidental, the rest of the nation had been unaware of its occurrence. They were ignorant of Achan’s crime but were just as responsible before God as if they had all taken part. And God made it clear that the entire community would be considered impure and responsible for the crime until the guilty party was sought out and exposed.

“Get up! Command the people to purify themselves in preparation for tomorrow. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Hidden among you, O Israel, are things set apart for the Lord. You will never defeat your enemies until you remove these things from among you. – Joshua 7:13 NLT

Purification was part of the process. The entire community needed to purge itself of the sin that had left them contaminated and worthy of God’s judgment. The next day, God revealed the identity of the guilty party and ordered his execution.

“The one who has stolen what was set apart for destruction will himself be burned with fire, along with everything he has, for he has broken the covenant of the Lord and has done a horrible thing in Israel.” – Joshua 7:15 NLT

In this case, Achan and his entire family were stoned to death and then burned with fire. The sin was purged from their midst and the nation was spared God’s judgment. But the atonement came at a high price.

And all the Israelites stoned Achan and his family and burned their bodies. They piled a great heap of stones over Achan, which remains to this day. That is why the place has been called the Valley of Trouble ever since. So the Lord was no longer angry. – Joshua 7:25-26 NLT

When it came to the sin/purification offering, God provided a means by which the nation could receive a different form of atonement for inadvertent or unintentional sins committed among them. When someone violated one of God’s laws and it ended up impacting the entire community, there was a way to restore fellowship and receive forgiveness. But it involved a blood sacrifice. A life had to be given so that the guilty might be spared. In this case, it was to be “a bull from the herd” (Leviticus 4:14 ESV). This animal must be free from defects and in perfect health. It represented a payment of high value and illustrated the gravity of the crime committed. Atonement could not be achieved without considerable cost to the guilty party.

As representatives of the people, the elders were to lay their hands on the sacrificial animal, symbolizing its role as their substitute or stand-in. The guilt of the people was symbolically transferred to the bull, then the life of the animal was taken. Its blood was shed so that the Israelites could live and enjoy God’s forgiveness. But before atonement from sin could be enjoyed, the blood of the animal had to be taken by the priest and sprinkled on the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The people’s access to God had been impacted by their sin. The entrance into God’s presence, represented by the veil, had been contaminated by sin, and needed to be purified by the blood of the sacrificial animal. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

Having purified the veil, the priest was to take the remainder of the blood and purify the bronze altar as well as the altar of incense. This ritual cleansing of the two altars of sacrifice was intended to restore their holiness and reestablish their use for worshiping God. And by following all the details of this pre-established ceremony “the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven” (Leviticus 4:20 ESV).

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.

The Joy of Forgiveness

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering. He shall bring the bull to the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord and lay his hand on the head of the bull and kill the bull before the Lord. And the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the Lord in front of the veil of the sanctuary. And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before the Lord that is in the tent of meeting, and all the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And all the fat of the bull of the sin offering he shall remove from it, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins and the long lobe of the liver that he shall remove with the kidneys 10 (just as these are taken from the ox of the sacrifice of the peace offerings); and the priest shall burn them on the altar of burnt offering. 11 But the skin of the bull and all its flesh, with its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung— 12 all the rest of the bull—he shall carry outside the camp to a clean place, to the ash heap, and shall burn it up on a fire of wood. On the ash heap it shall be burned up.” – Leviticus 4:1-12 ESV

Having covered the burnt, grain, and peace offerings, God now addresses two distinctively different sacrifices dealing with unintentional violations of His commands. The Hebrew phrase is בִּשְׁגָגָה (bishgagah) and it refers to a sin committed in ignorance and without premeditation. This could involve a case of someone violating one of God’s commands unknowingly or accidentally. Unlike the first three kinds of offerings, these two offerings place emphasis on the status of the sinner and not the sacrifice itself. It’s not that the type of sacrifice or the manner in which it is given is unimportant but that the specific type of sin is the higher priority.

These sacrifices involve accidental sins or sins of omission. If someone inadvertently committed a sin of which they were ignorant or unaware, there was a way for them to be restored to a right relationship with God. Their ignorance did not excuse or absolve them from guilt or condemnation. Simply claiming, “I didn’t know” would not alleviate their guilty standing before a holy God. Failing to observe one of God’s commands was a violation worthy of judgment whether the individual did so knowingly or not. And, like all other violations of God’s commands, these sins of ignorance required atonement.

So, God provided a gracious and very specific remedy for these unique situations. He knew that not all sins would be blatant displays of willful rebellion against His law. Some would innocently and unknowingly break His commands and find themselves under His righteous judgment. What were they to do? How were they supposed to remedy the situation in a way that God would find acceptable?

First of all, God addressed the priesthood. Even this select group of men would find themselves in the awkward and dangerous spot of having violated one of God’s commands unknowingly. Yet, it seems that these kinds of cases would have been rare since the priests were to be the experts when it came to God’s laws. But God knew that even Aaron and his sons were fully capable of making a mistake and unwittingly violating one of God’s many laws. And, when that unlikely occasion arose, there was a way for them to restore their broken relationship with God.

One of the important things to note in this passage is that God took all forms of sin seriously. It didn’t matter whether the individual intended to sin or not. Once the sin had been committed, it created a barrier between the individual and God. It left the violator impure and unworthy to enter God’s presence. This posed a real problem for those men who had been set apart to minister as mediators between God and His people. If Aaron or one of his sons committed an unintentional sin, their very presence in the Tabernacle and their interactions with the altars and utensils would invalidate any offerings they made. They would end up contaminating God’s house and rendering any of their actions as priests to be unacceptable.

“Purification is the main element in the purification [sin] sacrifice. Sin not only angers God and deprives him of his due, it also makes his sanctuary unclean. A holy God cannot dwell amid uncleanness. The purification offering purifies the place of worship, so that God may be present among his people.” – Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus

These men played a vital role in the spiritual well-being of the people of Israel, and if their personal sins, whether willing or unwilling, remained unatoned for, the people will suffer the loss of God’s presence and power in their lives. Not only that, any sacrifices they offered would be deemed unacceptable to God. So, it was essential that the priests had a way to appease God for any and all sins they committed – even those that were the result of ignorance.

These inadvertent sins included such things as failing to keep one’s word or simply neglecting to do the right thing. Living in a sin-stained world could leave someone contaminated without them even knowing it. The key to these kinds of sins is awareness. Once someone became aware that they had unknowingly broken one of God’s commands, they were expected to confess their sin and make atonement for it. The former ignorance would not absolve them from responsibility or assuage their guilt. If they had unknowingly touched something that was unclean, that action would have rendered them unclean. Once they became aware of their unclean status, they were expected to do the right thing and offer the proper sacrifice. And God was quite specific as to the nature of that sacrifice.

While these sin offerings bear similarities to the burnt, grain, and peace offerings, there were slight differences. These offerings were not meant to be a soothing aroma to God. Instead, they were intended to expiate or make amends for the sin committed. As with all the other offerings, the animal that was to be sacrificed had to be without defect. There was a cost involved, even if the sin was accidental. The manner in which the sin was committed did not lessen the penalty or the cost of atonement. A perfect sacrifice was required to restore the sinner’s broken relationship with God.

When it comes to sin, ignorance is not bliss. A misguided sense of innocence did not render one right in the eyes of a holy, all-knowing God. That is why all sin should be taken seriously and it is a sober awareness of sin’s capacity for hiddenness that led David to cry out to God, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalm 139:23-24 NLT).

David knew that sin was insidious in its ability to hide in plain sight. There was no way that he could know the true condition of his own heart, so he asked God to reveal any hidden sin that needed to be confessed and atoned for. And God reminded the prophet, Jeremiah, that the key to unlocking the secrets of the human heart lies with God and not man.

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
    and desperately wicked.
    Who really knows how bad it is?
But I, the Lord, search all hearts
    and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
    according to what their actions deserve.” – Jeremiah 17:9-10 NLT

Even sins committed in ignorance carry weight and require atonement. They cannot be overlooked, should not be underestimated, or treated apathetically. God wanted His people to live in perfect fellowship with Him, but He knew that sin would create an impenetrable barrier. The presence of sin in the individual’s life rendered them unacceptable and made God inaccessible. But God graciously provided a solution – in the form of a blood sacrifice because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

And once the atoning sacrifice was offered and the blood was sprinkled on the altar, the remaining portion of the slain animal was carried outside the camp and burned.

“…the skin of the bull and all its flesh, with its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung— all the rest of the bull—he shall carry outside the camp to a clean place, to the ash heap, and shall burn it up on a fire of wood. On the ash heap it shall be burned up.” – Leviticus 4:11-12 NLT

In a sense, these unacceptable portions of the animal represented the unacceptable nature of the individual’s sin. Unworthy for use as an offering to the Lord, these leftovers were to be taken outside the camp and burned. It was David who wrote of the amazing reality of God’s forgiveness.

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
    and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
    And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. – Psalm 32:5 NLT

And it was God who assured His stubborn and rebellious people of His willingness to faithfully forgive their repeated acts of sin against Him.

“I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for my own sake
    and will never think of them again. – Isaiah 43:25 NLT

Sin was inevitable. Accidental sins were unavoidable. But forgiveness was always available. And the key to restoration was confession and atonement. God would later remind His covenant people of His willingness to forgive if they would only confess.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

Men sin but God forgives. This requires that men confess so that God can restore them. And, thankfully, God provided His people with the means to be restored to a right relationship with Himself, even when they had violated His law by mistake.

The great news is, that “if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 John 1:9 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.

Mission Accomplished

32 Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished, and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses; so they did. 33 Then they brought the tabernacle to Moses, the tent and all its utensils, its hooks, its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 34 the covering of tanned rams’ skins and goatskins, and the veil of the screen; 35 the ark of the testimony with its poles and the mercy seat; 36 the table with all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 37 the lampstand of pure gold and its lamps with the lamps set and all its utensils, and the oil for the light; 38 the golden altar, the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the entrance of the tent; 39 the bronze altar, and its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils; the basin and its stand; 40 the hangings of the court, its pillars, and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court, its cords, and its pegs; and all the utensils for the service of the tabernacle, for the tent of meeting; 41 the finely worked garments for ministering in the Holy Place, the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons for their service as priests. 42 According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. 43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them. – Exodus 39:32-43 ESV

Moses fast-forwards the narrative and compresses the timeline to reflect the completion day of the Tabernacle. He provides no details as to how long it took Bezalel and the other craftsmen to wrap up this massive project, but the day came when their work was done. God’s house was complete.

The next step was to present every single item to Moses for his inspection. While Bezalel had served as the project’s foreman and primary craftsman, Moses had managed the entire process from start to finish, communicating every detail concerning the Tabernacle’s construction that he had received from God on Mount Sinai. With the work completed, it was time to determine whether the finished product met God’s exacting standards. And Moses reflects his satisfaction with their efforts by blessing them. They had done everything according to the plan he had provided. Nothing had been left out, scrimped on, or compromised. Every board, yard of fabric, utensil, or piece of sacred furniture received Moses’ seal of approval.

The Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Exodus 39:32 NLT

This statement conveys the obedience of Bezalel’s team. Regardless of the scope of the project and the pressure to complete it on time and on budget, they did everything according to God’s plan. There were no corners cut and not even the smallest alteration was made to the design. Somehow, without the benefit of CAD drawings and blueprints, these men were able to successfully manufacture a vast array of individual elements that would seamlessly fit together to form the completed Tabernacle.

As Moses stood looking over the stockpile of completed building materials, he must have felt a sense of relief mixed with joy. He understood the importance of this day. No matter how long it took to complete the fabrication of all these elements, he could still vividly recall the day he had come down off the mountain and found the people of Israel worshiping a false God. At that moment, he had feared the worst because God had told him, “I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation” (Exodus 32:9-10 NLT). God had threatened to destroy the people of Israel for their disobedience and unfaithfulness.

That had been a dark chapter in Moses’ life. He had begged God to forgive the people for their sin, but God had responded, “No, I will erase the name of everyone who has sinned against me. Now go, lead the people to the place I told you about” (Exodus 32:33-34 NLT). God held the guilty responsible for their actions but allowed the majority of the Israelites to live. Then He commanded Moses to complete the task of leading the people of Israel to the promised land. But before they could leave their camp at Mount Sinai, Moses had to oversee the construction of the Tabernacle, the portable structure that would serve as God’s dwelling place among the people.

Now, it was done. And the piles of completed building materials were a reminder to Moses that his God was still with them. Despite what they had done, Yahweh had not abandoned them. And once the pieces of the Tabernacle were painstakingly fitted together, God would keep His promise and take up residence above the Mercy Seat within the Holy of Holies.

Moses must have felt a sense of eager anticipation as he thought about the next step. With everything ready and approved, it was time to begin the assembly of the Tabernacle. All the pieces were there, but now they must be carefully placed in their proper position so that, together, they could form God’s sanctuary.

The apostle Paul used a construction metaphor as a way to remind the Gentile believers in Ephesus of their rightful place in God’s house.

…you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. – Ephesians 2:19-22 NLT

From the smallest golden bell that would adorn the hem of the high priest’s robe to the heaviest beam that would hold up the roof of the Tabernacle itself, every piece was essential to the whole. No part was insignificant or could be left out if the Tabernacle was going to serve as the holy dwelling of Yahweh. Every single part had been designed by God Himself and they each had purpose and meaning. Paul used the analogy of the human body to convey God’s divine plan for His ultimate temple: the Church.

He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. – Ephesians 4:16 NLT

The most exciting part of the entire project was about to begin. Moses and the people of Israel were going to watch as the pieces were placed together, slowly transforming the parts into the whole. And soon, on the barren plains of the Sinai wilderness, the house of God would take form. The dream would become a reality. And once the Tabernacle was complete, the next step in the journey to the promised land could begin again.

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.

Robed in Righteousness

1 From the blue and purple and scarlet yarns they made finely woven garments, for ministering in the Holy Place. They made the holy garments for Aaron, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

He made the ephod of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen. And they hammered out gold leaf, and he cut it into threads to work into the blue and purple and the scarlet yarns, and into the fine twined linen, in skilled design. They made for the ephod attaching shoulder pieces, joined to it at its two edges. And the skillfully woven band on it was of one piece with it and made like it, of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

They made the onyx stones, enclosed in settings of gold filigree, and engraved like the engravings of a signet, according to the names of the sons of Israel. And he set them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod to be stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

He made the breastpiece, in skilled work, in the style of the ephod, of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen. It was square. They made the breastpiece doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth when doubled. 10 And they set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle was the first row; 11 and the second row, an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; 12 and the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; 13 and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They were enclosed in settings of gold filigree. 14 There were twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They were like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. 15 And they made on the breastpiece twisted chains like cords, of pure gold. 16 And they made two settings of gold filigree and two gold rings, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece. 17 And they put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece. 18 They attached the two ends of the two cords to the two settings of filigree. Thus they attached it in front to the shoulder pieces of the ephod. 19 Then they made two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. 20 And they made two rings of gold, and attached them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder pieces of the ephod, at its seam above the skillfully woven band of the ephod. 21 And they bound the breastpiece by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a lace of blue, so that it should lie on the skillfully woven band of the ephod, and that the breastpiece should not come loose from the ephod, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

22 He also made the robe of the ephod woven all of blue, 23 and the opening of the robe in it was like the opening in a garment, with a binding around the opening, so that it might not tear. 24 On the hem of the robe they made pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. 25 They also made bells of pure gold, and put the bells between the pomegranates all around the hem of the robe, between the pomegranates— 26 a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate around the hem of the robe for ministering, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

27 They also made the coats, woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, 28 and the turban of fine linen, and the caps of fine linen, and the linen undergarments of fine twined linen, 29 and the sash of fine twined linen and of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, embroidered with needlework, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

30 They made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and wrote on it an inscription, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the Lord.” 31 And they tied to it a cord of blue to fasten it on the turban above, as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Exodus 39:1-31 ESV

In this passage, Moses virtually repeats the instructions God had given him for the design of the high priest’s sacred robes. Chapter 28 contains the conversation that took place between God and Moses that set apart Aaron and his sons to serve as priests in God’s house.

“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. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. 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. – Exodus 28:1-3 ESV

Now, in chapter 39, Moses is describing Bezalel’s creation of those “holy garments” for Aaron and his sons. But something significant had taken place between these two chapters. Not long after God had given His blueprints for the Tabernacle and chosen Moses’ brother, Aaron to serve as high priest, the Israelites had chosen to turn their backs on God by demanding that Aaron make them replacements gods.

When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.”

So Aaron said, “Take the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters, and bring them to me.”

All the people took the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. Then Aaron took the gold, melted it down, and molded it into the shape of a calf. – Exodus 32:1-4 NLT

Rather than rebuke the Israelites for their rash and ungodly demand, Aaron obliged them by taking up an unsanctioned offering. He personally collected gold from the people and then hand-crafted it into an idol fashioned in the form of a calf. This “golden calf” was likely crafted in the likeness of the Egyptian god, Apis. The cult of Apis sanctioned the worship of a living bull that was worshiped during its lifetime and then mummified after death. Upon its death, the search began for a new calf that would take its place. The Egyptians believed the dead Apis bull reincarnated as a new calf and perpetuated its own line. They believed this “god” had been created by a bolt of lightning from heaven and by careful study of its behavior, the priests of the Apis cult could divine omens and declare sacred oracles.

Whether Aaron used this particular Egyptian god as the model for his golden calf idol is unclear. But in fashioning this false god, Aaron led the people into idolatry and away from worshiping Yahweh. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and discovered what had happened in his absence, he immediately confronted his brother.

“What did these people do to you to make you bring such terrible sin upon them?” – Exodus 32:21 NLT

Rather than own up to his role in the matter, Aaron tried to persuade Moses that he had been an unwilling pawn in the hands of the insurgents.

“Don’t get so upset, my lord,” Aaron replied. “You yourself know how evil these people are. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has gold jewelry, take it off.’ When they brought it to me, I simply threw it into the fire—and out came this calf!” – Exodus 32:22-24 NLT

He attempted to absolve himself from any responsibility in the affair. While 3,000 Israelites died for their roles in the rebellion, Aaron somehow escaped with his life. And when God sent a plague among the people of Israel as punishment for their idolatry, Aaron was spared once again. And amazingly, chapter 39 states that Bezalel and his craftsmen “made the holy garments for Aaron” (Exodus 39:1 ESV).

How could God allow this man to serve as the high priest over the nation of Israel? Had he not forfeited the right to wear the sacred garments and enter into the Holy of Holies where the presence of God was to dwell? Aaron had willingly and blatantly violated God’s commands.

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” – Exodus 20:3-5 ESV

And yet, this man would be allowed to wear the exquisitely crafted garments described in chapter 39, including “the ephod of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen” (Exodus 39:2 ESV). On his chest, he would wear the breastplate containing the “stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel” (Exodus 39:7 ESV). He would be adorned in a rich blue robe made from fine linen and hemmed with bells of pure gold and pomegranates made from blue, purple, and scarlet yarns. And on his head would be placed a turban with a golden plate that bore the inscription: “Holy to the Lord.”

Everything about this chapter seems wrong. It appears as if God has made an unwise and unjust decision by letting this man enjoy the privilege and honor of serving as the high priest. But God was not overlooking Aaron’s flaws and failures. He was not making concessions or compromising His holiness by appointing this obviously fallen man to such a lofty and sacred position. In a sense, Aaron was the perfect person for the role. He was a sinner who had been shown grace and mercy from God. He had deserved death for his actions but had been allowed to live so that he might offer atonement for the people of Israel.

As high priest, Aaron would serve on behalf of the people, but he would do so as one who struggled with sin just as they did. And because of his sinful nature, Aaron would be required to go through a ritual of purification before he would stand before God. He would also have to offer sacrifices on his own behalf before he could make atonement for the people. He too would have to experience the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God before he could serve as the people’s mediator. And the author of Hebrews reminds us that Aaron, in his role, was a foreshadowing of the greater high priest to come.

He [Jesus] is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. He has been set apart from sinners and has been given the highest place of honor in heaven. Unlike those other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices every day. They did this for their own sins first and then for the sins of the people. But Jesus did this once for all when he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins. The law appointed high priests who were limited by human weakness. But after the law was given, God appointed his Son with an oath, and his Son has been made the perfect High Priest forever. – Hebrews 7:26-28 NLT

Aaron would have to be made holy by God before he could serve. But Jesus was holy because He was God. In his humanity, Jesus was the visible image of the invisible God and His sinlessness made Him the perfect high priest. Jesus needed no purification. He required no robes to make Him holy. He had no sins of His own that demanded atonement. Unlike Aaron, Jesus was robed in perfect righteousness. He was the sinless Son of God who became the perfect high priest.

Aaron’s robes could only symbolize righteousness. But Jesus was righteousness incarnate.

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.

A Plea for God’s Mercy

1 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” – Exodus 34:1-9 ESV

As Moses stood in the tent of meeting at the outskirts of the camp, God agreed to give Moses a glimpse of His glory. But if Moses wanted to see his request fulfilled, he would first have to replace the tablets of stones he had shattered. The God-inscribed tablets lay in pieces on the valley floor where Moses had thrown them in anger when he discovered the sordid scene taking place among his people. Moses may have broken the tablets, but the law of God remained fully intact and in place. The holiness of God had not diminished and His holy expectations of His chosen people had not been altered by their actions. If anything, God’s righteous laws were more important than ever.

The people of Israel had shown their true colors. Their allegiance to God had been exposed for what it was, weak and vacillating. It had taken no time at all for their faithfulness to Yahweh to wane and their commitment to keeping His laws to disappear like the manna did when the sun came up in the morning. So, God demanded that Moses carve out two more tablets of stone and return to the top of Mount Sinai.

“Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones. I will write on them the same words that were on the tablets you smashed. Be ready in the morning to climb up Mount Sinai and present yourself to me on the top of the mountain. – Exodus 34:1-2 NLT

And as before, God restricted access to the mountain, warning that no other Israelite was to come anywhere near Sinai. Not even the flocks and herds of Israel were allowed to graze near the base of the mountain. God was going to descend on Mount Sinai, transforming the entire mountain into a sacred place or sanctuary. This warning was intended as a not-so-subtle reminder to the people of Israel that they served a holy and transcendent God who deserved their reverence and whose power should elicit fear and awe. This was the very same God who had promised to dwell among them in the Tabernacle that He had designed and commissioned them to build. At the moment, that sacred structure remained unbuilt but when completed, it too would become a holy place because it contained the glory of God’s presence.

Moses obeyed God’s command and chiseled out two new tablets to replace the ones he had broken. The original set had been hand-carved by God.

The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. – Exodus 32:16 ESV

This time, by having to do the difficult work of crafting the replacement stones, Moses would have skin in the game. Perhaps he would treat God’s laws with greater respect if he had some sweat equity in their creation. But there is something else going on here. When Moses returned to the top of the mountain, he would be carrying stones that he had crafted with his own hands. They would be poor facsimiles of the ones he had broken. There is no way that Moses could craft stone tablets that were equal in quality to those made by the hand of God. Yet, God promised to write His law on the flawed stones made by human hands.

Centuries later, the prophet, Jeremiah would write the following words from God concerning the people of Israel.

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. – Jeremiah 31:33 NLT

God was speaking of a future day when He would restore His rebellious people to a right relationship with Himself. They had broken His commands time and time again and were subject to His judgment for their disobedience. He was going to punish them for their failure to obey, but He also promised to restore them. But notice what God said. He would write His laws on their hearts. And the author of Hebrews picks up on this idea when he writes:

But when God found fault with the people, he said:

“The day is coming, says the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
    with the people of Israel and Judah.
This covenant will not be like the one
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    and led them out of the land of Egypt.
They did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    so I turned my back on them, says the Lord.
But this is the new covenant I will make
    with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
    and I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.” – Hebrews 8:8-10 NLT

In a sense, those stone tablets carved by Moses’ hands were meant to symbolize the hardened hearts of the people of Israel. When Moses carved those stones out of the mountainside, they proved to be stubbornly resistant to the blows of his chisel and hammer. But when he carried them up the mountain, they would become the receptacles of God’s divine law. God’s intention all along was the change the hearts of His people. Laws without willing hearts to obey them become nothing more than regulations that condemn.

The apostle Paul spoke of this very issue from a personal perspective. As a former Pharisee, he had done his best to try and obey the law, only to discover that it was impossible. His heart wasn’t in it.

I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good. – Romans 7:10-12 NLT

He wrote the believers in Galatia: “If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it” (Galatians 3:21 NLT). But the problem was not with the law; it was with the hearts of those who refused to obey the law.

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. – Romans 7:14 NLT

It’s interesting to note that, until God had given the Decalogue to Moses, there were no prohibitions against having any other gods than Yahweh. But once God had given the Ten Commandments to Moses and the people had agreed to obey them, the law became binding and irrefutable. They were non-optional. Not only that, they made sin indefensible. No Israelite could say he acted out of ignorance. All those who participated in the worship of the golden calf did so in spite of their understanding of God’s law and their verbal commitment to obey that law. They stood justly condemned.

And yet, God was graciously offering to provide them with another copy of His commands. This time, they would be written on hard, cold stones carved by the hands of Moses. But they would be just as binding and unbendable in their scope.

Before God inscribed His law on the new tablets, He kept His promise and revealed His glory to Moses. And His glorious presence was accompanied by the following speech.

“Yahweh! The Lord!
    The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
    and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
    I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
    I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
    even children in the third and fourth generations.” – Exodus 34:6-7 NLT

If you recall, God had earlier told Moses, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose” (Exodus 33:19 NLT). Now, as He revealed His glory to Moses, God expanded on that statement. He describes His own commitment to show compassion and mercy to His people. He declares His unfailing capacity to show love and to forgive. And yet, He affirms His right to judge the wicked and unrepentant. He declares His intention to hold the guilty accountable for their actions. Not only that, He states that future generations will inherit the guilt of their forefathers. But what is going on here? How do we justify this statement with God’s earlier promise of forgiveness? The key lies in the Ten Commandments themselves. In giving the first two laws, God had added the following condition.

“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. – Exodus 20:5 NLT

There was one sin that God would not forgive, and that was any rejection of Him as the one true God. He knew that this sin was particularly infectious. God knew that when the parents turned their backs on Him, the children would be prone to follow their example. And this hereditary sin would be passed down from generation to generation, with each subsequent generation bearing the guilt of their forefathers.

What had happened in the valley of Sinai was a serious breach of God’s law, but what made it even more dangerous was its potential for spreading a spirit of rebellion among the people of Israel. If it happened once, it could happen again and if it did, God would hold all those who rejected Him guilty and worthy of condemnation.

This foreboding word from God caused Moses to cry out, “Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession” (Exodus 34:9 NLT). He knew that without God’s presence, the people would be helpless, and without God’s forgiveness, they would be hopeless. So, he begged God to show mercy and extend forgiveness because he understood that the people of Israel were worthy of judgment. According to the law, they stood condemned. Which led Moses to appeal to the Law-giver to extend mercy and grace. It was their only hope.

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.

A Glimpse of God’s Goodness

12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”

17 And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:12-23 ESV

Moses was perplexed and personally concerned about God’s decision to remove His presence from the people of Israel. As the one commissioned to lead these “stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:3) to the promised land, Moses knew that, without God’s presence, his mission was doomed. God had declared His intention to vacate the premises because He knew the Israelites were going to continue their stiff-necked ways. Thousands of them had died as a result of their recent act of rebellion, so God told them, “You are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I were to travel with you for even a moment, I would destroy you” (Exodus 33:5 NLT).

Yet, He had ordered Moses to fulfill his original commission by leading the remaining Israelites to their final destination: “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3 ESV). Moses was expected to take this ragtag remnant of fickle Yahweh followers the rest of the way to Canaan but without the benefit of God’s presence. But the thought of trying to complete his task without God’s presence proved to be too much for Moses. So, he took his concerns to the Lord.

This time, rather than ascending back to the top of Mount Sinai, Moses entered the Tent of Meeting, “which was outside the camp” (Exodus 33:5 ESV). The text introduces this special meeting place just before Moses begins his conversation with God.

Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. – Exodus 33:8-9 ESV

This tent had served as a temporary “tabernacle” or sanctuary in which Moses would meet with God. It was located outside the camp and used as a kind of divine “phone booth” where Moses could communicate directly with God. Once the Tabernacle was constructed, this temporary tent of meeting would no longer be needed. But at this moment, with the Tabernacle yet to be built, Moses entered went outside the camp and entered the tent of meeting.

Moses had taken God’s announcement that He was removing His presence quite personally. From the moment God had commissioned him for this job, Moses had expressed his lack of qualifications.

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” – Exodus 3:11 ESV

Yet God had assured Moses, “I will be with you” (Exodus 33:12 ESV). And even when Moses had continued to express his strong doubts, God had told him, “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Exodus 4:12 ESV). But now, Moses was afraid that God was reneging on His promise. He had known all along that he was not up to the task, so the thought of leading the people of Israel on his own was more than he could stand. This led him to express his concern and consternation to Yahweh.

“See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. – Exodus 33:12 ESV

Moses begins his debate with a less-than-accurate statement. He claims that God has failed to identify the one who will be accompanying him to Canaan. God had clearly stated, “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exodus 33:2 ESV). But Moses wasn’t satisfied; he wanted more information. In a way, Moses was expressing his dissatisfaction with God’s alternative plan. He wasn’t content to have an angel serve as God’s proxy or stand-in. He wanted God Himself.

This led Moses to pull out his trump card. He appealed to the special relationship he enjoyed with Yahweh.

“…you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’” – Exodus 33:12 ESV

In a way, Moses was saying, “You say you love me, now prove it.” He was appealing to God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness. Moses had grown to appreciate the nature of God and was counting on Yahweh’s unwavering commitment to protecting His own reputation.

“…if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” – Exodus 33:13 ESV

Moses was pulling on God’s heartstrings. In a rather transparent attempt to “guilt” God, Moses appealed to His sense of righteousness. Didn’t God want to do the right thing? If Moses had found favor with God, wouldn’t God want to be favorable to Moses? Moses was trying to capitalize on his unique relationship with Yahweh, in the hopes of getting Him to reconsider His earlier decision.

Having heard Moses’ plea, God gave the answer Moses wanted to hear: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14 ESV). Yet even that positive affirmation was not quite enough for Moses. He wanted God to know just how important His presence was for this mission to be successful.

“If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place. How will anyone know that you look favorably on me—on me and on your people—if you don’t go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all other people on the earth.” – Exodus 33:15-16 NLT

Essentially, Moses was threatening to stay right where he was. If he had to stay the rest of his life in the wilderness of Sinai, where he was confident of God’s presence, he was willing to do so. Moses was willing to give up the promised land for the promise of God’s presence, power, and provision. Occupying the land of Canaan would be pointless because it was the presence of God that set the people of Israel apart from all the other nations on earth. Real estate or a relocation to a different spot on the map would not differentiate God’s people. Moses understood that it was God alone who made the people of Israel a holy nation. And God provided Moses with the further assurance he needed.

“I will indeed do what you have asked, for I look favorably on you, and I know you by name.” – Exodus 33:17 NLT

God would go with them. His presence would continue to dwell among them. But, almost pushing his luck, Moses made one more bold and daring request.

“Then show me your glorious presence.” – Exodus 33:18 NLT

Moses was asking for more. We know that when Moses entered the tent of meeting, “the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent” (Exodus 33:9 ESV). This tangible and visible sign of God’s presence hovered over the tent as Moses spoke with God, but Moses wanted a greater demonstration of God’s presence. He wanted to see God Himself – in all His glory.

And as proof of Moses’ favorable status, Yahweh agreed to give His servant a glimpse of His glory.

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name, Yahweh, before you. For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose. But you may not look directly at my face, for no one may see me and live.” – Exodus 33:19-20 NLT

What makes this concession so important is that God had already revealed Himself to Moses on more than one occasion. The first had taken place years earlier at the very same location in Sinai. Somewhere near Mount Sinai, Moses heard the voice of God speaking to him from the midst of a burning bush, which caused him to draw near. But “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6 ESV).

For more than a year, Moses had also witnessed the presence of God in the form of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Then there was the more recent occasion when he, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel shared a meal with God.

…they beheld God, and ate and drank. – Exodus 24:11 ESV

So, why was Moses requesting to see God’s glory? Notice that he did not ask for permission to see God’s face. He seems to have known better. The Hebrew word for “glory” is כָּבוֹד (kāḇôḏ), and it refers to God’s honor, splendor, or majesty. In a sense, Moses was asking to see more of God. Having feared the possible loss of God’s presence, Moses longed to see another manifestation of His glory and majesty. It is as if Moses was saying, “Show me more of Yourself!” And God’s response to Moses’ request was succinct.

I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

It is unclear what Moses was hoping to see. But God is quite clear and highly specific when He describes what aspect of His glory that He will allow His servant to observe. It will be the fulness of His goodness.

“In this instance, at least, God’s glory is his goodness. It is not his power, his majesty, or his awesomeness that will pass by Moses, but his goodness. And Moses has already seen a lot of that. God has mercifully sustained his people in Egypt. That’s his goodness. God has dramatically delivered his people from their captors. That’s his goodness. God has graciously provided for his people in the wilderness and protected them. That’s his goodness. God has graciously entered into a covenant with his people at Sinai. That’s his goodness.” – Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus

God agreed to let Moses get a glimpse of His goodness, and He summarizes exactly what His goodness entails.

I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

To “see” God is to glimpse His goodness in the form of His grace and mercy. Moses, Aaron, and the rest of the people of Israel had seen God’s goodness repeatedly. Most recently, it had shown up in God mercifully sparing them from judgment. Despite what had happened at Sinai, they were alive and still able to worship and obey God. And God demonstrated His grace and mercy in how He revealed His goodness to Moses.

“…while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:22-23 ESV

God spared Moses” life by answering his request in this way. Had Moses seen the face of God, his life would have ended in death. But that day, Moses got a glimpse of God’s goodness and lived to tell about it. As the glory of God “passed by,” Moses was covered by the protective power of God’s goodness. The all-powerful and holy God of the universe placed His hand over His servant to protect him from certain death. Moses got to see the “back” of God, but the good news was that God was not leaving. Not only would He not abandon them., but He would renew His covenant commitment to them.

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.

The Altar of Incense

1 “You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth. It shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and around its sides and its horns. And you shall make a molding of gold around it. And you shall make two golden rings for it. Under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony, where I will meet with you. And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. 10 Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.” – Exodus 30:1-10 ESV

Back in chapter 25, God gave instructions regarding the primary pieces of furniture to be contained in the Tabernacle. He includes the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the table for the bread of the presence, and the Golden Lampstand. Each of these intricately designed pieces was to be placed within the two inner chambers of the Tabernacle. But there was one item left off the list: The Altar of Incense. For some unexplained reason, God did not mention this piece until after He had outlined the ordination ceremony for the priests.

There has been much debate about this apparent “misplacement” of the altar’s description in the narrative. Some have argued that it provides proof that the book of Exodus was amended by outside editors. There is a long history among editorial critics of the Bible that the book of Exodus was not written by Moses but was compiled by a variety of authors and edited into its current form. But why would these editors have placed the design of the altar in chapter 30 rather than chapter 25? That makes no sense. If anything, the delayed introduction of the Altar of Incense was perfectly timed by God Himself. He revealed it to Moses at just the right moment.

The Altar of Incense would be a vital part of the worship of Yahweh performed by Aaron and his sons. The placement of the Altar of Incense reveals the nature of its importance. It was to be located within the Holy Place just in front of the veil that led into the Holy of Holies. On the other side of that veil was the Mercy Seat, which was intended to be the throne of God on earth. It was there that His divine presence would reside. So, this small wooden box, covered in gold, was to be placed before the entrance into God’s presence. God was very specific about its placement.

“Place the incense altar just outside the inner curtain that shields the Ark of the Covenant, in front of the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—that covers the tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. I will meet with you there.” – Exodus 30:6 NLT

The incense altar was to be flanked by the Golden Lampstand and the Table of Showbread. But only it led into the Holy of Holies. And God gave Moses strict instructions regarding its use.

“Every morning when Aaron maintains the lamps, he must burn fragrant incense on the altar. And each evening when he lights the lamps, he must again burn incense in the Lord’s presence. This must be done from generation to generation. Do not offer any unholy incense on this altar, or any burnt offerings, grain offerings, or liquid offerings.” – Exodus 30:7-9 NLT

This helps to explain the delayed description of this particular piece of furniture. Its use required the presence of a fully consecrated high priest. While the Golden Lampstand and the Table of Showbread also required the services of the high priest, the Altar of Incense was different. Its entire purpose was for burning incense before the Lord, and this ritual was to be performed twice a day for perpetuity. God even provided Moses with the recipe for making the incense.

“Gather fragrant spices—resin droplets, mollusk shell, and galbanum—and mix these fragrant spices with pure frankincense, weighed out in equal amounts. Using the usual techniques of the incense maker, blend the spices together and sprinkle them with salt to produce a pure and holy incense. Grind some of the mixture into a very fine powder and put it in front of the Ark of the Covenant, where I will meet with you in the Tabernacle. You must treat this incense as most holy. Never use this formula to make this incense for yourselves. It is reserved for the Lord, and you must treat it as holy. Anyone who makes incense like this for personal use will be cut off from the community.” – Exodus 30:34-38 NLT

Even the spice itself was set apart for God’s use. Its proprietary formula was reserved solely for the worship of God, and Aaron and his sons were prohibited from replicating it for personal use. So, every morning and evening, Aaron would enter the Holy Place dressed in his priestly robes and offer up the incense to God.

According to the book of Leviticus, Aaron was only to use coals from the Bronze Altar to burn incense before the Lord.

“Aaron will present his own bull as a sin offering to purify himself and his family, making them right with the Lord. After he has slaughtered the bull as a sin offering, he will fill an incense burner with burning coals from the altar that stands before the Lord. Then he will take two handfuls of fragrant powdered incense and will carry the burner and the incense behind the inner curtain. There in the Lord’s presence he will put the incense on the burning coals so that a cloud of incense will rise over the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—that rests on the Ark of the Covenant. If he follows these instructions, he will not die. – Leviticus 16:11-13 NLT

God stressed the importance that Aaron use the Altar of Incense properly by threatening him with the possibility of death for any breach of protocol. And the book of Leviticus tells us that Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu chose to violate God’s commands and lost their lives in the process.

…each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. – Leviticus 10:1-2 ESV

It seems that rather than using coals from the Bronze Altar as God had commanded, they chose a different source. In doing so, the smoke from the incense became unacceptable to God, and they paid for this violation with their lives.

There is no explanation given regarding the real purpose behind the burning of the incense, but elsewhere in the Scriptures, it is tied to prayer. King David would write in one of his psalms:

O Lord, I am calling to you. Please hurry!
    Listen when I cry to you for help!
Accept my prayer as incense offered to you,
    and my upraised hands as an evening offering. – Psalm 141:2 NLT

In the book of Revelation, the apostle John records his vision of the throneroom of God in heaven.

…the four living beings and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp, and they held gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. – Revelation 5:8 NLT

Then another angel with a gold incense burner came and stood at the altar. And a great amount of incense was given to him to mix with the prayers of God’s people as an offering on the gold altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out. – Revelation 8:3-4 NLT

So, as Aaron offered up incense each morning and evening, it represented the prayers of God’s people. Dressed in his sacred and sanctified robes, the high priest took coals from the Bronze Altar and lit the holy incense before the veil that led into God’s presence. The smoke, symbolizing the prayers of the people, would rise before God, whose divine presence resided on the Mercy Seat. This scene, repeated every day, twice a day, would foreshadow the role of the Holy Spirit after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. – Romans 8:26-27 NLT

God desires to intercede on behalf of His people. He hears and responds to their prayers. And, in offering up incense, Aaron would be symbolically presenting the desires of the people before the throne of God.

Centuries later, when Solomon dedicated the newly built temple in Jerusalem, God placed His seal of approval on it and made a solemn promise to hear and answer the prayers of His people.

“…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14-15 ESV

The key to understanding this passage is the issue of holiness. God expected His people to live holy lives. He gave the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant so that they might know exactly how to conduct themselves as His chosen people. The entire Tabernacle was built upon the foundation of holiness. Every aspect of its design and every facet of its functionality was tied to holiness. Everything, including the priest and his garments, had to be purified and sanctified so that God could be worshiped properly. There was no room for error. The prayers of the people had to be offered in the right way if they wanted to hear from God. And even the Altar of Incense itself had to be purified annually so that the holy incense and the prayers of the people would rise before God as a pleasing aroma. There were to be no shortcuts. No concessions or compromises were allowed. Holiness was and still is the only acceptable standard.

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.

The Court of the Tabernacle

“You shall make the court of the tabernacle. On the south side the court shall have hangings of fine twined linen a hundred cubits long for one side. 10 Its twenty pillars and their twenty bases shall be of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. 11 And likewise for its length on the north side there shall be hangings a hundred cubits long, its pillars twenty and their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. 12 And for the breadth of the court on the west side there shall be hangings for fifty cubits, with ten pillars and ten bases. 13 The breadth of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. 14 The hangings for the one side of the gate shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. 15 On the other side the hangings shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. 16 For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. It shall have four pillars and with them four bases. 17 All the pillars around the court shall be filleted with silver. Their hooks shall be of silver, and their bases of bronze. 18 The length of the court shall be a hundred cubits, the breadth fifty, and the height five cubits, with hangings of fine twined linen and bases of bronze. 19 All the utensils of the tabernacle for every use, and all its pegs and all the pegs of the court, shall be of bronze. – Exodus 27:9-19 ESV

The Tabernacle was meant to function as the house of God in the wilderness. But despite His willingness to dwell among them, God would not allow the Israelites to have free and open access to His presence. When God was preparing to appear on Mount Sinai to give the Law to Moses, He instructed Moses to put a barrier around the base of the mountain.

“…the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death…’” – Exodus 19:11-12 ESV

In the same way, God placed barriers around the Tabernacle so that the people would not be tempted to enter His presence. The Ark of the Covenant, upon which the Mercy Seat was located, was placed in the innermost section of the Tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies. It was in this secret and secluded area of the Tabernacle that God’s glory would reside and only the high priest was allowed to enter once a year on the Day of Atonement. And even he had to go through an intense purification process before he could come before Yahweh.

The Holy of Holies was separated from the Holy Place by a thick veil. This handcrafted curtain was made from  “finely woven linen” and decorated “with blue, purple, and scarlet thread and with skillfully embroidered cherubim” (Exodus 26:31 NLT). The curtain was hung from gold hooks attached to four posts of acacia wood. The posts were overlaid with and set in four silver bases. And God made it clear that this curtain was to “separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place” (Exodus 26:33 NLT).

But the curtain was also designed to prevent anyone from viewing God’s glory. The Ark of the Covenant and Mercy Seat were considered holy and set apart entirely for God’s use. No human being was to touch them. That is why the Ark was made with poles designed for carrying it. Whenever it came time to break camp and move, the Tabernacle had to be deconstructed and transported to the next location. The Kohathites were responsible for carrying the Ark and the poles were there to protect them from touching the Ark as they moved it to the new campsite. And before the Ark could leave the inner recesses of the Holy of Holies, it had to be covered so that the Israelites would be prevented from seeing it.

“The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects. When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.” – Numbers 4:4-6 NLT

There is a story in the book of 1 Chronicles that reveals why God placed such stringent rules around the transportation of this one piece of furniture.

David summoned all Israel, from the Shihor Brook of Egypt in the south all the way to the town of Lebo-hamath in the north, to join in bringing the Ark of God from Kiriath-jearim. Then David and all Israel went to Baalah of Judah (also called Kiriath-jearim) to bring back the Ark of God, which bears the name of the Lord who is enthroned between the cherubim. They placed the Ark of God on a new cart and brought it from Abinadab’s house. Uzzah and Ahio were guiding the cart. David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, singing songs and playing all kinds of musical instruments—lyres, harps, tambourines, cymbals, and trumpets.

But when they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the Ark. Then the Lord’s anger was aroused against Uzzah, and he struck him dead because he had laid his hand on the Ark. So Uzzah died there in the presence of God. – 1 Chronicles 13:5-10 NLT

In his zeal, David ignored God’s commands and Uzzah lost his life. These restrictions were real and the consequences for violating them were deadly. Everything about the Tabernacle was meant to convey the holiness of God. His presence among them was not an open invitation to treat Him with brazen familiarity or disrespect. The design of the Tabernacle was intended to be a constant reminder of God’s glory and man’s sinfulness. His “tent” was different than all the rest. It was ordained with precious metals and finely woven fabric. His home did not have a welcome mat outside the front door because sin separated the people of Israel from their God. The presence of the Bronze Altar outside the entrance of the Tabernacle was a vivid reminder that sacrifice was necessary before anyone could enter into God’s presence.

King David would later ask the question: “Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord? Who may enter your presence on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1 NLT). And he would go on to answer his own question.

Those who lead blameless lives and do what is right,
    speaking the truth from sincere hearts.
Those who refuse to gossip
    or harm their neighbors
    or speak evil of their friends.
Those who despise flagrant sinners,
    and honor the faithful followers of the Lord,
    and keep their promises even when it hurts.
Those who lend money without charging interest,
    and who cannot be bribed to lie about the innocent.
Such people will stand firm forever. – Psalm 15:2-5 NLT

David was stating that no one was qualified to enter into God’s presence. Sin created a barrier that prevented anyone from waltzing into the sanctuary of God unannounced, uninvited, and unclean. It was David who also wrote:

The Lord looks down from heaven
    on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
    if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one! – Psalm 14:2-3 NLT

This sad reality is the reason God placed so many restrictions and restraints on the Israelite’s interaction with the Tabernacle. He even placed a fence around His house to prevent uninvited intruders or prying eyes.

“This fence marked the tabernacle’s outer boundary. It measured approximately seventy-five feet by 150 feet, for a total area of more than 10,000 square feet. By way of comparison, this is roughly the size of four tennis courts. The Tent of Meeting took up less than 1,000 square feet; so there was plenty of open area. The courtyard fence consisted of sixty pillars set into sixty bases and joined by white linen curtains. The fence was nearly eight feet tall, which permitted the Israelites to see the top of the tabernacle and the smoke rising from the altar, but not what happened inside.” – Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved For God’s Glory

There was only one entrance into the courtyard, and it led straight to the Bronze Altar, where sacrifice for sins was made. That was the key to entering into God’s presence. Sin separates man from God, but atonement restores fellowship. David also wrote of the joy of restored fellowship with God made possible through sacrifice.

Though we are overwhelmed by our sins,
    you forgive them all.
What joy for those you choose to bring near,
    those who live in your holy courts.
What festivities await us
    inside your holy Temple. – Psalm 65:3-4 NLT

Psalm 84 reflects the hope that the Tabernacle provided to the people of Israel. Their God was transcendent and holy, but He had made Himself available and approachable through the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system.

How lovely is your dwelling place,
    O Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
I long, yes, I faint with longing
    to enter the courts of the Lord.
With my whole being, body and soul,
    I will shout joyfully to the living God. – Psalm 84:1-2 NLT

Sin was always the real barrier that prevented mankind from entering into God’s presence. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they were cast out and separated from the God with whom they once enjoy unbroken fellowship.

After sending them out, the Lord God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden. And he placed a flaming sword that flashed back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. – Genesis 3:24 NLT

And with the Tabernacle, God placed protective barriers around His presence so that His people might not die due to their sinfulness. But He also provided an entrance. There was a way to come into His presence, but it was only through the shedding of blood as atonement for sin. And it was this joyful reality that led the psalmist to write:

A single day in your courts
    is better than a thousand anywhere else!
I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God
    than live the good life in the homes of the wicked.
For the Lord God is our sun and our shield.
    He gives us grace and glory.
The Lord will withhold no good thing
    from those who do what is right.
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
    what joy for those who trust in you. – Psalm 84:10-12 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.