The Consecration of the Priests

After the description of the priest’s garments, the consecration ritual for the priests is provided (Ex. 29). The opening verses set out the supplies that will be used in ceremonies described later in the chapter (Ex. 29:1-3). Next Aaron and his sons were to be washed, clothed, and anointed (Ex. 29:4-9). The washing indicates the need for cleansing before being invested with “holy garments” (Ex. 28:2). The garments are listed (calling to mind briefly the significance of each raised by the previous chapter). The anointing with oil is the symbol of the ordination.

A series of sacrifices follow the washing, investing, and anointing. The first offering was to be a sin/purification offering (Ex. 29:10-14).* This sacrifice was offered to atone for sins committed when one strayed from the commandments of God.** Next Moses was to offer a ram as a burn offering (Ex. 29:15-18). The burnt offering probably symbolized the entire consecration of the one who offered it since this sacrifice was entirely burned. The second ram, called the ram of ordination, was killed and it was used in two stages. First, its blood was applied to Aaron, his sons, and their garments (Ex 29:19-21). This sacrifice was to make the priests and their garments holy. Next this ram along with some bread was used as a wave offering. Wave offerings are often (though not always) connected with peace offerings, as is the case here (Ex. 29:28). There may be a progression here from the sin offering that provided purification from sin, to the burnt offering which symbolized entire consecration, to the ram of ordination which was used, along with the ordination, as part of a peace offering which may symbolize fellowship with God.

Exodus 29:29-30 turns the emphasis to the garments worn by the priests and it raises the matter of succession. Then follows a description of a meal from the ordination  ram (Ex. 29:31-34). This seems to indicate fellowship now made possible through atonement. This is followed by instructions for a seven day series of sin offerings and consecrations of the altar in connection with the ordination (Ex. 29:35-37).

The chapter closes by moving from the ordination to the work that the priests were ordained to do. They were to offer morning and evening sacrifices (Ex. 29:38-42). The great significance of the priesthood , and the tabernacle, and the sacrifices are found in the last verses of the chapter—Exodus 29:42-46. The tabernacle was the place where God would meet with his people. It was a holy place were this meeting could take place. Furthermore, not only would God meet with his people at the tabernacle, he would dwell among them, and he would be their God. And, in a theme that runs throughout Exodus, they would know that he is the Lord God.

*Milgrom argues for the translation “purification offering” on the grounds that (1) it is sometimes offered in cases other than to atone for sins (Lev. 8:15; 12:6; Num. 6:10) and (2) the term חַטָּאת is derived from the piel which means “to cleanse, expurgate, decontaminate.” Jacob Milgrom, “Sin-Offering or Purification-Offering?” Vetus Testamentum 21 (April 1971): 237. Averbeck accepts Milgrom’s reasoning but offers the caution, “it should not be taken to mean that the sin offering only applied to issues of physical (amoral) uncleanness. According to Leviticus 4:2, for example, it applied to ‘any of the Lord’s commandments.’” “Sacrifices and Offerings,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 718.

**Roy Beacham argues that שְׁגָגָה or שׁגה, which are usually translated “unintentionally” or “sins unintentionally,” should simply be translated “in error” or “to go astray.” He argues that if the sin is unintentional there needs to be a qualifying phrase that makes that point. In arguing for this position Beacham notes it is impossible to commit the sin noted in Lev. 5:1 unintentionally. Texts outside the Pentateuch also confirm that sins designated as שְׁגָגָה or שׁגה are known sins (Psa. 119:118; Pro. 5:23; 19:27; 28:10; 1 Sam. 26:21).

Exodus 28—Priestly Garments

Exodus 28 provides details about the garments worn by those called to serve as priests. At the beginning and ending of the chapter (Exod. 28:2, 40), God says the garments are for glory and beauty. This highlights the importance of the priestly service.

Much of the description in this chapter simply emphasizes the glory and beauty of the garments. Some of the details, however, seem to carry special significance.

Like the chapters describing the tabernacle, this chapter also emphasizes the presence of God. Several times the priest is said to enter “before Yahweh” [לִפְנֵי־יְהוָה] (Exod. 28:12, 29, 30, 35, 38). Aaron and his sons are called out of Israel to mediate between God and the nation.

The first piece of priestly clothing described in depth is the ephod (Ex. 28:6-13). Stuart notes the fabric from which the ephod was to be made matched the colors used within the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. He also notes the misuse of an ephod by Gideon. He surmises from these two facts that the ephod was a symbol of God’s presence among his people.

Exodus 28:9-12 speaks of stones with the names of the sons of Israel engraved on them. The priests bears the stones as memorials [זִכָּרֹן] before the Lord.

Thus the high priest is a mediator between God and the people. The ephod symbolizes God’s presence among the people as he moves among them wearing the gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarns—the colors of God’s dwelling place. The stones on the shoulders of the ephod represent the people being brought into the presence of God. by the priest.

The next article of clothing, the breast-piece (Exod. 28:15-30), also emphasizes God’s presence (לִפְנֵי־יְהוָה occurs 3x in Ex. 28:29-30). The breast-piece also uses stones inscribed with the names of the sons of Israel to bring them before the Lord as a remembrance [זִכָּרֹן] (Exod. 28:29).

The breast-piece further indicates God’s presence with his people because it was used or God to render decisions [מִשְׁפָּט] from God for his people (Exod. 28:15, 30).

Exodus 28:31-35 deals with the priest’s robe. It is not clear if there is significance to the blue, the pomegranate, or the collar aside from the fact that the garments were to be made for glory and beauty. The section climaxes, however, with the need for bells on his robe as Aaron enters the holy place before the Lord so that he does not die. The words “holy place” [הַקֹּדֶשׁ] “before Yahweh” [לִפְנֵי־יְהוָה] and “not die” [וְלא יָמוּת] are key words. When someone comes before the Lord, he enters a holy place because God is holy. But for the gracious provision of God, those who enter are liable to die.

Holiness is a theme that runs throughout the chapter. God identifies the garments of the priest as “holy garments” (Exod. 28:2). The are a necessary part of his consecration to the priesthood [לְקַדְּשׁוֹ] (Exod. 28:3, 41). These are the garments necessary for Aaron to enter the Holy Place (Exod. 28:29, 35, 43).

The emphasis on holiness climaxes in Exodus 28:36-38 which deal with the plate that goes on the front of the high priest’s turban. it reads “Holiness to the Lord” [קדשׁ ליהוה]. Holiness is a key word in this section. Because of the plate Aaron could bear the iniquity of the holy things [הקדשׁים] which the sons of Israel consecrated [יקדושׁו] as holy gifts [מתנת קדשׁיהם]. Aaron does this when he comes before the Lord [לפני יהוה]. The idea seems to be that the plate declared the high priest holy and therefore worthy of bearing the iniquity of the consecrated holy gifts, thus making these offerings acceptable to God.

Verses 39-43 wrap up the instructions about clothing for the priests. Once again, as at the beginning the clothing is said to be for glory and for beauty [לכבוד ולתפארת]. The passage also notes that they should be anointed [משׁח] as part the consecration [לְקַדְּשׁוֹ] for their office.

The passage closes by describing undergarments. It may seem odd to end this list of regulations with undergarments, but if the priests’ nakedness was exposed to God’s holy things, they would die. This likely has connections back to the shame Adam and Eve had over their nakedness after they sinned and the need for clothing. It also highlights the danger in unholy man coming into the presence of God.

In the Fall mankind was thrust from God’s presence. The Tabernacle regulations and these instructions for the priest’s garments show that God’s gracious restoration of his presence to his people is no light matter. Because of his holiness and their uncleanness, the penalty for sin—death—was an ever-present threat.

The Bronze Altar

The Tabernacle proper and the furniture described in Exodus 25 symbolize the presence of God among his people. The curtains in chapter 26 indicate the restricted access to God’s presence. They set up barriers to the symbols of God’s presence, and later laws would restrict who could pass those barriers and at what times.

The bronze altar (27:1-8) sat in the tabernacle courtyard. It demonstrated to the people that there could be no access to God without a substitutionary sacrifice.

The Tabernacle and the Presence and Distance of God

If Exodus 25 spotlights Tabernacle furniture that symbolized God’s presence, chapter 26, with its description of curtains and frames, highlights God’s distance from his people. The furniture was to be hidden away under curtains. And the curtains that would most clearly indicate the presence of God—those with the cherubim—were to be hidden under other curtains.

The Tabernacle was forward movement in the plan of redemption. God was coming to dwell with his people. But it was also a sign that more needed to be done for God’s people to be restored to full fellowship with him.

More on the Tabernacle

Enns observes a few key textual factors that point to the tabernacle as a recreated Eden.

Commentators for centuries have noticed that the phrase ‘the LORD said to Moses’ occurs seven times in chapters 25-31. The first six concern the building of the tabernacle and its furnishings (25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1), while the final introduces the Sabbath command (31:12). It seems clear that the purpose of this arrangement is to aid the reader in making the connection between the building of the tabernacle and the seven days of creation, both of which involve six creative acts culminating in a seventh-day rest.

Peter Enns, Exodus, NIVAC, 509. [The weakness of the observation is the clustering of the sayings in ch. 30; why does it not occur consistently at key points of the building process?]

Interestingly the very next event recorded (Ex. 32) is a fall. There a couple of occasions in Scripture in which there is a "recreation" followed by a fall. (The Flood is one example. The passage is full of creation language. It is as if the world is washed clean and recreated. And the next recorded incident after God’s rainbow covenant with Noah is a fall). These passages emphasize the depth to which sin is engraved in the human person. To remove sin there will need to be a real recreation.

Also important to notice, the fall in Exodus 32 puts God’s presence among his people in jeopardy.

The Tabernacle and the Presence of God

The Tabernacle was a visible symbol of God’s presence among his people (Ex 25:8). This was a blessing not to be under-appreciated. When Adam and Eve were thrust from Eden, they were thrust from the presence of God. The Tabernacle was the first step toward God dwelling with his people once again.

Interestingly, it seems that all of the furniture described in Exodus 25 reinforces the concept of God’s presence.

The ark is the first piece of tabernacle furniture mentioned. It is the "supreme post-Sinai symbol of the Presence of Yahweh" (Durham, 350 cited by Enns, 511). Since Scripture reveals that Yahweh was enthroned between the cherubim (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 80:1; 99:1), the ark, with the cherubim on its lid symbolizes Yahweh’s throne.

The table also testified to God’s presence with his people. The twelve (=tribes) loaves of bread laid on the table were called "bread of the Presence" (ESV, NASB, HCSB, NIV; "shewbread," KJV; Heb, לחם פנים). Leviticus reveals that the priests were to eat this bread each Sabbath in the Holy Place, which probably indicates God’s fellowship with his people.

The lamp is made to look like a tree, and several commentators think the lamp is meant to symbolize the tree of life (Staurt is the most helpful on this point; he makes the best use of cross references).

If the lamp does indeed picture the tree of life, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was like a miniature Eden built in the wilderness [G. K. Beale has some similar ideas in The Temple and the Church's Mission, but he argues Eden was a "temple." I think this argues backwards; the tabernacle and temple were like Eden]. This is an Eden that is also a continual reminder of sin, however. The people are still barred from the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. Only priestly mediators are permitted to enter there.

Frame says the biblical story "is the narrative of God coming to be with his people as their Lord, in his control, authority, and presence" (DCL, 273). The construction of the Tabernacle is a major step toward the realization of God dwelling once more with man. It also reveals the need for the remainder of the plan of redemption.

Exodus 20:20

Exodus 20:20 intrigues the attentive reader with an interesting juxtaposition of ideas. The delivery of the Decalogue with its accompanying theophanic thundering, lighting, trumpeting, and smoking supplies the context for the verse. The people were afraid, and they moved from the foot of the mountain (19:17) to a place “far off” (20:18) (Currid, 2:53). They pled with Moses to serve as their mediator because they feared God would strike them dead.

Exodus 20:20 is Moses’ response to these fears. He first of all rebukes the people for their fear: “Do not fear.” He explains to them the cause of God’s coming (marked by the כִּי). God came to test them, not to kill them. Furthermore, God intended this test to produce fear(!) in the people.

At Sinai God came to test his people in a way that should remove one kind of fear and should instill another kind of fear.

This raises the question of how God’s coming at Sinai was a test for the people. Similar occurrences of the word “test” [נִסָה] (Gen 22:1; Ex 15:25; Ex 16:4; Deut 8:2; Deut 8:16; Deut 13:3; Judg 2:22; Jdg 3:1; Jdg 3:4; Ps 26:2) indicate that God tests his people to reveal if they will obey him (in Deut. 13:3 the test reveals whether or not they love him). But the purpose [וּבַעֲבוּר] of this test, at least as stated in this verse, is not to reveal something but to produce something: people that fear God in such a way that they do not sin.

Helfmeyer, following Noth, says “The people assembled at Sinai passed the test: they ‘have shown the right ‘fear’ of God and have not attempted to go too near the theophany” (TDOT, 9:451; cf Stuart, NAC, 469). This, however, misses Moses initial statement, “Do not fear.”

The children of Israel seemed to have failed this test. The test revealed in their hearts a fear that drove them from God. It should have produced a fear that drove them closer to God. The fear God intended to produce by the test at Sinai included the idea of dread (with Stuart, NAC, 469; against Currid, 54, who downgrades the term to mere “reverence”) because the fear of God includes fear of judgment (cf. Ex. 20:5; Deut 17:13; 21:21; Matt. 10:28; Heb. 4:1; 10:27, 31; cf. John Murray, Principles of Conduct, 233f.). But right fear of God–the kind of fear not forbidden–is more extensive than mere dread. As John Murray says, “The fear of God in which godliness consists is the fear which constrains adoration and love. It is the fear which consists in awe, reverence, honour, and worship, and all of these on the highest level of exercise” (Principles of Conduct, 236; cf. Deut 6:2 with 6:5; Deut 10:12; Josh 24:14; 1 Sam 12:24; Psalm 112:1; Pro 8:13).

The fear that the test at Sinai should have produced is modeled by Isaiah in the sixth chapter of his book. There he combined “Woe to me, for I am destroyed” (6:5) with “Behold me; send me” (6:8). Implicit in God’s command for Israel not to fear so as to draw back but to fear so as not to sin is the promise of mercy enacted in Isaiah 6:6-7. For those with ears to ear, Exodus 20:20 was a promise to Israel that God would provide atonement for their sin.