The altar of incense is much smaller than the bronze altar and never receives an animal sacrifice, grain or drink offering (Exodus 30:9). It is placed in front of the ark of the testimony, also in front of the curtain that separates the Most Holy Place (with the ark of the testimony) from the Holy Place (where the table and the lampstand are located; Exodus 26:33-35; 30:6). Therefore, as regards physical placement, the altar of incense is the object closest to the ark and the Presence of Yahweh.
Aaron is going to burn aromatic incense on the altar of incense (or altar of gold) each morning as he prepares the lamps and at twilight (Exodus 30:8). Sometime during the history of the tabernacle or the temple that will replace it centuries later, the Israelites began to associate their petitions in prayer with the rising of the smoke of the incense before Yahweh’s Presence. Therefore in the New Testament when Zechariah the priest enters the temple of the Lord to burn incense, it says, “And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense” (Luke 1:10). Also John’s vision in the book of Revelation tells us, “Another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (Revelation 8:3-4).
The atonement money will be a half-shekel tax per person (Exodus 30:13). The offerings for the construction of the tabernacle will be voluntary (Exodus 25:1-8), but the payment of this money is obligatory (Exodus 30:13-14). Everyone must pay the same whether he is rich or poor (Exodus 30:15).
The money (or better yet, the small unit or weight of silver) will be used for casting the bases of the sanctuary and the veil in front of the ark, also for capitals and hooks for the pillars (Exodus 38:25-28). But, why do they call it “atonement money”? We are going to read about Israelite religious practices and note, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22). Did they pay for the forgiveness of their sins?
No. Apparently the taking of a census among the Israelites left them guilty after being counted. It may be that as they were counted, as they proudly declared where they were from or their family of origin, as they showed off their large families, as others eagerly calculated the number of possible soldiers to form a large army and proudly shared the final results, everyone was tempted to the sin of pride… leaving little or no glory for Yahweh, the One who gave them life, their families and military victory. Pharaoh was defeated because of pride; it’s better that the Israelites do not fall into the same sin: “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them (Exodus 30:12). Nobody can boast; everyone has to pay the same amount in recognition that Yahweh gave them the life that allows them to be counted. That way their lives are rescued from the just punishment that pride deserves.
The bronze basin is placed between the bronze altar and the tabernacle. Each time a priest walks between the altar and the tabernacle, he must stop and wash his hands and feet (Exodus 30:19-21). Throughout the day and every day he will be reminded that in order to serve Yahweh and intercede for His people, he must be clean, not defiled; he must stop and think about personal holiness, not just minister in a hurry.
Exodus 30 ends with the recipes and emphasis on holiness for the anointing oil and the incense.
In Exodus 31, Yahweh explains that He has filled Bezalel and Oholiab with His Spirit for the construction of the tabernacle. And to protect everyone from their own enthusiasm and eagerness to complete this sacred work as quickly as possible, He reminds them that they must rest on the Sabbath day or they will most certainly be put to death (Exodus 31:15). The lesson to Moses and the others is clear: even the work of building the tabernacle, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is no excuse for disobeying His command regarding the Sabbath.
When Moses receives the two tablets of the testimony written by the finger of God, it seems like we’ve closed the section on the tabernacle (Exodus 31:18). What a blessing! Now it is just a matter of obeying what Yahweh has commanded… but we didn’t take into consideration the evil sin nature of God’s people.
The change from Exodus 24 – 31 to chapter 32 is shocking. (Chapter 32 is included in today’s reading precisely so we can feel that shock!) After the theophany and Yahweh’s declaration of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, after the celebration of the covenant in Exodus 24, after all the detailed instructions about the tabernacle, how is it possible for the Israelites to disobey the commandment about idolatry so quickly?
The time that Moses spent on the mountain is an unacceptable excuse. To the Israelites: “Moses delayed to come down from the mountain… As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1). But notice that to Yahweh: “They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them” (Exodus 32:8). In a short time they have violated the covenant with Yahweh and deserve to be destroyed in just judgment: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Exodus 32:9-10).
Wait a minute. Before we keep reading… does Yahweh really need to ask Moses for some space and some time alone before he executes His just judgment against Israel? Notice that Yahweh, in the midst of His righteous wrath, is inviting Moses to intercede for the people… and he does so immediately. “But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?’” (Exodus 32:11) And as we reach the end of this conversation in verse 14, we should be amazed:
1) for the intercession of Moses, one who preferred to protect and represent a sinful people rather than begin his own chosen nation, and
2) for the change of course by Yahweh, the One who held back His just wrath because He is also profoundly merciful. He is the God who listens attentively to the intercessory prayers of His chosen ones.
Finishing chapter 32, we still don’t know the outcome of this story. What will happen to the tabernacle? Will Yahweh dwell with them? Now that the Israelites have broken the covenant, will Yahweh abandon them? We’ll see the answers to these questions and many others in the following readings.