The bronze altar is basically a huge grill, but it means much more than that. It is where the Israelite priests will burn almost all of their sacrifices. Outside the tabernacle, before Yahweh’s Presence, the bronze altar is the place where the sins of the Israelites are expiated (along with the mercy seat of the ark, which we will see again in Leviticus 16), a place for their sanctification and consecration, a place where they offer thanks to God and celebrate their communion with Him. The relationship of the entire nation with Yahweh, individually and as a group, has its focus on this altar. Without the sacrifices presented and burned here, there is no forgiveness of sins, holiness, consecration, thanksgiving, approach or communion with Yahweh.
The court of the tabernacle is the priests’ workplace to prepare the sacrifices. Its fence of columns and curtains separates it from the rest of the camp and preserves the sanctity of the entire tabernacle: the people can’t walk in out of curiosity, they can’t interrupt the priests at their work, nor can they see what goes on every day, protecting their worship from the familiarity which tends toward routine instead of holy awe. The court allows Yahweh’s Presence to identify Himself with the people (He lives in a tent like they do) but at the same time separates Him from the people (not just anyone can enter the tabernacle nor even look inside).
The oil of the lampstand has to be pure; there is no use for lamps that spark, give an unsteady light or give off a foul odor because of impurities. From Exodus 27:20-21 we understand that the lamps of the lampstand burned continually without being extinguished, and that Aaron and his household, probably one at a time by shifts, took the responsibility of tending them throughout the night. That way, there always was someone in the tabernacle at any hour to intercede for the nation of Israel and worship Yahweh.
This reading also tells us that it is not enough to have a sacred space for Yahweh’s Presence: the people who minister in that space must also be holy. On one hand, the high priest’s clothing in particular must coincide with his work in the tabernacle. The colors of the ephod are the same as the tabernacle itself. The names of the 12 tribes on the two onyx stones on the shoulders of the ephod and on the jewels of the breastplate serve as a memorial and will remind the high priest of his obligation to intercede for them. The engraving on the gold plate of the turban, “Holy to the LORD”, will remind the faithful that their offerings are received by God’s grace. The clothes of all the priests will remind the faithful that their service is acceptable to Yahweh who said that they would “serve me as priests” (Exodus 28:41).
But clothing does not make the man; Aaron and his sons have to be consecrated people, too. Here we have one of the most extensive descriptions of the animal sacrifices up to this point, and there are several important details that we will want to consider.
First, notice that Aaron is anointed with the oil of anointing (Exodus 29:7). Being anointed with oil consecrates him; it sets him apart and dedicates him in Yahweh’s service. In future readings we will see a similar consecration of the kings (in 1 Samuel 16, for example), and we will read prophecies about a future King who will be called the Anointed One in English, or the Messiah in Hebrew, or the Christ in Greek.
Second, notice that the first sacrifice for Aaron and his sons is a bull for a sin offering (Exodus 29:14). There is no communion with God and no thanksgiving until the need for forgiveness of sins is resolved. Sin prohibits a holy relationship with God; it must be forgiven and eliminated first before one can enter into the other aspects of a relationship with Him. Notice also that Aaron and his sons put their hands on the bull’s head before Moses kills it (Exodus 29:10); that identifies the bull as their substitute.
Third, notice the sacrifice of the first ram as a whole burnt offering for Yahweh (Exodus 29:15-18). That represents the complete surrender of the people who present this sacrifice to Yahweh. It means that Aaron and his sons are not going to be part-time priests, nor priests only on the Sabbath, but all their lives will be given over to the priestly work of intercession for Yahweh’s people.
Fourth, notice the sacrifice of the other ram in which Aaron is dabbed and sprinkled with blood similar to the way the bronze altar is dabbed and sprinkled (Exodus 29:19-21). He is sanctified along with the altar. Then he eats a part of the sacrifice offered at the altar; it is a ceremony of harmony and communion with Yahweh. It also recognizes that as high priest, he and his household will receive their portion and provision from the peace offerings presented on the altar to Yahweh (Exodus 29:28).
Fifth, notice the importance of holiness in this whole consecration ceremony: they wear holy vestments, they are sanctified with oil, for seven days they offer bulls for the atonement of sin, they cook the meat of the peace offering in a holy place, no one else can eat it, and if something is left over, they have to burn it (Éxodo 29:29-37). Everything indicates separation from sin and from the commonplace in order to be dedicated exclusively to Yahweh’s service for the benefit of His people.
Sixth, notice the daily offering of one-year-old lambs every day, continually, one in the morning and one in the evening, for all generations (Exodus 29:38-42). The newly consecrated priests here receive their second daily responsibility: present the daily whole burnt offering of the lamb with an offering of fine flour, olive oil and a drink offering of wine before Yahweh. (The first daily responsibility is trimming and maintaining the lamps of the lampstand.) So when they present these offerings from the most basic products of the Promised Land (lamb, flour, olive oil, wine), every day and twice a day, they will remember gratefully who gives His faithful provision to all the Israelites. Besides, as Yahweh says, “It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, and speak to you there” (Exodus 29:42). That is, they also should remember that an intimate relationship with Yahweh, even though it occurs daily, is a tremendous, holy and unique privilege.
With three more parts of the tabernacle, the priestly clothing and the consecration of the priests, we’ve taken a big step forward in our understanding of the Law. Lord willing, we appreciate His holiness more and the privilege it is to walk daily in a living, holy relationship with Him.