Shemot/Exodus 37:25 And he made the incense altar [out of] acaia wood
This brief statement comes as part of the account of the construction of the Tabernacle and all its furniture and fittings. The majority of the commentators say very little during these chapters as the text generally repeats the instructions given in the previous chapters, changing the imperative 'make' or command "and you shall make" to the narrative "and he (or they) made" form wherever necessary. The two words are a construct, shortening the vowels in the first word from the double vowel sound tsere-patach to a single patach. The original instruction's means "the altar [implied: for] the making go up in smoke of incense", giving the purpose of the altar. Here it is just "the altar of the incense"; this gives its name. As we have discussed before (see Tetzaveh 5770), the choice of the word seems slightly dissonant, since its root verb means "to slaughter", so the noun derived by adding the single character prefix means "a place of slaughtering", whereas the incense altar is never used for the blood or other parts of animal sacrifices - these are explicitly forbidden, "You shall not offer alien incense on it, or a burnt offering or a meal offering; neither shall you pour a libation on it" (Shemot 30:9, JPS) - it is reserved solely for the burning of incense.
Unlike the main altar in front of the Tabernacle in the outside courtyard, the altar used for all the burnt offerings, which is hollow and has to be filled with earth, the incense altar - or at least its top - is made of solid wood: acacia wood, overlaid with gold. While the altar for the burnt offerings has a fire burning on it continually, this altar has fire brought to it twice a day for the burning of the incense offering inside the Tabernacle. TheSforno tells us that "the fire on this altar (burnt) on its overlay which was of gold and since the fire was small it did not burn the block of the altar which was of wood." Ibn Ezra notes that the incense altar was also called "the golden" altar because of its overlay of gold.
What is the incense for? Its recipe is given to Moshe: "Take the herbs stacte, onycha, and galbanum -- these herbs together with pure frankincense; let there be an equal part of each" (Shemot 30:34, JPS), at least one of which has an extremely pungent aroma when burned. TheRambam suggests that a significant part of the function of the incense was to improve the smell of the priests and the tabernacle, otherwise it would have smelled like a slaughterhouse.1 In turn, the Sages report that "From Jericho did they smell the scent of the compounding of the incense" (m. Tamid 3:8). The Ramban claims that "It was secretly transmitted to our master Moshe that incense could stop the spread of plague. For incense is involved with G-d's aspect of judgement" and points to the plague incident between Korah's rebellion and the budding staff: "Moshe said to Aharon, "Take the fire pan, and put on it fire from the altar. Add incense and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them. For wrath has gone forth from the L-RD: the plague has begun!" Aharon took it, as Moshe had ordered, and ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people" (B'Midbar 17:11-12, JPS). Gersonides suggests that "the incense taught about what happens to the soul at death," citing "Man sets out for his eternal abode, with mourners all around in the street ... and the dust returns to the ground as it was, and the spirit returns to G-d who bestowed it" (Ecclesiastes 12:5-7, JPS).
Two restrictions apply to the incense. Firstly, "When you make this incense, you must not make any in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be held by you sacred to the L-RD. Whoever makes any like it, to smell of it, shall be cut off from his kin" (Shemot 30:37, JPS), the incense is to be unique toHaShem: no-one else is to make any according to the same recipe, for their own use. It is exclusively made, kept and burned for HaShem alone. Secondly, although the people gave the ingredients for the incense - "And the chieftains brought ... spices and oil for lighting, for the anointing oil, and for the aromatic incense" (35:27-28, JPS) - the burning of it is a different matter: "On [the altar] Aharon shall burn aromatic incense: he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps, and Aharon shall burn it at twilight when he lights the lamps -- a regular incense offering before the L-RD throughout the ages" (vv. 7-8, JPS), only Aharon is allowed to offer the incense before HaShem. This latter may explain the demise of Aharon's two oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, and is a significant part in the judgement of Korah and his men. By the time of the Second Temple, this restriction has been relaxed to allow any priest to make the incense offering (see Luke 1:8-9), but it is still remains a priestly function not a lay function.
The Psalmist makes an important connection: "Let my prayer be counted as incense before You, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! Set a guard, O L-RD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!" (Psalm 141:2-3, ESV). Prayer can be seen as incense - that rises before G-d as an acceptable offering. The same connection is seen by John in the revelation he was given on Patmos: "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints ... the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel" (Revelation 5:8,8:4 ESV). Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger suggest this comes from a personal experience in the sanctuary, after the petitioner has seen the smoke from the incense offering rising heavenwards followed by that of the evening sacrifice, the second year old lamb of the day. Set in the first person to emphasise the urgency, he asks that his own prayer may be as acceptable as the two regular cult offerings are. He raises his hands, palms upwards, in the posture of prayer, suggesting a close relationship with HaShem.2
Charles Haddon Spurgeon points to the care taken over the incense: "As incense is carefully prepared, kindled with holy fire and devoutly presented to G-d, so let my prayer be." He says that "We are not to look upon prayer as easy work requiring no thought, it needs to be 'set forth'; what is more, it must be 'set forth' before the L-rd, by a sense of His presence and a holy reverence for His name. It needs to be 'set forth' as incense, observing the appropriate rules so that it may be accepted." The mouth that utters prayer must be clean, must be kept by the L-rd. "We are ennobled by being door-keepers for Him and yet He deigns to be a door-keeper for us."3Rashi agrees, in his much briefer style: "'Guard my mouth' when I pray to you so that I will speak pure words."
As believers in Messiah Yeshua, not only do the pictures seen by John apply to our prayers, but we have a number of specific promises and conditions set on our prayers. Yeshua told His disciples, "Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13, ESV), but this is qualified by John: "This is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will he hears us" (1 John 5:14, ESV). This doesn't mean that we can have anything and everything that we want, just for the asking. Praying aright - that is, according to G-d's will - is guaranteed a positive response, but not those things we should not have or do not need. How do we do that? Rav Sha'ul explains that the Holy Spirit will guide our words when we ask Him, for "we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of G-d" (Romans 8:26-27, ESV). In the L-rd's Prayer, Yeshua taught, the disciples to ask, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12, ESV), conditioning the response to prayer on being right with our brethren. In the previous chapter, Yeshua said, "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (5:23-24, ESV). Consider your prayer to be that gift and make sure that you are in good standing with the household of faith.
1. - Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, tr. Shlomo Pines, University of Chicago Press, 1963, III.45, page 579
2. - Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pages 588-591
3. - Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Hendrickson, facsimile of the original edition, pages 307-308
Further Study: Psalm 28:2; Mark 11:25; 1 John 3:22
Application: Do you have an incense altar in your life? Is it your habit to offer prayer and praise regularly to G-d, that rises before Him as a sweet-smelling savour? Do you know the guidance of the Ruach, interceding alongside you, for you and with you, bringing you into the presence of G-d?
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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