The previous two studies were devoted to the sacred places before the tabernacle. The next two studies return to the tabernacle, the portable tent temple, which the Lord established as a place to dwell with the people of Israel. We will discuss how the tabernacle (along with the temple) and its priesthood mediated the holiness of God to his wayward people.
Study Series Note: This study is one in a series of studies on the Bible’s sacred places (tabernacle, temple, etc.). Previous studies focused on the Creation and the Garden of Eden as a Temple.
In the garden temple, Adam and Eve enjoyed close contact with the Lord. After the Fall, they were removed from the Garden of Eden and God’s direct presence. While God’s separation from sin, or holiness, may not resonate with our postmodern mindset, the Bible presents God as holy, meaning he is perfect and wholly other. Sin is going against God and his holy character. If God is just, then he either has to remove the sin from his presence (destruction), or remove himself in forbearance (grace).
Holiness – the otherness of divine perfection expressed in the tabernacle’s layout.
The concept of holiness is foreign to most westerners. Even in the church, holiness seems like a bygone word that no longer has relevance. Over fifty years ago, A. W. Tozer sounded an alarm in his classic book The Knowledge of the Holy, observing, “the church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God . . . with our loss of the sense of majesty has come the further loss of religious awe and consciousness of the divine Presence.”[i] One cannot know God without knowing his holiness. Indeed, one cannot even understand the sacred places that connect to God without some understanding of holiness.
Although holiness is a very large concept in the Bible, its primary definition is rooted in God. One dictionary states that holiness “is not so much an attribute of God as it is the very foundation of his being. . . . Holiness then denotes the separateness, or otherness, of God from all his creation. . . . holiness in relation to God refers climatically to his moral perfection. His holiness is manifest in total righteousness and purity.”[ii] This definition provides important perspective for how the holiness of God interacts with creation—especially a creation where sin is present. If holiness is tied very closely to God’s separateness from creation (just as an author is separate and above his/her writing), then even in the heavenly realm God is distinct in magnitude and priority. Indeed, in Isaiah’s (6:1-6) and Revelation’s (4:8) visions of the heavenly realm, even the highest creatures, the seraphim, proclaim and treat God with a reverence that reflects his perfections and priority as the creator of all. They cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy” as an awe-inspired tribute to his otherness. A. Tozer adds, “We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire His wisdom, but His holiness he cannot even imagine.”[iii] God’s holiness is an otherness that shakes the foundations of the created universe.
In the heavenly realm, as on earth in the Garden of Eden, God’s otherness can be enjoyed by his creation that is in perfect harmony with his will. When disharmony with God’s will (sin) is introduced into creation, the otherness of God is not simply a function of God’s position as creator above his creation, the otherness has a moral component. God’s will and holy perfection can be rejected, which is an active affront to God that makes humans not only dissimilar to God, but hostel and rebellious toward him. An “otherness” of degree and priority becomes a contrary “otherness.” If God were only concerned with justice, he would remove or destroy whatever and whoever is contrary to perfect righteousness.
Scripture study and Discussion:
Why do you think western culture no longer understands holiness? (Possible answers: We no longer live in a hierarchical society, so a distinct class of being no longer resonates with us. We look at the universe in a human-centered way [humanism], and we have no qualms about assuming God should conform to our ideas instead of vice versa.)
One biblical episode that gives a glimpse of God’s holy otherness is found in Exodus 33:18-23. Moses was God’s appointed representative to Israel and acted as an intermediary between God and people. This intermediary role eventually was fixed in the priesthood. Despite Moses’ unparalleled favor and access with God, a degree of separation necessarily existed because of God’s otherness.
Exodus 33:18-23: 18 Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” 19 And God said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” 20 But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” 21 Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; 22 and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” (NASB)
God’s glory and holiness are intertwined since they both characterize his being; God’s glory is of a whole other realm.
In the above scripture, why couldn’t Moses see God’s glory? (Suggested answer: No person can see God’s glory and live—he is too “other”).
What provision did God make so Moses could still experience God? (Suggested answer: God placed Moses in the cleft of a rock and covered him with his hand so that Moses was protected from the full-on holy glory.)
If God’s holiness requires a degree of separation even for Moses, how much more does that which is contrary to God need to be removed from His presence! Just as God graciously used the stone cleft as a protective buffer for Moses, the temple/tabernacle and the priesthood would be a protective buffer that allowed a sin stained people to still experience a holy God.
The tabernacle and temple were set up in a similar way. The closer one came to the holy presence of God, the more degrees of separation existed. These degrees of separation consisted of both physical and priestly barriers. They were concrete reminders of God’s holy “otherness”.
Note the layout of the tabernacle:
The Most Holy place, or Holy of Holies, was located in the innermost chamber of the tabernacle. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was considered the focal point of God’s presence and the top of the Ark was called the “Mercy Seat.” This seat connected to God’s presence on his heavenly throne. Because this was the “Most Holy Place” the degrees of “otherness” were the most pronounced. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and even he could only enter once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Most Holy Place was separated from the Holy Place by a thick veil (curtain).
Only priests could enter the Holy Place that housed the Golden Lampstand, Table of Showbread, and Altar of Incense. Priests could not gather or linger in this place, they only entered when it was their turn to attend to the lamp, bread, or incense.
Outside the roofed area of the Holy and Most Holy place was the outer courtyard. The altar for sacrifice stood in this courtyard whereupon the priests offered the various sacrifices. The significance of the sacrificial system will be discussed in the next study.
In the Second temple era (see image on the right), additional barriers separated the outer court into an area for priests and the Levite attendants only. Male worshipers brought their sacrifice to the entrance of this area (the hall or porch of the Israelites), and the priests would take it from there. Israelite women could not enter this area, but were able to go into the outer court. Gentiles and other ceremonial unclean people could not even enter the outer court.
While these barriers to God’s presence may make God seem unapproachable, they actually were put in place so that one could draw near to the holy God. In God’s provision of the tabernacle/temple, he was balancing his holiness that required justice for sins with his gracious love that desired to dwell with his people (see Study 1, Exodus 25:8). God is loving, so he makes a way to maintain a relationship with, and even restore, his unholy people to himself. The tabernacle and its priesthood were God’s way of maintaining redemptive connection to his people, which is why the sanctuary and the priesthood were also called “holy.” They were holy from an earthly perspective because they were set apart to connect with the ultimate “otherness” of God’s presence. The tabernacle and its priesthood were God’s chosen interface with his people that satisfied both the separation from sin that God’s holiness required, as well as the closeness to his people that God’s love required. Nevertheless, this system foreshadowed the ultimate redemption in Christ.
The tabernacle/temple was the place for mediating God’s holiness and the priests were the people for mediating God’s holiness. What is your gut reaction to these buffers between God and his people? (Possible answer(s): 1) It doesn’t seem right or fair. [While this feeling is understandable, our western assumptions of equality and humanism cause this gut reaction. We don’t feel the appropriateness of separation because we don’t understand God’s holiness—we are not equal with God, nor do we understand the moral and metaphysical separation that exists between God and humans whether these buffers exist or not. The buffers reflect reality more than establish it.] 2) Couldn’t God come up with a better system? [Christians believe that at the proper time God did provide a better intermediary in Christ. One of the reasons we don’t feel that these buffers are necessary is due to Christianity’s influence on Western culture. We assume the appropriateness of greater access to God because Christianity holds that Christ provides such access. But our assumptions are/were not shared by other cultures.])
The tabernacle and priesthood were concrete expressions of God’s holiness. What are some other examples in your life where concrete expressions help you understand a greater reality? (Suggested answers: A wedding ring reminds us of a larger covenant. War memorials reflect the sacrifice and struggle of our ancestors. A diploma or degree is just a piece of paper but it represents years of learning and accomplishment.)
[i] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper. 1961), 5-6.
[ii] J. R. Williams, “Holiness,” pages 562-563 in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. Edited by Walter Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
[iii] Tozer, Knowledge,111.