Monday, July 30, 2007

The Cloud of Incense in Lev 16.13

In Lev 16.12, God commands the high priest to place two handfuls of incense into a firepan full of coals from the altar, and to bring it within the tabernacle's veil. Then "He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die" (v. 13).

Ok, so I always figured that this command was for a sort of "smoke screen." I.e., when the high priest approached this close to God -- this close to the cherubim with the flaming sword (1 Chr 21.28-30, see Ex 25.18, 26.31 which would seem to represent Gn 3.24, cf., Lev 10.1-3) -- that the only way he could live was to create a smoke screen that, as it were, hid him from the cherubim.

Eh, maybe. If correct, this makes a nice contrast with the assurance with which even the lowliest Christian may approach God's throne in the New Covenant (Heb 10.19-22).

I've been wondering about that, however. It might draw the distinction between the Old and New Testament rather more boldly than it should.

Here's an alternative that struck me the other day: At critical junctures, the theophanic glory cloud indwells the tabernacle, excluding those who were present who nonetheless had permission sometimes draw near to God. Specifically, Moses was excluded from the tabernacle by the investiture in Ex 40.34-35 and the priests at the dedication of the Temple in 2 Chr 7.1-3 (by implication also in Lev 9.22-24, which is at the first offering in the tabernacle).

So the glory-cloud excludes, because God's glory is so powerful that even great OT saints couldn't stand it.

So how about this: the incense pictures the indwelling of the glory-cloud, in the sense of the expectation or promise that some day people would be qualified to stand in God's glorious presence rather than be excluded by it.

Well, this occurs at Pentecost, the point at which humans not only stand in the presence of the glory-cloud, but are actually indwellt by the glory-cloud itself (Himself?), something that even Moses and David were excluded from experiencing because God had not yet come in the flesh.

So in this sense, Lev 16.13 is, as it were, a promise of the Spirit, as in Gal 3.14, "that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might comes to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith."

Note that the condition of receiving the promise of the Spirit is that the blessing of Abraham comes to the Gentiles, which Paul earlier calls the very Gospel itself (Gal 2.8).

What commends this reading is that it is consonant with what I take to be the overall theme of Leviticus -- the blessing of being allowed to draw near to God. So Leviticus, even though access is constrained relative to access in the New Covenant, it provides amazing access relative to the OT standard. Further, the incense-rite in Lev 16.13 also provides a foretaste of the blessing to come when the messianic priest finally comes. (Note that the priest in Lev 16 is dressed up to look like the glorified Jesus, cf., Rev 1.)

So rather than being about the lack of assurance, the priest in Lev 16 enters into God's presence as sweet incense, picturing the full blessing to come when redeemed humanity will once again dwell on most intimate terms with a holy and glorious God.


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