The Incense Altar and the Menorah

The menorah that burns in the midst of the incense cloud is, in fact, the light of His countenance, the light of the Presence.


HanukkahDec 25, 2016

HanukkahDec 25, 2016


    Composite image of a chanukkiah with candles and Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Image © Bigstock/Gorsh25)

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You shall put this altar in front of the veil that is near the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is over the ark of the testimony, where I will meet with you. Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; he shall burn it every morning when he trims the lamps. When Aaron trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. There shall be perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations. (Exodus 30:6-8)

God designated the area in front of the veil of the holy of holies as His meeting spot. In this spot, stood the golden altar. Immediately to the south stood the menorah.

The golden altar of incense is linked with the menorah through the priestly service. The menorah is kindled only in conjunction with the offering of the incense.

What is the symbolism here? How do these elements commemorate Mount Sinai? If we look back to Mount Sinai, we will recall that when Moses entered the cloud, he entered the presence of God. No man can see God and live. For this reason, God was hidden within the cloud. The cloud obscured the face (i.e., presence) of God, thereby protecting Moses.

God ordained that He should meet with Moses in the Tabernacle, just as He had on Sinai. Moses would enter the Sanctuary, and hear God’s voice speaking to him from between the Cherubim. Instead of entering the cloud to come into God’s presence, now the meeting spot is directly in front of the veil of the holy of holies. All the Sinai elements needed to be recreated. When the priest placed the incense onto the coals of the golden altar, a cloud of smoke would have risen and filled the sanctuary. The cloud of incense emanating from the altar in front of the holy of holies was a recreation of the concealing cloud of Sinai. Just as the cloud on Sinai served as a veil to conceal the presence of the LORD, so too, the cloud of incense serves as a veil between the priests in the Sanctuary and the Divine Presence inside the holy of holies.

In the Day of Atonement services outlined in Leviticus 16, incense is also employed. On that day, the high priest passes through the veil and enters into the holy of holies. His first service in the holy of holies is to ignite two handfuls of incense.

Aaron is instructed to burn the incense so that “the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die” (Leviticus 16:13). The cloud conceals the presence of the LORD so that Aaron will not behold God and die.

The menorah also figures into this symbolic recreation of Sinai. The menorah is the only source of illumination within the Sanctuary. It was to burn continually in the presence of the LORD.

When Moses returned from Mount Sinai, the second time, his face shone with a brilliant luminance. He had beheld the presence of God, and his face reflected the bright radiance of God’s face (i.e., presence). The priestly benediction of Numbers 6:24-26 also speaks of the “light of God’s face.”

In the Tabernacle the menorah serves to cast illumination continually in the presence (i.e., face) of God. Remember that the menorah is kindled only in conjunction with the offering of incense.

Imagine, if you will, the interior of the Sanctuary. Your eyes are on the veil of the holy of holies and the altar in front of it. Rising from that altar is a cloud of incense that fills the air. In no time, the veil is concealed behind the fragrant cloud. As you look into the cloud, the only thing visible is the illumination of seven flames. The light of the menorah is diffused by the smoky haze, creating the illusion of a cloud of light billowing in front of the holy of holies. This cloud of smoke and light is situated in the meeting spot, in the very presence (i.e., face) of God. The menorah that burns in the midst of the incense cloud is, in fact, the light of His countenance, the light of the Presence.

Was it any different for Moses on the mountain as he beheld God through the cloud? Was it any different for Peter, James, and John?

Yeshua led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them and His face shone like the sun. Peter said to Yeshua,

Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:1-5)

Notice the Sinai-Tabernacle symbolism in this incident. The high mountain alludes to Sinai. The face of Yeshua shines bright as the sun. A “bright cloud” overshadows them. A voice speaks from the cloud. Peter’s offer is to build “tabernacles.”

Another connection between the menorah and the “light of the countenance” can be found in Revelation 1. John sees Yeshua dressed in priestly garments, standing among seven lamp stands (a menorah). His face is brilliant, his eyes blazing like fire. And for what reason has Yeshua appeared to John? He has appeared to speak with him. John envisions Yeshua in the very meeting spot in the Temple where God’s voice spoke to Moses.

The midrash further comments on the menorah saying:

The windows of the Temple were built in quite an unusual manner. Rather than being narrow on the outside and wide on the inside (to allow light to enter) those windows were constructed narrow on the inside and wider towards the outside. This demonstrated that from the Temple, light goes forth to the world (Midrash Says Exodus).

Hence, the menorah was called the “Light of the world.” Yeshua calls Himself the “Light of the world.” His disciples would likely have understood the allusion to the menorah of the Temple.

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About the Author: D. Thomas Lancaster is Director of Education at First Fruits of Zion, the author of the Torah Club programs and several books and study programs. He is also the pastor of Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, WI. More articles by D. Thomas Lancaster

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