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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 30

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter is of unusual importance, detailing the instructions for the golden altar of incense (Exodus 30:1-10); the institution of the poll-tax for the ransom of souls (Exodus 30:11-16); the command for making a bronze laver (Exodus 30:17-21) the formula for making the holy oil for anointing (Exodus 30:22-33); and the recipe for making the holy incense (Exodus 30:34-38).

Efforts of critics to downgrade this chapter by making it a late addition to the instructions in Exodus 25, when examined carefully, are altogether ridiculous and unreasonable. Of course, it is true that Bible students in all ages have wondered why these particular instructions occur just here instead of in the context (Exodus 25), where it usually seems to men that they would have been more logically included.

Whether Moses made the omissions in writing his record, and afterward supplied them in this chapter, or whether Divine Wisdom saw fit to give the instructions in the order in which we now have them, cannot be determined. Certainly no sufficient reason has been shown for the existing order, which hence appears accidental.(F1)

The fact which demands attention here is that God’s arrangement of the instructions here is different from the plan which men would have followed. As Fields put it, “We are NOT finding fault with the order in which God’s Word presents this material. We are just stating a fact.”(F2) That men are totally unable to give a reasonable explanation of this curiosity is apparent in the vain efforts of those who have attempted to do so.

1. As should have been expected, the knee-jerk response of Bible critics is that of denying the Divine authority of the passage, as well as its Mosaic authorship, and labeling it a production of the priesthood of Israel almost a millennium after Moses: “These (instructions) may have come from a time chronologically later than the material cited in previous chapters, likely as late as the exile.”(F3) Such a view is impossible to receive! It is obvious to any thoughtful person that if the Jewish priesthood had authored this chapter after the Babylonian exile and inserted it into the holy writings of Moses, they would most certainly have put it in Exodus 25, where human wisdom would most certainly have required them to place it. As Fields expressed it, “If this chapter really were a late addition, the editors would probably have stuck it into the narrative at a point where it would appear to fit more naturally.”(F4) Our own view is that PROBABLY is too weak a word in Field’s statement. It is not that such “editors” would probably have placed it elsewhere; they would unquestionably have done so!

2. Keil supposed that the altar of incense and the laver mentioned in this chapter are thus mentioned last because of their secondary and supplementary status. Of the altar of incense, he said, “The incense offering (on the golden altar) was not only a spiritualizing and transfiguring of the burnt-offering, but a completion of that offering also”; and of the laver, he said, “The making of this vessel is not only mentioned in a supplementary manner, but no description is given of it because of the subordinate position which it occupied.”(F5) Such an explanation as this falls far short of being satisfactory. As a matter of fact, the golden altar of incense must be ranked first among the articles of furniture in the Holy Place due to its placement near the veil, entitling it actually to be associated with the Holy of Holies as in Hebrews 9:4. Also, the laver, despite its location in the outer court was a most essential requirement in the ordination of the priests and in the ceremonies marking the Day of Atonement, bearing a most important weight of symbolism as a type of Christian baptism. See Titus 3:5; Hebrews 10:22, etc. No! The placement of this chapter did not derive from any lesser importance of the instructions given.

3. Still another irresponsible suggestion as to the reason for this chapter’s unusual placement is seen in the notion that it was a late addition to Exodus, and that it was written after the construction of the second temple which is alleged to be the occasion when the altar of incense was “added” to the Jewish services. “An altar of incense was probably introduced in the second temple… Hence, we find it in this supplementary section.”(F6) Such an allegation is unacceptable because the inspired author of Hebrews stated categorically that there was a golden altar of incense in the tabernacle (Hebrews 9:4). The account of the high priest’s actions on the day of atonement is alleged not to mention this altar specifically; but a careful reading of the passage requires that “the altar before Jehovah” in Leviticus 16:12 be understood as a reference precisely to this altar and none other. The false idea that the high priest took the coals of fire in his censor from “the great altar”(F7) in the court could not be correct, for in no sense was it “the altar before Jehovah.” Some scholars have also complained that the “horns” on this altar had no meaning, since sacrifices were not burned upon it; but there are two valid reasons for the horns: (1) They were symbols of power, and nothing in heaven or on earth was ever stronger than prayer; (2) Also, on the day of atonement, the high priest placed the blood of the atoning sacrifices upon the horns of the altar in order to cleanse it from the pollutions inherent in the fact that human beings had used it!

4. One other critical allegation should be noted. Dummelow complained that the directions for placing this golden altar “are apparently self-contradictory.”(F8) He based that astounding conclusion on the fact that Exodus 30:6 states that it was to be placed “before the veil, and also before the mercy-seat.”(F9) The error of such a remark is inherent in the truth that anything placed in front of the veil would, of necessity, also have been in front of the ark, in front of the testimony, and in front of the mercy-seat. It is amazing that a scholar like Dummelow should have overlooked so simple a thing as that. Perhaps the mention of the mercy-seat here is to emphasize the reason for the placement of the golden altar, symbolizing the prayers of the faithful, which are always directed to the presence of God, symbolized by the mercy-seat. Only a curtain separated the altar from the mercy-seat. Furthermore, the symbolism of this placement is instructive even for the present era. Today, when men pray, they cannot see God, for the veil of death lies between. But just as the ancient worshipper at that golden altar offered incense toward a mercy-seat that he could not see, so it is today. “Thus this altar occupied a significant position, outside the Holy of Holies, or else it would have been practically inaccessible; but yet it was spiritually in the closest connection with the presence of God within.”(F10)

Verses 1-10


“And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of acacia wood shalt thou make it. A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be; and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of one piece with it. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, and the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about. And two golden rings shalt thou make for it under the crown thereof, upon the two ribs thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make them; and they shall be for places for staves wherewith to bear it. And thou shalt make the staves of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. And thou shalt put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy-seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. And Aaron shall burn thereon incense of sweet spices; every morning, when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before Jehovah throughout your generations. Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt-offering, nor meal-offering; and ye shall pour no drink-offering thereon. And Aaron shall make atonement upon the horns of it once in the year; with the blood of the sin-offering of atonement once in the year shall he make atonement for it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto Jehovah.”

“The horns” mentioned in Exodus 30:2 were said by Clements to be “superfluous on an altar for burning incense, but have been introduced in imitation of the much larger altar,”(F11) but his comment is contradicted by the fact that on the Day of Atonement the blood of the sin-offering was indeed placed upon this altar; and such applications were always made upon “the horns” of the altar.

“Before the veil… before the mercy-seat” See the chapter introduction for comment on the location. Some have quibbled about the Book of Hebrews’ association of this golden altar with the Holy of Holies; but, as a matter of fact, it did pertain to the ark and the mercy-seat, notwithstanding its location before the veil. The placement of it before the veil was, “a special arrangement, designed to teach the important lesson, that though we cannot with the eye of sense see the throne of grace, `we must direct our prayer to it, and look up.’“(F12) Barmby stated that, “The altar was an appendage of the holy of holies, though not actually inside of it, in the same way (to use a homely illustration by Delitzsch) as the signboard of a shop belongs to the shop and not to the street.”(F13)

“And Aaron shall burn incense thereon,..” (Exodus 30:7). Chadwick commented upon how appropriate it was that incense should thus symbolize the prayers of God’s people: “Fragrance is indeed matter passing into the immaterial; it is the sigh of the sensuous for the spiritual state of being.”(F14) There are a number of things in these ten verses that frustrate all efforts to date the passage after the exile. At that time, there was no need to carry the golden altar anywhere, since the second temple, like the first, was a solid also permanent building. Also, why should Aaron have been singled out, if at that later date Aaron had been dead for long generations and the function mentioned here was performed by the priests in rotation? To imagine that those alleged interpolators used such language to impose a fraud upon the sacred writings is impossible. That Aaron and his successors to the office of the high priest actually burned incense on this altar was doubtless true. But in time, “Aaron came to mean the whole priestly order, and in later times any of the priests might have officiated at this altar in rotation (See Luke 1:10).”(F15)

“It is most holy” (Exodus 30:10). Rawlinson’s comment on this was:

“There seems to be sufficient reason for considering the altar of incense as, next to the ark and the mercy-seat, the most sacred object in the furniture of the tabernacle. This precedence indicates the extreme value which God sets upon prayer.”(F16)

See the chapter introduction for more on the rank of the golden altar. That the incense actually did represent prayer is seen in a number of N.T. passages, as in Luke 1:10; Revelation 8:4, etc.

Verses 11-16


“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, according to those that are numbered of them, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto Jehovah, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them. This they shall give, every one that passeth over unto them that are numbered; half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel for an offering unto Jehovah. Every one that passeth over unto them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering of Jehovah. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of Jehovah, to make atonement for your souls. And thou shalt take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting; that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before Jehovah, to make atonement for your souls.”

Critical attacks on this passage remove it altogether from God’s Word, making it a late device invented by the Jewish priesthood for the purpose of raising money for the temple. As Rylaarsdam explained (!) it: “This account is an attempt by a later `P’ editor to establish the view that the temple tax was indeed the `commandment of Moses the servant of the Lord.’“(F17) Of course, such a comment is related to no fact or evidence whatever, not even any argument being submitted as an attempted justification. Raising money for “the temple” is nowhere in view here, the purpose of this tax being that of providing money to build the tabernacle, which to this point in Exodus still remained on the planning board. Is there anything reasonable about an allegation which would make a priesthood nearly a thousand years later than the tabernacle attempt to improve their finances by initiating a “campaign” to raise money to build a tabernacle that had already been built centuries earlier? “For the service of the tent of meeting” (Exodus 30:16), means, “For the construction of the Tabernacle, it does not mean that they collected the money for sacrifices or services of worship in the Tabernacle.”(F18)

“That there be no plague” This is not related to some superstitious fear that taking a census might bring on a plague. The simple meaning is, “That they might not incur punishment for the neglect and contempt of spiritual privileges.”(F19)

“Everyone that passeth over unto them that are numbered” This was declared by Orlinsky as “unclear,”(F20) admitting at the same time that it is the “literal” meaning here. What is in view is an ancient method of taking a census. The people were assembled together; and those who were numbered were made to stand apart from those not numbered; and as others were numbered, “they passed over unto them that were already numbered.” Moses himself evidently took such a census twice; and there was no sin or danger whatever involved in the census per se. “It was the vain glory of David’s census (at a later time) which was culpable.”(F21)

“They shall give… every one… a half shekel” The rich were not to give more, nor the poor less. “Here is the confession that all men are lost; that all are on an equal footing; and that all need redemption.”(F22) Coinage was not known in Israel in the times of Moses, hence, the weight of this tax was specified as twenty gerahs. The word “gerah” means “a bean,”(F23) probably a carob bean, from which our word “carat” is derived, and weighing about 11 grains Troy. Another meaning of this census was that, “God owns all souls (people). The very fact of counting one’s flock, or wealth, suggests ownership. We do not usually count our neighbor’s money.”(F24) God said, “All souls are mine” (Ezekiel 18:4).

Verses 17-21


“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Thou shalt also make a laver of brass, whereat to wash. And thou shalt put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and thou shalt put water therein. And Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat: when they go into the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire unto Jehovah. So shall they wash their hands and their feet, that they die not: and it shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his seed throughout their generations.”

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Thou shalt also make a laver of brass” (Exodus 30:18). There are numerous examples in the Pentateuch of slight variations in the form of God’s commandments. As the Holy Spirit indeed has told us, “God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners.” The meaning of this statement is simply that God did not always use exactly the same words in giving his commands. Despite this elementary truth, concerning which no scholar should be ignorant, Canon George Harford used the slight variation here as an excuse for denying the passage: “This passage is an obvious supplement, for it should have come after the law of the altar…it is moreover a fragment, as its opening should be `And thou shalt make’.”(F25)

Exodus 38:8 reveals the source of the brass (bronze) from which the laver was constructed. The women of Israel, apparently nearly all of them, had brought brass mirrors with them out of Egypt, the highly-polished metal being the only type of mirror known at that time, and they contributed these personal items so highly prized by them for the making of the bronze altar.

“Wash their hands and their feet” (Exodus 30:19). These ceremonial washings were a ceremony the Jews enjoyed, and they later extended it to include many kinds of ablutions, even for pots and pans, and many such things (Mark 7:3-4). Also, there were occasions when the washings were not at all confined to hands and feet, but were of the whole body (Exodus 29:4; Leviticus 16:4). The washing (or, immersing) of the whole body on the occasion of the priest’s ordination is without doubt the forerunner and type of Christian baptism. There are three N.T. passages that mention “the laver” as a means of the Christian’s cleansing (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 5:26; and Hebrews 10:22). This proves that Christian baptism is a literal washing (immersing) in actual water. The assertion by some that Christian baptism “is a spiritual thing” is denied by the emphatic truth that “the laver” is an actual, not a spiritual, device. Others who suppose that, “It is the WORD in which Christians are washed,” are corrected by the injunction that persons drawing near to God must have “their BODIES washed in pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). The Lord sent Ananias to penitent Saul of Tarsus, and he said to Saul, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). “Note that the inner cleansing from sins occurred at the same time as the outer washing of baptism.”(F26)

Verses 22-33


“Moreover Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Take thou also unto thee the chief spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty, and of cassia five hundred, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin; and thou shalt make it a holy anointing oil, a perfume compounded after the art of the perfumer: it shall be a holy anointing oil. And thou shalt anoint therewith the tent of meeting, and the ark of the testimony, and the table and all the vessels thereof, and the candlestick and the vessels thereof, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt-offering with all the vessels thereof And thou shalt sanctify them, that they may be most holy: whatsoever toucheth them shall be holy. And thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and sanctify them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, This shall be a holy anointing oil unto me throughout your generations. Upon the flesh of man shall it not be poured, neither shall ye make any like it, according to the composition thereof it is holy, and it shall be holy unto you. Whosoever compoundeth any like it, or whosoever putteth any of it upon a stranger, he shall be cut off from his people.”

There is some curiosity as to how some 46 1/4 pounds of spices could be pulverized and mixed with about a gallon and a half of olive oil, but the explanation is in Exodus 30:25, where the instructions indicated that all of this was to be done “after the art of the perfumer.”

According to Jewish tradition, the essences of the spices were first extracted, and then mixed with the oil. The preparation was entrusted to Bezaleel (Exodus 37:29); and the duty of preserving it fell upon Eleazar the son of Aaron (Numbers 4:16).(F27)

The amount of each of the four spices was approximately 15 1/4 pounds each of myrrh and of cassia, and 7 pounds, 14 ounces each of the cinnamon and the calamus.(F28)

The ceremony of anointing was considered to be especially important in the history of Israel, because it set apart objects and persons for the service of God. “It was used in the consecration of kings; and it even came to be the word for the Messiah, which means anointed.”(F29) The later Jewish expectation of “a Messiah,” or “Anointed one,” was primarily associated with a coming king, although it could be linked with the priesthood. Some Jews, therefore, came to expect two Messiah’s, a priestly one, and a kingly one.(F30)

Although it is not certainly known in every instance just exactly what these spices were, the following opinions will give some idea of what is meant:

1. MYRRH. The text designates that this was to be “freely flowing myrrh,” as contrasted with the myrrh produced by making incisions into the myrrh trees. The kind that appeared by itself was considered best. The ancients used it: (a) as a perfume; (b) for embalming the dead; and (c) for incense. “This gum is produced from a low, thorny, ragged tree, that grows in Arabia Felix and Eastern Africa, called by botanists, Balsamodendron myrrha.(F31)

2. CINNAMON. This is a rare spice, derived from a species of the laurel tree (“Laurus cinnarnomum”) which grows only on the Malabar coast of India, Ceylon, Borneo, Sumatra, China, and Cochin China. The mention of it here shows that there was commerce between the Far East and the Near East at this early period.

3. SWEET CALAMUS. Several aromatic reeds of this kind are known, and “it is impossible to know exactly which one was meant here.”(F32)

4. CASSIA. This spice bears a strong resemblance to cinnamon, in fact having the botanical name “Cinnamomum cassia”. “It is more pungent than the cinnamon which we know today, and of a coarser texture.”(F33)

Verses 34-38


“And Jehovah said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight; and thou shalt make of it incense, a perfume after the art of the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy: and thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put it before the testimony in the tent of meeting; where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy. And the incense which thou shalt make, according to the composition thereof ye shall not make for yourselves: it shall be unto thee holy for Jehovah. Whosever shall make like unto that, to smell thereof, he shall be cut off from his people.”

1. Stacte. “There are two kinds of stacte, one of myrrh and one of storax and a fat mixed.”(F34) The kind mentioned here is supposed to be myrrh.

2. Onycha. “This is a mollusk which emits a highly aromatic odor when burned. Gathered in the Near East until recently, it is used as an ingredient in perfume, and as a principal component of incense in India.”(F35)

3. Galbanum. “This is a gum resin with a pleasant odor and a bitter taste. It is imported from Persia. It is derived from certain umbelliferous plants.”(F36)

4. Frankincense. “Common frankincense is a gum derived from the ordinary fir tree, but the frankincense of the Jews is a substance now called Olibanum, a product of certain trees of the genus Boswellia. It grows in Arabia and Somaliland.”(F37)

It is of particular interest that the Jews were forbidden to make any of these sacred oils or incense for their own use, the death penalty being prescribed for any violators. These sacred materials were solely for use as God directed and not for the personal use of any persons whomsoever, except the ordained priests of the tabernacle.

Also, the half-shekel tax continued down through the times of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is mentioned in Matthew 17:24-27, which records the thoughtless promise of Peter that the Saviour would pay that half shekel tax. Jesus indeed paid it, not because he was justly obligated to pay it, but in order not to give offense. Also, he did not wish to make a test-case out of that trifling tax.

One other word about the significance of this chapter. Without it, it would have been impossible to structure any orderly and consistent worship for Israel in the tabernacle soon to be built. This alone denies any possibility that the chapter is a “late addition.” That men would most certainly have placed this chapter somewhere else in the Pentateuch is certain; but so what? God placed it here, where it has the grace of rounding out the instructions for the tabernacle.

Before concluding this study of Exodus 30, it is appropriate to point out that it falls accurately into an oft-observed pattern of the sacred writings. It is a salient characteristic of the Pentateuch that instructions and information are frequently “split up,” requiring the reading of several passages to understand the whole picture. It reminds us of the example in the case of Noah who at first was instructed to take of the animals into the ark, “two by two,” but this was later expanded to include “seven each” of the clean creatures. Isaiah referred to this as “here a little and there a little”; and thus, as should have been expected, we have here the conclusion of the instructions regarding the articles of furniture in the tabernacle. The frustration of the scholars seeking to find all of these mentioned in one place is understandable, but God’s ways are unlike the ways of men. Therefore, we find in Exodus 30 further evidence that what we have here is actually and truly the Word of God.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 30". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/exodus-30.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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