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Shemot/Exodus 30:1 You shall make an altar, [for] the burning of incense
As usual, there are a number of unusual things here that draw the commentators' attention. The word - altar - is formed from the verb root , to slaughter, with a prefix to make a noun signifying the place where an an action of slaughter takes place, hence 'altar'. Nahum Sarna points out that it is strange to use a word that essentially means place-of-slaughtering for the incense altar, which is quite specifically used only for incense and not for any animal sacrifices1. The same word-formation technique is used for , literally "the place of raising an odour by burning": + ; and is another noun from the same root, formed by appending a to make a feminine singular noun: incense. These two nouns are in a construct, giving the literal clumsy English wording, "the place of raising an odour by the burning of incense", which we smooth out to "for the burning of incense".Targum Onkelos actually changes the first of these nouns into a verb - - an Aramaic Af'el infinitive, "to burn".
Rashi comments that the purpose of the altar is "to offer up on it the raising of the smoke of burning spices". Later in the same chapter, Moses is given more details about the spices: "And the L-RD said to Moshe: Take the herbs stacte, onycha, and galbanum -- these herbs together with pure frankincense; let there be an equal part of each. Make them into incense, a compound expertly blended, refined, pure, sacred" (Shemot 30:34-35, JPS). The herbs or spices are combined according to a deliberate and pre-arranged recipe, not a haphazard arrangement of whatever was to hand on any given day. The Israelites are forbidden to use the same recipe for themselves: "And the incense which you shall make, you shall not make in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be holy to you for the L-RD. Whoever shall make any like it, to use as perfume, shall be cut off from his people" (vv. 37-38, NASB). The first mix was carried out by no less a person than Betzalel, the master-craftsman who made the tabernacle and all its furniture and accoutrements: "[Betzalel] prepared the sacred anointing oil and the pure aromatic incense, expertly blended" (Shemot 37:29, JPS).
Why did such careful and particular care need to be taken over something that was, at a basic level, simply burned to make smoke and a smell? It is suggested that the smell would not even be very pleasant to the human nose. TheRamban makes two suggestions. The first is that the incense was to act as an atonement, to stop the spread of plague. In Moshe's blessing for the tribe of Levi, he says that "they shall offer incense for your nose" (D'varim 33:10); elsewhere the word for 'nose' is also translated as 'anger'. In the story of Korah's rebellion, "Then 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; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked" (B'Midbar 17:11-13, JPS), it is Aharon's burning of incense that causes the plague to stop.
Ramban's second suggestion, as quoted by Michael Carasik, is that "They must know that My Glory [often translated 'presence'] will not pardon your offences and be careful of My Glory". As the incense is, burned "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" (Shemot 30:6, NASB), this teaches "that the burning of the incense involves an encounter with the kavod, the Glory of Presence, of G-d. The idea of meeting with G-d is confirmed by the next verses which instruct: "Aharon shall burn fragrant incense on it; he shall burn it every morning when he trims the lamps. And when Aharon trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense" (vv. 7-8, NASB) juxtaposed with "It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the L-RD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. And I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory" (29:42-43, NASB). The offering of the incense is to be a part of the ritual conducted by the priests every morning and evening, when G-d has promised that He will meet with Israel, to speak with them and His Glory will be manifested.
The Psalmist takes the next step in the development of the idea: "May my prayer be counted as incense before You; the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering" (Psalm 141:2, NASB). David here connects his prayers and the lifting of his hands to the incense made at the morning and evening sacrifices. Rabbinic Judaism uses this thought to claim that the central prayer2 at each of the three daily prayer services3 - and the additional services on the holy days4 - is acceptable to G-d in place of the sacrifices that would have been made at the Temple. Since the physical temple is no longer available and its destruction must have been permitted by G-d, the Rabbis say, yet Israel is still under an obligation to bring the morning and evening offering, G-d must be prepared to accept it in an alternative form. This must be prayer.
Finally, to complete the chain, the writer of Revelation tells us about the twenty four elders in heaven, each of whom "held a harp and gold bowls filled with pieces of incense, which are the prayers of G-d's people" (Revelation 5:8, CJB). Here is the explicit connection: the prayers of G-d's people - and notice that it does not say that these people are Jews or believers in Messiah, simply that they are G-d's people - are pieces of incense to be offered to G-d. A few chapters later, we see what happens to the incense/prayers: "Another angel came and stood at the altar with a gold incense-bowl, and he was given a large quantity of incense to add to the prayers of all G-d's people on the gold altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense went up with the prayers of G-d's people from the hand of the angel before G-d" (8:3-4, CJB). The prayers intermingle with the incense and go up as a pleasing aroma before G-d.
If then, the incense is made with such care and precision, not available for ordinary use, shouldn't we take similar care over our prayers? This is not to say that prayers should always be liturgical, although good liturgy can be a powerful way for G-d's people to come together in praise and thanksgiving, or that prayers need always be in formal or Elizabethan language. On the contrary, informal and spontaneous prayer is an essential part of every believer's prayer life and relationship with G-d, both individually and in groups or congregations. What is does say, on the other hand, is that prayer should be deliberate and intentional. As Rabbi Eliezer said: "Know before whom you stand" (b. Berachot 28b); we should always be aware that we are talking to G-d: a blend of the Father who loves us, the Master of the Universe and the friend who is "closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18:24, NASB). In all events, He wants to hear from us, but most importantly, we should remember that our prayers involve an encounter with the Glory or Presence of G-d. We should expect and relish His presence as He engages with us!
1 - Although once a year, the high priest makes atonement for the incense altar by touching the horns of the altar with the blood from the atonement sacrifice on Yom Kippur.
2 - Known as the Shemone Esrei - The Eighteen Benedictions - or the Amidah - The Standing Prayer. It is often abbreviated simply to The Prayer.
3 - Shacharit, Mincha and Ma'ariv - Dawn, Gift (made at 3pm) and Evening.
4 - i.e. Musaf - Additional or Added
Further Study: Shemot 29:45-46; Psalm 63:2-9; Luke 24:50-53
Application: Are you a shopping-list prayer or a marathon-walker prayer? How can you deepen your relationship with G-d in prayer - perhaps you could explore different forms or types of prayer and see if they work for you. Press on and keep working at it; it is G-d's desire that all of us should know Him in that intimate way.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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