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Shemot/Exodus 27:20 ... clear olive oil, oil beaten for a light, to light a map continuously.
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Coming immediately after the instructions for building the Tabernacle itself and all its furnishings, vessels and accoutrements, this text forms a tiny interlude before the instructions resume again with the garments that are to be provided for the priests to wear. Moshe is told to command the Israelites to bring the oil supply for the menorah, and that Aharon and his sons are to "arrange" it in the Tent of Meeting every day, "an eternal decree for their generations" (v. 21), for ever. The description of the oil falls neatly into three qualities: its physical properties, its means of production and its purpose or usage.
The first word for oil, , comes from the root verb - to be or become fat - and speaks of fatness and fertility; for food it implies richness, for land or people, prosperity; medicinally, it may refer to ointment. As oil, it conveys the image of a full-bodied, viscous oil, rather than one that is thin and watery; it is particularly associated with olive oil, so that the two words (Nehemiah 8:15) - literally, tree of oil - is translated as a wild olive tree. In this phrase, is explicitly linked with , the noun for an olive tree or the olive fruit itself. The Mount of Olives, just to the east of Jerusalem is called and there are many mentions of "olive oil" in the Hebrew Scriptures. The last word in the first phrase is , a delightfully short adjective from the root - to be clean, clear or pure. It is used both physically and morally; it is often connected with the heart, to mean innocent or upright. Rashi comments, "without sediments", a difficult quality to attain in those days without careful filtering.Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, suggests that it applies to the olives, rather than to the oil; that the olives must be 'clear', free of mould or blemish, and not partially eaten. Taken together, the phrase paints a picture of a thick, clear, translucent oil that is ritually clean and fit for the service in the Tent of Meeting.
The second phrase starts with the word , from the root - to beat, hammer, forge or break in pieces by beating. Used in Vayikra 22:24 to mean 'crushed', according toGesenius it also provides the name Chittim for the dwellers of Cyprus and the islands and coastal areas of the Mediterranean: a people who have been broken up. Rashi describes the olives as "crushed in a mortar, not ground in a mill"; while the Sages of the Talmud say, "pressed with a beam" (b. Menachot 86a). The noun - a light - here prefixed with the preposition "to or for" explains the care that is being taken: the oil must be suitable for burning in a lamp. If the oil has too much water or is too thick, then it will not draw properly through the wick and the light will not burn consistently or for long enough, with a clear and steady light, without wicking or guttering that needs attention to keep it alight. The oil must be produced in the right way to yield the right grade and burning properties so that it is suitable for its purpose.
The first word in the third phrase, - a Hif'il infinitive from the root , to go up, so here "to make go up" - is a very nuanced way to portray the way the light is actually kindled.Hirsch says that "this expression for kindling lights occurs only with reference to the service of the menorah. It is the precise description of the demand to keep the kindling flame against the wick until the latter 'burns by itself'." Drawing from the Sages (b. Shabbat 21a), Rashi says, "He would kindle until the flame would rise up on its own." It requires a lengthy ignition time to be sure that the oil is burning and drawing through the wick properly. Chizkuni comments that having arranged for the building of the Tabernacle, G-d makes sure that the menorah will be lit in the right way to make sure that it will burn continuously without needing constant attention or relighting. The Ramban explains that the word is used here to mean that the light is kindled each and every night; "continuously" can be applied to other less frequent tasks, such as the shewbread, which although similarly described as "continuously" was provided afresh each week. The is also known in the Jewish writings as the , the western light; often burning for the whole day rather than simply through the night from evening to morning as the other lamps on the menorah, it was used as a source to re-light the other lamps each evening. On the occasions it did go out, it was re-lit using fire from the altar of the burnt offerings. The oil, then, is to be lit deliberately and be capable of burning for a long time, to make a light that will not go out but burn continuously, giving light in G-d's presence when there is no other.
Nechama Leibowitz feels that this is not just a mechanical process, but has spiritual significance beyond the physical properties of the oil. She points to a series of midrashim in Shemot Rabbah (36.3) and makes a number of suggestions for interpreting and applying this process to our lives. Firstly, she suggests that the oil burning in the lamp is akin to the Torah, which is "a lamp to my feet" (Psalm 119:105); that Torah "shows man his way through life, saving him from obstacles and from falling". The study of G-d's word is thus an essential practice and must be undertaken carefully and deliberately, with due preparation and diligence so that it lasts for a long time. Secondly, feeling that study alone is not sufficient, she suggests that the oil and the lamp represent not "Torah studied" but "commandment performed"; unless the lamp is actually lit, unless the oil burns, the preparation does not produce the light. As James says, "I will show you my faith by my works" (James 2:18, NASB); it needs an outworking of our faith, our study, our prayer, in practical deeds to fulfill G-d's purposes. Thirdly, Leibowitz goes on to consider who benefits from the oil and the lamp; she sees not "the spiritual, material, practical or moral benefit it brings to the one who lights it", but rather, "the blessing the lamp brings to others, to those who kindle their lamp from it." In the same way as the light of the is not diminished by the light given out in the Tabernacle, so our study and practice are not diminished by the blessing that gives to others or the way they follow our example and take up their own habit of study and obedience.
Surely, this is one of the images Yeshua had in mind when He said, "Now no one after lighting a lamp covers it over with a container, or puts it under a bed; but he puts it on a lampstand, in order that those who come in may see the light" (Luke 8:18, NASB). We have seen Him, the Eternal Light, and been lit by Him as He has deliberately caused the flame to rise up in us; He gives His Ruach so that we may burn clearly and purposefully so that, in turn, others may see the light and come to Him to have their lamps lit as well. We are to take care with our study: to be deliberate and measured, so that the Spirit can flow through us and accomplish G-d's purpose; we must be lit by Yeshua, spending time with Him to make sure that our wicks are trimmed and the flame "going up" properly; finally, the blessing must overflow through our practical obedience to bless others and cause them to want a relationship with Yeshua for themselves.
Further Study: Vayikra 24:1-4; Proverbs 6:23; 2 Timothy 2:15
Application: Do you spend enough time in study to fuel your practice in life? Do you put your study to practical use to bless others? Are you burning strongly to shed a clear and unambiguous light for G-d? Why not speak to the Lamplighter today to book a service call and make sure your light is shining the way He wants!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
Comment - 09Feb11 10:52 Patricia: My husband I live in France and we have olives trees which were full of olives this year and when they were pressed the oil was a wonderful golden colour. But for me when I see our olive trees, which my husband cares for, I see also the menorah, a constant reminder of G-d and His Light to His people.
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