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Shemot/Exodus 37:29 And he made the oil of the anointing holy and the incense of spices, pure; the work of a perfumer.
Coming at the end of the block that relates the construction of the incense altar (vv. 25-28), which in turn comes at the end of the chapter accounting for the interior furniture of the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, this is a fulfillment of the instructions given early in the last parasha at 30:25-38. Commenting on its brevity, Umberto Cassuto describes it as brief and incidental, "forming an addendum, as it were, to the description of the making of the altar of incense."1 Connecting the fulfillment to the instructions, theRamban tells us that "Not all the ingredients for the incense are listed, for (as our verse says) it was to expertly blended. The details of its making also did not need to be given, since this was left to the expertise of the perfumers." The modern commentator Thomas Dozeman adds that, "the exact nature of many of the perfumes is difficult to identify. The ingredients are not indigenous to Syria-Palestine, indicating a developed trading system as far away as India. The emphasis (in 30:22-38) is on the purification of the sanctuary, but the same spices also had medicinal qualities. Thus they may also have been associated with the healing power of Yahweh."2
At first glance the verse tells us very little: simply that the instructions were carried out. There is no room, in such a foreshortened report, for more detail either of ingredients or the process used in the manufacture of these items. The one who carries out the blending is named as a - the Qal ms participle of the root , to mix ointment, so one who mixes or compounds ointment, specifically a perfumerFootNoteRef(2) or possibly an apothecary - doing this work under the supervision of Betzalel who starts the chapter as the maker of all this furniture. The trade of a perfumer implies significant skill, with the instructions calling for "a compound of ingredients expertly blended" (Shemot 30:25, NJPS), "a compound expertly blended" (v. 35, NJPS), for oil and incense respectively. Hence the Ramban's comments above suggesting that the perfumer had license to use his skill and, if necessary, other ingredients in addition to those specified in order to make a satisfactory product in terms of both use and aroma. An oil that is too thick like a paste is no use for anointing; incense that has turned solid in a brick or tablet form makes it impossible to take a handful.
The Torah gives us another important insight into the way it views these actions by its choice of words and the way they are ordered. The verse starts with the verb "and he made", with the 'he' referencing back to Betzalel. The verb is followed by the two things that were made, the first preceded by , the direct object indicator and the second by . Each object has three words; the first two of each are in construct form - "the oil of anointing" and "the incense of spices" - and each is followed by a third word: in the first case, a noun, 'holy'; in the second, an adjective, 'pure'. The question is whether these third words are simply qualifying words that can be moved to the front of each noun phrase - "the sacred anointing oil and the pure aromatic incense" (NJPS) - or whether they describe a quality or characteristic that the objects become or acquire as a result of the making.
Is the anointing oil already holy, or is it made holy? Is the spice incense already pure or is it made pure? Are the separate components of the oil and the incense already imbued with holiness and purity either of their own essence or by virtue of having been given toHaShem for the purpose of becoming so? Or do they only acquire that characteristic when blended together in exactly the right quantities, by an expert perfumer? The latter is indicated by the way the Israelites are forbidden to make any other oil or incense from the same recipe: "You are not to make for your own use any incense like it, with the same composition of ingredients - you are to treat it as holy, for ADONAI" (30:37, CJB). It is the act of making that sets it apart as holy. Ovadia Sforno agrees: "'he made the anointing oil holy' with the intent that it should not be impaired, as it says 'it shall be holy to Me throughout your generations' (30:31)." It is the deliberate act of manufacture, with the intention that the result should be holy, that sanctifies - sets something apart as holy.
Three times in the book of Vayikra, HaShem tells the Israelites to be holy. In the first, Moshe is told, "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the L-RD your G-d am holy" (Vayikra 19:2, ESV). This is the call to become holy people, holy individuals because He, the L-rd our God, is holy. Then the people are told, "Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the L-RD your G-d" (20:7, ESV). Now the people are told to make themselves holy, set themselves apart, because they are G-d's people. In the third passage, HaShem tells them, "You shall be holy to Me, for I the L-RD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine" (20:26, ESV). The people must set themselves apart for Him because He has already set them apart from the rest of the nations. In all three calls to holiness, the people are given the task of making themselves holy. HaShem Himself is holy, He has chosen them to be His people and He has separated His people from everyone else. Now it is up to them!
Peter picks up this theme when he writes, "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:14-16, ESV). Notice how Peter recognises this is a matter of obedience; the believers have to behave - in their conduct, the things they say and do - that they are holy, because G-d's people are called to be holy. This isn't an option - please try and be holy if you have the time and opportunity - it is a matter of our fundamental calling as believers: we are to be holy, different, set apart from the world and set apart to G-d in Messiah Yeshua.
If Dozeman is right in his assessment of the ingredients for the oil and incense, that the emphasis is on the purification of the sanctuary, but that they also had medicinal properties that spoke of the healing ministry of G-d, then we need to rediscover these properties in our lives, ministries and congregations. As followers of Yeshua we must choose to live and act in ways that purify our world and honour G-d; that is, our standards of honesty, integrity, faithfulness and unselfishness must not only be different from the non-believers around us, but must be refreshing and graceful, not strident and critical. We cannot adopt a pious "holier than thou" attitude; we are not scoring points off others, but working to repair the brokenness of the world and show that there is a better way - the way of the kingdom of G-d - to live. Our words and actions must point clearly to G-d, a G-d who loves and forgives rather than one who condemns and judges; our lives should invite others to know Him.
As salt, oil and wine were used in the ancient world to cleanse and heal wounds, as herb teas were (and still are) drunk to help indigestion, sleep and anxiety, so the followers of Yeshua are to be a healing, soothing and cleansing presence in our places of work, times of leisure and modes of entertainment. As Rav Sha'ul wrote, "Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the G-d of love and peace will be with you" (2 Corinthians 13:11, ESV. We have to choose - these things don't come naturally or easily - the things that honour G-d, build up our neighbours and encourage them to follow our example. Peter writes that the time has already passed for "doing what the [nations] want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry" (1 Peter 4:3, ESV amended), so much so that "they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you" (v. 4, ESV). We have only to look around our so-called modern world to see all these things going on ... including believers being mocked and ridiculed for their refusal to participate.
Our text, though concealing depths in its brevity, makes short work of reporting that the oil and incense were made, both according to their instructions and to be holy and pure. We have learned that being holy and pure is a calling that is laid upon all followers of Yeshua and that obligates us to make ourselves holy in response to G-d's call. Because G-d is faithful and just, He never asks or expects us to do something that we cannot do; if He says, "Be holy", then we can be holy when we choose to do it and call upon Him to help.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 465.
2. - Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2009), page 672.
3. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 431.
Further Study: Romans 12:16-21; Revelation 22:1-2
Application: What could you do today to cleanse and heal the lives and relationships that you know and touch as you go about your work and life? Check in with the Holy Spirit and ask Him to show you choices that you can take to bless, heal and nurture those around you so that people can see something of Yeshua imaged in you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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