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Constructing Hebrew worship

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series

"The Building Blocks of Worship"

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In this series I have suggested that the building blocks of worship were established in the first few chapters of Genesis. To review, those building blocks are as follows: (1) God reveals himself and initiates a relationship with his people; (2) God forms the boundaries of the relationship with his commandments; (3) the nature of worship consists in this relationship of communion between man and his Creator; (4) this worship takes place in the sanctuary of God’s presence; (5) failure to obey the commandments of God prohibits communion with him; (6) God provides atonement whereby man is once again enabled to walk in communion with him.

These elements persist throughout Scripture even as their external manifestations become at times more complex and specific. The Exodus of Israel and the establishment of the Mosaic Law in a sense codify these elements that had been established at Creation. Once again, God was the initiator of the contact through his self-revelation in the burning bush (Exod 3:1–2). The purpose of this meeting was to reestablish a relationship between God and his people (Exod 3:7–8), but sin prevented Moses from fully drawing near to God’s presence—God commanded him, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5). God accomplished his people’s deliverance from bondage through atonement in the Passover event (Exod 12:1–32). He lead them out of Egypt with his own presence in the form of pillars of cloud and fire (Exod 13:21–22) to the foot of Mt. Sinai, where he revealed himself to them (Exod 19:9), “all the congregation drew near and stood before the Lord” (Lev 9:5), and God spoke to them “face to face” (Deut 5:4). Because of the sinfulness of the people, however, God placed clear limits on how closely the people could draw near to him (Exod 19:12–13, 21–25), Moses alone serving as a mediator between the people and God (Exod 24:2).

God’s instructions concerning the construction of the tabernacle also reveal a visualization of the worship elements that had been instituted at Creation.1 This structure served as a sanctuary for God’s presence (“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst,” Exod 25:8)—drawing near to the tabernacle was to draw near to the very presence of God himself, and each piece of furniture within the tabernacle symbolized both the presence of God and the relationship of communion that he desired with his people. The table of acacia wood (Exod 25:23–30) signified such communion with God since in the ancient Near East dining with someone portrayed complete fellowship with that person.2 Likewise, the golden lampstand (Exod 25:31–39) represented the presence of God in two possible ways: first, it reminded the people of the light that God created and thus symbolized his presence.3 Second, Meyers suggests that the lampstand also symbolized the tree of life, harkening back to the garden sanctuary and further reminding the people of communion in God’s sanctuary.4 The altar of incense (Exod 30:1–5) represented the intercessory prayers of God’s people (Ps 141:2; Rev 8:3–5) and thus also emphasized dialogue in relationship with him. Finally, the ark of the covenant (Exod 25:10–22) was the center of God’s presence (“There will I meet with you,” Exod 25:22).

Yet once again, because of the guilt of the people, barriers prevented them from drawing fully near to communion with God in his presence. The curtain surrounding the outer court prevented unlawful approach to God’s presence (Exod 27:9–19). Only appointed priests entered the tabernacle itself (Exod 30:7–10; Lev 24–25). Finally, God commanded that a veil be hung separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy, the chamber holding the ark and the very presence of God (Exod 26:33). Only the High Priest was permitted to enter that place, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:1–19; cf. Heb 9:7). Thus God initiated a system of sacrifices in order to provide atonement and at least partial and temporary access to his presence (Lev 1–9).

Thus, God uses the building blocks of worship he instituted at Creation to construct worship for his people Israel. Next week, we’ll notice that these building blocks are not arbitrary; rather, the have a basis in transcendent realities.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Various interpretations of the symbolism of the tabernacle/temple abound, including those identifying its structure and content with both Christ and the Church. The present discussion deliberately avoids such specific allegorical interpretations in favor of recognizing the overarching, transcendent essential elements of worship. []
  2. Ross helpfully explains: “As a consequence of the nation’s dependence on the Lord, they had a constant need to maintain union with him. And the greatest expression of that kind of union was in the ritual of a communal meal. Even in secular life, contracts between people were sealed by sharing a meal together (Gen 31:45–54). To be able to eat at the king’s table was considered a high honor (2 Sam 9:7; 2 Kngs 25:27–30; Ps 113:7–8)” (Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006], 30). []
  3. John I. Durham, Exodus (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 362–63. []
  4. Carol L. Meyers, The Tabernacle Menorah: A Synthetic Study of a Symbol from the Biblical Cult (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press LLC, 2003), 96, 118–19, 133. []