The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses

by Vern Sheridan Poythress

Sixth draft
Westminster Theological Seminary
Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
summer, 1990

This manuscript is a SIXTH Draft, and is intended as the first draft submitted in the publication process. I would appreciate criticisms and correction of errors. Copyright is retained by the author.



The Challenge of the Law of Moses

  • Basic principles for interpreting the Old Testament

The Tabernacle of Moses,

  • Prefiguring God’s Presence through Christ
  • The tabernacle as a symbol of the Messiah
  • The tabernacle as a symbol of God’s dwelling with Israel
  • The tabernacle as a symbol of heaven
  • The furniture of the tabernacle
  • The multifaceted character of tabernacle symbolism
  • Practical lessons from the tabernacle
  • Guidelines for interpreting the revelation of the tabernacle

The Sacrifices, Prefiguring the Final Sacrifice of Christ

  • The necessity of holiness
  • Redemption from sin
  • The sequence of events in sacrifice
  • The types of sacrifices

The Priests and the People,

  • Prefiguring Christ’s Relation to His People
  • The mediatorial role of priests
  • Similarities of priests to the tabernacle
  • Later replications of the tabernacle
  • Pagan counterfeit worship
  • The people of Israel

General Principles for God’s Dwelling with Human Beings Prefiguring Union with Christ

  • The interaction of tabernacle, sacrifices and priests
  • Covenant

The Land of Palestine, the Promised Land

  • God’s promise of the land
  • The holiness of the land and its symbolic associations

The Law and Its Order

  • Prefiguring the Righteousness of Christ
  • The law as the sovereign treaty of the great King
  • The law articulating God’s order
  • The law expressing the way of life
  • New Testament application of laws of cleanliness
  • Order in personal relationships: the ten commandments

The Purposes of the Tabernacle the Law, and the Promised Land:Pointing Forward to Christ

  • The connections of tabernacle symbolism
  • The connections of the law
  • Moral and ceremonial aspects of the law
  • The tabernacle, the law, and the land as elementary and deep
  • The righteousness set forth in the law
  • Blessing and curse from the law
  • The interpretation of Mosaic law in Hebrews

The Punishments and Penalties of the Law Prefiguring the Destruction of Sin and Guilt through Christ

  • The righteousness of God’s punishments
  • Penal authority given to human beings
  • Simple examples of just recompense on earth: murder and theft
  • The significance of the injured party: God and human beings


The Principle of Penal Substitution

  • The operation of recompense in Deuteronomy 13
  • The significance of holy war: justice and purity
  • New Testament Applications
  • Applying Deut. 13:1-18 today
  • Punishment
  • Restoration

Principles of Justice for the Modern State

  • The nature of responsibilities of the state
  • Principles for just state punishments

Just Penalties for Many Crimes

  • Penalties for theft and accident
  • Repentant offenders
  • Penalties for murder, attempted murder, and manslaughter
  • Penalties for bodily injury
  • Penalties for verbal crimes
  • Penalties for profanation of the holy community
  • Penalties for violent usurpation of authority
  • Penalties for crimes against servants

Penalties for Sexual Crimes

  • Principles involved in understanding Mosaic sexual law
  • Penalties for fornication
  • Penalties for adultery
  • Penalties for sexual perversion
  • Alternatives to my position on sexual crimes

Deterrence and Rehabilitation

  • The use of the general principle of equivalence
  • The role of deterrence and rehabilitation
  • The deterrent value of my proposed punishments
  • The rehabilitative value of my proposed punishments

A Critique of Prisons

  • Does prison justly restore and punish?
  • Does prison effectively deter and rehabilitate?

Our Responsibilities Toward Imperfect States

  • Primary responsibilities
  • Earthly political responsibilities

Fulfillment of the Law in the Gospel According to Matthew

  • Matthew 1-4
  • Matthew 5-7
  • Matthew 5:17-20
  • Pentecost in Matthew
  • Obedience to the law in the Great Commission
  • The broader role of the Old Testament in the Great Commission
  • Christocentric interpretation


  • The point at issue: the God-given authority of civil government
  • State responsibilities concern offenses against human beings, not offenses against God
  • Is false worship an attack against other human beings?
  • Is false worship an attack against the state?
  • Practical reasoning
  • Objection 1: the possibility of renewal of holy war
  • Objection 2: false worship incites God’s anger against the whole society

Appendix B: Evaluating Theonomy

  • Major Concerns of Theonomists
  • Interpreting Old Testament Law
  • Old Testament penalties
  • The relation of this book to theonomy
  • Modifying the theses of theonomy
  • Possible objections
  • Some possible one-sidedness in theonomy
  • Theonomic stridency

Appendix C: Does the Greek Word Πληρόω Sometimes Mean “Confirm”?

  • The nature of the dispute
  • Analysis of possible examples of the sense “confirm”
  • Conclusion




To Jews who read my book I would like to give a special message: I love you. Through your ancestors and through your people I received the most beautiful book in the world, the Bible. Through that book I came to know the true God, the God of your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I am one of those people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah who was promised in the Torah and the Prophets. Through Jesus I have come to know about the Torah that God gave to Moses and to submit to it. I am deeply sorry for the harm that has come to your people through Christians who thought that they were serving Jesus. I am convinced that they were doing the very opposite of what he commanded.

In this book I tell part of my story. Doubtless you will not agree with some of the things that I say. I am sorry if anything offends you; I do not intend it. I would kindly ask you to keep reading. I think that you will find a good deal of interest to you, because I am writing about the most precious heritage of the Jews, the Torah. I am writing primarily to those who accept the New Testament as part of God’s word, and so I sometimes appeal to portions of the New Testament. Nevertheless, the essential parts of my argument do not depend on the New Testament but only on the Old Testament, the Bible of the Jews. It will help if you keep in mind that the Bible of the Jews contains many promises looking forward to a great future time of salvation for Israel (see, e.g., Isa. 9:6-7; 11:1-16; Ezek. 34:17-31; 36:1-38; Isa. 40-66). At that time the Messiah, the Son of David, will come, and the majesty and glory of God will be openly revealed (Isa. 40:5; Hab. 2:14; Zech. 14:9). The law and the prophets were never intended to be the whole of God’s communication to the world, but only the first half of it. If I am right in thinking that the New Testament completes the story that God began in the Old Testament, it is quite proper for me to look back now in the light of the full story and see what more I can learn from its first half. If you do not accept my view of the New Testament, you must still ask yourself what that first half points forward to.

My thanks are due to my friends Edmund P. Clowney, John M. Frame, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Meredith G. Kline, Greg L. Bahnsen, James B. Jordan, Steven M. Schlei, and Gary North for helping me to love God’s law. I would like to indicate also my appreciation for the late Geerhardus Vos, and for Rousas J. Rushdoony, whom I have not met personally, but who introduced some of the ideas that led to the present discussion. My apologies are extended to them for any way in which I may have underestimated the insights of their positions in the past–or even in the present book. The more I have worked on these issues, the more I have appreciated their depth. I have not always found it easy to interpret what people are saying on these issues within the context in which they intended it, and above all in the context of the unsearchable divine wisdom of God’s word.

This book is dedicated to the Jews and to my children, Ransom and Justin, to whom God has given through Moses a most wonderful story in pictures.


1 The Challenge of the Law of Moses

When I was a teenager, an older Christian woman learned that I had read the entire Bible during the preceding year. She came up to me and asked, “How did you get through the Book of Leviticus?” I didn’t really know what to say to her in return. I knew what she meant. Parts of the Old Testament were difficult for me too. Somehow the Lord had given me sufficient motivation and interest to read the whole Bible. But how was I to help her? And how could I learn to appreciate the difficult parts better myself? What were she and I supposed to be learning from Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy?

I did not learn the answer until years later. The answer came to me through another story, not the story of my life but the story of two other people with struggles like my own.

The challenge of the Old Testament

Long ago in Palestine two disciples of Jesus were walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). A stranger joined them. He asked them about the things they had been through, and they began to explain. They were heartbroken because the master and friend in whom they had put all their hopes was dead. But the stranger said some strange things to comfort them. Instead of sympathizing, he said, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” The disciples’ real problem was not with a dead master but with themselves. They did not understand the Old Testament. And so the stranger helped them to understand. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The stranger, of course, was Jesus Christ, the master teacher of the Old Testament. What did Jesus tell those two disciples? We do not know the details. But we do know the heart of his teaching: “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26).

Even before Jesus was finished, and even before he revealed who he was, a remarkable transformation began to take place in the hearts of the disciples. They said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked to us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” The Old Testament Scriptures began to open up to them, and they were awed, amazed, and overwhelmed all at once.

Later on Jesus appeared to a larger group of his disciples. He continued teaching along the same line:

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:45-49)

Christ enabled the disciples to understand not merely the implications of a few passages of the Old Testament, but “the Scriptures”–the whole Old Testament. What do these Scriptures really say? Christ introduces his explanation with the words, “This is what is written.” That is, he promises to give them the substance and heart of what is written in the Old Testament. What he says next contains his answer: “The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”1

The whole Old Testament finds its focus in Jesus Christ, his death, and his resurrection. The Apostle Paul says the same thing in different words: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are `Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the `Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20). “These things [in the Old Testament] happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18).

Basic principles for interpreting the Old Testament

A great heritage awaits us in the Old Testament. But how do we unlock it? Christ himself is the key that unlocks the riches of the Old Testament. Let us see how.

First of all, Christ is the all-glorious Lord, the only Son of the Father, who from all eternity beholds the Father face to face, who is with God and who is God (John 1:1). Every word of the Old Testament is the word of God himself (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and God is the trinitarian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus all of the Old Testament is Christ’s word to us, as well as God the Father’s word to us.

Second, the Old Testament teaches us about Christ. Such is one main implication of the story in Luke 24. Christ is the focus of the message of the Old Testament. He is the one to whom it points forward, about whom it speaks, and whom it prefigures in symbols.

Third, Christ not only instructs us but establishes communion with us through his word. We abide in Christ as his word abides in us (John 15:7). As the Holy Spirit works in our hearts, we find that we are meeting Christ and he talks to us very personally through the Bible, including the Old Testament.

Fourth, Christ changes us and transforms us through his word. As we meet with Christ and experience his glory, we are transformed into his image. The Bible says that we start out with a lack of understanding of the Old Testament, due to hard hearts (Luke 24:25; 2 Cor. 4:4). This lack is like a veil over our hearts keeping us from seeing it correctly (2 Cor. 3:14-15). When we turn to the Lord, the Holy Spirit works in us and the veil over our hearts is removed (2 Cor. 3:16-17). Then we see the true glory of Christ. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

Fifth, as our hearts are changed we begin to respond to Christ in adoration, thankfulness, and obedience. Christ is our Lord, our master, and that means that we must obey him. But Christ is also our beloved, and that means that we come to love to please him and obey him (John 14:15, 23). Our response ought not to be a reluctant, grumbling obedience, but joyful, enthusiastic obedience. And so it will be more and more, if we belong to him and have fellowship with him, because Christ writes his own law on our hearts (2 Cor. 3:3, 6; Heb. 10:16).

Thus when we read the Old Testament we should pray that Christ will both enlighten us and transform us. Because the Old Testament as well as the New is Christ’s word, we should believe what God teaches there, obey what he commands, and give thanks for the blessings and communion that he gives. Above all, we should endeavor to search out how the Old Testament speaks of Christ.

We need to keep in mind two final key elements: humility and love. We are beset by sin and our understanding will be imperfect as long as we are in this life (1 Cor. 13:12). We must be humble enough not to overestimate our abilities. We must realize that God’s thoughts are above our thoughts (Isa. 55:9), and that we will never come to the bottom of their unsearchable depths (Rom. 11:33-36). In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). We should come to Christ for all enlightenment. But when we do so, we also acknowledge “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:18). Paul prays for us “to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). Truly Christ’s love surpasses knowledge, and we adore him in awe rather than come to a complete mastery of what we study.

Because of our limitations we must also be deeply grateful for insights that God provides through other human beings who study the Bible. When we differ with others in our understanding of Scripture, we must be willing to defend its precious central truths, but we must also be willing to listen to others in love (Eph. 4:12-16). We may not always be right, and even when we are right, we may have something to learn from other people who have seen some other aspect of the infinite depth of God’s truth.

In particular, we must be ready to learn something from the Israelites of long ago. God did not begin to exercise his wisdom or care with us today. He started long ago, even at creation. Through many generations he dealt patiently with people in circumstances very different from ours, and he proved himself faithful. Again and again he spoke to them about Christ in symbols and shadows that were appropriate to them and their circumstances rather than immediately to our circumstances. That is why the Old Testament is so remarkably unlike the New Testament in some ways. Yet because the same God and the same Christ are proclaimed in both, they are also remarkably alike in their overall thrust.

If we have humility about ourselves and enough love to look beyond ourselves to other people’s situations, we can begin to appreciate how God dealt with the Israelites in the Old Testament, and how things looked from their point of view. Then we gain understanding of what God really said in the Old Testament, as opposed to ideas that we might fancifully impose on the Old Testament out of our own imaginations.

Thus we have a threefold task. First, we must try to understand the law of Moses on its own terms, within its own historical environment. God intended it to be heard and understood by Israelites who had recently been redeemed from Egypt. Second, we must try to understand how the New Testament completes God’s story and God’s word that he began to speak in the Old Testament. Third, we must obey and apply God’s word to ourselves and our own circumstances. Often biblical scholars stop with the first step. But it is legitimate to read the first part of the story again in the light of the end. By doing so we may understand more clearly how the beginning already introduced the teachings and the tensions that are completed and resolved at the end. Jesus Christ himself is the center of New Testament revelation. Since the New Testament completes the story begun in the Old, Christ is also the center about which the Old Testament begins to speak in its preliminary way, and to which the Old Testament points forward.

In addition, it is spiritually vital for us to obey and apply God’s word. Jesus Christ is still our Lord today, and we acknowledge him as Lord not only by receiving his blessings with thanksgiving but by wholeheartedly obeying him.2

So let us take a journey, back, back, in time and space to the Near East, to the days when Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and taught them in the wilderness. These people were like all people in their hearts, but some of their experiences were very different from our own. They lived in tents. They herded cattle and sheep. They lived in the open air a lot. The sun, the moon, the stars, the clouds, the trees, and the land were their companions. Above all, they had experienced a miraculous visit from God himself, who had brought them out of miserable bondage and slavery in Egypt through their deliverer, Moses. Let us go back and hear what God said to them.

Chapter 1 Footnotes

1 I owe much to Edmund P. Clowney and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. for their endeavors to help to make clear the implications of this passage from Luke. See in particular Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., The Centrality of the Resurrection: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978).

2 Further discussion of principles of interpretation will follow at the end of the next chapter and in appendix B. Note also the further reading suggested in the footnotes in the next chapter.

2a The Tabernacle of Moses, Prefiguring God’s Presence through Christ

Near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Mennonites own and maintain a strange-looking building.  It is a full-scale replica of the tabernacle of God, a special tent-like building described in Exodus 25-30.  God commanded the Israelites to make just such a building as his dwelling place among them.  The modern Mennonite replica also has within it a mannequin wearing robes like the garments of the high priest of Israel.  People come to tour the Mennonites’ building, and as they do so tour guides explain the significance of the various furnishings.  People who have read the Bible and go on the tour almost always come away excited.  They say, “I never understood those Old Testament passages about the tabernacle and the priests.  But now that I have seen how it all fits together, and now that I have had some things explained to me, I want to go back to read the passages in the Bible and see how they symbolize who Christ was and what he did.”

I wish that I could take all my readers on that tour.  The Israelites long ago did not have to visualize the tabernacle; they could see it.  The priests were allowed to enter the rooms at certain times, and could explain to everyone else what was there.  They could watch the animals being sacrificed.  Messages came home to them that tend to pass us by unless we make a conscious effort to understand.  But we also have an advantage over the Israelites.  We can read the New Testament and see the completion of what those Old Testament images pointed forward to.

The tabernacle as a symbol of the Messiah

The Old Testament tabernacle is full of meaning because it is a symbol of the Messiah and his salvation.  The Book of Hebrews gives much instruction concerning the tabernacle.

But only the high priest entered the inner room [of the tabernacle], and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.  The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing.  This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.  They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation.  He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.  The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.  How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb 9:7-14)

The earthly tabernacle was a copy or a shadow of the true dwelling place of God in heaven (Heb 8:5; 9:24).  It showed what God was like and what was needed to deal with sin.  In this way it symbolized what the Messiah was to do for our salvation.  We may say that it “foreshadowed” the Messiah and his work.  It was like a shadow of the Messiah cast backward in time into the Old Testament period.  The shadow was always inferior to the reality.  The earthly tabernacle was made of earthly things, and could never equal the splendor or holiness of God in heaven.  The earthly sacrifices of bulls and goats could never equal the blood of Christ, who cleansed us from sin forever.  The shadow was not itself the reality, but a pointer to Christ who was the reality.  Yet the shadow was also like the reality.  And the shadow even brought the reality to bear on people in the Old Testament.  As they looked ahead through the shadows, longing for something better, they took hold on the promises of God that he would send the Messiah.  The promises were given not only verbally but symbolically, through the very organization of the tabernacle and its sacrifices.  In pictorial form God was saying, as it were,

Look at my provisions for you.  This is how I redeem you and bring you to my presence.  But look again, and you will see that it is all an earthly symbol of something better.  Do not rely on it as if it were the end.  Trust me to save you fully when I fully accomplish my plans.

Israelites had genuine communion with God when they responded to what he was saying in the tabernacle.  They trusted in the Messiah, without knowing all the details of how fulfillment would finally come.  And so they were saved, and they received forgiveness, even before the Messiah came.  The animal sacrifices in themselves did not bring forgiveness (Heb. 10:1-4), but Christ did as he met with them through the symbolism of the sacrifices.

The tabernacle as a symbol of God’s dwelling with Israel

What did Israelites see when they looked at the tabernacle so long ago?  They saw a tent with two inner rooms and a yard outside.  In the yard was the Israelite equivalent of a stove, namely a place where meat could be roasted on a fire.

A tent means very little to us, but Israelites knew all about tents because they were living in tents themselves.  Then God told them to make a tent for himself, a tent where God himself would dwell and meet with them (Exod 25:8, 22).  His tent had rooms and a yard and a fireplace like their own.  Yet it was also unlike their own.  It was majestic, covered with gold and blue.  It was beautiful, because of the symmetry of its dimensions and the artistry of its construction.  Do you see?  God was saying that he was majestic and beautiful.  But he would not simply remain in heaven and let Israel go its way.  He would come right down among them.  They were living in tents.  He too would be in a tent, side by side with their own tents.  They were going to the promised land.  He too would travel to the promised land, as his tent was packed up by the Levites and moved to the next encampment.  The special cloud of fire symbolizing God’s presence was a more intensive, miraculous form of the same reality.  God would be among them, right with them, “Immanuel” (see Matt. 1:23).  A bright cloud of glory symbolizing God’s presence accompanied the Israelites and came over the tabernacle after it was constructed (Exod. 40:34-38; Num. 9:15-23).

The theme that God dwells with his people was fulfilled with the coming of Jesus Christ.  In fact, the tabernacle foreshadowed the fact that Christ would become incarnate and dwell among us.  “The Word became flesh and lived for awhile [tabernacled] among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  Christ’s glory superseded the bright cloud of glory.  Now Christ sends his Holy Spirit like a cloud of fire to make his church and his people into a tabernacle of God (Acts 2:2-4; 1 Cor. 3:10-17; 6:19).

The tabernacle expresses another side to the character of God, namely that he is holy and inaccessible.  The altar, several coverings, and two sets of curtains bar the way into his presence.  No one can enter into the inner room, the most holy place, except the high priest, and even then only once a year in a special ceremony, where he is protected from his sin and the accusation of the law by the blood that he brings in and sprinkles on the mercy seat (Lev. 16).  Death is threatened to transgressors of God’s holiness (Exod. 19:12-13, 21-25).  Even the priests may suffer death if they do not honor God (Num. 10:1-2; Lev. 22:9; 16:2; Exod. 30:21).  They are especially in danger of death as they approach the inner rooms of the tabernacle.  The high priest must take special care not even to see the atonement cover when he performs his actions in the most holy place (Lev. 16:13).

By these means the Lord shows the preciousness of the love between the Father and the Son.  The tabernacle symbolism points to Christ.  Defilement of this symbolism constitutes an attack on Christ, and so rouses God’s indignation in intense form.  The same truths also embody a lesson concerning Christ’s sacrificial death.  God’s holiness is so great that faults against him deserve death.  Christ himself was perfectly holy.  But when he bore our sins and “became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21), the Father had to put him to death.  To this death he consented willingly, and went like a sheep to slaughter, because of his love for us and his hatred of sin’s rule over us (1 Pet. 2:24; John 10:18).

Christ had to die.  There was no other way by which we might enter into the true tabernacle in heaven and enjoy the blessing of God’s presence forever.  But now, because Christ has died, the animal sacrifices are ended and we have access to God with freedom (Rom. 5:1-2).  The veil barring the way to God’s presence is taken away, or rather fulfilled in the body of Christ.  Christ does not bar us out, as the veil did, but provides the way in.  “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” (Heb. 10:19-20).  The veil has become the gate into the security of the sheepfold (John 10:7-9).

For those outside of Christ, the death penalty for violations of God’s holiness says something else.  When Christ returns to judge the world, God’s holiness will appear in intense form.  Just as at Mount Sinai the Mount was covered with the glory of God’s holiness, so at the Second Coming the world as a whole will be covered with his glory (2 Thess. 1:7-10).  The wicked must experience eternal death, because they are violators of the holiness of Christ.  God’s love for Christ also implies his hatred for Christ’s enemies and his zeal to vindicate Christ’s honor.  “Those who honor me I will honor” (1 Sam. 2:30) is true also at the last day.  When Christ receives the full honor due to him (Phil. 2:10-11), all rebellion is utterly crushed.

The tabernacle as a symbol of heaven

What happened to the tabernacle?  After the years in the wilderness, the Israelites entered the promised land and settled down.  Instead of living in tents, they built houses for themselves.  Fittingly, king Solomon was commissioned by God to build a permanent house for God, the temple, which replaced the mobile tent-like tabernacle.  The temple had the same basic arrangements as the tabernacle, two rooms and an outside yard, but each of the horizontal dimensions was doubled.

What does Solomon foreshadow?  Why the work of Christ, of course.  Solomon was the son in David’s line, the line leading to the Messiah.  He built a dwelling place for God, foreshadowing Christ who builds his church (Matt. 16:18) and who is himself the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20) or foundation (1 Cor. 3:11).  Christ builds not on the earthly Mount Zion but on a heavenly site: “But you [Christians] have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (Heb. 12:22).

Solomon himself recognized that the true dwelling of God is in heaven.  As he dedicated the temple he spoke of the earthly temple as a place where God had put his name (1 Kings 8:29).  Heaven is the true dwelling place of God (1 Kings 8:30, 43) and the place from which God hears.  Thus Solomon recognized what we have learned from Hebrews, that the tabernacle and temple were shadows of heavenly things.

God dwells in a special sense in heaven.  Of course in the broadest sense, as Solomon reminds us, “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you” (1 Kings 8:27).  Yet in a particular way the visible sky represents God’s own majesty and inaccessibility.  Even more inaccessible than the visible sky is God’s special throne room as we find it described by prophets like Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-13) and Daniel (Dan. 7:9-10) and John (Rev. 4:1-5:14).  From God’s throne angels issue to perform his commands.

When God came down in a cloud at Mount Sinai, the cloud symbolized both God’s heavenly character and his inaccessibility to human eye.  Moses went up to meet God, foreshadowing Jesus’ function as a mediator between God and man.  On the mount Moses received a pattern for the tabernacle.  What else would it be than a heavenly pattern, since he received it by symbolically going up to heaven?  Thus the Book of Hebrews appeals to the fact that God instructed Moses to “make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (Heb. 8:5).

When we look at the tabernacle again, we seen unmistakable signs of symbolism of heaven.  The two cherubim by the ark are replicas of angelic heavenly beings guarding the throne of God (cf. Ezek. 1; Gen. 3:24).  More figures of cherubim are woven into the veil that guards the way into the most holy place (Exod. 26:31).  Still more cherubim are woven into the ten curtains that constitute the main material of the tent, enclosing the two rooms (Exod. 26:1).  The curtains are woven with blue, symbolizing the royal blue of heaven.  The ten commandments are the very words of God, heavenly words in the fullest sense.  They are written on tablets that Moses received from the Mount, that is, from a symbolic replica of heaven.  They are placed in the ark of the testimony (Exod. 25:21), the most holy object in the entire tent.  The ark itself is a box with the approximate shape of an ancient king’s footstool.1  Thus the ark represents part of God’s throne room in heaven.  Fittingly, the space above the ark is empty, because God may not be seen and no images of him are permitted (Exod. 33:20; 20:4-5; Deut. 4:15-19).  Thus the tabernacle as a whole is a replica of heaven.  When God comes to dwell with the Israelites, he brings down to them in his wonderful condescension a little replica of heaven.

Let us look at the arrangements in greater detail.  (See Figure 1.)


The tabernacle has two rooms.  The inner room, measuring 10 cubits by 10 cubits by 10 cubits high (about 15 feet on a side), is called the most holy place.  The outer room, measuring 10 cubits by 20 cubits by 10 cubits high, is called the holy place.  The two rooms are separated from one another by the special curtain or veil barring the way, the curtain to which Hebrews refers (Heb. 10:20).  Another curtain made of similar material separates the holy place from the yard outside (“the courtyard”).  The courtyard measures 50 cubits by 100 cubits.  If one takes into account the curtains forming the fence around the courtyard, which are 5 cubits high, the total dimensions are 50 by 100 by 5 (Exod. 27:9-19).  The dimensions clearly become less perfect as one moves outward.  The inner room is a perfect cube.  The outer room is not, but deviates from perfection simply by multiplying one dimension by two.  The courtyard is still less perfect, inasmuch as all three dimensions are different.  But the dimensions still have simple ratios to one another, expressing a kind of limited balance and perfection.  Thus each of the three areas is a kind of lesser image of the preceding one.

As a priest proceeded inward, he came first to the courtyard.  Then he crossed the courtyard to the altar of burnt offering in the middle of it.  Then he came to a “laver” or washing basin, then to the first curtain, then to the holy place.  In the middle of the holy place were a lampstand on one side and a table with bread on the other.  At the far end of the holy place the priest came to an altar of incense, then to the second curtain, and finally to the most holy place with its ark (a gold covered box), the cherubim, and the special cover for the ark called the “mercy seat” or atonement cover.  Inside the ark were the tablets of the law (Exod. 25:21).

All these aspects of the tabernacle may be expected to say something to Israel about the meaning of communion with God and dwelling with God.  They picture the nature of God’s dwelling and the manner in which he is approached.  But before we enter into any detail, let us try to understand the over-all structure.  The inner and outer rooms are both covered with blue curtains and interwoven cherubim, signifying heaven.  All the furnishings are covered with gold, signifying the royal splendor of heaven.  Outside in the courtyard, the altar is made of bronze, a less expensive metal, and common Israelite worshipers may enter.  The courtyard is much more earthy in character.  The relations between the two would doubtless suggest to Israelites their own earthiness in contrast with God’s heavenly character.  Israelites are on earth and God is in heaven.  God’s throne in heaven is, as it were, concealed by clouds and the visible sky, which correspond to the curtains barring the way into the two rooms.

Why are there two rooms rather than one?  Doubtless two rooms are needed to show some of the variety of aspects belonging to communion with God.  The use of two rooms also emphasizes the remoteness of God’s presence, since there is more than one layer separating the Israelites from the inner room.  The imagery of heaven suggests something more, namely that the outer room corresponds more directly to the visible heavens, with sun, moon, stars, and clouds, while the inner room corresponds more directly to the very throne room of God himself, which is distinct from the visible sky.

The same Hebrew and Greek words are used for “heaven” in both of these senses.  No special distinct terminology is needed, because biblical writers were not making scientific astronomical distinctions but were dwelling on the fact that the majesty and inaccessibility of the visible sky reflects the majesty of God (Ps. 19:1-6).

The furniture of the tabernacle

Thus in some ways the visible heaven of the sky corresponds to the holy place, and the invisible heaven of God’s throne to the most holy place.  Degrees of inaccessibility are expressed in this symbolism.  Degrees of perfection are also evident.  The most holy place has the perfect dimensions of a 10 by 10 by 10 cube, as we saw, while the holy place and the courtyard are less perfect.  In the most holy place are the symbols of God’s immediate presence: the law setting forth God’s standards, the ark symbolizing God’s throne or footstool, and the two cherubim guarding the throne.  In the holy place are symbols easily associated with mediation between God and human beings.

On one side of the holy place the lampstand provides light all night (Exod. 27:30; Lev. 24:1-4).  Israel would be reminded of how God is the creator and light-giver.  The sun, moon, and stars provide light during both the day and the night.  The seven lamps on the lampstand may even correspond to the seven major lights of heaven, namely sun, moon, and five known planets.  God is not only the creator who supplies light by natural means, but the redeemer who supplied redeeming light to lead the people out of Egypt.  The cloud of fire guided them and protected them from the Egyptians (Exod. 14:19-20; Num. 9:15-23).  This symbolism is fulfilled in Christ, who is both our creator and redeemer (Col. 1:15-20).  Christ was the original uncreated light of the world, whose glory and purity is dimly reflected in the heavenly bodies (John 1:3-5).  He is also the redeeming light of the world; he comes into its spiritual darkness to make the blind see (John 1:5, 9; 8:12; 9:3-6).

The lampstand is placed on the south side of the holy place. Perhaps this placement is intended to correspond to the fact that from Israel’s point of view, north of the equator, the circuit of the heavenly lights would be primarily to the south.  The sevenness of the lamps suggests not only the seven major lights of heaven, as I have mentioned, but the general symbolism for time within Israel.  The heavenly bodies were made in order to “serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years” (Gen. 1:14).  The whole cycle of time marked by the sun and moon and stars is divided up into sevens: the seventh day in the week is the sabbath day; the seventh month is the month of atonement (Lev. 16:29); the seventh year is the year of release from debts and slavery (Deut. 15); the seventh of seven year cycles is the year of jubilee (Lev. 25).  Fittingly, the lampstand contains the same sevenfold division, symbolizing the cycle of time provided by the heavenly lights.

The lampstand is also in the shape of a tree, with branches, buds, blossom, and almond flowers (Exod. 25:31-39).  What message is conveyed by this shape?  Once more it is a message about time, the familiar cycle of growth of plants, springtime, summer, and harvest.  Indeed elsewhere in Scripture the almond is a symbol of a time of watching or waiting (Jer. 1:11-12), because of a play on the Hebrew word for almond.  “Almond,” shaqed\O (שָׁקֵד)\o, is related to the Hebrew word for “watch,” shaqad\O (שָׁקַד)\o.  If we follow this symbolism through, we see that the lamps themselves symbolize the fruit of the tree.  This strange tree has buds, blossoms, almond flowers, and fruit all at once, because it must be a static picture of the whole cycle of time that God has created and sustains.  The tree symbolizes the growth of life.  It issues new light in the form of fruit that in turn will give birth to new trees.  The tree is truly a tree both of light and of life.  The reproductive living power of the tree is in its fruit, that is, the light, which shines on the earth and sustains its growth.  As John says, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:3-4).

In addition, the tree reminds us of the Garden of Eden with its original tree of life.  But now the true life of creation has been lost through sin.  It is restored through God coming to be “God with us.”  The tabernacle is a renewed version of the garden of Eden.  But curtains with cherubim on them still bar the way into God’s presence, just as cherubim barred the way into the original garden of Eden after the fall (Gen. 3:24).

On the other side of the holy place is the table with “the bread of the Presence” on it (Exod. 25:23-30).  The “Presence” spoken of is clearly the presence of God.  In the ancient Near East sharing a special meal together was a act of friendship and personal communion (see Gen. 18:1-8; Exod. 24:9-11).  The host undertook solemn responsibility to serve and protect his guest while they enjoyed the meal.  Thus God invites Israel to share a meal with him and enjoy his protection.  But only the priests can eat the special holy food (Lev. 22:10-16), and the restriction to the priests signifies the special restrictions on fellowship, due to God’s holiness.  In this way God symbolizes his provision of food to the Israelites.

The Israelites had a common experience to which to relate this symbolism.  Day after day they ate manna, the “bread from heaven” (Exod. 16:4), miraculously provided by God.  The Israelites complained about its taste (Num. 11:6), but actually it was sweet tasting (Exod. 16:31), reminding them of the sweet goodness of God the provider (cf. Ps. 19:10).  It came with the dew and looked like frost (Exod. 16:14), reminding them of the fact that God provides rain and dew to water crops, which in turn provide food.  It looked like coriander seed (Exod. 16:31), again reminding them of the association with crops.  Thus God by his supernatural provision indirectly pointed to the fact that he provides food to us every day by natural means (Matt. 6:11).  He is the creator and sustainer of agriculture.  The descent of rain from heaven is a continual reminder of his provision.  Once the people entered the land of promise, the bread of the Presence itself would have been made from grain growing in the promised land.

Thus the bread of the Presence was a continual pointer to the fact that God provides food to human beings every day through the processes of reproduction, growth, and harvesting.  But in addition, God provided to his people Israel the manna, a special supernatural food, redemptive food, food from heaven, when he brought the people from bondage into the promised land (Exod. 16:32).  A portion of manna was permanently kept in the most holy place to signify its holy character and to encourage the Israelites to remember its lessons (Exod. 16:32-35).

When Jesus came, he fulfilled this symbolism.  Not only did he supernaturally provide a meal for 5000 people (John 6:1-13), but explained its significance:

I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. . . .  I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.  (John 6:32-35)

The details of the bread of the Presence may also be significant.  The table has the same rectangular shape as the holy place and as the courtyard, twice as long as it is wide.  This proportionality suggests that it is a little replica of the larger land.  The twelve loaves correspond to the twelve months, the cycle of seedtime and harvest by which God provides foods.  The twelve tribes of Israel come to share in the inheritance when they enter the promised land and receive plots of the land themselves.  Fittingly, the manna stops coming when they enter the land and eat its fruit (Josh. 5:10-12).  But remember that the table is in the holy place.  It stands for the heavenly origin of food.  It represents the patterns of the seasons and of the heavenly lights, which are then replicated in the shape of the courtyard representing the earth.  The land of the Palestine is in turn a replica of the courtyard.  When Jesus says that he is the bread of life, he shows that he is the heavenly original of which these things are copies, both in creation and in redemption.

One more item stands in the holy place, namely the altar of incense (Exod. 30:1-10).  The altar of incense was a special small altar covered with gold that was placed at the far end of the holy place, just in front of the curtain leading to the most holy place.  Unlike the bronze altar outside in the courtyard, it burned no animal sacrifices, but only incense (Exod. 30:8-9).  It was “most holy,” and in this respect logically belonged with the most holy place (Heb. 9:4), even though it stood physically outside the curtain.

The outstanding function of the altar was to burn sweet smelling incense.  The smoke and fragrance from the incense would have filled the entire tabernacle, both inner and outer rooms.  What picture does this process present to Israelites?  For one thing, it would have suggested the lavish and thoughtful hospitality of a host.  The life of the average Israelite was accompanied by the strong and not-always-pleasant smells associated with animals and physical labor.  The fragrance of burning incense was used by hosts to add to the pleasant atmosphere of a special social occasion.  God as the supreme host made sure that such items of pleasant hospitality were associated with his house.

Once we take into account the theme of replication, involving the inner and outer spaces replicating heaven, the incense also suggests another set of associations.  The smoke from the animal sacrifices offered on the bronze altar outside would have gone up into heaven.  The altar of incense signifies what happens to the smoke when, figuratively speaking, it rises to the very top of the visible heavens.  It becomes a sweet smelling fragrance that enters even into the most holy place, God’s throne room.  God smells and is pleased.  He receives the offering.  The offerings themselves are a sort of nonverbal prayer–prayer for forgiveness of sin, prayer of adoration, prayer of thanksgiving, prayer of intercession by the priest for those whom he represents.  Appropriately the New Testament clearly identifies the rising incense with the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8; 8:3).  But first of all we must think of the prayers of Jesus Christ as he prayed on earth (Heb. 5:7) and as he now intercedes for us in heaven (Heb. 7:25).

The altar of incense has the dimensions one cubit by one cubit by two cubits cubits high (Exod. 30:1-6).  The dimensions of one cubit by one cubit in horizontal space make it square, a replica of the square shape of the most holy place.  Its vertical dimension, two cubits, makes it the same in overall shape as the holy place, but one-tenth the size.  The ark has dimensions of one and a half cubits high, one and a half cubits wide, and two and a half cubits long (Exod. 25:10).  The two equal dimensions make the ark into a square, replicating the square shape of the most holy place.  They are also equal to the vertical dimension of the table.  The bronze altar has a vertical dimension of three cubits, twice the size of the vertical dimension of the ark, and two dimensions of five cubits, twice the size of the length of the ark.  As we have already observed, the two equal dimensions of five cubits make the bronze altar into a square, replicating the shape of the most holy place and the cross section of the ark.

What does all this symmetry and replication suggest?  Perfect craftsmanship.  Inside the ark is the law, symbolizing the blueprint for the whole pattern of the tabernacle.  The tabernacle itself is nothing else than a replica of the law, God’s word, which described the pattern to Moses in the first place.  This building is truly beautiful, the work of a master hand, the creator himself!

The courtyard outside corresponds to the earth.  The altar there is made of bronze, a less expensive metal, in contrast to the gold that covers everything in the two rooms.  The altar measures 5 cubits by 5 cubits, a perfect square, showing its perfection.  But the figure of 5 has already been associated with the courtyard as a whole, which measures 50 cubits by 100 cubits by 5 cubits.  Thus the very measurements of the altar suggest its association with the whole of the court.  But again its dimensions are not completely symmetric.  It is 3 cubits rather than 5 cubits high, breaking the perfect symmetry in order to allow the priests to work on it without too much onerous effort.  To this altar the ordinary earthly people of Israel are allowed to approach, at least to the entrance of the courtyard, and to present their earthly, animal sacrifices.  In addition, the vertical dimension of three corresponds to the threefoldness in the total length of the two rooms of the tabernacle.

In between the bronze altar and the rooms is a washing basin or “laver.”  It is also made of bronze, suggesting the same association with earth.  In fact, here we have a little replica of the earth.  The laver represents the waters of the earth, while the space around the laver represents the dry land.  The altar itself replicates the whole tabernacle, since it is the special place rising up from the earth where sacrifices may be offered.  Thus the altar is suggestive of a little replica of Mount Zion, the later resting place of the temple, or Mount Sinai where God meets with Moses.  The three cubit height of the altar might perhaps even suggest the three tiers or stories of the world, the highest invisible heavens, visible heaven, and earth.

Another little pattern is suggested by the function of the washing basin and its relation to the priests.  The washing basin supplies the priests with water for their ceremonial washings.  It is a basin for cleansing.  Water descending from heaven through the seasonal pattern of rains represented in the holy place comes to the earth, with its life-giving power, and renews it.  It is the cleansing, life-giving water of life.

Note also the sequence of actions that a priest would go through.  The altar stands closest to the entrance to the courtyard.  After that comes the washing basin, then comes the tabernacle itself with its two rooms.  The Israelites’ own experience in the immediate past portrayed the same sequence.  First they are in bondage, in Egypt, then they are delivered through the sacrifice of the passover lamb, symbolized by the altar.  Then they pass through the Red Sea and still live, whereas their enemies are destroyed.  The waters of the Red Sea stand for a kind of ceremonial cleansing from their enemies, as Paul points out: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:1-2).  Then they enjoy the manna in the wilderness, symbolized by the table of the bread of the Presence (Exod. 16:1-36).  They come to Mount Sinai, the special holy mountain, symbolized by the whole tabernacle.

Characteristically God delivers his people by stages.  The same basic elements of salvation are repeated in different forms, again and again, as the Israelites see God’s salvation progressively manifested.  Hence, the same sequence of symbols can be used again and again to stand for the steps in God’s deliverance.  For example, we may see the bronze altar as corresponding to Mount Sinai, the washing basin as corresponding to the crossing of the Jordan, and the rooms of the tabernacle as corresponding to entrance into the promised land, a new Eden, flowing with milk and honey, a holy land.

Once the people are in the promised land, the same pattern can be seen again.  The bronze altar stands for Mount Zion with the temple on top, the rooms of the tabernacle stand for heaven, and the washing basin symbolizes the clouds or heavenly water separating the people from the pure holiness of heaven.

In this situation things remain for a long time.  Then, when Jesus dies, the soldier pierces his side, “bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:34).  John is amazingly emphatic in his testimony: “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe” (John 19:35).  Then John shows other connections with the Old Testament (John 19:36-37).  Perhaps John intends us to understand, among other things, that the blood corresponds to the blood of the altar and the water to the water of the washing basin.  Shortly after Zechariah has given the prophecy of the piercing quoted by John 19:37 (Zech. 12:10), he says in Zech. 13:1, “On that a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”  That is, they will receive not a static basin but a bubbling up fountain of running water.  Such a source of cleansing is symbolically represented by the water flowing from Jesus’ side.

Jesus also says, “Everyone who drinks this water [ordinary water] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).  The priests “thirst” again and again, that is they need to be washed again and again.  But Christ’s cleansing cleanses forever.  Later Jesus identifies the water with the Holy Spirit:

Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believers in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”  By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.  Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.  (John 7:37-49)

The coming of the Spirit is now signified by baptism, a cleansing ceremony with water.

For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.  (Acts 1:5)

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

(Acts 2:38)

Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?  They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.  (Acts 10:47)

Jesus discussion with Nicodemus about being born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5) builds on the picture of cleansing in Ezek. 36:25-27 and points to these same truths.

Chapter 2a Footnotes

1 See the discussion in Menahem Haran, Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel: An Inquiry into the Character of Cult Phenomena and the Historical Setting of the Priestly School (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 246-59.

2b The separations of the tabernacle

The interfaces between the various spaces of the tabernacle are carefully designed to separate the places, to isolate them so that the unholiness of Israel cannot come in contact with the holiness of God. One curtain or “veil” separates the inner room, the most holy place, from the outer room, the holy place. As we have argued, it signifies the inaccessibility of God generally, but more particularly the fact that the highest heaven, the immediate throne room of God, is distinct from the visible sky and cannot be seen.

A second curtain separates the holy place from the courtyard. From an Israelite point of view it signifies the inaccessibility even of the visible heaven. Human beings cannot climb to heaven. But the curtains are both separations and doorways, inasmuch as the high priest can pass through even the first curtain once a year. The second curtain is an imperfect replica of the first.

Remember now that the courtyard represents the earth. The tabernacle, that is the two rooms taken together, is filled with the gold of heavenly royalty, while the courtyard has only bronze furnishings. But does not the tabernacle touch the courtyard by resting on the earth of the courtyard? It does not. Sockets or bases made of silver hold up the entire tabernacle so that no part of its sides touches the courtyard. The silver sockets or bases function like a solid form of curtain to separate heaven from earth, or to separate God from human beings.

On the outside of the courtyard is a fence made of curtains. The curtains separate the common people of Israel from the courtyard. As such, they are a less exalted replica of the curtains of the tabernacle. Bases of bronze, corresponding to the bronze of the altar and the washing basin, separate them from direct contact with the earth. The posts have silver bands and hooks, corresponding to the silver bases of the tabernacle.

The symbolism seems to picture a situation in which the bottom tip of the tabernacle, that is the silver bases, fit into the top tip of the courtyard, that is, the silver bands and hooks. The tabernacle proper is a kind of upper story to the courtyard. Such is a fitting symbolism for a replica of heaven placed in the middle of the courtyard, which in turn is a replica of earth. The tent pegs are all of bronze because they go directly into the ground of the courtyard (Exod. 27:19).

The dimensions of the courtyard also signify the perfection of architectural plan that we have already seen elsewhere. Each curtain is 5 cubits by 5 cubits, replicating the square shape of the 10 by 10 curtains that separate the tabernacle rooms. The courtyard as a whole is 50 cubits by 100 cubits by 5 cubits high, replicating the horizontal shape of the holy place. The starting dimension of five is the same as the horizontal dimensions of the bronze altar, thus indicating that the courtyard is a replica of the altar, which in turn replicates elements of the tabernacle proper. But five also suggests a half value, half of ten, a kind of incompleteness in relation to the complete spatial dimension of ten. This incompleteness is remedied in the temple, when all the dimensions are doubled. These things symbolize the fact that Israel and its communion with God is incomplete until they rest in the promised land. In the temple the washing basin is transformed into a “sea,” confirming our guess about the significance of the washing basin.

The eastern side of the courtyard is composed of three parts (cf. Exod. 27:13-16). In the center is an entrance 20 cubits wide. To the two sides are two fences each 15 cubits long. Even these dimensions are distantly related to other dimensions used at other places. The 20 cubits is the same as the length of the holy place, while the 15 cubit dimension is half the amount of the 30-cubit-long tabernacle, and 10 times the width of the ark. The entrance to the courtyard on the east has a curtain of material similar to the two main curtains of the tabernacle, thus replicating them.

The remaining separation is the separation of the vertical sides of the tabernacle from the surrounding courtyard. Not merely a curtain but several layers are added, signifying that there is only one way into the presence of God, the way God himself has provided. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Likewise Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).

The tabernacle is supported by frames overlaid with gold, each 10 cubits by one and one half cubits. The 10 cubit dimension matches the dimensions of the most holy place, while the one and one half cubit dimension matches the width of the ark. The frames taken together form a complete layer, suggesting to the person inside them not a tent but a house of gold. Thus the nature of the structure points forward to the permanency of the temple, the solid house that Solomon will build. It also pictures the stability of the larger “house” or dwelling place of God, the created universe itself. Several passages in the Bible liken God to a workman who in creating the universe builds a house. Amos speaks of him “who builds his lofty palace in the heavens and sets its foundation on the earth” (Amos 9:6). Proverbs says concerning wisdom,

I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side[like Bezalel who crafted the tabernacle]. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind. (Prov. 8:27-31).

Outside the frames is the curtain of blue material. Actually the curtain is composed of ten distinct curtains, ten being the perfect spatial number of the most holy place (Exod. 26:1-6). Clasps of gold–gold corresponding to the royal majesty of the tabernacle–hold together two sets of five curtains each. The introduction of the number five begins to point outwards to the fundamental number five that occurs over and over again in the courtyard. Each curtain is twenty-eight cubits by four cubits, a little short in both dimensions, so that the curtains do not hang down low enough to touch the courtyard on either side of the tabernacle. Five curtains are sewn together, and the other five sewn together. Fifty loops and clasps of gold hold the two parts together, suggesting the dimension of 50 cubits in the courtyard. Thus certain minor elements in the curtains begin to suggest a transition to the outside courtyard. In addition, there is no denying that the total covering has two parts, carefully held together but with the potential of being separated. Of course, this technique would have made it much more convenient for the Levites to carry the covering from place to place, since they would not have had to carry the total weight of the covering in one operation. But it also creates the barest suggestion of a possibility of an entranceway being created. This possibility is more fully realized in the two main curtains separating the courtyard from the holy place and the holy place from the most holy place. Symbolically, all this arrangement anticipates the rending of the veil at the death of Christ (Matt. 27:51). At the same time, the firm holding together of the two parts suggests the way in which God constructs the world and his way to salvation as one whole, all parts being held together in Christ (Col. 1:17).

All these associations are of a vague, suggestive, allusive kind. Each detail of the tabernacle, in my opinion, is not simply a code-word signifying one thing exclusively. Rather, it is one part of a tantalizing visual poem suggesting a multitude of relationships, all tied together in a single structure. It is fitting that the symbolism of the tabernacle should be multifaceted. After all, such is the character of the physical universe: it is created by God as one whole, one universe, and also with a fascinating, overwhelming multitude of inner relations of the parts. Such also is the character of Christ, who as one person contains in himself “all the fullness of the Deity,” a manifold richness of wisdom and love.

Let us continue to look at the details. A second covering of goat hair is placed over the blue curtain (Exod. 26:7-13). The pattern is basically the same as for the inner blue curtain, again suggesting the all-pervasiveness of replication. But certain imperfections are introduced. The material of the curtain is not royal blue of heaven, but goat skins, suggesting associations with the earthly sacrifices of the altar and the covering of the nakedness of sin by the skins of dead animals (Gen. 3:21). The covering is composed of 11 curtains, not 10, suggesting its imperfection. The additional curtain also makes it possible for the total covering to hang down an additional two cubits at the two ends, completely concealing the inside curtain from view. The manner of overlap between the curtains also prevents anyone outside from seeing the gold loops connecting the two parts of the inner covering of blue. The individual curtains are each 30 cubits long, so that an extra cubit of length on each side assures that the inner covering of blue will not be seen from the outside courtyard. Thus in several ways the goat-skin curtain not only separates the rooms from the outside but also separates the inner, heavenly curtain from the outside.

A third and fourth covering are briefly mentioned in Exod. 26:14. It is clear from the terminology and from the comparatively few references to them that these coverings do not constitute part of the tabernacle proper. Over the covering of goat skin was one of “ram skins dyed red” (Exod. 26:14). In view of the intense amount of replication in the tabernacle as a whole, it is clear that this red covering must signify the covering of animal blood separating the tabernacle from the contamination of the outside world.

We cannot be certain of the character of the outermost covering, because there is an unusual key word. The covering is made of “hides of sea cows” (NIV) or “porpoise skins” (NASB) or “badgers’ skins” (KJV). The animal was clearly known to the Israelites, but we do not have enough information nowadays to be certain what animal it was. But the material was probably waterproof to keep off the rain. Either porpoises or sea cows would serve adequately. Keeping off the rain and dust was a very practical function. Yet it also suggests once again the intense separation of the tabernacle from the outer world. Even the rain and dust must not be allowed to penetrate.

The multifaceted character of tabernacle symbolism

The symbolism that we have uncovered so far may seem to be bewildering in its variety. Can the items and the measurements in the tabernacle really suggest so many different things? Are we in danger of being carried away or beguiled by our imaginations?

The tabernacle is first of all the dwelling place of God, as God himself says in Exod. 25:8. This much cannot be denied. Hence, we can expect it to reveal certain things about the character of God and the nature of his fellowship with his people. We at least know the most general area in which to look for clues to the meaning of the symbols. Yet the history of interpretation of tabernacle symbolism shows a great deal of variety and apparent arbitrariness in just how individual items have been interpreted. The danger of letting imagination go wild is a real one.

In my opinion, one major guideline is to be found in the general biblical teaching with respect to God and his dwelling place. God dwells in a special sense in heaven, as we have seen. Yet in a wider sense God is present everywhere. His character is displayed in the whole of his creation (Rom. 1:18-21). We may therefore proceed to categorize dwelling places of particular types.

(1) God dwells in heaven in the midst of his holy courtroom of angels and ministering spirits. (See, for example, 1 Kings 8:30; Isa. 6:1-2; Ps. 89:7; Job 1:6; Rev. 4:1-11.)

(2) The whole universe has been created in a manner like constructing a house (Ps. 104:2-3; Amos 9:6; Prov. 8:22-31; Isa. 40:22). God fills it all (Jer. 23:24) and in this sense it is his dwelling place.

(3) The tabernacle and later Solomon’s temple are special dwellings of God. After their construction and dedication the cloud of glory descends on them to signify God taking up his abode (Exod. 40:34-38; 1 Kings 8:10).

(4) The Garden of Eden was a special dwelling of God where God met with Adam and Eve (cf. Gen. 2:15-3:8). Some of the symbolism of the tabernacle and the temple undoubtedly looks backward toward the lost communion with God that Adam had enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. The cherubim in the tabernacle are reminiscent of the cherubim guarding the way to the tree of life in Gen. 3:24.

(5) The people of God corporately become a dwelling place of God. Teaching of this kind becomes most explicit in the New Testament, where the church is called God’s temple: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16; cf. 1 Pet. 2:5). But it is implicit in the Old Testament when the people of Israel are called a holy people by virtue of the fact that God dwells in their midst.

(6) The body of each individual saint is a dwelling place of God, according to 1 Cor. 6:15, 19. This teaching is fully revealed only in the New Testament. Beginning at Pentecost the Holy Spirit is sent to dwell within God’s people in a special way, and only this coming of the Spirit makes people temples in a full sense. But the same truths are foreshadowed in the fact that in Israel the high priest’s clothing is analogous to the tabernacle (see chapter 4). Thus the high priest is a kind of minitabernacle. Since the whole of Israel is a nation of priests (Exod. 19:5-6), each Israelite reflects the pattern of the high priest at a subordinate level. Moreover, Israelites were told to wear tassels on their clothes as a reminder of “all the commandments of the LORD” (Num. 15:37-40). These tassels are naturally associated not only with the holiness of the commandments but also with the blue of the tassel-like pomegranates attached to the hem of the high priest’s robe (Exod. 28:33-34). Thus each Israelite is depicted as a subordinate priest.

(7) The new Jerusalem of Revelation 21-22 is the final dwelling of God with human beings (Rev. 21:3, 22). The new Jerusalem as a city primarily represents the people of God corporately. Hence it is the fulfillment of the principle that the people of God corporately are a dwelling of God (point 5 above). But the new Jerusalem is also a heavenly city (Rev. 21:2, 10), suggesting that it is also the fulfillment of God’s dwelling in heaven (point 1). It has a exact cubical shape, the same shape as the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle, suggesting that it is the final tabernacle or temple (Rev. 21:16, 22). The mention of the river, the tree of life, and the removal of all curse in Rev. 22:1-3 suggest that it is also the new Eden, the final garden where God meets human beings. Thus many of the motifs concerning God’s dwelling place are united and woven together in this final vision, just as we might expect to happen in a vision relating to the consummation or summing up of all things.

(8) Christ himself is the ultimate dwelling of God with human beings. Matt. 1:23 says that Christ is called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” In John 2:19-22 Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” And John comments, “But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” John 1:14 says that the “Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (KJV), deliberately using a word for “dwelling” that alludes to the Old Testament tabernacle. Finally, John 14:11 says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” This and similar language in John about the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son presents us with the ultimate form of indwelling, namely the original indwelling of the persons of the Trinity. This original uncreated indwelling must be the model for all instances of God dwelling with human beings who are made in the image of God.

We can arrive at the same results by paying close attention to the Old Testament language of holiness. In a supreme sense, God himself is holy (Isa. 6:3). But other things can be called holy when they are dedicated to him and are associated with his presence. Thus heaven is holy according to Ps. 20:6. The tabernacle and the temple are holy, and the Most Holy Place (“holy of holies”) is called such because it is closest to the immediate presence of God. Likewise, Eden is the mountain of God from which profane things are cast out, implying that it is holy (Ezek. 28:13, 16). The priests are holy and as such representative of the holiness of the tabernacle (Lev. 21:6). The people of God corporately are a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). The new Jerusalem is the “holy city” (Rev. 21:2). Christ is supremely “the Holy One of God” (John 6:69; cf. Acts 3:14). Thus all these instances are dwelling places of God and reflections of his supreme holiness.

Because God is always the same and because sin is always the obstacle to communion with God’s holiness, we may naturally expect that the same principles will be expressed again and again in each form of God’s dwelling. In fact, since Christ is the supreme archetype for all of God’s dwellings, all of them must be modeled on him. Hence there are bound to be connections between the tabernacle and other forms of God’s dwelling. The tabernacle will naturally point us in several directions at once. Within the Old Testament, no one of these directions by itself reveals everything. That is, because the tabernacle ultimately points upward to God himself, and forward to the revelation of God in Christ, no one set of connections within the Old Testament ought to be viewed as a kind of exclusive clue to its significance. But when Christ appears, he himself sums up all the dimensions of significance, because “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). Yet because of the infinite, divine depths of Christ’s wisdom, we can never master or comprehend him in his fullness. Because he is Lord of all, he is himself the ultimate basis for unity in all the diverse connections.

Thus we must also realize that the tabernacle in itself cannot tell us everything. Its insufficiencies and its mysteries indicate that in its own time and place it did not exhaust the revelation of God but was only a stage on the way to fullness. In fact, the pattern of the tabernacle includes within itself notice of its temporary character. On the most elementary level, it is a portable, tent-like dwelling place. It therefore has to be succeeded by the temple, a permanent, fixed dwelling place, once the people have settled in the land. But in addition, the pattern of replication found in the tabernacle speaks of the dynamic character of God’s revelation and of his program for history. The tabernacle is a replica of heaven, while the holy place a replica of the Most Holy Place, the courtyard a replica of the holy place, and even the people’s tent dwellings are a replica of the tabernacle in a more distant way. These replicas move outward from a centerpoint in heaven to the prosaic everyday life of the people. The outward movement shows that there is yet more to be revealed–the tabernacle is only a copy of heavenly things (Heb. 8:5; 9:23; 10:1). The greater revelation of the future goes hand in hand with the accomplishment of God’s program for history, namely to fill the whole world with his heavenly glory (Rev. 21:22-23). Then his will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).

Practical lessons from the tabernacle

In its own time, though the tabernacle did not say everything, it still said a great deal. It had some very practical lessons for the Israelites. To a large extent, they can still be lessons for us today as well.

First, because of its symbolic connection with heaven, the tabernacle reminded the Israelites that God was the true God, the exalted Lord of the whole universe, not simply a god confined to a local spot. God is the exalted, universal ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Likewise, we should recognize now that God our Father and Christ our Redeemer is the heavenly Lord, the Lord of all (Matt. 28:20; 1 Cor. 8:6). We must obey him and not be intimated by human claims to wisdom and power (1 Pet. 3:14-17).

Second, because the whole universe was God’s house, the tabernacle depicted for the Israelites the way in which God’s care was demonstrated in their day-to-day circumstances. Food, life, and light all derived from God who had made the whole universe as his dwelling place and their home. Likewise, we today are to see our circumstances and our daily blessings not as the product of some chance, impersonal process, but as the provision of our God and our Savior Jesus Christ. We are to pray to God to give us our daily bread (Matt. 6:11). We are to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, with the confidence that all earthly needs will be ours as well (Matt. 6:33).

Third, the tabernacle as a unique structure reminded Israel that they had unique privileges. Out of all the nations of the world God chose them to be his people, and condescended to live among them in a special way (Exod. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:7-8). Likewise, in New Testament times God dwells in a unique way in the church (1 Cor. 3:16) and in individual Christians (1 Cor. 6:19; Rom. 8:9-17). This indwelling distinguishes us from the world at large. We are not be become proud, because God’s favor is a gift to undeserving sinners (Rom. 5:6-10; 2 Tim. 1:9-10). But we are to thankful for our special status: we are children of the great King! We are to remember that as people chosen out of the world we are spiritually separate and are not to follow the ways of the world (John 15:19; 17:15-19; Eph. 2:1-10; 5:1-6:9; 1 Pet. 1:13-3:12).

Fourth, the tabernacle symbolized Eden, and thereby reminded the Israelites of their sinful, lost, separated condition as descendents of Adam. Entrance into Eden was barred to them. And yet they could enter in a sense, when the priest entered as their representative. Hence the tabernacle spoke both of being lost and also of the promise of overcoming sin through a representative man, ultimately through Jesus Christ our final high priest (Heb. 7:27-28). Like the Israelites we need to be reminded of the misery of our sinfulness deriving from Adam and of the hope–and now present reality1–of redemption, restoration, and adoption into God’s family and house through Jesus Christ.

Fifth, the tabernacle symbolized the people of God corporately. Israel as a collective body was called upon to imitate the beauty, order, holiness, and purity of the tabernacle itself. It was to embody beauty, order, holiness, and purity in its own communal living. This principle was most evident in the case of Israelite families. The families lived in tents just as God lived in his tent. Their own work in constructing and repairing their tents, caring for their animals, cooking and eating their food, distinguishing clean and unclean, separating right from wrong, and instructing their children was to be modeled after the work of God who was their heavenly Father (Deut. 8:5) and who was the exalted head of their spiritual household. For example, a humble task like washing the cookware was an echo of that exalted work of God the Savior in which he cleanses the tabernacle and ultimately cleanses the whole universe through the work of Jesus Christ. Mending clothing was an act by which Israelite clothing was restored to being a reflection of the exalted clothing of the high priest and the curtains of the tabernacle, which in turn pointed forward to the perfection of righteousness, beauty, order, and spiritual “mending” in Jesus Christ and his “robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10).

Likewise, the church in our day is to be holy. The church is not a voluntary association to be governed as its members see fit, but a dwelling place of God. It ought to be structured according to the orders of its commander, the Lord Jesus Christ. Our families and our homes are to reflect the spiritual purity, beauty, and orderliness that was temporarily pictured through the tabernacle and is now supremely set forth in Jesus Christ himself. Christ’s work of cleansing the universe was definitively accomplished in his death and resurrection. But when we wash dishes in his name we do our little work of cleansing, which humbly reflects his great work.

Sixth, the tabernacle symbolized the people of God individually. The Israelites were commanded to keep their bodies pure–pure first of all from sin but also from ceremonial defilements that symbolized sin. In the New Testament the bodies of Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). We are “to purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Sexual sins as sins directly against the body are strongly forbidden (1 Cor. 6:18-20).

Seventh, the tabernacle pointed forward to the new Jerusalem, the final dwelling of God with human beings. The Israelites were supposed to look forward to God’s salvation in the future and to pray for his coming. By doing so they were to stir themselves up to be faithful to God and to trust him in their own time. We have now received the down-payment of our salvation through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14; 2 Cor. 1:22). But we must stir ourselves up to long for the second coming of Christ when we will receive fully what God has promised.

Eighth, the tabernacle symbolized God himself. The teaching of the Old Testament did not reveal the mysteries of the Trinitarian nature of God as fully as they have now been revealed. But the Israelites were being instructed by the veils and the not-fully-analyzable symbols to realize that God’s character and his purposes were unfathomably deep, and that their salvation rested in God’s own character and wisdom. We now know, in the light of fuller revelation, that the God of Israel is our Trinitarian God, the one God revealed through the work of Christ as he obeyed the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. The tabernacle points forward to Christ the final dwelling of God with human beings, but also to the Father and the Spirit who in Christ reveal the fullness of the Deity to us (Col. 2:9). For us as well as for the Israelites, the tabernacle is a revelation of God himself: his holiness, his beauty, his majesty, his purposes of salvation. The law of Moses is intended above all to draw us into communion with this wonderful God, to adore him, to worship him, and to enjoy his presence forever. We are members of his household, adopted sons of a heavenly Father, and brothers of Jesus Christ our elder brother (Rom. 8:17, 28-30).

Guidelines for interpreting the revelation of the tabernacle

Now let us stand back and ask how we have gone about interpreting the significance of the tabernacle.

As I mentioned in chapter 1, we have a threefold task of interpretation. On the one hand, we must try to understand the law of Moses within its original historical context, as God gave it to the Israelites. On the other hand, we must understand it in relation to the rest of the Bible, the complete communication from God. And we must endeavor to see its implications for our lives and our circumstances. For my own benefit as well as for the benefit of convincing others, I endeavor most of the time to start with the original historical context. We ought to place ourselves in the position of an Israelite in the time of Moses, or in the position of Moses himself. What would they think about the tabernacle? What could they have legitimately discerned about its significance? Moses and the Israelites would have known about the background of God’s dealing with their ancestors, as recorded in Genesis. They would have experienced the mighty acts of deliverance by which God brought them out of Egypt and sustained them in the wilderness. In addition, it would have been obvious to them that the tabernacle contained symbols.

How then would they have interpreted a symbol? We in the West are not very much at ease with symbolism ourselves. We live in an industrialized society dominated by scientific and technological forms of knowledge. Such knowledge minimizes the play of metaphors and the personal depth dimensions of human living. For many people “real” truth means technological truth, that is, truth swept free of metaphor and symbolism. We meet symbolism mostly in advertising, and such use of symbolism rouses our suspicions and often ends by producing indifference.

I am convinced that God does not share our general cultural aversion to metaphors and symbols. He wrote the Old Testament, which contains a good deal of poetry and many uses of metaphor. Jesus spoke in parables, which are a kind of extended metaphor. Godly Israelites of Old Testament times were able to appreciate his language, whereas we have a hard time with it. We must adapt to the fact that symbols and metaphors can speak truly and powerfully without speaking with pedantic scientific precision. A symbol may suggest a deep truth or even a cluster of related truths without blurting everything out in plain talk and making everything crystal clear. An element of mystery may remain, because a symbol may suggest a whole host of connections. We do not know for certain exactly how far we are supposed to carry the implications when we analyze the symbol in a more scientific way. For example, Ps. 23:1 says, “The LORD is my shepherd.” In what ways is the Lord like a human shepherd? We can receive personal comfort and true meaning from the psalm even without being able to analyze precisely in an academic way all the respects in which God is like a shepherd and precisely where we are to stop drawing more implications.

I believe, then, that we treat God’s word with the greatest reverence and fairness when we recognize that God may use symbol. We ought not to impose our own modern biases. To appreciate a symbol, we must let our imaginations play a little, and ask what the symbol suggests. What does it bring to mind? What is it like? What does it remind me of in my own past experience? What does it allude to in other writings by the same author? We must explore all these questions, but endeavor to do so like an Israelite, not like a twentieth-century Westerner. Then the associations of the tabernacle with sky, earth, and creation come to mind, as well as associations with Israel’s past deliverance and presence experience. The correspondences of the parts of the tabernacle with one another and the simple ratios between its dimensions express a beautiful craftsmanship and the principle of replicating a pattern on different levels. Then we are on our way to appreciating the tabernacle as an Israelite might potentially have done. We must of course recognize that some associations and connections are more obvious than others, and that we may possibly be wrong about some details. But the overall picture emerges clearly.2

Having obtained a picture from the original historical circumstances, we are ready to extend the picture and fill it out by seeing how God continues his story and his revelation in the later prophets and in the New Testament. These further reflections may also help us to discriminate better between what is incidental and what is most central in our earlier reflection. We may sometimes correct earlier impressions when we hear more of the story.

The two stages, involving the original historical context and involving use of the whole Bible, are not rigidly separable from one another. They each help to correct and enhance the other. But errors can arise if we concentrate wholly on one stage. First, people who concentrate only on the original historical context have frequently not done justice to that context because they have underestimated the power and richness of the symbolic significance of the tabernacle. Knowing that the tabernacle points to heavenly things that are fulfilled in Christ can encourage us to study the original context more diligently.

Second, people who concentrate only on the whole Bible frequently do become fanciful because they are occupied too much with their own ideas, not with what God communicated to the Israelites. For example, some have thought that every mention of wood in the Old Testament somehow points to the cross of Christ. Since almost all the tabernacle furniture and the beams supporting the tabernacle are made of acacia wood, all these items must somehow prefigure the cross. But such a move is really very superficial. It never asks what the tabernacle items really meant within their own context and how they really functioned, but simply imposes a meaning from outside. We do not really learn anything from the Bible when we proceed in this way, because what we hear is only what we already knew, namely New Testament teaching about the work of Christ. Thus we need to proceed in a way that utilizes the full resources of the Bible and respects the way in which God has actually communicated to people over a long period of history.

It is time now to proceed forward with our examination of the law of Moses. Many other questions about interpretive principles could be raised, and we could explore more deeply the questions that I have already raised. But such questions are best left to other books besides this one.3

In some respects interpretive principles are validated by the increase that they bring to our understanding, just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If this book helps you to understand the Old Testament, its interpretive concerns are fulfilled.

Chapter 2b Footnotes

1 More precisely, saints in the Old Testament were saved through Christ, but only through the anticipatory working of the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, which was still to be accomplished in the future. There is much mystery here.

2 But serious distortions can be introduced by the adoption of the antisupernaturalist framework of the historical-critical method. Under the influence of this method many modern scholars have come to believe that the books of Moses derive not from Mosaic times but from much later periods, and that they contain various layers of tradition in tension with one another. Often they then lose sight of the way in which the books of Moses are meant to be read as a larger unity, each part being interpreted in the light of the whole rather than set at variance with other parts.

A full discussion of the arguments of modern Old Testament scholarship is outside the scope of this book, but it is worthwhile making some basic methodological points. We should repudiate the antisupernaturalist biases associated with the historical-critical method. Various strands of evidence both from the Old Testament books themselves and from the New Testament (see John 5:45-47) confirm the Mosaic origin of the bulk of the material in Exodus through Deuteronomy. Genesis does not directly indicate its author or its sources, but it seems to me likely that it was written by Moses. Later inspired writers with divine authorization may have added the account of Moses’s death in Deut. 34:1-12 and perhaps other notes enabling Israelites better to apply the teaching of Moses to their own circumstances. However, scholars cannot validly deduce the date of origin of material merely from observations about its relevance to later situations, since God knows the end from the beginning and what he writes is always relevant to later situations. Stylistic differences between hypothetical sources are also unreliable, since Moses himself may have used sources in some cases. While writing under inspiration he like any other writer had the liberty of shifting style in accordance with subject matter.

Scholars used to regard a position like mine as obscurantist, but a shift within scholarship itself is now making it more obvious that the books of the Bible are works with a unity, integrity, and literary artistry of their own, and that they deserve to be interpreted as wholes.

3 See the very helpful discussion in Geerhardus Vos, “Revelation in the Period of Moses,” Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), pp. 115-200. People interested in the further ramifications of my own position should consult a number of my articles and books. Note especially Vern S. Poythress, “Divine Meaning of Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986):241-79, concerning the relation of the meaning of parts of the Bible to the meaning of the whole; “God’s Lordship in Interpretation,” Westminster Theological Journal 50 (1988) 27-64, concerning the basic presuppositions of interpretation; Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), concerning the value of judicious use of the imagination and metaphor; andScience and Hermeneutics: Implications of Scientific Method for Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), concerning the importance of breaking out of modern Western biases.

3 The Sacrifices, Prefiguring the Final Sacrifice of Christ

What is the meaning and purpose of the sacrifices described particularly in Lev. 1-7? We understand best if we pay attention to the way in which Lev. 1-7 fits together with what comes before it in Exodus and what goes after it in the rest of Leviticus.

The necessity of holiness

When Moses was on Mount Sinai he received instructions about the construction of the tabernacle (Exod. 24:15-18; 25:9; 26:30; Heb. 8:5). But even before he reached the bottom of the mountain the people had committed open idolatry with the golden calf (Exod. 32). Sin on the part of the Israelites threatened to abort God’s purpose of dwelling with them. But Moses interceded and even proposed to offer himself as a substitute for their sin (Exod. 32:31-32). God did not accept his substitutionary offer. But the sacrifices indicate that the general principle of substitution is valid. In fact, it points forward to the substitutionary work of Christ who bore our sins.

The tabernacle was finally constructed and the cloud symbolizing God’s presence settled on the tabernacle (Exod. 35-40). Yet sinfulness on the part of the people clearly remained a continuing problem. The entire contents of Leviticus deal in one way or another with this problem. Now that the tabernacle was there among the people, sacrifices had to be instituted to provide access to the presence of God and to remove the defilements arising from Israel’s sin (Lev. 1-5). Priests had to be given instructions on their role in presenting the sacrifices (Lev. 6-7). They had to be installed and provided with a special holiness in order to present the sacrifices to God (Lev. 8-10). The people as a whole had to keep separate from uncleanness in order to approach the tabernacle (Lev. 11-16). Gross defilements could be expected to receive severe penalties (Lev. 17-20). The priests had to observe even more rigorous standards for cleanness and separation than did the common people (Lev. 21-22). In addition, special care had be taken for holy days and seasons and for holy things (Lev. 23-27).

In short, the entire contents of Leviticus are in principle related to the tabernacle and to the obligations of purity that derive from it. Leviticus sums up the matter in the words, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2; cf. 1 Pet. 1:16). The people could not survive alongside the tabernacle unless they respected the holiness of God and maintained holiness among themselves. Or, to put it another way, now that the people themselves had in some sense become a dwelling place of God through the erection and consecration of the tabernacle, they had to maintain practices exhibiting the principles of God’s dwelling. Such principles are all fulfilled in Christ as the final dwelling place of God.

Redemption from sin

But how do sacrifices fit into this general principle? They are the means for cleansing and removing defilement of the people and of the tabernacle itself. Thus they are a central means for maintaining the holiness of the people and the tabernacle, and thus ensuring that the earthly things continue to reflect the holiness of God. Special sacrifices must be presented when individual Israelites have sinned, even unknowingly, and when the priest or the whole community has sinned (Lev. 4). The animals must be without blemish or defect, signifying that God requires perfection.1 The worshiper places his hand on the animal, signifying his identification with the animal, and then the animal dies in his place (note the parallel with Gen. 22:13-14). The blood represents the life of the animal (Lev. 17:14). Blood is placed on the horns of the altar, and once a year on the atonement cover in the most holy place (Lev. 16). The blood has power to cleanse the tabernacle from defilement. Since the blood signifies the life of the slain animal, it testifies that the animal has been slain and that the value of the death is applied to the designated object. The fat of the animal, representing the sweetest and best part, is burned on the altar to signify its being given to the Lord. The rest of the animal may be burned or eaten by the priests or partially eaten by the worshiper, as the case may be.

But animal sacrifices are ultimately inadequate. Israel goes on sinning year by year, and new animals must be presented year after year in the same repetitious ceremonies (Heb. 10:1-4). Are you bored by the repetitious descriptions in Lev. 1-9 of how each animal is sacrificed or the descriptions in Num. 7 of the offerings of the tribes? There is more food for thought in these passages than we suspect, but in a sense we are meant to be bored. It goes on and on. The process never suffices. Animals could never be an adequate substitute for human beings made in the image of God. The very inadequacy of these sacrifices confirms the inadequacy associated with the tabernacle structure. They are only copies of the heavenly realities.

Their inadequacies have only one remedy. God must provide the ultimate sacrifice (Gen. 22:8). The guilt of the whole land will be removed in one day by the Branch, the son of David, who is simultaneously high priest (Zech. 3:8-9; cf. Isa. 11:1). A fountain–a permanent supply of bubbling up water–will be opened to cleanse them from sin and iniquity (Zech. 13:1). A man will die like a sheep, as a guilt offering for the iniquity of the people (Isa. 53:4-8, 10). But afterwards he will be satisfied with new life (Isa. 53:10-12).

The Old Testament thus reaches out in longing for Christ who brings an end to its frustrations and brings to accomplishment its promises. Christ is the final offering to which all the animals sacrifices look forward. As the Bible puts it, you were redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake” (1 Pet. 1:20). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:24-25).

The sequence of events in sacrifice

The sequence of events in sacrifice is also instructive to Israelites. In a typical case the process begins with the worshiper who brings an animal without defect to the priest. The worshiper has raised the animal himself or paid for it with his earnings, so that the animal represents a “sacrifice” in the modern sense of the word. It costs something to the worshiper, and a portion of the worshiper’s own life is identified with it. The worshiper lays his hand on the head of the animal, signifying his identification with it. He then kills the animal at the entranceway into the courtyard, signifying that the animal dies as a substitute for the death of the worshiper.2

From that point onward the priest takes over in performing the sacrificial actions. The intervention of the priest indicates that a specially holy person must perform the actions necessary to present the worshiper before God, even after the death of the animal. The priest takes some of the blood and sprinkles it on the sides of the bronze altar or on the horns of the altar or on the horns of the altar of incense, depending on the particular type of sacrifice. All of these actions constitute the permanent marking of the altar as testimony to the fact that the animal has died. For the most important sin offerings, blood is brought into the holy place to the altar of incense. For the day of atonement, once a year, the high priest brings blood into the most holy place and sprinkles the atonement cover, to make atonement for the people. All these actions with blood recleanse the tabernacle and its furnishings when they are polluted by sins and uncleanness in Israel.

The symbolism with respect to whole burnt offerings and sin offerings is reasonable clear. For a whole burnt offering, blood is sprinkled on the sides of the bronze altar, signifying a recleansing of the altar (Lev. 1). This procedure suggests that the altar threatens to be defiled by the mere presence of imperfect people in the courtyard. The altar is then ready to receive the animal that has been killed.

A sin offering is presented when an individual or the community has committed some sin, even if unwittingly (Lev. 4). A portion of the blood is put on the horns of the altar, signifying its cleansing as before. The rest of the blood is poured out at the base of the altar, signifying a recleansing of the interface between the altar and the land on which it stands. The land in general is cleansed from pollution by the shedding of sacrificial blood on it (see Deut. 21:6-7; Num. 35:33-34). We have already seen that the outer courtyard, in which the bronze altar stands, represents the earth. Thus the poured out blood symbolizes general cleansing of the earth, while the blood sprinkled on the altar signifies cleansing of the altar itself as the special holy focal point within the land. Significantly, the blood is placed on the horns of the altar, not merely sprinkled on its sides. The horns are its extremities, its highest points, its projections toward heaven. Thus the whole procedure suggests that a specific sin, as opposed to the general sinfulness associated with the whole burnt offering, defiles the altar up to a higher point, closer to heaven.

When a priest or the whole community sins, the tabernacle itself is defiled, not merely the bronze altar, because the priest functions in the tabernacle and the tabernacle stands in the midst of the community as a whole. Thus the blood of the sin offering is placed not on the horns of the bronze altar, as is usual with a sin offering, but on the horns of the altar of incense (Lev. 4). The blood is also sprinkled on the curtain separating the inner and outer rooms. Such a procedure shows that defilement from the priest or community reaches up to heaven itself, to the very entrance of God’s throne room, signified by the act of sprinkling the curtain. It defiles the highest point of the ascending smoke of the offerings into the sky, signified by the horns of the altar of incense in the holy place.

In addition to all these procedures, once a year the high priest enters the most holy place with blood from the sin offerings for himself and for the people (Lev. 16). He sprinkles the atonement cover with blood in order to cleanse it from the defilements of Israel.

Thus the whole procedure of pouring out blood and sprinkling blood constitutes repeated testimony to the repeated defilements of Israel and the necessity of continual cleansing by the value of life sacrificed to God. It shows moreover that as sin intensifies and spreads to the whole community or to its specially holy priests, the sin threatens to defile the whole sacrificial system and break off communion with God completely.

We may return to the same conclusion that we reached before: the sacrifice of animals is inadequate to achieve final cleansing, nor can it cleanse anything more than the copies of heavenly things. Then who will bring the definitive sacrifice? A man must do it. A similar point is made indirectly in Num. 35:33-34: “Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites.” When a man had shed blood, the man must die. But there is one exception, when the blood of the death of the high priest releases a manslaughterer to return home (Num. 35:25-28). The blood of the high priest has special value. In agreement with this principle, Zech. 3 uses all the symbolism of a defiled human high priest Joshua and then speaks mysteriously of the Branch in connection with which “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day” (Zech. 3:9).

The final atonement must be simultaneously like a sheep who dies and like the high priest who presents the sacrifice. This final high priest is described in Isa. 53 as the servant of the Lord. He presents his own body as a guilt offering (Isa. 53:10) and dies (Isa. 53:9). Like a sin offering where the body of the animal is carried outside the camp, he dies outside the camp (Heb. 13:11-14). Then he will “see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10). He will live again. As the high priest now living he goes through the rest of the steps in the sacrificial system. That is, he presents the blood of the sacrifice, his own blood (Heb. 9:12). The blood has already been poured out on the earth as he died, cleansing the ground itself. If we follow the images of Lev. 16 exactly, we would say that the blood is put first on the atonement cover, not this time in the earthly tabernacle but in the real one in heaven, the throne of God. Heaven itself is propitiated. Then blood is used to cleanse the whole “Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 16:16), standing for the whole of the visible heavens. Then the bronze altar is cleansed, standing for the earth (Lev. 16:18). Each cleansing is complete, signified by sevenfold sprinkling (16:14, 19). The whole universe is cleansed by the blood of his sacrifice (Rom. 8:20-21; Col. 1:20), but in stages: first heaven, then earth. Satan has been thrown out of heaven (Rev. 12:9-12). The full cleansing of earth yet awaits the time of Christ’s coming out of the most holy place in heaven and appearing bodily on earth.

The types of sacrifices

So far we have considered what is common to all the types of sacrifices. It is safe to say that all the sacrifices speak in some way of sin, atonement, and communion with God. Yet we can still say that different types of sacrifices emphasize various elements in the process of communion. In Lev. 1-5 we have a description of five basic types of sacrifice, the burnt offering (Lev. 1), the grain offering (Lev. 2), the fellowship offering (Lev. 3), the sin offering (Lev. 4), and the guilt offering (Lev. 5). In some versions of the Bible the grain offering is called a “cereal offering” and the fellowship offering a “peace offering.”

The sin offering is presented to make atonement for sin (Lev. 4:35). The emphasis here is clearly on the necessity of punishment in payment for sin. The punishment is borne by the animal instead of the worshiper. The guilt offering of Lev. 5 seems to be a variation of the sin offering, and thus has a similar emphasis.

In the fellowship offering the worshiper himself is allowed to eat most of the parts of the animal that has been offered (Lev. 7:15-18). To an Israelite this procedure would signify that the worshiper enjoys a meal in the presence of God and with the special blessing of God. Fellowship with God and enjoyment of God’s blessings would seem to be the principal emphasis.

The grain offering is eaten by the priests, not by the worshiper (Lev. 6:14-18). Since no death of an animal and no shedding of blood is involved, the principal idea suggested is that of giving back to God a portion of what one has produced through God’s strength and blessing. This idea is confirmed by the fact that when the priests offer a grain offering on their own behalf rather than on behalf of someone else, the entire offering is to be burned (Lev. 6:23). Thus the offering is never eaten by those who give it, but is presented to God.

The burnt offering described in Lev. 1 is the most difficult to interpret. Lev. 1:4 and 14:20 indicate that the burnt offering like the sin offering is used to “make atonement” for the worshiper.3 The sin offering seems to focus on atonement for specific sins, whereas the burnt offering focuses on atonement for sinfulness generally.4 But still, the two offerings have a great deal of similarity in their function. Can we find any other differences? Of all the animal sacrifices, this one alone is to be entirely burned. What does this complete burning signify? Many interpreters have suggested that the idea of entire dedication and consecration to God is uppermost. The burning of the whole animals might certainly suggest this meaning to an Israelite, but the meaning might just as likely be entire destruction. Nothing of the original animal is left; all is destroyed by fire. Actually, the two possible meanings are complementary. If we focus on what happens to the animal, entire destruction is the most obvious meaning. The animal represents the worshiper, so we may infer that entire destruction of the worshiper is signified. But the worshiper is not destroyed but preserved. Because of the substitutionary value of the animal, the worshiper and the priest can remain alive–we might say that they can enjoy new life. Hence what happens to them does suggests entire dedication to God. But this entire dedication is accomplished by an entire destruction of the substitute, superimposed on an entire preservation or even resurrection of the worshiper.

These guesses about the burnt offering are confirmed by the statement in Deut. 13:16. Deut. 13:16 speaks of a special situation in which a whole city is turned into a burnt offering and utterly destroyed. Utter destruction is clearly the significance of the burnt offering in this instance. But since the burnt offering is offered by those who are still faithful to God, it also results in their preservation (Deut. 13:17-18).

The differences between the types of sacrifices are largely a matter of degree, and so we must be careful not to distinguish the types too sharply. In particular, the sin offering and the burnt offering serve quite similar purposes. But the different types do seem to emphasize different aspects in the process of communion with God. The sin offering and guilt offering emphasize punishment or retribution for sin. The burnt offering emphasizes consecration to God, which includes utter destruction of sin and uncleanness. The grain offering emphasizes payment of what is due in thanksgiving to God. Fellowship offerings emphasize enjoyment of God’s presence and blessing. Since the food of the sacrifice is special, holy food (Lev. 22:15-16), symbolizing the holiness of God, we might even venture to say that eating this food suggests sharing in God’s holiness. The Israelites are commanded to “be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The partaking in sacrificial food suggests being transformed into holiness as one enjoys God’s presence.

All these aspects are combined fully in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Christ bore the punishment for our sins (1 Pet. 2:24; Isa. 53:5). Thus he is the final sin offering. Christ was wholly consecrated to God. He suffered death and destruction for sin, and also brings about our death to sin (Rom. 6:2-7). Thus he is the final burnt offering. Christ in his perfect obedience gave to God the honor and thanks that is due to him. Thus he is the final grain offering. Christ now offers us his flesh to eat (John 6:54-58). By communion with his flesh and blood we have eternal life, we have communion with the Father, and we are transformed into Christ’s image (2 Cor. 3:18). Thus Christ is the final fellowship offering.

Chapter 3 Footnotes

1 Lev. 22:23 represents an exception.

2 Vos, Biblical Theology, pp. 179-86; Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, 2 vols. (reprinted; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 2:265-77.

3 Cf. the discussion in Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 51-66; Fairbairn, Typology, 2:302-5.

4 Wenham, Leviticus, p. 57.

4 The Priests and the People, Prefiguring Christ’s Relation to His People

Let us now look at the Old Testament priests.

The mediatorial role of priests

The priests of the Old Testament serve as mediators between God and human beings. Because of human sin, people cannot come into the presence of God in his holiness. Instead, the priests represent the people and approach God on behalf of the people. For example, on the Day of Atonement Aaron is instructed to offer a sin offering first of all for himself (Lev. 16:6, 11). Then he performs services dealing with the sins of the people (Lev. 16:15-16, 19-22). The priest “makes atonement for himself and for the people” (Lev. 9:7, 16:24). The story of Num. 15-18 confirms that the descendants of Aaron alone are to represent the people. Similarly we find statements about the priest “bearing guilt” on behalf of the people. “He will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be” (Exod 28:38). “It [the priest’s portion of the sin offering] was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the LORD” (Lev. 10:17). “You, your sons and your father’s family are to bear the responsibility for offenses against the sanctuary, and you and your sons alone are to bear the responsibility for offenses against the priesthood” (Num. 18:1). “The Levites . . . are to do the work of the Tent of Meeting and bear the responsibility for offenses against it” (Num. 18:23).

The priests thus present the sins of the people to God for cleansing. They also convey the blessing of God to the people.

Tell Aaron and his sons, “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:

“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. (Num. 6:23-27)

In all these respects the priests serve as figures mediating between God and the people. They prefigure a final mediatorial figure who will have no need to offer sacrifices for his own sins, because he is the perfect mediator.

Such a high priest meets our need–one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (Heb. 7:26-28)

Even in the Old Testament we see many hints of the inadequacy of the priests descended from Aaron. Aaron himself got involved in the grievous sin of making the golden calf (Exod. 32). Two of his sons died because of their presumption in offering “unholy fire” to the Lord (Lev. 10). At the end of the period of the judges Eli’s sons became corrupt, and the Lord had to replace them with Samuel (1 Sam. 2). The sins of the priests became one of the causes of the exile (Micah 3:11; Jer. 1:18; Ezek. 22:26). The Lord explicitly pronounced that a new priest would have to arise “in the order of Melchizedek” instead of being a descendant of Aaron (Ps. 110:4). Like Melchizedek he is both a priest and a king (Ps. 110:2). Unlike the descendants of Aaron, who die and have to be succeeded by new priests, he is a “priest forever” (Ps. 110:4). Hebrews comments concerning the way in which these passages point out the incompleteness and ultimately the inadequacy of the Old Testament priests:

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come–one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. . . . Now there were many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (Heb. 7:11-25)

Similarities of priests to the tabernacle

The priests themselves are cleansed in a procedure reminiscent of the cleansing of the tabernacle. The priests must be cleansed by blood. On the day of the consecration of the priests a sin offering and a whole burnt offering are first presented on their behalf (Lev. 8). They are cleansed from sin and symbolically dedicated wholly to the Lord. Then a special ram is slaughtered. The blood of the ram is placed on their extremities, the lobe of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot (Lev. 8:22-24). Since most people are right-handed, the right side is chosen as the principal, representative, “orderly” side. The ear, the upper extremity, is touched first because it is the extremity nearest heaven. Then those extremities are touched that are involved in manipulating the sacrifices and walking on the ground of the tabernacle. Thus the priests’ relations to all the holy things around them are cleansed from defilement.

They are also given garments woven of material similar to the tabernacle material, of gold and blue and scarlet. The high priest is crowned with a turban with a gold plate inscribed, “Holy to the Lord” (Exod. 28:36). The high priest himself is in fact a kind of vertical replica of the tabernacle. His garments correspond to the curtains of the tabernacle. His head band with the inscription “Holy to the Lord” corresponds to the Most Holy Place, the representation of heaven. His hands manipulate the blood that mediates between heaven and earth. His feet remain planted on the earth. Ears, hands, and feet are all consecrated with blood, corresponding to the consecration of all parts of the tabernacle. Thus he is not only a human being, sinful like ourselves, but a human being clothed with the majesty of heaven.

Majestic as he is, he is not majestic enough. In the development of Old Testament history the priesthood itself fails to be truly consecrated (1 Sam. 2:30-36). Even Aaron himself fails in the incident of the golden calf (Exod. 32:2-6). The priests die and must be succeeded by others in a process of endless repetition. These priests are really only a shadow and copy of reality, just as the tabernacle itself is a shadow and copy of heaven. The real priest must be heavenly. That is, he must be a man from heaven, true God and true man (Heb. 1:1-5). He is himself the final union of heaven and earth, a man who is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3). He is the original of which cloud, fire, tabernacle, throne, and animals’ blood are the copies.

We can see the similarity between priest and tabernacle in another way. Take an aerial view of the tabernacle, as in figure 1. Place the Most Holy Place at the top. What do you see? God has drawn a rough diagram of a human figure. The Most Holy Place corresponds to the head. The Holy Place corresponds to the trunk. The altar corresponds to the feet. Fittingly the feet are firmly planted in the earth, signified by the courtyard and by the bronze character of the altar. The head is especially marked with holiness, corresponding to the plate on Aaron’s head, “Holy to the LORD.” The table of the bread of Presence and the lampstand are positioned like two hands. And these areas of the Holy Place are indeed where the priests’ hands are busy. More significantly, they symbolize the heavenly work of the LORD, whose hands are busy blessing Israel with light and food, season by season.

What about the washing basin? The washing basin is positioned between the bronze altar and the Holy Place. The above analogy would lead us to think that the washing basin stands in the place where the organs of reproduction would be. With its cleansing waters this basin speaks of new birth, that is, renewal by the water of life coming from God.

Later replications of the tabernacle

Do you think that we are going too far? Maybe so. But look at the temple. The temple of Solomon described in 1 Kings 6-7 and 2 Chronicles 3-4 is a kind of an enlarged and advanced version of the tabernacle, as is suitable to the advance made when God’s dwelling becomes a permanent building. The lampstand is transformed into ten lampstands, five on each side of the Holy Place, corresponding to the fingers on the man’s two hands. The table is transformed into ten tables, five on each side, again corresponding to the fingers on the man’s two hands. Two pillars appear in the courtyard, suggestive of a man’s two legs, side by side on the north and the south (1 Kings 7:15-22). The pillars are named “Jakin” (Hebrew for “he establishes”) and “Boaz” (“with strength”). Undoubtedly the two names are to be read in sequence, “he establishes with strength.” The names thus suggest an association with the strength of a man’s legs, the strongest part of his body. Ps. 147:10 says that God’s pleasure “is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of a man,” where strength and legs are parallel. The strength of the temple must be found in a holy priest who fears God’s name.

Out in the courtyard the basin of new birth has been enlarged and become a sea, 10 cubits by 5 cubits high, a replica of the Holy Place. It is 30 cubits around, corresponding to the three-story character of the temple as a whole. Not only so, but the sea has spawned little sons, ten little seas or basins (2 Chr. 4:6). Under the sea are twelve bulls, corresponding in their virility to the 12 tribes of Israel. These bulls face to north and west and south and east, to the four corners of the earth, as if they were ready to carry the water out to the other nations of the earth. Such imagery is indeed suitable to the time of Solomon. Other nations come to the temple to pray when they hear of the international wisdom of king Solomon (2 Chr. 6:32-33; 2 Chr. 9; 1 Kings 4:29-34). In fact, the furnishings for the courtyard are manufactured not by an Israelite but a half foreigner, Huram, whose father is from Tyre and whose mother is Israelite (1 Kings 7:13-46).

The smaller basins replicate the sea in striking ways. The stands of the basins are four cubits by four cubits, replicating the four corners of the earth to which the twelve bulls look (1 Kings 7:27). They are three high corresponding to the three bulls looking in each direction. The tenfold replication of the sea corresponds to the diameter of the sea and to the original dimensions of the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle. That is, it replicates its original. The stands for the basins have wheels underneath (1 Kings 7:32-33), four wheels corresponding to the four cubit dimension. The wheel signify the ability of the stands to move off toward the four corners of the earth, and also suggest that they have already moved out from their origin in the large sea. On the stands are engraved cherubim, lions, and palm trees (1 Kings 7:36), the cherubim connecting them with the temple and the lions and palm trees further suggesting the extension to new regions. Thus a multiplicative process or spawning process is suggested by the entire symbolism. The water truly signifies the water of rebirth.

The symbolism becomes even clearer in the case of the temple of Ezekiel described in Ezek. 40-48. No mention is made of a bronze sea or washing basins. Instead, living water flows out from the base of the temple, becoming a great stream watering the eastern regions (Ezek. 47). Ezekiel thus represents another stage of advance in a picture of life-giving power of water from God.

Pagan counterfeit worship

The priesthood and the tabernacle in Israel present us with proper images of heavenly things. But paganism always attempts to produce idolatrous substitutes for the true God. We can see this counterfeiting procedure of paganism at work in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Dan. 2. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is given to him by God (Dan. 2:28,30,45). But the details of its imagery contrast strikingly with the imagery given to Daniel himself in a later dream in Dan. 7. Daniel sees four earthly kingdoms in their true dimensions, as four rapacious beasts. The pagan Nebuchadnezzar sees the same four kingdoms as a pagan would see them, in a much more attractive and man-like form. In fact, Nebuchadnezzar sees what is undoubtedly an idol image. All the four kingdoms that the image represents are at root idolatrous kingdoms, aspiring to have godlike powers and therefore trampling God’s people under foot. The dream that Nebuchadnezzar saw in Dan. 2 may or may not have motivated him to set up the idol image described in Dan. 3. But no one should miss the fact that this image of gold has a striking resemblance to the head of gold in Dan. 2 that is identified with Nebuchadnezzar himself (Dan. 2:38).

Thus Nebuchadnezzar’s dream reveals a false priesthood and a false worship that earthly kingdoms would set up. These earthly kingdoms are to be destroyed and superseded by God’s kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar as a pagan is given no inner insight into the constitution of God’s kingdom, but sees only the contrast with earthly kingdoms. God’s kingdom is a “rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands” (Dan. 2:45). Daniel in his dream sees the true dimensions of the new heavenly kingdom. He sees a heavenly man in contrast to the bestial character of the four kingdoms (Dan. 7:13-14).

Thus the representation of the final heavenly kingdom in the form of “one like a son of man” (Dan. 7:13) is no accident. This Son of Man figure combines in himself the features of much previous revelation. He is man, the antithesis of the bestial character of the four earthly kingdoms. He is also heavenly in origin, “coming with the clouds of heaven,” (Dan. 7:13), the symbolism of the coming of God himself. He is also, I would suggest, a priest, the mediator of God’s presence and blessing to his people (cf. Dan. 7:27). One can see connections between this figure in Daniel and both the heavenly man-like figure in Ezek. 1:26-28 and Ezekiel the prophet, who is a priest repeatedly called “son of man.” In Ezekiel the heavenly picture of God in Ezek. 1:26-28 and the human priesthood of Ezekiel himself are still held apart. In Daniel they are subtly combined using the fluid imagery available in visionary depiction.

The people of Israel

The people of Israel as a whole are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). The Aaronic priests, as we have seen, are imitators of God and his divine order. The people in turn are imitators of the Aaronic priests. Moreover, the fundamental command, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2) is directed to everyone. Each person individually is to imitate God in holiness, and the nation as a whole is to be “a holy nation” imitating God corporately.

The holiness of which the Old Testament speaks is not merely a matter of mysterious inward attitudes or scrupulosities with respect to certain minor matters. It is first of all theological in character. God has acted in the exodus to redeem Israel, and has called them to be in fellowship with him. Through the Red Sea and the tabernacle and the cloud and the manna and the other elements in the Mosaic era, he has blessed them and distinguished them from all other peoples (Deut. 7:7-11). Therefore they are to live in conformity with the status they have been given as the special people of God. Every aspect of their lives is transformed: their relation to God’s special presence among them (approach to the tabernacle), their expectation for the future (possession of the land), their attitudes of pride or coveting (Deut. 8:10-20; 5:21), their use of the land (Lev. 25:23), their sexual relations (Lev. 18:1-30), their diet (Deut. 11), their farming practices (Deut. 24:19-22), their use of money (Deut. 24:17-18; 23:19-20), their social relations to one another (Lev. 19:13-18).

In these respects Israel was intended to model the character of God and thus be a witness to surrounding nations.

Observe them [the laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near to us. . . . (Deut. 4:6-7)

As “priests” in a broad sense, they would be mediators of the presence of God to the other nations. God had promised to Abraham that “all people on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). Zechariah pictures the fulfillment of this purpose in saying, “In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the edge of his robe and say, `Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.”

Israel was not only a nation of priests, but God’s “firstborn son” (Exod. 4:22; cf. Deut. 8:5). Israel failed, however, to live in obedience to God. She was corrupted by injustice (Isa. 1:21). Her very failure testified to the need for a final, obedient son who would come from the line of David and would establish justice (Isa. 11:1-5; 9:6-7). In Isaiah God promises to raise up his servant, whom he names “Israel” (Isa. 49:3), but who will also “bring Jacob back to him” (Isa. 49:5). Injustice and impurity are cleansed (Isa. 4:4) by the servant’s death as a sacrificial lamb (Isa. 53). Isaiah is speaking, of course, about the work of Jesus Christ. Christ is the final, definitive seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). And when Christ comes, Matthew notes that his life is patterned after the life of Israel the son (Matt. 1:15). Or rather, he notes that the Old Testament history of Israel was patterned after the true and final Son.

The church in turn is patterned after the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:7-16). The experience of Christians is thus in a multifaceted way analogous to that of Israel (1 Cor 10:1-13; Heb 12:14-29; Gal. 4:21-31). We are the firstfruits of a new humanity in a new heavens and new earth (James 1:18; Rev. 14:4; 21:1). Christopher J. H. Wright sums up these matters by saying that Israel as a people is related “paradigmatically” to fallen mankind, “eschatologically” to the whole of redeemed humanity, and “typologically” to the church.1 He could have added to these observations the fact that Israel is a type pointing to Christ first of all, and only through Christ to the church and to the new humanity. These rich connections indicate the multidimensional significance of the Old Testament for us.

Chapter 4 Footnotes

1 Christopher J. H. Wright, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), pp. 88-102. Of course, if we use the term “church” to designate broadly the people of God throughout all ages, Israel was the Old Testament phase of the church, as well as having typological relations to the New Testament phase of the church.

5 General Principles for God’s Dwelling with Human Beings, Prefiguring Union with Christ

What general principles may we see illustrated by the joint operation of the tabernacle, the sacrifices and the priests?

The interaction of tabernacle, sacrifices and priests

In many ways the tabernacle, the sacrifices, and the priesthood go together. None of them is really workable or even intelligible apart from the rest. The tabernacle must have sacrifices and priesthood to provide cleansing and access for sinful people. To be of any value, the sacrifices must be presented in the presence of God by priests whose special holiness qualifies them to approach God. The priests must themselves be consecrated and cleansed by sacrifices and must have a space and equipment with which to accomplish their work.

On a more fundamental level the priesthood, the tabernacle, and the sacrifices together express three aspects of God’s dwelling with human beings. God’s relation to human beings always involves his personal presence, his order, and his power exerted to bless or to curse.

The priesthood represents the fact that God’s relation to human beings is a personal one. Sinful human beings cannot enter God’s presence on their own; hence, they must be represented by others who are themselves persons.

The tabernacle structure itself represents the divinely imposed order. God’s holiness involves beautiful regularity, an architectural order imposed by God’s own commands or law. The ten commandments are another form of God’s order. They specifically articulate the order for the life of human beings, whereas the instructions for constructing the tabernacle articulate an order for God’s own dwelling and the elements involved in communion with him.

Moreover, the tabernacle contains many instances of replication or copying. The tabernacle as a whole is a copy of a heavenly pattern (Heb. 8:5). The holy place is a less exalted replica of the most holy place. The courtyard is in some respects a replica of the holy place (for one thing, it has similar shape). The priest is a replica of the tabernacle. Since Israel is a “kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6), they are all to imitate their Father in heaven, to “be holy as I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Thus the tabernacle expresses in a visible way the fact that the order of God himself is to be imposed and replicated in Israel as a whole and in every Israelite dwelling place (for they dwell in tents after the pattern of God’s dwelling).

The sacrifices embody preeminently the aspect of God’s power exerted for people’s benefit. Sacrificial animals, by acting as a symbol for atoning substitution, take away curse and result in blessing to the people for whom they are presented.

However, we cannot rigidly separate these aspects of God’s communion with human beings. For example, the theme of God’s order is manifested not only in the tabernacle with its orderly structure and arrangements but by the sacrifices and the priesthood. The sacrifices and the priestly actions must be performed exactly as God’s law-order prescribes them. The priests must be clothed in special, heavenly garments, thereby indicating that they must have God’s order and righteousness imposed on them or represented in them rather than simply appearing in their own innate imperfection.

Similarly, the power of God to bless or curse is visible in each area. The sacrifices, as we have seen, manifest God’s power to cleanse from sin and defilement. But the priests demonstrate the same operations of power because they are involved in priestly actions manipulating the sacrifices in order to accomplish the blessing. In addition, they are given authority to pronounce a verbal blessing on the people (Num. 6:22-27).

The personal character of God’s presence is shown most vividly by the priests who are themselves persons. But the whole symbolism of the tabernacle is also a reminder of God’s personal character because it is a tent-house, a dwelling place for persons. The sacrifices, however, admittedly show the personal character of communion with God only in indirect ways. They are presented by worshipers who are persons and manipulated by priests who are persons. Moreover, by placing a hand on the animal the worshiper signifies a kind of personal identification with the animal. The blood of the slain animal represents the animal’s life–not personal life, but at least the life of an animate creature. As we have observed, the deficiency in animal sacrifice is remedied only when Christ becomes not only the priest but the offering as well.

These three themes or aspects of God’s dwelling are manifested in each of the three spatial areas of the tabernacle. Let us begin with the Most Holy Place. The personal presence of God is symbolized most vividly by the ark. The ark is the container for the “testimony” or covenant, the two tablets with the Ten Commandments, in which God speaks to his people (Exod. 25:21; 40:20; Deut. 10:5). It is closely associated with God’s presence throughout the Old Testament.1 God is represented as most immediately present in the space between the cherubim: “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites” (Exod. 25:22). The power of God to bless or curse is represented most vividly by the atonement cover. Its very name reminds us of the need for atonement and the provision that God himself makes to satisfy violation of his law. The orderliness of God’s dwelling is represented most vividly by the tablets of the law contained inside the ark. These tablets specify the order that the people of God must follow as they dwell in his presence.

The Holy Place contains furnishings suggesting the same truths. The personal presence of God is suggested by the bread of the Presence, not only because it is named after the “Presence” of God, but because it suggests the privilege of having a meal in communion with God. The power of cursing, blessing, and atonement is suggested most immediately by the altar of incense, because its smoke conceals the wrath of God and because it receives blood from some of the sacrifices offered on the bronze altar. The order of God is suggested by all the carefully constructed furnishings of the Holy Place, but perhaps most of all by the lampstand because it lights the Holy Place and thereby reveals the order. In the darkness human beings feel lost and in disorder, but when the light comes it gives them order. Since the lampstand also has a symbolic relation to the lights of heaven, it suggests the most fundamental orderings of the universe and of time, such as God has ordained them.

Finally, the courtyard contains suggestions of the same truths. The personal presence of God is suggested most by the contact between layperson and priest. The power of blessing, cursing, and atonement is symbolized by the use of sacrificial animals in order to make atonement and thereby bring blessing to the people. The order of God is suggested by prescribed rituals for each kind of sacrifice, as well as by the fixed presence of the bronze altar and the laver.

In each of the main spatial areas of the tabernacle precincts, the fundamental aspects of God dwelling with human being are symbolized. In each case the three aspects are not ultimately separable from one another, but the various features of the tabernacle precincts represent one or the other of the aspects more prominently. In this respect also each precinct of the tabernacle is a replica of the more holy precincts, and the Most Holy Place is a replica of the intimate dwelling of God in heaven.

In addition, we might perhaps discern within each major precinct of the tabernacle a distinct emphasis. For instance, God is most immediately present in the Most Holy Place, and so this Place most vividly represents the personal presence of God. The courtyard with its sacrifices and sacrificial procedures speaks of the power of God to make atonement. The Holy Place is a place of intense order, where each item of furniture has a distinct shape and function, and where the items together symbolize the order that God imposes on the universe at large (order of lights of heaven, seasons, agriculture, etc.). But since all three of our aspects are really manifested in all three precincts of the tabernacle, perhaps it is best not to attribute much significance to the possibility of these distinct emphases.

Interestingly, Moses himself, at least to a degree, embodies all three of these aspects in his own person. First, consider the theme of personal presence. Moses as a person mediates between God and the Israelites. Moses went up to Mount Sinai, symbolically representing an ascent into God’s heavenly presence, while the people stayed at the foot of the mountain (Exod. 19). After hearing the terrifying voice of God, the people asked that Moses be the regular mediator of God’s words (Exod. 20:18-22; Deut. 5:23-33). Next, consider the theme of blessing and cursing. Moses is the mediator of God’s judgments. When Israel apostasized from God in the wilderness, Moses pronounced judgment on them and called them back to God. In the great sin of the golden calf, Moses even proposed to offer himself as a substitute, and thus functioned in a manner parallel to the regular function of animal sacrifices (Exod. 32:31-32). Finally, consider the theme of order. Moses is the ultimate human authority and leader of the Israelites, and serves to mediate God’s order to them in the form of commandments.


The tabernacle arrangements and the priesthood are closely related to the covenantal form of God’s dealings with Israel. According to Exod. 19:5 and other texts, God’s relation to Israel had the form of a covenant, that is, a formalized pact with sanctions (see Exod. 24:7-8; 34:10-28; Deut. 29:1, 9, 14, 21; etc.). When such pacts were made between human beings, the parties expressed loyalty to one another and spelled out their mutual obligations (for example, Gen. 21:26-31; 26:28-30; 31:44-54; etc.). They also took an oath calling down curses on themselves if they did not keep the terms of the covenant. Thus all covenants necessarily had three parts, (1) an identification of the parties involved (“identification”); (2) specification of their mutual obligations (“stipulations”); and (3) an oath indicating how God (or, in polytheistic contexts, gods) would reward obedience and punish disobedience to the stipulations (“sanctions”). When God uses the covenantal form to establish and express his relation to Israel, these three elements of the covenant express respectively the principles of (1) personal presence, (2) divine order, and (3) God’s power to bless or curse and to make atonement through substitution.

Covenantal loyalty and communion can be expressed in a multiplicity of ways. Symbolic actions and signs can be said to sum up God’s covenantal relation to Israel (Gen. 17:10-11; Exod. 31:16). The tabernacle itself is a kind of sign of God’s covenant, because through its symbolism God indicates that he undertakes to dwell with Israel and bless them as they remain faithful to his law-order. But though it is symbolized in a variety of ways, a covenant is by nature a formalized verbal pact. The pact generally includes all three major elements, namely, identification of the parties, stipulations, and sanctions. These three major elements usually appear in fixed, 1-2-3 order because this order represents a smooth logical and literary development. A covenant first identifies the parties, then specifies their obligations, and then tells about the future consequences of their behavior.

At this point we must compare our own analysis with other discussions of covenantal forms. Meredith G. Kline’s analysis of covenant, building on previous work by by George Mendenhall and others, sees major Old Testament covenants as falling into five distinct literary parts, parallel to the distinct parts of so-called suzerainty treaties made by Hittite kings in the second millennium B.C.2 Powerful Hittite kings or “suzerains” made treaties with subordinate rulers or “vassals.” The vassal promised loyalty, obedience, and support to the suzerain in return for the suzerain’s blessing and protection. Since even pagan Hittite kings derived their authority from God, their practices inevitably imitated the authority of God in certain respects. God providentially controlled the whole situation in the Ancient Near East in such a way that these Hittite treaties became a suitable analogy for the Israelites to understand better God’s dealings with them.

The Hittite treaties customarily had six distinct parts: (1) a preamble identifying the suzerain; (2) a historical prologue, recounting previous relations with the vassal; (3) stipulations, specifying the duties of the vassal; (4) provision for deposit of the treaty in the temple of the vassal and for periodic public reading; (5) list of gods as witnesses; (6) curses and blessings for violation or loyalty to the treaty.3 In the monotheistic context of God’s revelation to Israel, God is himself the sole divine witness; hence we ought not to expect anything corresponding exactly to part 5 of the Hittite treaties.4 After eliminating part 5, Kline finds that the Book of Deuteronomy can be analyzed as a treaty with five parts, a preamble (1:1-5), historical prologue (1:6-4:49), stipulations (5:1-26:49), sanctions (27:1-30:20), and a final section that he entitles “dynastic disposition: covenant continuity” (31:1-34:12).

But there are some notable differences between the Hittite treaties and the Book of Deuteronomy. For example, the final section of Deuteronomy in 31:1-34:12 contains provisions for continuation of the song of Moses (Deut. 32) in the memory of the people and for deposit of the document in the ark (31:19-21, 24-27). Thus it corresponds in some ways to section 4 of the Hittite treaties. But it contains other material as well that connects to point 4 only in a distant fashion. In addition, points 4 and 6 of the Hittite treaties occur in the Book of Deuteronomy in the reverse of their normal order. Finally, the preamble in Deut. 1:1-5 introduces Moses in the key role, by using “These are the words which Moses spoke . . . ,” in a manner analogous to the preambles of Hittite treaties, “These are the words of the Sun Mursilis, the great king, the king of the Hatti, the valiant, . . . .”5 But God rather than Moses is the great king who makes a treaty with his people; hence the preamble of Deuteronomy does not correspond exactly to anything in the Hittite treaties.

Altogether, it appears that the formal literary structure to the Book of Deuteronomy does indeed correspond to the structure of Hittite treaties. But the correspondence arises from a loose and free adaptation of a treaty form rather than the use of an exact replica of the form. The number and the arrangement of distinct literary sections of the treaties is not quite preserved in Deuteronomy.

According to Mendenhall and Kline, the same treaty form is also visible in the ten commandments. We have a preamble (“I am the LORD your God”), a historical prologue (“who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”), stipulations (the ten commandments of Exod. 20:3-17), sanctions (20:5-6, 7, 12), and provisions for deposit (25:16). But here the correspondence with Hittite treaties is even looser. The preamble and the prologue are compressed into a single sentence so that they no longer form two distinct literary sections. The sanctions are interwoven with the stipulations rather than being arranged in a separate section. The provisions for deposit and reading of the treaty are not included at all in Exodus 20, but are discussed only at later points in the Mosaic narrative. Thus the Hittite treaty forms of the Ancient Near East are used with considerable freedom within Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Even apart from the comparisons with Hittite forms, it is clear that Exodus 20 with its ten commandments constitutes a covenant between God and his people Israel (Exod. 34:8; Deut. 4:13, 23; 5:2; 9:9). To these central words are added supplements and explanations, such as we find in Exodus 21-23 and 34:10-26, and such supplements also are said to belong to the covenant (24:7; 34:27). After the people broke God’s covenant in the incident of the golden calf, it was renewed in Exod. 34:10-28. The Book of Deuteronomy as a whole constituted a second renewal, appropriate to the situation where the people were on the point of entering the promised land (Deut. 29:1, 9).

In a rough way the five sections of a treaty correspond to the three themes that we have already discerned in the tabernacle and its ministry. The preamble and historical prologue preeminently express the theme of God’s personal presence; the stipulations express his order; and the sanctions and provisions for deposit express God’s power to bless and curse and therefore the importance of preserving of the words for the future. Thus the same basic principles concerning God’s relations to Israel are expressed in both the tabernacle and the covenant documents.

There are nevertheless some differences between themes expressed in the tabernacle and in the covenant documents. The tabernacle is a fixed, static symbol. As such, it is suited for representing the constancy of God’s communion with his people Israel. The covenantal documents, on the other hand, can directly speak of the past and future of God’s dealings with Israel. The historical prologue narrates past acts of deliverance. The sections on sanctions and on deposit of the documents can be expanded to speak of the future. Even in this respect, however, we must not underestimate the significance of the tabernacle. The setting up of the tabernacle announces God’s victory and celebrates the glory of God; as an act of worship it forms the climactic event in the exodus from Egypt. God delivers the people from slavery under false gods and oppressive masters in order to bring them into allegiance to the true God and true master of a new household of faith. Thus the tabernacle has natural connections backward in history to the events of the Exodus. In addition, the sacrifices are reminiscent of the passover lamb and more distantly of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The tabernacle also includes forward-pointing elements, since it is only a copy and shadow of the real sanctuary in heaven, and since its sacrifices can never remove sins for all time. Access to God and communion with him is still barred by veils. The tabernacle is thus a symbolic form of the promise of a future coming of the new Jerusalem.

The themes of God’s dwelling with human beings are all fulfilled in Christ. First, Christ expresses the personal presence of God. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (John 14:9-10). God comes uniquely to meet us and even to dwell within us through Christ: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (14:20). “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (14:23).

Second, Christ expresses the order of God, in that his character is the perfect pattern of righteousness: “you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). “Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Rom. 13:14).

Third, Christ expresses the power of God to atone for sin, since he has died as the final sacrifice for sins: “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (Heb. 9:27). “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

Since Christ is the fulfillment of the whole of Mosaic revelation, we may expect to find these three themes throughout the Books of Moses. Whether we subdivide them into three emphases or five or some other number matters little.

Thus I can appreciate and partially agree with the work of Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper: Dominion By Covenant (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987). Sutton defines a five-point schema for covenants and then finds the schema reproduced throughout Scripture. Nevertheless, Sutton and I are not quite saying the same thing, in two respects.

First, I claim only that certain very general themes are found throughout Scripture. Sutton appears to suggest that these themes usually occur in a fixed order in a text, and that they represent a major factor in the literary structure of many biblical books (e.g., Hosea, Psalms, Matthew, Romans, Revelation). If such is indeed his claim, then he is obviously asserting something much more specific than my approach. The Book of Deuteronomy does show a five-point literary structure, as Kline has shown. But Sutton’s claims with respect to other biblical materials are implausible. In fact, they are in some tension with my claims. If my themes are thoroughly pervasive in Scripture, as I would claim that they are, all three of my points and all five of his can be found in any passage whatsoever. Hence the fact that Sutton is able to find his themes in (say) passages from Romans does not serve as any weighty indication of some underlying literary structure to the Book of Romans.

Second, I claim that my three points are merely one way of grouping together and organizing our thinking about God’s communion with human beings. Other ways, using different categories, might serve us as well, provided that they pointed out to us major biblical themes and helped us to see how these themes come to focus in Christ. There might be four or five points or only one or two. By contrast, Sutton appears to claim that his scheme is the way (p. 14). (On the attractiveness of have a single model or grid for analyzing the teaching of Scripture, see Poythress, Symphonic Theology, and idem, Science and Hermeneutics.)

Chapter 5 Footnotes

1 “Ark of the Covenant,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979-88) 1:293-94.

2 Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963); idem, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972); idem, By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968); George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh: Biblical Colloquium, 1955); Viktor Korosec, Hethitische Staatsvertr\J”a\jge: Ein Beitrag zu ihrer juristischen Wertung (Leipzig: Theodor Weicher, 1931); Delbert R. Hillers,Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1969); Dennis J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant: A Study in the Ancient Oriental Documents and in the Old Testament (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963); idem, Old Testament Covenant: A Survey of Current Opinions (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972).

3 Mendenhall, Law and Covenant; Korosec, Staatsvertr\J”a\jge, pp. 12-14.

4 But note that heaven and earth are called as witnesses in Deut. 31:28, probably in analogy with that part of the Hittite god list that mentions heaven and earth:

. . . all the olden gods, Naras, Napsaras, Minki, Tuhusi, Ammunki, Ammizadu, Allalu, Anu, Antu, Apantu, Ellil, Ninlil, the mountains, the rivers, the springs, the great Sea, heaven and earth, the winds (and) the clouds–let these be witnesses to this treaty and to the oath. [Treaty between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub of Amurru]

. . . Ammizadu, Alalu, Anu, Antu, Ellil, Ninlil, Belat-Ekalli, the mountains, the rivers, the Tigris (and) the Euphrates, heaven and earth, the winds (and) the clouds; Tessub, the lord of heaven and earth, Kusuh and Simigi, . . . ;–at the conclusion of the words of this treaty let them be present, let them listen and let them serve as witnesses. [Treaty between Suppiluliumas and Mattiwaza]

See James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), pp. 201, 205, 206. Emphasis is mine.

5 Ibid., p. 203.

6 The Land of Palestine, the Promised Land, Prefiguring Christ’s Renewal and Dominion over the Earth

The land of Palestine also plays a special role in the Books of Moses and even in the whole Old Testament. One of the main aspects of the promise made to Abraham is the promise that he and his offspring will inherit the land (Gen. 12:1,7; 13:14-17; 15:18-21; 17:8).

God’s promise of the land

Much of the story of the Old Testament can be plotted around this center. Genesis recounts how Abraham’s offspring waited several generations looking for fulfillment of the promise. Exodus tells how they were delivered from Egypt as an aspect of the promise. Numbers tells how a whole generation failed to enter the land. Deuteronomy largely contains instructions for the people’s conduct in the land, and concludes with the people standing on its borders about to enter. Joshua through 2 Samuel tells of the vicissitudes of conquest, completed only with the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 4:20-21). After Solomon the story concerns the pattern of Deut. 29:1-30:10, where the disobedience of the people leads to exile from the land, and then restoration.

The land is so important not only because it is an important part of God’s foundational promise, but also because it sustains symbolical connections in several directions. The land is granted to Abraham and his descendants as part of the covenantal relation between God and his people: the land is a covenantal grant or gift, a benefit of the royal charter between God and his people.1 Thus it shares in the complex connections of biblical covenants.

The land is God’s own land; the people are only tenants (Lev. 25:23-24). Because the land is particularly associated with God, it is in a broad sense holy and will be defiled by gross sins (Lev. 18:24-28). The land is the land “where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites” (Num. 35:34). The land as the dwelling of God is analogous to the tabernacle and the temple, which are the dwelling of God in a more intensive sense. The small piece of land occupied by the temple is replicated on a large scale by the land as a whole. Thus we should not be surprised that the land is large-scale embodiment of the principles of the tabernacle. Defilement of the land corresponds to defilement of the tabernacle, and cleansing of the land, as in Num. 35:33-34, corresponds to cleansing the tabernacle. The people as a whole, who live on the land, are analogous to the priests who offer special service in the tabernacle.

The holiness of the land and its symbolic associations

Thus we should ask ourselves whether the land shares in the multiple symbolic relations of the tabernacle, as listed earlier in chapter 2. It must share in such relations at least indirectly, since it is symbolically related to the tabernacle and the tabernacle in turn is related to the entire list. Are there also direct indications of such relations in the Bible? We ought not necessarily to expect the same quantity of material, since the land shares in holiness only at a reduced level of intensity. Let us go through the list in chapter 2 item by item to confirm our analysis.

(1) Heaven is the dwelling of God. Is the land analogous to heaven? Heb. 11:14-16 says that the promise of land to Abraham caused him and his descendants to be “looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one.” Thus Abraham himself discerned that the land of Palestine was a shadow of a final heavenly dwelling place.

(2) The whole universe is the dwelling of God. The land of Palestine is to be a paradigmatic land, a representative sample standing for the whole earth. What happens there is intended to be paradigmatic for all nations (Deut. 4:5-8; 29:22-28).

(3) The tabernacle is a dwelling of God. We have just seen above that the treatment of land and tabernacle is analogous. Moreover, the exile of the land goes together with the destruction of the temple, while the return from exile goes together with the rebuilding of the temple.

(4) The Garden of Eden was a dwelling of God. The land of Palestine is described as a rich, garden-like land reminiscent of Eden (Deut. 8:7-9; 7:13-16; Joel 2:3; Isa. 51:3).

(5) The people of God are the dwelling place of God. The Books of Moses connect the people and the land not mainly by symbolic analogies but by showing that the prosperity or adversity of the two go together. Prosperity in the land is conditioned on the fundamental spiritual prosperity of loyalty to God (Deut. 28).

(6) The body of an individual saint is a dwelling of God. This theme is comparatively in the background in the Old Testament. There do not seem to be prominent instances of the use of the land as analogous to a human body (but note the language of vomiting in Lev. 18:24-28).

(7) The new Jerusalem is the final dwelling of God with human beings. The inheritance of the land is a shadow of this final inheritance (Heb. 11:16; 12:22).

(8) Christ is the ultimate dwelling of God. The language concerning holy places and spaces is now replaced by the language of being in Christ. As W. D. Davies says, “for the holiness of place, Christianity has . . . substituted the holiness of the Person: it has Christified holy space.” 2

Wright aptly analyzes the main symbolic connections of the land in parallel with the connections of the Israelite people. The people are simultaneously related to (a) all nations; (b) eschatological new humanity; and (c) the church as the new people of God (chapter 4). Likewise the land is related “paradigmatically” to the whole earth (point 2 above); “eschatologically” to the new heavens and new earth (point 7); and “typologically” to participation in blessing in the church (point 5).3 If we add to these relations that of Christ himself as the ultimate holy space, we shall have noted the main elements necessary for understanding the significance of the land in the Old Testament.

The land, then, was God’s gift to Israel, and therefore a tangible sign of his goodness, favor, and blessing. Like all the other important institutions in Israel, it was a means of communion with God. It showed his goodness and beauty. By dispossessing the wicked Canaanites and giving the land to Israel, God also showed his righteousness and his salvific power (Deut. 7). The land spoke of God’s faithfulness and the truthfulness of his promises, because its possession was a fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to Abraham (Deut. 6:10).

But the land was simultaneously a trust and a responsibility. Israel as a kind of corporate Adam was to guard the land from defilement. They were to tend and till the land in order to obtain and enjoy its increase. The fact that the land belonged first of all to God meant that it could not be permanently sold (Lev. 25:23-24). Poor people were to be protected from land-grabbers, and were to be given access to some of the yield of the land (Lev. 23:25-28; 19:9-10; Deut. 23:25-25; 24:19-22; 26:11-15).

Prosperity in the land was to be an index of Israel’s faithfulness (Deut. 28:1-14). Exile and loss of the land would result from continued disobedience (Deut. 28:15-29:28). These arrangements prefigured the inheritance of the new heaven and new earth, which we receive now on the basis of Christ’s obedience, not our own (1 Pet. 1:4). Our own obedience still matters, because as imitators of Christ we are meant to reflect his generosity to us (2 Cor. 8:9). Whatever gifts we receive, whether tangible or intangible in character, are not only a blessing but a trust to be used responsibly in his service (1 Pet. 4:10; 1 Tim. 6:17-19).

Chapter 6 Footnotes

1 Kline, Structure, pp. 31-34; M. Weinfeld, “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 90 (1970) 184-203.

2 William D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 368.

3 Wright, An Eye for an Eye, pp. 88-102.

7 The Law and Its Order, Prefiguring the Righteousness of Christ

The law of God plays an important role in God’s communion with Israel in Mosaic times. To begin with, in terms of sheer quantity law-like material dominates: it makes up a considerable fraction of the five Books of Moses. Moreover, the ten commandments as a heart of the law receive special attention. God spoke the ten commandments directly to all Israel from the top of Mount Sinai, in contrast to the rest of the material that the people received through Moses (Exod. 20:1-21; Deut. 4:10-13). The ten commandments alone were written directly by the finger of God on the two stone tablets that Moses received on Mount Sinai (Deut. 4:13; 10:4). In the beginning these tablets alone were deposited in the ark (Deut. 10:1-5; Exod. 25:16; 40:20). The many other instructions that God gave through Moses were also later written down and put not inside the ark but beside it (Deut. 31:24-26). The ark itself, the most central and most holy item associated with the tabernacle, is specifically designated “the ark of the testimony” (Exod. 25:22; 26:33, 34; 30:6, 26; 31:7; etc.) or “the ark of the covenant” (Num. 10:33; 14:44; etc.). In these designations it is understood that the “testimony” or “covenant” refers to the ten commandments (compare Exod. 25:21 with Deut. 10:1-5). Thus the main function of the ark is to contain the tablets of the covenant with the ten commandments written on them.

The law as the sovereign treaty of the great King

To an Israelite the basic function of God’s law was clear. God’s law was the treaty of God the Great King. In it he promised care and benefits for his people, and they pledged their loyalty and obedience to him. As we have seen (chapter 5), the law had some notable formal parallels with treaties and laws of Ancient Near Eastern kings.

When the ancient Hittites made treaties, they produced two copies, one for the suzerain and the other for the vassal. Corresponding to this practice God wrote the ten commandments on two tables–almost certainly two copies of the same ten commandments rather than one copy in two parts. Both copies were deposited in the tabernacle since in the case of Israel the central residence of God the suzerain was simultaneously the central point for Israel the vassal.1

Thus the law was the instrument and expression for God’s kingly rule over Israel. Such a perspective is quite compatible with what we have seen from the tabernacle. The tabernacle by imaging heavenly realities emphasizes the exalted, heavenly character of God’s presence within Israel, whereas the treaty pattern emphasizes the analogy between the rule of God and the rule of human kings. But these two emphases are two sides of the same coin. The tabernacle, heavenly as it is, constantly uses analogies, both analogies with the visible heavens and analogies from the Israelites’ experiences of deliverance. The presence of analogy and the fact that the tabernacle is itself a copy, not the original, bring its message down to earth. Conversely, when we start with the analogy with Hittite treaties, we must simultaneously recognize that God’s kingship is the origin and pattern for all earthly kings. Hence his treaty is exalted and unique, not like that of a merely human king.

The tabernacle itself suggests a harmony between the two viewpoints because it is a replica of the heavenly palace of the great king of the universe. The ark resembles in shape the footstool of a king. The two copies of the treaty, as we have seen, are deposited in the ark. The two cherubim attached to the ark and the cherubim woven into the pattern of the curtains represent guards of God’s throne room. Hence the basic imagery of the tabernacle affirms the kingship of God and puts the law in its rightful position as the treaty-deposit of the Great King.

Moreover, the insight that God is the great King of the whole universe is powerfully expressed in the tabernacle by the use of imagery from creation. The symbolism of the tabernacle combines imagery from creation and redemption. The lampstand simultaneously has a connection in two directions, with the supernatural redemptive light that God provides in the fiery cloud, and the natural creational light from the heavenly bodies. The bread of the Presence simultaneously has a connection with the supernatural redemptive manna from heaven and the natural creational supply of food that God brings about through ordinary agricultural processes. The tabernacle as a whole is simultaneously an image of the creational structure of heaven and earth and the redemptive structure of the animal sacrifices and the priesthood. All these relations are no accident. The same God is both creator and redeemer. More than that, redemption is itself a kind of new creation or re-creation. The fall damaged the whole of the lower creation. Effects flowed out from Adam who was the key representative. Appropriately, redemption repairs and overcomes this damage. Effects flow out from Christ, the representative to the whole of creation (cf. Rom. 8:22). The idea of a representative standing for a larger group runs through the entire plan. Adam as the creational son represented all his descendants. He was placed in the garden of Eden, a plot representative of all the earth. Similarly, Christ as the redeemer Son represents all those who are united to him (Rom. 8:29-34). Israel in the Old Testament typified Christ. As a redemptive son Israel was to be placed in the new garden land of Palestine, flowing with milk and honey.

The same insights are reexpressed when we look at God as the great king. At creation, the king originated his dominion by speaking words of power and order that called the world into being and gave it structure. The same king in the exodus originated a re-creative dominion over Israel (a kingdom of priests) by speaking and acting through Moses. He redeemed Israel out of Egypt and then gave the law. The law as his word of order formed Israel into a structured nation under God.

The law expresses God’s rule in at least three complementary ways. First, it publishes and imposes an order, a system of regularity, righteousness, and fitness. It specifies the way life is to be lived within God’s dominion and the distinctions and orders that are to be preserved. Second, it expresses the character of God and opens to Israel a personal communion with God the speaker. God’s communication to Israel embodies an intimacy with Israel unlike his relation to other nations (cf. Ps. 147:19-20). Third, it expresses the awesomeness of punishments and judgments that fall on people who are disobedient and unholy, and the rewards for the obedient.

The tabernacle expresses God’s rule in visible form in these same three ways, as we saw in the preceding chapter. Thus the law and the tabernacle are complementary expressions of the same basic realities about the character of God, his dominion and his fellowship with Israel. Law and tabernacle are each to be used to appreciate more deeply the meaning of the other. Each is a guide to properly understanding the other. In fact, in certain respects each is the origin of the other.

First, consider the tabernacle. The tabernacle is built according to specific law-like instructions. Law in the general sense of instruction from God makes up the key chapters Exod. 25-30 describing the design of the tabernacle. The order of the tabernacle itself is thus a replica of the order given in the designs or law set forth in Exod. 25-30. The chapters Exod. 36-39 repeat Exod. 25-30 almost exactly, in order to stress that Bezalel in constructing the tabernacle carried out God’s designs exactly. In addition to all these facts, one might almost claim that the tabernacle as a whole is designed to house the law, since the copies of the law are the main things deposited in the Most Holy Place. The holiness of the tabernacle is thus in one respect a replica of the holiness of the law.

Second, consider the law. Though the ten commandments were spoken to Israel with the direct voice of God (Deut. 4:12-13), this direct communication was an exceptional procedure used to validate the mediation of Moses (Deut. 4:14; 5:28-30; Exod. 20:18-19). God indicated that as a general rule he would speak to Moses from “above the cover between the two cherubim” (Exod. 25:22; see. Exod 33:7-11). That is, God communicated the bulk of the law through the means of his symbolic presence represented in the tabernacle system. Moses heard the law spoken from the presence of God in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle. From this point of view, the law of Moses as a whole embodies the verbal side of God’s communion with Israel through the tabernacle.

This point becomes still clearer if we go beyond the tabernacle itself to consider what the tabernacle symbolizes. The tabernacle symbolizes the heavenly presence of God, the throne room of God in heaven where God sits as king (cf. Isa. 6:1-4). From God’s throne come all his utterances. Hence the tabernacle symbolizes and depicts the majestic divine origin of all God’s speech to human beings.

We have already seen that the tabernacle foreshadows the coming of Christ as “Immanuel,” God with us. The tabernacle signifies the reconciliation and communion with God that we enjoy through Christ. The close connection between the law and the tabernacle suggests that the law must fundamentally foreshadow and signify the same realities. The law is the treaty of the great King. This great King came to reign in fullness when Christ came. Christ’s own message on earth is summarized in the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). The kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God is the saving rule of God, exercised in fulfillment of all the promises of salvation in the Old Testament. Thus the Old Testament proclamations of God the King foreshadow this final proclamation through Christ. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1-2). The Old Testament treaties or covenants made by God anticipate the great new covenant later made through Christ (2 Cor. 3:1-18).

Christ brought to fulfillment the three sides of God’s rule that we have already seen. He brought to expression the order of God’s life by his example, his teaching, and the teaching of the apostles sent by him. He also opened the way to a new depth of communion and personal fellowship with God as he revealed to us the very character of God. He is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3). And he made the definitive atoning sacrifice for sins when he died on the cross, thus satisfying the law’s penalties for disobedience.

The law articulating God’s order

The law of Moses sets forth a detailed order for Israel’s existence and life. Orderliness is a characteristic of God, since he is in fact the source and creator of all the order of the universe. Any people who live in his presence as Israel did must submit to his order and reflect in their own lives the order and righteousness of God. They must be imitators of God. Their moral behavior must conform to the purity and righteousness of God. Thus the ten commandments set forth the basic features of God’s moral order, an order required as part of our submission to God.

We also see the order of God reflected in a striking way in those more puzzling aspects of Mosaic law, namely the laws for diet and for cleanness and uncleanness. Many people have seen nothing but arbitrary commands in the distinctions between clean and unclean foods and in the instructions for cleansing from ceremonial defilements. But a closer look at these commands shows their inner rationale.

To begin to understand the special distinctions between clean and unclean, we must keep clearly before us two basic facts. First, God as the creator of the universe is the origin, standard, and life-giving creator of all order in the universe. God by creating the separations between heaven and earth, sea and dry land, divided the universe into “rooms,” analogous to the separations within the tabernacle. God also populated the universe with plants and animals that reproduce “according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:11-12, etc.). Thus he produced an order among living things, and gave to those living things a limited ability to spawn further production of order as they reproduce other living things having the same orderly pattern. Human beings as the crown of creation embody the order of God in a most special way. Of course, like the animals they have capability of reproducing further order according to their kind. But in addition they are made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26). In a special way they replicate on earth the order of God their designer. They are the unique representatives of God on earth. The unique ability of human beings to know God, to respond actively to him, to use language, to think, to exercise dominion over the lower creation–all these things imitate God’s original knowledge, language, thought, and dominion, and contribute to human ability actively to represent God’s presence on earth.

Second, the original created order of God described in Gen. 1-2 has been disrupted by the fall. In God’s acts of salvation he undertakes to restore and advance his order. Salvation thus takes the form of renewal or re-creation. We see hints of this language in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa. 65:17), but the fuller realization comes in the New Testament. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17). The Old Testament naturally represents this renewal not in its final form but by way of foreshadowing. The land of Palestine is a kind of new Eden; but of course in many respects it remains a land like all other lands, and becomes subject to curse when the people of Israel disobey God. The people of Israel themselves are a kind of small-scale version of a renewed humanity; but their disobedience shows how they fall short.

The laws for cleanness and uncleanness fit into this picture in a natural way. They signify and foreshadow the way in which God cleanses sin. They show that a renewed or recreated people are characterized by renewed behavior, behavior conforming to God’s order and separating them from sin. A close look at the classification of things into categories of holy, clean, and unclean shows a pattern of order.2 God the ultimate creator of order is supremely holy. He is the origin of life with its order-producing potential. By contrast, death is associated with sin and disorder. Hence things associated with death or producing disorder are unclean. Created things that are closely associated to God or the initiation of life are counted holy. Thus the tabernacle as the center of order is holy. The first-born human being or animal is holy and belongs to God in a special way.

Dead bodies are unclean both because of the immediate connection with death and because they degrade the order of living things back to the relative disorder of the nonliving earth. Birds that feed on carrion (dead bodies) are unclean. Things that are somehow defective or deviate from a paradigmatic order are also unclean. Fish with scales are the paradigmatic form of water creature; hence all water creatures without scales or fins are deviant and unclean. Animals with “real” legs functioning in a familiar way are normal; but all kinds of crawling animals and insects are unclean. Grasshoppers and other hopping insects with “normal” legs are clean. Defective animals, with disease or an injured part, are not acceptable for sacrifice, even though they are not literally unclean. Animals that chew the cud and have parted hoofs are regarded as normal, possibly because these are the most common herd animals; but animals that do not have these two key features deviate from the norm and are reckoned as unclean.

It may be that the classifications are also related to the curse in Genesis 3.3 In Genesis 3 the snake and the ground are cursed because of sin. Hence all the things that creep on the ground like a snake are unclean (Lev. 11:41-45). Animals that have no hooves but walk in direct contact with the ground are also unclean (Lev. 11:27). Animals that part the hoof and chew their cud are clean (Lev. 11:3). Possibly chewing the cud suggests a greater separation in taking in the food that comes from the ground, and the cloven hoof suggests a greater separation with respect to contact with the ground.

We do not know for certain which kind of connection may have been uppermost in the mind of an Israelite. But in a sense it does not matter. The two themes–the theme of order and the theme of separation from death and the curse–are in fact complementary, since death and the curse bring disorder and frustration.

Mixtures are usually regarded as deviant, though in some cases (e.g. the special fragrant incense and the priestly garments) they are holy. Thus Israelites are told not to mix two kinds of seed in sowing a field, and not to mix two kinds of cloth in a garment (Lev. 19:19).

A spreading skin disease makes a person unclean because it is producing disorder. 4 When the disease has covered the whole body, it is no longer producing more disorder and the person can be pronounced clean (Lev. 13:12-13). Spreading mildew in a house is creating disorder in the house and makes the house unclean (Lev. 14:33-53). Any abnormal bodily discharge is creating disorder and makes the person unclean (Lev. 15:1-33).

In the light of modern medical knowledge we can appreciate the hygienic value of some of these laws. The instructions concerning infectious skin disease are similar to modern quarantine procedures, while the prohibitions with respect to dead bodies, carrion birds, and pigs guard the people from sicknesses transmitted through contaminated food. God promised to deliver the people from “every disease,” especially “the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt” (Deut. 7:15). Doubtless God fulfilled his promises partly through the natural means involved in the dietary and quarantine procedures, though he was also free to employ special supernatural protection when appropriate. When the people disobeyed, they would experience the diseases of Egypt as part of God’s curse (Deut. 28:60-61).

Yet our modern medical knowledge must not become the most basic framework through which we read the Old Testament laws. Their own context says nothing about hygiene but stresses the need of Israel to “be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The entire system is a pervasive expression of the orderliness and separation required of a people who have fellowship with God the Holy One, the creator of all order. As Gordon Wenham says, “Theology, not hygiene, is the reason for this provision.” 5

The law expressing the way of life

The theme of order is closely related to the theme of life. God is the source of both order and life. In creation God not only brings order out of chaos but life out of nonlife. The world is created not only to express the order and beauty of God, but to serve as a suitable arena for human life. The disorderly watery chaos of Gen. 1:2 cannot sustain life, and a return to watery chaos in Noah’s flood extinguishes life. Moreover, the life of both plants and animals manifests itself preeminently in their powers of reproduction, which enable them to replicate order “according to their kind.”

The fall exhibits the stark contrast between life and death. God is the source of life, and disobedience to him fittingly results in death (Gen. 2:17). Life means first of all spiritual life, real life in communion with God. On the day when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they died in a real and spiritual sense. But physical death is a fitting concomitant to this deeper spiritual death. Because human beings have renounced and destroyed their true life with God, their own physical life is in turn destroyed. Physical death is thus simultaneously a punishment and a symbol of deeper spiritual loss.

In the Exodus God gives Israel new life. They are redeemed not only from the physical oppression of Egyptian slavery but the spiritual bondage and deceit involved in worship of the Egyptian gods. God commands them to worship himself alone as their true life (Exod. 20:2-3). Accordingly, the law in its total scope sets forth the way of life. True life comes from God and involves fellowship with him. If the Israelites obey the commandments, they will live (Lev. 18:5; Deut. 28:1-14), and if they disobey they will die (Exod. 19:21-22; 32:9-10; Deut. 6:15; 28:15-68). The ten commandments embody the core of this life. They express what true life is like in our relations directly to God (primarily commandments 1-4) and in our relations to fellow human beings (primarily commands 5-10).

The laws concerning clean and unclean also embody the themes of life and death, often on an indirect, symbolic plane. Contact with the dead body of a human being is of course direct contact with human death, the primary curse of the fall. It creates maximum defilement, requiring seven days for cleansing (Num. 19:11-19). An animal that has died by itself is a more distant mirror of the curse of death; accordingly, it requires only part of one day to become clean again (Lev. 11:24-40). Creatures that crawl on the ground are indirectly associated with the curse on the ground and the curse on the serpent. Hence they are unclean and unsuitable for food (Lev. 11:41-45).

All the things described in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 are unclean for Israel. But Deut. 14:21 explicitly allows Israelites to sell carcasses to aliens and foreigners. What is prohibited to Israel is not prohibited to others. Rather, the prohibition rests on the fact that “you [Israelites] are a holy people to the LORD your God” (Deut. 14:21). The world has been contaminated with curse and uncleanness originating in the fall. The Gentile nations participate in this uncleanness through their contact with unclean animals. But such uncleanness is not in itself sin. It is merely symbolic of sin. And separation from uncleanness accompanies symbolic holiness. Israel alone is required to observe a special ceremonial cleanness, because they are the holy people. Their special access to God makes it necessary for them to maintain special distance from the fall and its curse. At the same time, all these special observances serve to reinforce their consciousness of being a unique nation. They are thereby reminded not to participate in the idolatry and moral corruption of the surrounding nations.

New Testament application of laws of cleanliness

In the light of the New Testament we know that the distinctions between clean and unclean were temporary in nature. Jesus’ teaching while he was on earth already pointed to the fact that all foods were to be reckoned clean (Mark 7:19). The Apostle Paul explicitly confirms this teaching (Col 2:20-23; 1 Tim 4:3-5). Thus on the level of literal observance the Old Testament foods laws are obsolete.

But such laws still have their symbolic value. The general principle of separation from what is unclean is still valid. For example, Paul counsels us not to compromise with unbelief or commit ourselves to unnatural alliances with unbelievers:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? . . . As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” (2 Cor 6:14-17)

In v. 17 Paul invokes the Old Testament prohibition against touching unclean things in order to reinforce the general principle of separation from sinfulness.

Paul’s use of the Old Testament here is quite in line with its real meaning. The disorders of unclean things in the Old Testament symbolically indicate the disorders of sin itself, which is the root of uncleanness. Israel’s separation from unclean foods also proclaims its obligation to be a uniquely holy nation, a kingdom of priests. In the Old Testament the principles of holiness and separation were temporarily expressed on a symbolic, physical level in the distinction between clean and unclean foods. Such a symbolic distinction was appropriate during the time when salvation as a whole was expressed in a symbolic and shadowy form. Salvation had not yet come in its definitive and final form, namely, Christ himself and his sacrifice on the cross. The sacrifices of the Old Testament cleansed copies and shadows of heavenly things, but they did not permanently cleanse the heart. The earth itself and all its creatures had not been cleansed definitively through the power of Christ’s blood.

Hence it was appropriate that the need for cleansing the heart be expressed in external ways through food distinctions. It was appropriate also that these distinctions be related to separation from the curse of Gen. 3. Thus these distinctions foreshadow the need for a recreative work of God that will affect the curse on the lower creation.

The orderliness of the distinction between clean and unclean, and the rejection of the disorder of unclean things, signify beforehand the comprehensive character of the order of Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, who rules all things (Heb. 1:3) and to whom all authorities in heaven and on earth are subject (Eph. 1:21). All order in the original creation derives from him who is the Word of God and the wisdom of God (John 1:1; Col. 2:3). The distinction between life and death in Old Testament cleanliness laws signifies that Jesus Christ is the originator of life and the overcomer of death.

Now in the time of fulfillment in the New Testament we see clearly the meaning to which these distinctions pointed. Sin and righteousness are shown forth fully in the cross. Life and death are shown fully in Christ’s death and resurrection. All foods are cleansed by the word of God and by prayer now offered in the name and power of Christ (1 Tim. 4:1-5).

Order in personal relationships: the ten commandments

How do the ten commandments more specifically embody God’s order and God’s life? The ten commandments make up the heart of the Mosaic law. Fittingly, they focus on permanent obligations for personal relationships rather than on temporary obligations concerning the distinction between clean and unclean. But they reflect the same pervasive themes of divine order and divine life.

The first three commandments deal focally with responsibilities in the relationship between God and human beings. The holiness and order of God must be properly reflected in the very character of our relations to him. True life is expressed only in service to him. First and foremost, as the first commandment insists (Exod. 20:3), God must be acknowledged as the sole Lord, the sole creator and originator of order. Any competition with another supposed source introduces a most fundamental confusion and disorder and leads to spiritual death. In the first sin Adam and Eve listened to a competitive source, the deceit of the serpent. They ended by virtually setting themselves up as judges of right and wrong. They aspired to be prime sources rather than grateful receivers of God’s order. Every sin has this same character at its root. Sin is always a kind of idolatry and destructive confusing of order at the most fundamental level, namely confusing who God is as the standard of all earthly order.

With Reformed and Greek Orthodox interpreters I maintain that the second commandment begins with Exod. 20:4 and discusses the question of making images for worship. 6 It goes beyond the first commandment by forbidding not only the worship of false gods but the pretended worship of the true God through making an image of him. Not only is the attempt to make an image of God principially inappropriate, but it misses the fundamental character of the revelation at Mount Sinai, a revelation where no image appeared (Deut. 4:15-20). Worship of God must conform to the order of God’s own revelation, not only in the general sense that it follows the way that God commands, but more particularly in the sense that it harmonizes with the character of God. The character of God is expressed in the fact that he reveals himself apart from any permanent, reproducible image. So his worshipers must not make an image for themselves.

The third commandment, Exod. 20:7, enjoins us to protect the holiness that marks God’s name, that is, the revelation of his character. This commandment is one instance of the preservation of distinctions between holy and unholy.

The fourth commandment, Exod. 20:8-11, has a special character. It undoubtedly focuses on human relation to God, not on fellow human beings. Yet it involves a creational pattern as well, namely the pattern of succession of days. Therefore it is not quite so direct an expression of the orderliness of God’s character as are the first three commandments. As we shall see, it forms a kind of mediating point between the commandments concerning God and those concerning one’s neighbor. For the moment, it is sufficient for us to observe the way in which it expresses a pattern of divine order. Human beings made in the image of God are to replicate God’s order of work and rest in creation. They are to preserve a distinction between holy and unholy by distinguishing in their activity between the holiness of the sabbath and the common character of the other days of the week.

The fifth commandment, Exod. 20:12, concerning honoring parents, is the first commandment dealing primarily with our responsibilities to other human beings. Some have argued that this commandment still expresses responsibility to God, since human authorities like parents represent the authority of God within a limited sphere. Certainly it is appropriate for the first commandment concerning other human beings to involve a unique relation to divine authority as a background element. Nevertheless, if we bear in mind what would be most obvious to an Israelite, this commandment belongs first of all with those involving responsibility to human beings.

The divine orderliness is expressed in this commandment in terms of preserving the created structure of the family and the orderly authority that it embodies. The family is also the proper place for the production of new life, in the form of offspring. Hence the protection of the family is a preeminent form of honoring human life, life derived from God. In addition, because parents had a key responsibility for teaching their children about God and his law (Deut. 6:6-9), the parents represent the primary channel through which knowledge of and conformity to the divine order is passed on and preserved for the next generation. An attack on the authority of parents is most grievous because it threatens the most precious heritage of Israel, its knowledge of God, and thereby also threatens possession of the blessings flowing from this knowledge (“that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you”).

The sixth commandment enjoins the preservation of human life itself, and the orderliness expressed in life. Human beings created in the image of God replicate on earth in their own persons a special form of divine order on earth. Their degradation into the disorder of death is a most serious disruption of divine order.

The seventh commandment enjoins orderliness in human sexuality. Since human sexuality is closely related to the creation of new life and new order in human reproduction, the preservation of orderly sexuality is a natural consequence of the call to holiness.

The eighth commandment enjoins the orderliness in human property. Theft violently disorders the relations of human ownership. Since human ownership is closely related to the dominion that human beings have been given, which in turn imitates God’s dominion over the world, preservation of orderly ownership is a reflection of the order of God’s rule over the world. In addition, property is an important support for sustaining and enhancing human life. The destruction or expropriation of property is therefore an indirect attack on the human life supported by it.

The ninth commandment enjoins orderliness in human speech. Lying speech used as a weapon against other human beings perverts the natural function of human speech, namely to be an instrument of fellowship and dominion. Truthful human speech imitates the truthfulness and righteousness of God’s speech and God’s law.

The tenth commandment enjoins orderliness in the desires of human beings and in their hearts. Jesus pointed out that the overt actions violating the other commandments all originate in the heart of men (Mark 7:20-23). Disorderliness of the heart generates disorderliness in action.

Because human beings are made in the image of God and are called on to imitate God, we can also see various relations of analogy between the first four commandments and the last six, that is, analogies between responsibilities to God and responsibilities to other human beings. For example, in honoring our parents we ought to imitate the honor that is due to our heavenly Father (Mal. 1:6). Similarly, in not killing but protecting human life in the image of God, we ought to imitate the practice of loving God and protecting his honor. The practice of not committing adultery but enhancing the order of marriage ought to imitate Israel’s responsibility to be the faithful “wife” of God and not to prostitute herself with other gods (see Ezek. 16; 23). The practice of not stealing but protecting human property ought to imitate the practice of dealing responsibly with God’s property, that is, everything that we receive from God (cf. Mal. 3:8-11). In not bearing false witness but speaking truthfully we ought to imitate the truth of God’s speech. Our desire for the neighbor’s good and not covetousness ought to imitate God’s goodness, his love, and the purity of his own purposes.

The relation between the tabernacle and the law is further cemented by a certain amount of common order even in their arrangements. Recall that the ten commandments are placed in the ark within the most holy place (Deut. 10:1-5). In the spatial arrangements of the tabernacle we have already seen a pervasive theme of replication. The holy place in its shape and furniture imperfectly replicates the most holy place. The priestly garments suggest that Aaron replicates the tabernacle as a whole. And so on. Within this context it is not unnatural to notice that the number of the commandments, ten, is replicated in the dimensions of the most holy place. The context already suggests the idea of replication. Moreover, the tabernacle as a whole is made after a heavenly pattern, the same as the origin of the ten commandments (Exod 25:9, 40). The form of the tabernacle must conform exactly to the verbal instructions of God (a kind of law) specifying its plan.

Next, notice that the order of the ten commandments suggests a transition from heaven to earth, just as does the order of the tabernacle from inside to outside. The first three commandments deal with heavenly order, that is, responsibilities to God. The first commandment expresses the same message as the singleness of the tabernacle, of the ark, and of the throne of God, namely that there is only one true God. The second commandments expresses the reality of the single way to God represented by the tabernacle. In particular, it expresses the fact that no image appears between the two cherubim over the ark. No Israelite is to make an image for any other dwelling place, in conformity with the fact that the central dwelling place in Israel, the tabernacle, has no image of God within it.

The third commandment enjoining honor of the name of God is a verbal counterpart to the practice of honoring the place of God. God’s dwelling place is the place where he has put his name (1 Kings 8:29). Just as the name of God is the verbal expression of his character and his attributes, the tabernacle is the visible expression.

The fourth commandment corresponds to the transition from heaven to earth. That is, it enjoins sabbath observance as first of all a responsibility to God, and in this sense involves heavenly responsibility. But it also involves responsibilities downward to other human beings, sons, daughters, servants, aliens and even animals (Exod. 20:10). Because it involves observance of a periodic seven-day pattern, and because the pattern of day and night is controlled by the heavenly bodies (Gen. 1:14), it also reminds us of Israel’s relation to the visible heavens as the good creation of God. Thus it corresponds in some ways to the holy place, where the seven lamps corresponds to the light of seven days of the week. It forms a transition between the invisible heavens of the most holy place and the earthly space of the tabernacle courtyard.

With the fifth commandment, then, we move out into the courtyard, as it were, and into the domain of responsibilities to other human beings. But fittingly the first responsibility mentioned is that of honor to human representatives, to those in authority, who still in some pronounced way represent God. The priests who minister in the courtyard of the tabernacle embody this same representative function in their own priestly way.

The sixth through the tenth commandments discuss various “horizontal” responsibilities, so it need not be the case that there is any order in them. But still some degree of order seems to be observable. Violations that cause more overt damage and are difficult or impossible to repair come first, followed by violations involving less serious disruption of the environment. Last comes the commandment concerning covetousness, a sin that though very serious does not overtly disrupt the environment around a person. We might also argue that the commandments start with the most elementary and basic responsibilities and move out to more complex responsibilities. Thus the sixth commandment enjoins the responsibility to preserve human life itself. This responsibility is most basic and all the other human responsibilities make no sense without it. Following this commandment comes one affecting our most intimate and basic relations, namely sexual relations. Then two others touch first on the tangible possessions of neighbors, then on the intangibles, namely their reputation and legal security. The commandment concerning covetousness is the most complex and most intangible, because it involves direct assessment of motives.

In fact, all the commandments reflect the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the true God and as such is himself the divine standard that we are called on to imitate. Jesus Christ is also true man and as such was perfectly obedient to God. He perfectly reflected God’s standard in human life. He alone of all human beings consistently and thoroughly served God and no idol. He alone kept pure the proper way of worshiping God, following God’s own commandments. He alone perfectly honored the name of God by perfectly revealing God in human form. He alone perfectly kept the sabbath by accomplishing the recreation of the world, the purpose to which the sabbath pointed forward. He alone perfectly honored not only his human parents (Luke 2:51) but his Father in heaven. He alone single-minded sought and perfectly embodied the divine ordering and not the disordering of human life, sexuality, possessions, speech, and desires of the heart. All his achievements came to a climax on the cross. In obedience to God the Father he surrendered to destruction and death his human authority, his life, his sexuality, his possessions, his power of speech, and his heart, in order that the Father would be obeyed and honored, and the disorders and death of humanity and creation be remedied.

Thus Jesus Christ perfectly kept the law, perfectly embodied it, and perfectly exemplified it. The mystery and wonder of his work is even greater than what we can express. Christ’s work does not come as an afterthought appended to an already self-existing, self-sufficient law. The law of the Old Testament is not a mere datum or a mere code book, but the personal word of the great King of the universe. And who is this King? From eternity to eternity the Word was with God and was God (John 1:1). The King is the trinitarian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God the Son was always at work from the beginning. The law of Moses is a reflection and foreshadowing of the absolute perfection and righteousness of Christ, rather than Christ being a reflection of the law. This conclusion confirms what we have already seen through the tabernacle. Both tabernacle and law express in complementary ways the communion with God that achieves full expression only through the coming of Christ and his uniting himself to us by faith.

Chapter 7 Footnotes

1 See Kline, Structure of Biblical Authority, pp. 35-36.

2 For further development of these ideas, see Wenham, Leviticus, pp. 18-25; and Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).

3 I am indebted to James Jordan for this line of thinking.

4 The KJV describes these diseases as “leprosy.” It is clear from the descriptions of disease in Lev. 13 that a number of types of skin disease fall within the classification in Leviticus. What we know of as “leprosy” or Hansen’s disease attacks the nervous system first and spreads very slowly, so that it does not really correspond to the descriptions in Lev. 13. Accordingly newer translations like the NIV more accurately translate the Hebrew word as “infectious skin disease” or “mildew” (in the case of a spreading infection in a garment or a house).

5 Wenham, Leviticus, p. 21.

6 For fuller argumentation, see Vos, Biblical Theology, pp. 148-50.

8 The Purposes of the Tabernacle, the Law, and the Promised Land: Pointing Forward to Christ

The tabernacle, the law, and the promised land are all intended to point forward to Christ. It makes sense that Jesus said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 25:44). But within this single unified purpose of testifying to Christ we can still discern a multitude of subordinate purposes. We have already noted a trio of purposes, namely to set forth a God-given order, to open access to communion and personal fellowship with God, and to show God’s power to bless and curse (see chapter 5). The tabernacle and the law both testify to a triple set of facts, namely that God is the origin and creator of order, that the world expresses his personal presence in its order and its life, and that he is the redeemer and restorer of the order and life disrupted by sin. The land also expresses the same truths, since it derives from God the Creator, it expresses his personal blessing, and God has taken it away from the wicked Canaanites in order to give it to his redeemed people.

The connections of tabernacle symbolism

We can see the way in which several points are unfolded when we recall the multiplicity of connections of tabernacle symbolism. First of all the tabernacle represents, copies, and models heavenly reality. But its symbolism is not merely a one-dimensional pointer to heaven. As we have seen (chapter 2), the tabernacle has a multiplicity of connections with biblical teaching:

(1) God dwells in heaven in the midst of his holy courtroom of angels and ministering spirits. The tabernacle as a dwelling place of God replicates heaven.

(2) The whole universe has been created in a manner like constructing a house (Ps. 104:2-3; Amos 9:6; Prov. 8:22-31; Isa. 40:22). The tabernacle is analogous to the universe as a whole.

(3) The tabernacle is connected to the temple, a larger replica of the same truths.

(4) The tabernacle is suggestive of the Garden of Eden, which was a special dwelling of God where God met with Adam and Eve (cf. Gen. 2:15-3:8).

(5) The tabernacle is a pattern for the people of God corporately, who become a dwelling place of God.

(6) The tabernacle is a pattern for each individual believer, and for the priest in particular, since each individual becomes a dwelling place of God.

(7) The tabernacle looks forward to the final dwelling of God, the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21-22.

(8) The tabernacle prefigures Christ himself, who is the ultimate dwelling of God with human beings.

(9) The imagery in the tabernacle is also capable of recalling God’s great acts of redemption in the Exodus.

(10) The tabernacle points forward to God’s future acts of redemption.

All these connections (especially 1-8) are part of the great biblical theme of God’s dwelling place. Hence they all express the truth that God comes to us to be personally present and a source of personal communion. The cosmic scope of the connections 1, 2, and 7 particularly remind us that God is the source of all order. Connections 9 and 10 remind us that God is the redeemer and restorer. All of these connections of tabernacle symbolism have an inner unity, because Christ is the source of all (connection 8).

Likewise, the land expresses in some fashion many of the same connections, as we have seen (chapter 6).

The connections of the law

Because of the close inner connection between the tabernacle and the law, we may expect to find the law to exhibit the same connections as does the tabernacle. The law points upward to the character of God the Holy One. It points outward to the people of Israel and provides for them a standard to which they are to conform. They are to “be holy because I, the LORD your God, as holy” (Lev. 19:2).

Next, the law points backward to God’s original creation. For one thing, the distinctions between clean and unclean intensify the original separations that God made in creating the different regions of creation and the different kinds of living things. The law enjoins on Israel a special necessity to separate from crawling things and things symbolically associated with the fall, as part of Israel’s calling to be a kingdom of priests. This obligation is analogous to Adam’s responsibility to keep the garden and resist the serpent. In addition, the moral principles of the law articulate the relationships that human beings were created to have with God and with one another.

The law also points backward to God’s acts of redemption from Egypt. Sometimes it explicitly invokes God’s past mercies and promises (for example, Exod. 20:2; Deut. 5:15; 1:19-3:29). At every point its contrasts between good and evil recapitulate the fundamental contrast between serving idolatrous masters in Egypt and serving God with freedom in a new redeemed situation.

Finally, the law points forward to its final embodiment and fulfillment. The very disobedience of the people of Israel testifies to the fact that they need God to act in a new redemptive way to write the law on their heart (Jer. 31:31-34). The insufficiency of animal sacrifices to cleanse from sin points to the necessity of a final, perfect sacrifice for sin. The people need a sacrifice that will fully bear the penalty for disobedience to the law and also create by its perfection a dynamically reproducing pattern of perfect obedience. Thus the law points forward to Christ. Christ will perfectly obey God and perfectly embody the righteousness of God expressed in the law (2 Cor. 5:21). He will also perfectly satisfy the penalty and curse that comes to those who disobey God’s law (Gal. 3:13).

In sum, the law like the tabernacle sustains connections in several directions, upward, outward, backward, and forward. In all these directions it expresses a fundamental unity in God’s purpose, namely the unity of Christ himself. Christ is the preeminent Word of God, the Creator, the ultimate standard and embodiment of divine wisdom, truth, righteousness, order, life, and peace (John 1:1-4). He is himself “the fullness of the Deity . . . in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). He is the Truth (John 14:6), the ultimate reality of realities, the consummate righteousness that the law foreshadows. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). He sustains “all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). “By him all things were created” (Col. 1:16). “In him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). “He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Col. 1:18).

The law, then, like the tabernacle and the land, expresses the holiness, truth, beauty, and righteousness of God himself. Its revelation comes with the absolute authority of God himself and can never pass away. But in another sense it proclaims its own insufficiency and nonultimacy. It is a shadow–a true and precious shadow, but still a shadow, of the surpassing glory of Christ. The ministry of the law in its own time was fading and is now superseded by the ministry of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 3:1-18). Far from abolishing the law, the ministry of Christ causes us through the Spirit to have the “veil” over our hearts removed and to see the law in its true purposes, as a reflection and anticipation of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 3:14-18).

Moral and ceremonial aspects of the law

Many people have traditionally distinguished between “ceremonial” and “moral” laws in the Old Testament. According to this view, ceremonial laws are those laws like the sacrificial laws and dietary laws that were destined to pass away. Moral laws like the ten commandments have permanent validity. Two distinct purposes are customarily associated with these two types of law. The ceremonial laws symbolize and foreshadow by means of temporary outward ceremonies the nature of Christ’s redemptive work. The moral laws set forth the permanent standard for human righteousness and show what human beings who serve God are expected to do.

Obviously there is some truth and some value in this distinction. Some parts of the law, namely the “moral” commandments, express in a more or less direct way universal rules for human behavior. “You shall not steal” is just as valid a rule now as it was for Israel. One significant purpose of such law is to guide the behavior of those who have come to know God, whether these people are Israelites or modern Christians.

Other parts of the law, namely the “ceremonial” commandments, express rules applying directly only to Israel’s circumstances or to the circumstances of particular individuals within Israel. For example, much of the instruction in Lev. 6-7 and 21-22 is applicable in an immediate sense only to Israelite priests. Since the priesthood symbolizes mediation between God and human beings, and since such mediation is now fulfilled in Christ, we may properly argue that one main purpose of Lev. 6-7 and 21-22 is to foreshadow the nature of the work of Christ as our perfect and holy high priest in heaven.

Likewise, the food laws operate to distinguish Israel from the surrounding Gentile nations (see chapter 7). Israel as the holy people are in communion with God through the tabernacle. The other nations do not have this privilege. With the privilege comes a unique responsibility to remain separate from unclean things (Deut. 14:21). The holiness and separation of Israel foreshadows the holiness and separation of Christ, who by his work has now purified all foods (Mark 7:19; 1 Tim. 4:4-5).

The organization of the Book of Deuteronomy also reveals a rough distinction between moral and ceremonial parts.1 As Moses indicates, the ten commandments in Deuteronomy 5 are given by the direct voice of God, whereas the other ordinances are spoken by Moses under God’s direction (5:22-33). The ten commandments are the “covenant” (5:2-3), to which God “added nothing more” (5:22). They alone were written with the finger of God on the two tablets that Moses received directly from God (5:22). The subsequent commandments in the rest of Deuteronomy are then explicitly described as “all the commands, decrees and laws you are to teach them to follow in the land I am giving them to possess” (5:30). Deuteronomy repeatedly invokes the phrase “in the land” (5:30, 33; 6:1, 3, 10, 18, 23; 7:1; 8:1; etc.). Thus all the commands from 6:1 onward are qualified by the geographical boundaries of the land. Some commands are clearly of much broader scope (for example, the command to love God in 6:4-5). But many others are explicitly tied to the land (for example, Deut. 19:1-13 depends on the setting up of cities of refuge in the land). Many of the laws are thus “ceremonial” laws, in the sense that their observance depends on the unique holiness of Israel and the unique holiness of the land of promise, the new Eden.

Hence Deuteronomy itself separates a moral part, the ten commandments in Deuteronomy 5, from a ceremonial part, the “commands, decrees, and laws” of Deuteronomy 6-31. But the distinction is a rough one, since some obviously moral commands are included in the later chapters.

However, the simple distinction between moral and ceremonial laws does not reveal the full richness of God’s law. Though useful up to a point, it pays attention to only a few aspects of Old Testament revelation.2 And if used unthinkingly, it threatens to separate into two disparate pieces what God has undeniably joined together. The tabernacle as a whole and the law as a whole bear witness to Christ. The order of the tabernacle and the order of the law express a profound unity belonging to Mosaic revelation. This unity prefigures the final unity of the one way of salvation through the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Hence the law itself contains no special terminology neatly separating ceremonial and moral. Many chapters contain primarily ceremonial and primarily moral law side by side and mixed together (for example, Lev. 19; Deut. 22; 23; Exod. 23).

Some laws do express divine standards in a universally binding way, while others are adapted in one way or another to special circumstances in Israel. Hence on a rough basis we may distinguish between what is universal and what is special to Israel’s circumstances. Yet this distinction is often a matter of degree. For example, the principle of honoring one’s parents is universal. Yet when it is expressed in Exod. 20:12, it is combined with one very particular specification, namely “that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” Taken most literally and most narrowly, this qualification can apply only to the people of Israel to whom God is giving the land of Palestine, and then only during the period in which they possess the land, not, for instance, after they have been cast out of it for disobedience. Nevertheless, Paul in the New Testament does not hesitate to invoke this commandment in a Christian context and to suggest that “long life on the earth” is the result. Paul does perceive a universal principle in the commandment. But he does so only by reckoning with the fact that Israel’s life in the land typologically symbolizes a universal reconquest and renewal of the whole earth through the work of Christ.

The ten commandments are generally considered to be the central Old Testament expression of the moral law. Yet here we have one commandment, the fifth, which contains clear reference to a ceremonial item, namely the land and life in the land. Some other less striking particularities characterize other commandments from among the ten commandments. The sabbath commandment in Deut. 5:15 specifically appeals to the fact that the people were slaves in Egypt and that the people owe allegiance to God because of his redemption. The commandment against graven images in Exod. 20:4-6 presupposes a social and religious context in which literal image-making was a genuine temptation. The commandment against coveting in Exod. 20:17 lists typical objects that would tempt Israelites to coveting, but not all of which would be meaningful in a modern industrialized society.

To crown it all, the whole of the ten commandments are pointedly preceded by a powerful claim of God to Israelite allegiance. He says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). This most significant contextual note does not literally apply to anyone but Israel. If we use these commandments apart from this all-significant context, we lose sight of the motivation and backing for all of them. The ten commandments are not moralism or a legalistic way of salvation, but a call to life motivated by gratitude for God’s compassion and deliverance. We can retrieve the correct use of the commandments only by invoking a typological analogy between redemption from Egypt and redemption from sin by Christ. That is, we argue that though we have not been literally redeemed from Egypt, we have been redeemed from what Egypt symbolized and foreshadowed, namely, bondage to sin. Egypt is a “type” or foreshadowing of the domain of sin. Redemption of Egypt is a kind of foreshadowing of redemption through Jesus Christ. Consequently we who are redeemed are to be motivated to obey God’s commandments just as Israel was. Such an analogy between Israel and us does indeed exist, as Paul affirms in 1 Cor. 10:1-13. But it is a symbolical analogy, an analogy between two levels, like the ceremonial analogies of the so-called ceremonial laws. Hence the Christ-centered analogies of the ceremonies and the permanency of moral demands are inextricably linked.

We can illustrate the richness of the law starting from the other end as well. Consider the laws that prohibit Israelites from touching unclean things and eating unclean foods. Such laws are generally classified as ceremonial because Christians are not bound to observe them literally (see Col. 2:20-21; 1 Tim. 4:3-5; Mark 7:19). Nevertheless, these laws still express permanent principles. “Touch no unclean thing” is quoted by Paul as a backing for his injunction not to be yoked together with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14, 17), because it embodies the general principle of separation from moral disorder. The dietary laws also express the general truth that God has created all orders of living things, that this order also has been corrupted through the fall (see Gen. 3:17-18), that this order is to be redemptively restored though the renewal of the word of God, and that God’s priests are to be radically separated from the corruptions of the fall. Believers in God are themselves to play a role in carrying out renewed discriminatory dominion over the lower creation and over the effects of the curse. Hence, though the exact form of observance of the food laws has changed, they express a multitude of permanent principles. They point backwards to creation and fall, upwards to the divine creative order, outwards to the domain of human responsibilities towards unredeemed humanity and the lower creation, and forwards to the hope for final redemption and renewal of the heavens and the earth (Isa. 65:17; Rom. 8:21-23).

Thus it seems wisest to me not to draw a sharp distinction between ceremonial and moral law, but to study all of the law most carefully in the endeavor to appreciate its depth, the richness of its connections, and the unity of its purposes in foreshadowing Christ.

I have stressed the fundamental unity of the law not only because the law finds its fulfillment and realization in one goal, the one Lord Jesus Christ, but also because I think that Israelites themselves would perceive the law as a unity. In one sense all the commandments are summed up in the one, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). There is only one God, and devotion to him involves the holistic response of the whole person. “The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments [all of them, finding their unity in God] that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. . . .” (Deut. 6:4-9).

Yet within this fundamental unity Israelites themselves could easily sense some relative distinctions. Surely the commandment in Deut. 6:4-5 about loving God with all your heart is the great commandment to which all others are subordinate (cf. Matt. 22:37-38). The ten commandments as the heart of the law express in a most fundamental way our obligations first of all to God (commandments 1-4) and next to our neighbor (commandments 5-10). The rest of the law is largely an outworking of the implications of these central obligations. Hence Jesus can point to the fundamental character of the two great commandments, to love God and to love one’s neighbor, in that order (Matt. 22:37-40). The two central commandments are deep and permanent moral principles. Hence it should be no surprise that the ten commandments also, as an expansion of these two principles, also embody permanent principles–though we have seen that they also particularize the principles to Israel.

The two great principles of loving God and loving one’s neighbor also suffice to awaken Israelites to the possibility that not everything in the law is equally permanent. The food laws and the sacrificial laws are not directly deducible from general principles of love. Do they therefore have a special, temporary purpose? Perhaps. Israelites might not be at all certain, and would not need to be certain because their own obligations for their immediate future were clearly defined. But would changes come in the more distant future? What would happen when salvation was definitely accomplished, by an even more remarkable and thorough deliverance than the exodus from Egypt? It would be fitting to be open-minded on such a question. Moreover, these food laws and sacrificial laws involve the use of the lower creation, plants and animals, in a special symbolic way. Israel is forbidden to do some things that other nations may do (Deut. 14:21). Such special boundaries on the use of the lower creation seem in themselves to be temporary in view of the comprehensive dominion given to human beings in the original creation in Gen. 1. Such restrictions by their very nature suggest something introduced as a symbol for the necessity of remedying the disorders of sin and the fall.

These impressions available to Israel would be strengthened as Israelites compared the law of God and their own situation with the surrounding nations. How did Israel differ from the surrounding nations, and how was she like the other nations? In particular, did other nations have the same laws as their own standards? With respect to the first four of the ten commandments, the other nations were polytheistic idolaters, whereas Israel was enjoined to be loyal to one God exclusively. This distinction set Israel apart. But since God is the only true God, the God of the whole world, it is clear that the nations were deeply blinded and were guilty for not worshiping God alone (cf. Isa. 41-48; Rom. 1:18-32). With respect to commandments 5-9 from the ten commandments, the other nations did acknowledge the same basic standards, though with confusion and in the midst of much disobedience to standards that were formally acknowledged. Even today, almost all societies recognize that it is wrong to disrespect parents, to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, or to bear false witness. No society can completely suppress the most basic principles of fairness, of not doing to others what you would not want done to you. And societies that go too far in suppressing these standards simply disintegrate and disappear from the face of the earth. Thus, Israel can see a measure of agreement by other nations, because the great principle of loving one’s neighbor is universal.

In the case of food laws and sacrificial laws, on the other hand, the standards of other nations by no means conformed to the standards for Israel. In at least one key case, the law itself indicates that the standards were never intended to be same (Deut. 14:21). In some cases, of course, disagreement with other nations might only mean that the nations were blind. But at other times it might mean that the standards for Israel herself were temporary and symbolical. Apart from special revelation how could other nations have come to see the necessity of keeping things in just the way that they were kept in Israel? Hence Israelites themselves might easily sense that these special laws set Israelite apart as a holy people not only in a unique way but also in a temporary way. Distinctions between foods and types of sacrifices could never be the essence but only a symbol of the essential holiness of Israel and the holiness of God who dwelt in the midst of Israel.

Thus the distinction between permanent principle and temporary symbolical form is not merely some artificial idea from a later age or from later revelation; it was embedded already in the original Mosaic revelation to Israel. Israelites would naturally not have all the answers immediately, but they would have a vague, almost subconscious sense of there being a distinction between what was more central and what was less, between what was more permanent and universal and what might possibly be temporary. At the heart of their experience would be a covenantal relation to God and a trust in God. Pious Israelites would have included in their experience of God an expectation that God would in his own time clarify what was imperfectly known concerning the deeper significances and purposes of the revelation of Moses. For us to read the law of Moses now in the light of further Old Testament revelation and even New Testament revelation is not a violation of law’s intentions but their realization.

The tabernacle, the law, and the land as elementary and deep

The tabernacle, the law, and the promised land all present us with a fascinating depth behind an elementary exterior. Depending on whether we look at their surface or their depths, they can be regarded either as elementary and simple, or as rich and profound. Though such a situation seems paradoxical, it is a natural result of the functions and purposes of these institutions within their own environment. On the one hand the tabernacle, the law, and the land are given to Israel during a time of immaturity or childhood, before Christ has come. Hence they convey principles of salvation in an elementary pictorial form. They can rightly be described as temporary structures (Heb. 9:8-10; Gal. 3:17-25) serving as guides only until Christ comes. The law embodies “basic principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3, 9-10; Col. 2:20-23), elementary teachings that Christians should have gone beyond. The land was the concrete expression of God’s promise. As such, it was only a pointer to “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Taking possession of the land did not constitute the final sabbath rest, but was a foretaste of it (Heb. 4:8-11).

On the other hand, precisely because they point forward to Christ, the tabernacle, the law, and the land also involve a depth dimension. They are rich with meaning once our eyes have been opened to see their true significance and the way in which they depict Christ (see 2 Cor. 3:1-18). Even within their Old Testament context the tabernacle and the law already showed the nature of redemption. They set forth the holiness of God and the standard to which human beings are to conform. The land and its associated promise reminded Israel that God had loved the undeserving. Salvation was a gift, but the gift implied an obligation to thank and obey God the giver. The tabernacle showed the necessity of sacrifice, substitution, priestly representation, and cleansing to remedy the damage of sin.

The Israelites in the Old Testament did not always grasp the significance of the tabernacle, the law, and the promised land; but that failure was due to the “veil” over their hearts (2 Cor. 3:14-16), not to an intrinsic lack of meaning in God’s word. We do not need to impose an extra alien idea in order to find connections with redemption in Jesus Christ. The connections are there from the beginning. Yet our understanding of the tabernacle, the law, and the land can undergo further deepening now that Christ has accomplished redemption. Things that were only hinted at in the Old Testament become clearer now. When we have the second half of the story presented in the New Testament we can become more confident that we know how the first part was intended to predict this second part.

A look at the tabernacle, the law, and the land in detail confirms this paradoxical duality of elementary teaching and depth. The tabernacle is a kind of child’s picture book of elementary teachings. God is holy. You cannot approach him. You need a mediator and sacrifice. The most basic theological facts about the tabernacle are simple and obvious. The tabernacle expresses truths in shadows, that is, elementary outward forms. Yet the truths to which the shadows point are as deep as redemption itself. Who can appreciate the full depth of meaning in the statement that Jesus is “Immanuel,” God with us, God making his dwelling or “tent” with us? Who knows the depths in the claim that Jesus is the bread of life or the light of the world, corresponding to the bread of the Presence and the lampstand?

Now let us look at the law. The food laws are again symbolic in nature. In form they touch only on externals and do not “clear the conscience of the worshiper” (Heb. 9:9). Yet they also symbolize a deep truth, namely the holiness of God and the necessity for his people to separate from spiritual uncleanness.

The ten commandments are rightly considered to be the heart of the law. Viewed on a superficial level, they confine themselves mostly to elementary things. Do not worship other gods. Do not make idols. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. As we have already observed, commandments 5-9 are so “elementary” that almost all societies recognize their validity. Viewed superficially, they forbid only what almost everyone knows is wrong. Many moral people, like the rich young man of Luke 18:21, think that they have kept these commandments–or at least most of the commandments, most of the time. Yet we know from the history of Israel that Israel needed just such an elementary list, and was not able to keep the commandments even on the most superficial, literal level.

Modern expositions of the ten commandments have nevertheless seen a great depth of meaning in the ten commandments. When we read the commandments carefully within the larger context of God’s revelation, we can indeed see that they hint at a greater depth of obedience, not merely blind, limited literal observance. For instance, the tenth commandment, concerning coveting, throws light on all the other commandments by suggesting that evil desires and evil intentions are sinful, in addition to the actual acts of murder, adultery, and theft. The law also commands Israel to “circumcise your hearts” (Deut. 10:16) and promises such circumcision in the future (Deut. 30:6), thereby indicating that the law touches on the inward responsibilities of cleanliness of heart.

The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18) shows that positive actions of help as well as negative prohibitions against damaging one’s neighbor are included. On an elementary level we are prohibited from literally murdering our neighbor. But on a more advanced level, we can infer that we are enjoined to act positively to try to preserve and enhance the life of our neighbor. The commandments not to steal has an elementary level on which it simply forbids taking another person’s property. On a more advanced level it can be seen to embody the positive principle of taking care to preserve and enhance another person’s property and well-being. And so on with the other commandments.

Most of all, we must reckon with the fact that all the commandments are the commandments of God the righteous King. The commandments are reinforced by appeals to the fact that “I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18) and “be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). When we see the law as a pointer to the character of God and his holiness, infinite depth is suggested. When we read the law in the context of the whole Bible, we can see that it expresses the righteousness of Jesus Christ himself. Since we are to be imitators of Christ and to reflect his righteousness (1 Pet. 2:21; 2 Cor. 3:18; Rom 8:29), the law is also relevant to us.

The promised land was a third elementary reality. All the ordinary routines of one’s life took place there. Inheritance, farming, harvest, eating and enjoying one’s produce, management of livestock, seasons of the year, war, international commerce, were all based on the existence of this land, with its particular natural (actually God-given) resources and with particular geographical relations to neighboring lands. The land was in a sense the most basic, elementary reality among all the realities of ordinary Ancient Near Eastern life. It was one’s stable environment, the thing that one could take most for granted. Yet, in the case of Israel, it was the special gift of God; it was his promised inheritance to Abraham, through whom blessing would come to all nations (Gen. 17:4-8). It was freighted with theological meaning. What happened to the land signified the people’s relation to God, in blessing or curse (Deut. 28). Hence the land as a sign or symbol of God’s goodness opened a inviting window onto the infinite riches of God’s choice of Israel, his mercy, his goodness, and his anger against sin (Exod. 34:6-7).

In sum, a balanced treatment of the tabernacle, the law, and the land takes into account both their externality and their depth. All three institutions necessarily had an externality and an insufficiency. Their very insufficiency was a reminder to Israelites of the fact that reality was in the future to supersede shadows. It simultaneously reminded them that in the meantime the shadows did have a depth dimension, in that they pointed to heavenly reality and its future realization on earth.

The righteousness set forth in the law

The tabernacle and the law are characterized by meticulous and thorough-going order. The land as well is parceled out to the people in an orderly way (Josh. 13-21). All these reflect the orderliness and order-creating character of God. As an integral and central part of this order, the tabernacle and the law set forth standards to which Israel is to conform. The holiness of the tabernacle is to be reflected on a subordinate level in the holiness of the holy people, who are to “be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Since the people are a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6), they are to imitate the holiness of the Aaronic priesthood. When they conform to the ten commandments, they reflect the holiness of the commandments themselves, a holiness exhibited in the fact that the commandments are kept in the ark in the most holy place of the tabernacle.

The most basic principle of righteousness is the imitation of God: “be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). God is himself the standard and origin of holiness and righteousness. Human beings created in God’s image have a natural responsibility to imitate and embody God’s character on their own created plane. In terms of responsibilities to God, in the first four of the ten commandments, Israel is to imitate God’s own zeal to protect the holiness and uniqueness of God’s own person and claims. In terms of responsibilities to other human beings, Israel is to take care to preserve what God has created and ordained: human authority (commandment 5), human life, human sexuality and procreation, human property, human reputation, and human desires.

The imitation of God can be subdivided into two parts, namely the imitation of God’s care for things by a similar exercise of care oneself, and the imitation of God’s bounty by reciprocal giving back to God. We have obligations to care for the world that God has created (commandments 5-10) and obligations to give back to God in thanksgiving the honor that is due to him alone as creator (commandments 1-4). Actually, these two parts are two perspectives on the entire field of ethics. Giving honor to God is not only an act of thanksgiving for his bounty but also an imitation of the zeal that God has for his own name–it is imitation ultimately of the intra-Trinitarian honor that the Father gives to the Son and the Son to the Father (John 5:23; 8:54; 14:31; etc.). Caring for the world is not only an imitation of God’s original care but a form of thanksgiving to God for what he has made. Nevertheless for practical purposes we may sometimes distinguish one form of service as more prominent. Let us call the imitation of God “replication” of his action, and giving back to God “restoration” of his goods.

In the fourth commandment in Exod. 20:8-11, replication of God’s action is clearly more prominent, since Exod. 20:11 specifically appeals to the fact that God made the heavens and the earth in six days. In the first three commandments restoration is more prominent, since the giving of exclusive honor to God is only giving what is owed back to him. Many other commandments can be viewed easily from either perspective. The negative prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, and false witness can be viewed as imitation of God’s care for these aspects of human life; but since the commandments are negative in form, they could also be viewed as injunctions to leave God’s human creation as one finds it, that is, to restore it to God without corrupting it.

These distinctions become useful mostly in other areas. For example, the grain offering represents primarily restoration, since the grain that one has produced through God’s providential care for agriculture is restored to its original owner. The fellowship offering represents primarily replication, since in eating the holy food of the feast one commits oneself to conformity to the character of the God with whom one has fellowship. One takes into oneself the life-giving power of God that the food symbolizes.

When God’s holiness and his standards have been violated, some other distinctions may come into play. When we have sinned against God, we not only owe him the thanksgiving that was always owed, but also an additional debt, namely the debt of sin itself. We must pay a penalty in the form of punishment. Thus, when we deal with cases of wrong-doing, restoration is transformed into punishment. We also have a continuing obligation to imitate God or replicate his holiness. When sin has come in, replication of God’s holiness must take the form of abolition and destruction of sin. Thus replication takes the form of destruction. In a rough way, these two motifs correspond to the other main forms of sacrificial offering. The sin offering (and the guilt offering as a variant form of sin offering) symbolizes primarily the need for punishment. The burnt offering symbolizes the need for entire consecration or holiness. In the context of sin, such consecration includes entire destruction of sin.

Actually, the sacrificial offerings delineated in Lev. 1-5 have a great deal in common, so we must not exaggerate their differences. The punishment of sin and the destruction of sin are both a replication of God’s holiness, which is intrinsically averse to sin. The punishment of sin and destruction of sin also constitute a kind of restoration of the situation disrupted by sin, so that it returns to an ordered situation of righteousness. Thus all the aspects of human response to God are involved in one another. We always respond as whole persons to the whole God.

Christ fulfills all the aspects of Old Testament sacrifice, as we have seen (chapter 3). Yet we can still distinguish aspects of his work. Replication consists primarily in Christ’s imitation of his Father (John 5:19-23). We in turn replicate Christ’s character as we are transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Restoration consists in Christ’s rising to new life in his resurrection. We in turn are to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1-2). Punishment consists in Christ’s bearing our sins (1 Pet. 2:24). Consecration to God consists in Christ’s death and resurrection, plus our death and resurrection through him: we die to our old man through him and are raised as new men (Rom. 6:3-7; Col. 2:20).

Blessing and curse from the law

The tabernacle speaks of both blessing and curse. God dwells in the midst of Israel in a unique way, and his presence bestows on Israel a unique privilege and unique blessing. Through him they are enabled to inherit the land of Canaan. Yet the tabernacle is simultaneously a source of curse to those who violate its holiness. Those who enter its precincts unauthorized are threatened with death. After Israel sins God sometimes appears at the tabernacle to pronounce judgment (Num. 12:5-10; 14:10-11).

The law has the same double-pronged effect. Israel is blessed above all other nations by having wise statutes and laws (Deut. 4:5-8; Ps. 147:20). The laws set forth a way of life and blessing to those who keep them (Lev. 18:5; Exod. 20:12; Deut 28:1-14). Simultaneously they threaten a curse on the disobedient (Deut. 27). The possession of the land betokens the character of Israel’s relation to God (Deut. 28:1-68).

The tabernacle, the law, and the land are given to the people of Israel after they have been redeemed from Egypt (Exod. 20:2). They are crowning blessings to those who have already received the great salvific blessing of deliverance. Even the curses of the law can be viewed positively as warnings and fatherly chastisement to wayward sons, intended to awaken them and bring them back to the way of obedience. In such functions the Mosaic law is parallel to the commandments given to Christians. Christian obedience does not earn our salvation any more than Israelite obedience earned deliverance from Egypt. Salvation is a gift. The blessings of God in Christ, like the blessings of the land, are a gift. Obedience follows in the form of the service of gratitude (restoration) and imitation (replication) of the deliverer.

The tabernacle, the law, and the promised land point in this respect to the gracious benefits of deliverance through Christ. Christ is himself the final embodiment of the tabernacle, the law, and the land. He is God’s dwelling with us (John 2:21), in conformity with the tabernacle theme. He is God’s righteousness expressed to us (2 Cor. 5:21), in conformity with the law theme. He is God’s richest blessing to us, our inheritance (Eph. 1:14), the fulfillment of all the promises of God (Eph. 1:3-4; 2 Cor. 1:20), in conformity with the theme of the promised land. We ourselves are to imitate or replicate Christ’s character in ourselves. We are to be temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) replicating the tabernacle. We are to be new selves, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:23), replicating the law. We are to be filled with the fullness of God and his blessing (Eph. 1:3; 3:19), replicating the land. In the new covenant each Christian becomes a tabernacle, beholding the glory of Christ (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:6). The kingdom of God is our proper inheritance (Matt. 5:5, 10; 6:33). The law is written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). Thus the law, understood as fulfilled in Christ, can serve as a “lamp to our feet and a guide to our path,” a guide for the righteous living of a Christian (Ps. 119:105).

The built-in insufficiency of the tabernacle, the law, and the land also point to Christ. Longings for deep communion with God can never be fulfilled in the Old Testament, because the tabernacle veils bar the way. Definitive forgiveness of sin can never be obtained in the Old Testament, because animal sacrifices do not suffice to cleanse the heart or to abolish sin permanently (Heb. 9:9; 10:2). The law when understood in its depth pointed to the absolute perfection and holiness of God. Sinful human beings cannot stand before God’s perfection; they are always condemned. Circumcision of the heart was promised to Israel in the future (Deut. 30:6), but the law bluntly pronounced Israel to be hard of heart (Deut. 29:4; 32:5). The blessings of the land, good as they were, were temporary: they were sometimes interrupted by war and famine, and always terminated by bodily death.

The law, then, condemned Israel for its sin. It provided also for some relief through the animal sacrifices, but these sacrifices never gave final cleansing nor did they result in circumcision of the heart. The more we read the law in depth, as a pointer to the absolute righteousness of God rather than an elementary list of rights and wrongs, the more we see the desperate character of the human situation. We are condemned by God and alienated from him. There is no human remedy. Israelites were thus shut up under the curse of the law in order that their longings for future deliverance might grow, that they might return to the promise of blessing given to Abraham, and they might look forward to a final deliverance and circumcision of the heart. The curses of the law in this respect functioned not simply as a kindly chastisement by a heavenly father, but as a shadow of the final punishment in hell. When Christ came, he came to die under the curse of the law, to suffer the punishments of hell, in order that we might be freed from the curse (Gal. 3:10-13). Thus Christ’s suffering is the fulfillment of the curse of the law. In this respect we ourselves ought to look to the law not to understand what we undergo but to understand what Christ underwent on our behalf.

The tabernacle, the law, and the land seem, then, to have two contradictory purposes, to bless and to condemn. Actually the two are harmonized in Christ. To begin with, the land as a blessing of God foreshadows the permanent blessings of Christ. But the temporary character of the blessings, and even more strikingly their eventual reversal into a curse for disobedience, remind Israel of her insufficiency and point to what Christ had to suffer to win permanent blessing.

The tabernacle and the law foreshadow the holiness and righteousness of God. On the one hand they anticipate the holiness and righteousness of Christ that we are to imitate, and thus set forth a standard for our obedience. On the other hand they set forth the unreachability of the divine standard and the necessary condemnation falling on the disobedient. In doing so they anticipate the suffering of Jesus Christ for us and the pains of hell that fall on the unrepentant.

The men of the Reformation spoke of three uses of the law of Moses. First the law was a restraint to the wicked, second a schoolmaster that by condemning us points to the remedy in Christ, third a standard for Christian obedience. Our own discussion confirms the validity of the second and third uses. The first use is also valid, since it is true enough that even unbelievers cannot avoid knowing God’s standards (Rom. 1:32). The threat of punishment either directly from God or through state authorities keeps unbelievers from doing some of the wicked things that they would otherwise do. When unbelievers obey God’s standards in this way they are fulfilling God’s purposes of restraining the outbreaks of evil.

If we would indicate relative importance, however, we would do well to rearrange the traditional order. First and foremost, in terms of eminence, the law points forward to Christ. This preeminent function includes within it the other two. By foreshadowing the righteousness of Christ it becomes a guide to Christian living. And by foreshadowing the universal righteous punishment of evil through Christ, it threatens punishment for sin, and thereby restrains evil among even those who have not yet willingly bowed their knee to Christ.

The interpretation of Mosaic law in Hebrews

The Book of Hebrews contains a discussion of all the major aspects of Mosaic revelation, and confirms the interpretations that we have already set forth. Let us review them one by one.

First, look at the tabernacle. According to Heb. 9:1-14 the tabernacle was an earthly sanctuary. It symbolized the heavenly sanctuary and pointed forward to the work that Christ would complete.

Next, look at the sacrifices. According to Heb. 10:1-10, the animal sacrifices showed their imperfection and pointed forward to the final substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.

Next, the priesthood. According to Heb. 7:1-8:6 the Aaronic priesthood by its imperfection showed the need for a new and greater priesthood after the order of Melchizedek. Christ has now become a high “priest forever in the order of Melchizedek” (5:6).

Next, the people. In Mosaic times the nation of Israel was made a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:5-6). Heb. 10:19-25 shows that all Christians now have the privileges of the high priest, in that they are able to enter the Most Holy Place through Christ. We have become the people of God who are called to enter God’s rest (Heb. 4:2-3; see Gal. 3:6-29).

Next, the land. Heb. 4:8-11 indicates that the rest in the land of promise typified the heavenly rest with Christ that is our goal.

Next, the law. Heb. 8:5-13 and 10:15-18 draw a connection between the “new covenant,” enjoyed by Christians, and the Mosaic covenant of Heb. 8:9. The Mosaic covenant includes all the elements just listed above, but prominently among them it includes law. In the new covenant, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts” (Heb. 8:10). “My laws” in this verse refers back to the laws of the Mosaic covenant, which had been violated by Israel (8:9). The new covenant thus continues the standards of righteousness of the Mosaic covenant. Yet radical transformation is also in view. The first covenant as a whole, with tabernacle, sacrifices, priesthood, land, and law, is “obsolete” and “will soon disappear” (8:13; cf. 7:12, 18-19). Hebrews does not go into detail about what results from this transformation of law. But we see hints of the implications not only in the radical alteration of the total institution of priesthood (7:18-19) but in sacrifices (13:15-16), food regulations (13:9), and promised land (13:14; 11:10, 16; 12:22-29). The transformation does not mean lawlessness, but love (13:1-6) and obedience to authority (13:17). At the heart of obedience is the constancy of Christ’s righteousness and love (13:8).

The Book of Hebrews thus contains a remarkable amount of instruction touching on the relation of the Mosaic covenant to Christians. This richness is summed up in the opening verses,

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Heb. 1:1-3).

The Son as the exact representation of God’s being brings to a climax all earlier revelations of God, and his glory outshines them all.

Chapter 8 Footnotes

1 See Bruce K. Waltke, “Theonomy in Relation to Dispensational and Covenant Theologies,” in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, ed. William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 70-73.

2 For fuller discussion, see Wright, An Eye for an Eye, pp. 158-59.

9 The Punishments and Penalties of the Law, Prefiguring the Destruction of Sin and Guilt through Christ

Some of the laws of Moses describe punishments that fall on those who disobey. How do we understand these punishments? This area is a particularly sensitive one, because of modern aversion to punishments of any kind. Some people are tempted to say that these parts of the Old Testament contain inferior ideas deriving from Israel’s imperfect understanding rather than from God. But such a response greatly misunderstands the character of Mosaic law. Israel was indeed an imperfect nation, but the laws in Exodus through Deuteronomy are God’s words to Israel, not Israel’s response to God. Jesus confirms the absolute authority of these words when he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18). Hence we must see the punishments of the law as part of the positive communication deriving from God himself.

The righteousness of God’s punishments

The punishments are easy to accept once we deal with the perversions and misunderstandings in our own hearts. Modern culture is averse to punishment because it does not understand God nor does it understand the seriousness of sin. We need to reject many ideas of modern culture in order to accept God’s word. God is infinitely holy and good. Sin is rebellion against him, an infinitely serious violation of his majesty and a despising of his goodness. The righteous punishment for sin, according to the standard of God’s own righteousness, is eternal death. If we can see the true seriousness of our sin, we will no longer object to God’s supposed severity but marvel at his mercy.

We can approach the same issue from another angle. God loved Jesus Christ his own Son supremely. And yet by God’s own plan Jesus was condemned to death (Acts 2:23; 4:25-28). God hated sin so much that even Jesus had to suffer when sin was laid on him. Here we see the true awfulness of sin. Moreover, if there had been another way to save the world, God surely would have spared his own Son from a horrible death in order to do it. The awesome character of Jesus’ death therefore shows how righteous God is. Sin must be punished. God’s righteousness requires it. There is no other way. Punishment, then, is built deeply into the order of the universe; in fact, it is an aspect of God’s own order, of his way of dealing with sin. We do not like to hear about punishment because it reminds us of the seriousness of sin. But we must hear about it if we are to wake up to the true horror of our sinfulness and flee to the remedy, that is, flee to Christ. Thus punishment in this life can have a positive side. It can make us wake up to our need. C. S. Lewis has said that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”1 Pain is a warning that our lives are amiss. Come to Christ before it is too late!

Thus we never have a right to complain that God’s punishments are too severe. Within this life, punishments are less than we deserve apart from Christ. Moreover, when we are God’s children, we can have confidence that he is disciplining us for our good (Heb. 12:5-13). “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). Discipline also has a role on a human plane, when parents discipline their children. Of course, a good parent takes care to set a good example and spends much time giving positive instruction and guidance to children, like the father in Prov. 4:1. But good parents will not shirk their duty to punish children when the children go astray. Such punishment, if given consistently and in love, gives the children a most concrete warning of the long-range consequences of evil behavior. “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death” (Prov. 23:13-14). “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24).

God’s punishments in the Old Testament always foreshadow God’s final judgment. They warn us that judgment is impending and symbolize on an earthly plane the character of the judgment. Thus, as we have seen, the substitutionary punishments that take place in animal sacrifices foreshadow the punishment and destruction that is due for sin, and the complete consecration to God that is required of true worshipers. This punishment and destruction fell on Christ on the cross, where he became our substitute. Christ’s utter consecration to God is vindicated in his resurrection. We who trust in Christ share the benefits of his work. We are freed from punishment and destruction and are consecrated to God through Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 10:10, 14). Those who do not believe in Christ and are not united to him must suffer punishment and destruction in their own person in hell. In a similar way we should understand all the punishments in Israel’s history as warnings and foreshadowings.

The punishments of God are never arbitrary, but fit his own holy character. Sin always involves an attempt to play God, to usurp God’s authority, and to be one’s own standard of right and wrong like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In sin we engage in an attempt virtually to destroy God’s authority and claim on us–to destroy God if we could. The fit punishment for such rebellion is a replica of the crime. “As you have done, it will be done to you” (Obad. 15). Since we have attempted to destroy God, we are ourselves destroyed by God in hell. Or else Christ as our representative bears the destruction for us on the cross. (Lest readers misunderstand, let me say that in biblical contexts destruction of human beings never implies literal nonexistence or annihilation, but frustration and rendering powerless.) The smaller judgments of God within history, whether in the form of illness, suffering, or physical death, all confront us with smaller forms of destruction and powerlessness; they thereby anticipate the great judgment.

The fit payment for sin is both punishment and destruction, as two aspects of one whole. Fit punishment includes powerlessness, and hence the destruction of our powers. Conversely, fit destruction includes destruction of our longings for fulfillment. Hence it involves pain and frustration, that is, punishment. Within this life such payment can serve to awake us to our danger and our guilt, if we are repentant. For those who are unrepentant, it serves as the first foretaste of greater punishment at the last judgment.

Another way of understanding the appropriateness of punishment is to see it as an implication of love. God the Father loves the Son. Just as any human father will want to defend his son against enemies, God the Father reacts against any dishonor to Christ and will punish it.

One final analogy may help to drive home the point. A wise human father will not only endeavor to warn a young son but spank him for disobedience if he gets too near a busy street. Similarly the son will be punished for trying to play with the father’s power tools. The father gives his son an immediate pain signal to warn him, because the son is not yet able to calculate the more distant consequences of toying with danger. Similarly, in our relationship to God certain areas are off limits, because God is using his power tools. The entire tabernacle is off limits for Israel, except under certain carefully specified conditions that protect the priests from the danger. Moreover, even the tabernacle itself is only a shadow of the real areas of power.

God’s holiness and righteousness are in fact the real power tools. God because of his righteousness undertakes to cleanse the world from evil. And he will do so through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. But we must keep out of God’s workshop. We must stop playing God. We must submit to his way of doing things. Punishment on earth is God’s signpost warning us of approaching danger. Presumptuous people are like madmen dancing nonchalantly into the business end of a sawmill.

The analogy with the sawmill is imperfect, because we are guilty and not merely ignorant. We ourselves are part of the refuse from which God must cleanse the world. But we must not be embarrassed or embittered by punishment. God’s goodness does not contradict his punishments. Rather, the coming together of goodness and punishment points to a deep mystery, the unfathomable wisdom by which God righteously saves wicked people. For God to create the world shows infinite power and wisdom. For God to destroy wickedness and injustice shows infinite power and wisdom. For God to destroy wickedness while rescuing wicked people shows infinity squared, namely the infinity of the punishment and goodness and justice that are united together in crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Here God’s power tools are harnessed for our good.

One of the most general principles of God’s justice is the principle of similar measure. “As you have done, it will be done to you, your deeds will return upon your own head” (Obad. 15). Jer. 50:29, Hab. 2:8, Joel 3:4, 7, and other passages articulate the same principle in varying forms. The famous law of punishment, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exod. 21:24), embodies the same principle in a specific juridical context. It was never intended as an excuse for personal vengeance but as a directive to judges making decisions regarding penalties in cases of injury (Exod. 21:22-25). The death penalty for murder comes in the same form, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed” (Gen. 9:6). Gen. 9:6 is an exceedingly significant passage because it is spoken to Noah immediately after the flood. The character of Noah as representative of all his descendants and the otherwise universal context of the passage (Gen. 9:7, 11-19) show that here we are dealing with a principle of truly universal scope, and not merely with something specially tailored to Israel as a holy nation. The same principle comes up in New Testament teaching. “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2). “Pay her back even as she has paid, and give back to her double according to her deeds; in the cup which she has mixed, mix twice as much for her. To the degree that she glorified herself and lived sensuously, to the same degree give her torment and mourning” (Rev. 18:6-7). “They poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and Thou hast given them blood to drink. They deserve it” (Rev. 16:6).

Penal authority given to human beings

The principle of similar measure applies both to judgments by God, such as the judgment on Babylon in Rev. 18:6-7, and to judgments by human authorities, such as the penalties of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” in Exod. 21:24. But we must be careful in making the transition from God to human authorities. God’s authority is original and absolute, while all human authority is derivative and limited. God’s judgments are always perfectly holy and righteous, while human judgments are tainted by sin. God’s judgments are based on perfect, exhaustive knowledge of the facts of the case, while human judgments must be based on partial, imperfect knowledge. Human governmental authority is subject to great abuse, as when it was used to try to force Daniel and his friends into idolatry.

Nevertheless, even with all these reservations, the Bible definitely teaches that the authority of human state governments and the authority of human parents is a limited but legitimate authority given by God (cf. Rom. 13:1-7; Eph. 6:1-3). We must resist the modern temptation to rebel against all authority whatsoever. Such modern rebellion is rooted ultimately in rejection of God’s authority (Rom. 13:2). It overlooks the fact that God sets up kings and deposes them (Dan. 2:21). Since it regards differences in status and authority as pure chance, it is naturally contemptuous of the claims based on such differences.

In the Mosaic law God gives to human beings–to Israel in particular–authority to execute penalties for certain crimes. In fact, the human authority to punish is attested even earlier, in Gen. 9:6. God might have kept all prerogatives to punish for himself, but he does not do so. In the case of murder, the awesome responsibility of executing the death penalty is assigned to finite, sinful human beings (“by man”). Undeniably there is a risk here. Human beings with the best intentions may make a grievous mistake because their knowledge is finite. And frequently their intentions are corrupt. But by assigning this task to human beings, God confirms one aspect of their dominion as image bearers of God.

Human government at its best is indeed a blessing from God. Most obviously, government can protect the innocent from criminals (Rom. 13:3-5; 1 Pet. 2:14). But the punishments of human government, since they reflect nothing less than divine authority (Rom. 13:1-2), are also a little reminder of the coming final judgment of God. Human authorities as image bearers of God ought to reflect in some measure divine justice as they carry out their duties.

We can learn something about principles of God’s justice as we reflect on the specific penalties of Old Testament law. Such laws derive from God, so we know that the penalties are always just. But when human beings are given responsibility to execute penalties, the penalties involved are only a finite image of God’s own penalties and justice. There is always a decisive difference in the nature and scope of their authority. As Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Once we recognize the decisive distinction, we can also see similarity. Justice on a human level is a shadow of that great act of justice and mercy where Jesus Christ bore the just penalty for our sin. Hence all the Old Testament penalties point forward to the justice of God at work in the sacrifice of Christ.

Simple examples of just recompense on earth: murder and theft

We can see clearly how things work in the case of the death penalty for murder in Gen 9:6. Let us suppose that person A has deliberately killed person B. The same penalty is in return executed on person A: the executioner, by God’s authority, deliberately kills person A. Such a penalty corresponds to the nature of the crime. “As you have done, it will be done to you” holds true. The punishment is a kind of replication of the crime, except that it returns the crime back on the criminal. Thus this punishment, operative as it is on the level of human government, reflects the divine principles of replication and imitation that we have already seen.

How do we understand the principle of just recompense in the case of theft? According to Mosaic law thieves are required to pay back something to the owner from whom they have stolen. The amount paid varies with the situation: sometimes double, sometimes four times, sometimes five times (Exod. 22:1, 4, 7). The situation is more complex here, because we must try to understand whether there is some reason for the various quantities of repayment. The easiest starting point is with the related statutes concerned with reparations for accidental damage and for borrowed things (Exod. 21:28-36; 22:10-15). The person who is responsible for accidental damage or who has borrowed something is required to make good what the owner has lost. A singlefold restitution takes place in order to match the loss. In the case of theft, by contrast, the restitution is usually double (Exod. 22:7). What principle is at work here?

The logic behind simple singlefold restitution is fairly clear. In a typical case Bill borrows (say) an ox from Al and restores the ox to Al afterwards. The restoration of the ox restores balance or harmony and brings the situation back to its original normalcy. If the ox dies while Bill has it Bill is unable to restore full normalcy. So Bill does the best he can by supplying a substitute ox of equivalent value (Exod. 22:14). Or suppose that Bill makes a pit and Al’s ox falls into it and dies. Bill accidentally caused damage to Al’s property. Bill cannot bring Al’s ox back to life (the best restoration), so again he does the best he can by offering Al a substitute ox. The dead ox undergoes a substitutionary exchange with the living one, and so the dead ox becomes Bill’s (Exod. 21:33-34). The end result is that Al’s property is restored to its original integrity (as best as possible), and that Bill suffers exactly the amount of loss for which he was actually responsible (the difference in value between a live ox and a dead one).

Note that a principle of restoration is at work. Even in as simple a case as this one, people are to imitate what they see in the tabernacle and in the general principles of God’s justice. They are to take heed to abide by the created order of God. In a way the restoration is simultaneously a replication of the original situation. When the borrowed ox is restored to its owner, the borrower replicates the original order that was temporarily set aside by the borrowing. If the borrowed animal dies, the borrower can no longer restore it, but he restores a replica of it–a substitute animal. Thus the principle of substitution embedded in this practice is simultaneously an instance of replication. Once again, this imitates an aspect of the tabernacle and the creation of God, namely the principle of replication.

What decisive difference arises when we deal with theft instead of borrowing or accidental damage? In the case of theft the thief intended to appropriate the property permanently without the owner’s permission. Bill steals an ox from Al. If Bill is apprehended with the ox alive in his possession, then the ox is returned to Al. The return of the ox restores the balance in the same way as with borrowing. But theft in distinction from borrowing carries with it the evil of intending specific damage to Al’s total supply of property. Bill intended damage to Al and simultaneously advantage to himself. Hence the principle of “as you have done, it will be done to you” involves an act in the reverse direction, of damage to Bill and advantage to Al. An ox is forcefully taken from Bill and given to Al, just as Bill earlier forcefully took an ox of Al’s and had it given to himself. The total result of this process is that Bill repays double. The repayment of the first ox is simple restoration, while the repayment of the second ox is punishment for the criminal intent.

The nature of the punishment is obviously significant. Not just any punishment will do, but only a punishment that matches the crime. A suitable match is achieved by replicating or reproducing the effect of the crime, only in the reverse direction. If Bill stole from Al, he must give to Al the same amount. This process of replication in reverse is exactly what we saw in the case of murder as well. As a general rule, punishment in similar measure implies that the punishment should replicate the effect of the crime, only in reverse. Such a punishment embodies the basic principle of replication that is integral to God’s created order. Moreover, a punishment of this kind also embodies a kind of restoration of balance. Injury to one is balanced by injury to the guilty party. For convenience, however, I prefer to reserve the term “restoration” for the act of returning the original stolen ox. Restoration is appropriate in the case of borrowing, whereas punishment as an additional burden is appropriate in the case of theft.

In sum, double payment is the appropriate penalty for theft. The penalty must involve two parts, restoration of the original and punishment for evil intent. The double quantity involved is not an arbitrary amount, but is based on what is fitting. Through this rationale we also help to resolve an important exegetical question. Interpreters of Exod 22:4 and 22:7 are not sure whether these texts describe restoring the original plus one more or restoring the original plus two more.2The linguistic data of the texts by themselves do not point with absolute clarity to either one of these alternatives. But on the basis of the general principle of due recompense, the interpretation involving restoring the original and one more seems much more likely. Moreover, once we have penetrated to the principle behind the particulars, we are much more confident that the instances of double recompense are the rule, while recompense of four or five times represents the exception.

This punishment for theft reflects on a human level the nature of our obligations to God for our sin. Payment for sin must include both restoration and punishment. In restoration we must restore or repair the damage done to others and to God’s honor. In punishment we must in addition bear damage in ourselves corresponding to our evil intent.3

Both of these two sides to our obligations are fulfilled in Christ. Christ’s suffering and death were God’s punishment for sin. Christ’s earthly life of righteousness and his resurrection are his restoration of righteousness to God. In the promise of new creation, based on Christ’s work, we have hope for full restoration of the universe from the damage of all sin. In the suffering of Christ on the cross we have full payment for the punishment of sin as well as vindication of the honor of God.4

What do we now say about the fourfold and fivefold recompense in Exod. 22:1? 22:1 specifies that if an ox or a sheep is stolen and is not found alive, the thief must pay the owner five oxen in return for one stolen ox, or four sheep in return for one stolen sheep. Everyone has difficulty with this verse because no explicit reason is given why these cases differ from the general principle of twofold repayment (see 22:7). Several speculative reasons have been offered, but in the nature of the case none can be viewed as definitive. 5 I would suggest that we take our clue from the only direct information that we are given distinguishing the case of verse 1 from those of verse 4 and verse 7, namely the issue of whether the ox or sheep is found alive in the thief’s possession. If the animal is alive, the thief restores double, according to the pattern that we have already seen. But if the ox or sheep is not in the thief’s possession the process of restoration cannot take place according to the normal pattern. The thief’s further action in disposing of the beast has introduced a further element of guilt, in that he has intentionally damaged the possibility of making things good to the owner. Before the action of disposition, he was liable for two animals. After the action the guilt is doubled. He must pay two animals to restore balance, and then two more animals for the additional guilt and liability. By this process we get a total of four sheep.

But now why five oxen for an ox? I do not know. We may have reached the limit of our ability to account for recompense in terms of the principle of balanced punishment and restoration. What distinguishes the ox? In Israelite times in an agricultural economy the ox was the single most expensive possession and simultaneously the least dispensable possession that an average Israelite might have–other than land or a house that could not easily be stolen. The theft of an ox could easily threaten an average family with poverty, and the additional guilt involved may be what warrants the additional payment. There may also be a principle at work similar to Exod. 22:5. For accidental damage to a field, restitution is made from the best of the field. That is, in order to make sure that restitution is complete, the best quality product must be given as a substitute. Such a principle would certainly be just in the case of other forms of substitutionary restoration. In the case of the five oxen, the serious threat to the owner’s livelihood warrants a fifth ox to make sure about the fullness of repayment. I am not satisfied with this explanation, but neither am I satisfied with alternative explanations that I have seen. 6

My analysis also helps us to understand the appropriateness of recompense being made to the original owner. Just as in a case of borrowing the borrowed item must be restored to the original owner, so the thief must give back the original item to the owner. And since in the initial act of theft advantage flowed from (say) Al to Bill, in the second act of repaying double advantage flows back from Bill to Al. As James Jordan observes, “Restitution is not made to the state, but to the man robbed. The state is not wronged in any of this, and the wrong done to God is satisfied by sacrifice.”7

One further question remains. Does Prov. 6:30-31 indicate that a person stealing on account of hunger must pay back sevenfold? The text runs, “Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving. Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold, though it costs him all the wealth of his house.” In context, the word “sevenfold” is a metaphorical way of expressing the completeness of the penalty rather than its literal quantitative proportion.8 Hence this text is not in tension with the principles developed above.

Using the same principles of recompense we can explain more thoroughly the penalty of capital punishment for murder (Gen. 9:6). Suppose Bill deliberately kills Al. In analogy with theft, proper recompense involves two elements. First, restore what has been damaged (restoration). Second, have the offending party subjected to the same process in reverse (punishment). The first stage would involve raising Al back to life, while the second would involve Al killing Bill under the supervision of legal process. But of course human beings are unable to achieve full recompense in this situation. Only God can bring Al back to life. Such a resurrection will indeed take place at the last day, but until then all human reflection of God’s justice will necessarily partake in preeschatological imperfection. Since perfection cannot be attained immediately, what is actually done in a case of murder? The dead man must be left dead. There is no restoration. But at least the second part of the process, namely punishment, can be carried out. The avenger of blood, that is, the nearest family representative of Al, kills Bill under the supervision of legal process, as outlined in Num. 35. Note that the element of reciprocity is carried out as fully as is practicable. Since Al himself is dead and cannot participate in the judicial retribution, the nearest of kin substitutes for him.

Recompense in the case of manslaughter follows the same general lines. Manslaughter is the accidental taking of human life. Rather than being analogous to theft, it is analogous to the cases in Exod. 21:28-36 where there is accidental damage to property. If Bill is responsible for the death of Al’s sheep, perfect restoration would involve Bill bringing the sheep back to life. Since Bill cannot do this, Bill substitutes a live animal. There is no double recompense here because there was no evil intent. Likewise in the case of human death with no evil intent only a singlefold repayment or restoration would be appropriate. Ideally, the raising of the dead person but not the death of the manslaughterer is called for. But the dead person cannot be raised. The requirements of recompense can only be met when the person guilty of manslaughter takes refuge in a “city of refuge” whose character symbolically anticipates the eschatological refuge of salvation in Christ. By pointing to the promise of restoration of all things, including the restoration of life, the city of refuge and the death of the high priest are crucial pivots responding to the desire of the avenger of blood for satisfaction.

We can also make sense of the provisions in Lev. 6:1-7 for repentant thieves. The thief must offer a sacrifice to deal with his sin against God. He must also restore singlefold to the person robbed (6:5). This situation corresponds to the distinction between accidental and deliberate damage to another person’s property in Exod. 21-22. As a general rule, accidental damage results is singlefold repayment (restoration), while deliberate damage results in double repayment (restoration plus punishment). The difference between the two resides in the evil intent. Now in the case in Lev. 6:1-7 the thief has repented of his evil intent. The situation has thus become like one of accidental damage. But the thief adds one-fifth (6:5). The figure of one-fifth is not further explained in the text of Lev. 6, but the easiest supposition is that it represents a tithe of the double repayment. The thief thereby testifies that he would otherwise be liable to the whole penalty, just as the tithe of crops testifies that they are all owned by God.

Furthermore, we can now understand the principles regarding penalties for false witnesses. Deut. 19:15-21 contains the basic instructions for dealing with cases of false witness. The appropriate penalty is described in Deut. 19:19: “You shall do to him just as he intended to do to his brother.” The immediate context of Deut. 19:19 appears to suppose that the case is resolved before the innocent party suffers damage. The first stage of recompense, namely restoration, is unnecessary, because no measurable damage has occurred. The false witness has been detected early enough, before the intended damage was achieved. But the second stage, punishment, where the false witness receives equal damage, is still appropriate. We may therefore generalize to cases not directly covered by the passage in Deuteronomy. Suppose that monetary damage had already been inflicted by a false witness whose testimony was believed. Due recompense would presumably require the double payment characteristic of theft, that is, it would include restoration plus punishment.

Up to this point I have concentrated on the questions concerning the type and quantity of recompense required for various crimes. Yet we should not suppose that God’s wisdom is manifested only at that level. There are obviously practical social benefits to these arrangements. The provision for repentant thieves in Lev. 6:1-7 provides tangible, practical incentive for a thief to repent, since he will not have to repay as much. The provision for fourfold or fivefold repayment in the case of animals that have been disposed of (Exod. 22:1) also has practical value. It supplies practical motivation for a thief not to dispose of stolen property, and thereby makes it easier to get a full restoration. Moreover, the thief is not shut up in prison where he may become worse, but forced to do something constructive by paying someone else. The injured person rather than the state receives recompense, which not only helps to heal the injury but shows to the thief the proper direction in which his energies should be directed.

The basic motivational problems of the thief are also addressed as best they can be in the form of outward actions. The problems of crime are all rooted in the failure to love one’s neighbor. For example, the thief is keenly aware of his own desire for someone else’s goods but has little concern for the well-being of the owner. He is unable to love the other person who owns the property and unable to see things sympathetically from that person’s point of view. When the thief is caught and forced to repay, the structure of recompense forces him at least in a minimal way to adopt the other person’s point of view. He is made to feel the same deprivation that the other person felt. In the case of capital punishment, of course, the murderer cannot thoroughly feel the experience of death until he is dead, and then it is too late. But even the fact that death is approaching gives him some idea.

Capital punishment certainly does not solve the problems completely. Only the resurrection of the dead person, the repentance of the criminal, and the criminal’s union with Christ’s death and resurrection would suffice to deal with the root of the matter. Only the power of the Holy Spirit, sent to apply the work of Christ to human beings, can heal the root of sin in human hearts. Christ’s work also includes the promise of dealing with the results of sin, including death itself. Because of the power of Christ’s resurrection we have a sure hope for the resurrection of human beings at Christ’s return (1 Cor. 15:12-58). Until then God has given certain powers of punishment to human beings, including the power of the sword (Rom. 13:4), that is, the power of the death penalty. But the judicial activity of human beings, important and legitimate as it is, cannot bring forth justice in a final, perfect form. The insufficiencies of the best human justice are one more pointer to the necessity for hope in Christ and his divine justice.

The argument that we must not use capital punishment–or any punishment–because it does not achieve a perfect and final reciprocity of results must be set aside. Rather, we have hope for the return of Christ and know that until then human justice does contain imperfections.

In general, the whole structure of punishment and restoration of balance that is operative in Old Testament penalties points forward by virtue of its own nonultimacy to the final and perfect restoration to come in Christ. It is a subtle reminder of what sort of world we live in: a world in which there is evil, but also a world where God’s justice is at work to abolish evil and repair its damage, a world whose hurts will be entirely repaired, restored, and balanced out in the final working of the justice of God at the last judgment.

The significance of the injured party: God and human beings

We should note that the injured party has a definite role in the process of recompense in all of the cases that we have discussed. Damage done to the injured party must be repaired, if possible, by restoration of the same amount or a substitute. In addition, if the party doing the damage has evil intent, the injured party is involved in a double repayment, punishment as well as restoration. In the case of theft the injured party receives whatever the thief loses. In the case of murder or manslaughter the avenger of blood, that is the nearest of kin who represents the dead person, kills the murderer or makes sure that the manslaughterer is forced to remain in the city of refuge.

Once we have understood this principle of recompense and the involvement of the injured party, we can make good sense of the relation of God to human beings in the process of recompense. First, note the obvious problems. Every sin is an offense against God, and as such merits not only physical death but eternal death in hell. Yet in the Mosaic law not every sin receives the death penalty. In fact for some sins no penalty at all is specified in the Mosaic law. If every sin is an infinitely serious offense against the majesty and holiness of God, how do we understand the differences in penalties in the Mosaic law?

In part the distinctions arise from differences in knowledge. God knows all things, including the secrets of the heart, and so is in a fit position to give judgment corresponding to the true facts of the case. But in many cases human beings cannot determine guilt. The testimony of only one witness is insufficient (Num. 36:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15).

But in addition to the differences in knowledge we must take account of differences in the injured party. Any sin “injures” God in the sense of being an offense against him and an abomination to him. Moreover, though an attack against God’s deity and lordship never succeeds, its intent is to escape God’s authority. It aims at overthrowing God as God, by making oneself or some idol into a god. As we have seen from some of the examples above, action with intent to destroy receives the same penalty as would actual destruction (e.g. Deut. 19:19). Since the sinner attempts to destroy God, the fit penalty is the destruction of the sinner in hell–or else the destruction of a substitute, namely in the death of Christ as substitute for sin. Thus even the last judgment and its outcome can be understood as an operation of the basic principles of recompense and balancing: “as you have done, it will be done to you.”

Short of the last judgment, God acts in history to punish sin by sending afflictions, suffering, and physical death. Though these penalties stop short of ultimate destruction, their tendency is in the direction of disintegration, and hence they are foretastes of the final judgment. In general, God can and does punish sins against himself according to the principles of his own just character.

What criteria do we use when human beings are involved in executing punishment? God’s right to punish does not yet imply any right for human beings to punish. State governments have such rights only because God has given limited but genuine authority to governmental agents to bring wrath (Rom. 13:4). From the cases above and the way in which the injured party is involved, we can conclude that the authority of human beings covers only those cases in which human beings are injured.9 Only then is some human being fit to exact the penalty, namely the injured human being. Moreover, in the typical penal case in Mosaic law, the ruling authorities are mentioned either not at all or only tangentially (e.g. Deut. 17:9). Undoubtedly elders, judges, kings, and others with ruling authority would have played a role in making sure that proper procedure was followed in determining guilt (Deut. 17:6; Num. 35:24-25). But in the cases discussed above the injured party always has a central role in execution of the penalty. The injured party rather than the state as such has this central role because of the principles of reciprocity and balance involved in God’s justice. When Al deliberately damages Bill, God’s justice fittingly pronounces a recompense exactly in reverse. Bill, not merely God himself acting in his own person, receives authorization under the eye of governing authorities to restore the balance by bringing the same damage on Al. In short, biblical principles of justice enable us to begin to understand why human beings are involved in punishment and why some sins receive more severe punishment than others.

In all this process we must bear in mind the most fundamental reality, namely that human beings are created in the image of God. Israel in particular, as a redeemed nation restored to fellowship with God, is called to a life of imitating the holiness of God (Lev. 19:2). Human beings are to imitate or replicate the character and action of God. Human relations to one another must replicate the justice of God’s relation to human beings. Just as offense against God calls for recompense from God, an offense against other human beings calls for recompense from human beings. Human judicial activity, partial and imperfect as it is, replicates the judicial activity of God.

The fulfillment of human justice as well as the fulfillment of divine justice is found in Christ. Christ fully bears God’s penalty for sin on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21). He simultaneously bears the penalty of unjust human judicial activity by the Jewish leaders, by Herod, and by Pilate (Acts 4:27-28). The injustice of human judges is overruled by the justice of God who accomplishes salvation. In Christ’s resurrection God pronounces his approval on Christ’s work and simultaneously judges the injustice of the human courts (cf. Acts 3:13-15). Christ will come at the end of this age not only as the divine judge, the Word of God (Rev. 19:13), but as the man whom God has appointed to judge the world (Acts 17:31). Thus the judicial activity of all human judges throughout history will find its completion in this final judgment of Christ the perfect king and and governor (Isa. 9:6-7; 11:1-9).

In the meantime, during this age, human state authorities have a limited but legitimate role, as we have said (Rom. 13:1-7). All rule and authority, power and dominion, have been subjected to Christ, according to Eph. 1:21-22. Hence even human governments are included under his rule. When they fulfill their duties properly, they are reflecting Christ’s justice on an earthly plane and are to be submitted to for the Lord’s sake (1 Pet. 2:13).

Chapter 9 Footnotes

1 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (reprinted; New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 93.

2 Cf. John I. Durham, Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), p. 325.

3 A more secularized discussion of the restorative element in lex talionis is found in David Daube, Studies in Biblical Law (New York: Ktav, 1969), pp. 102-153.

4 In confirmation of the idea of singlefold punishment, see Meredith G. Kline, “Double Trouble,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32 (1989):171-79.

5 For a list, see James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), pp. 261-63.

6 Jordan in his book The Law of the Covenant, pp. 263-71, proposes an ingenious symbolical explanation based on inferences from symbolic associations of the numbers four and five and symbolic associations of cattle and sheep. But the distant and doubtful character of the associations make me think that his solution is no less speculative than mine or those solutions based on general speculations concerning what practical differences Israelites might see between cattle and sheep. More recently, in an unpublished communication, he has pointed out that Deut. 12:15-25 includes special provisions governing the slaughter of these animals, and that such indicates that “God had a proprietary interest in ox and sheep.” Perhaps so. And perhaps this circumstance makes appropriate the more severe penalty when a thief slaughters or sells such an animal. But the focus of Deut. 12 seems to be on what people are supposed to do with the blood and with first-born or vowed animals. The procedures with respect to blood apply equally to wild and domestic clean animals. The procedures with respect to first-born or vowed animals do not apply to all animals of their class. Thus neither of these provisions says anything directly about the class of all oxen or all sheep. It is not clear that oxen and sheep are being treated in a special way principally because all animals of this kind are potentially sacrificial animals.

One crucial fact to weigh is that Exod. 22:4 appears to classify donkeys in the same class with oxen and sheep. “If the stolen animal is found alive in his possession–whether ox or donkey or sheep–he must pay back double.” Does this verse assert merely that twofold restitution is appropriate for all cases of live animals? Or does it also indirectly suggest that a more severe penalty is appropriate for all cases when the stolen animal is no longer alive, including donkeys? If we ignore the context, the verse merely states what is true for living animals, and need not warrant any implications for dead ones. But when the entire passage (verses 1-15) is taken into account, implications do seem to follow.

Verses 1-15 specify restitution in cases involving various stolen, borrowed, or otherwise misplaced or destroyed items. Introductory “if” clauses in each major division specify the type of case in view. Verses 2-3 are rightly seen as parenthetical, in that they specify how one disposes of other matters of concern relating to theft. Hence the operative contrasts are found in the “if” clauses of verses 1 and 4. When the two verses are compared, the fundamental contrast appears to be between animals that have already been disposed of and animals that are still alive in the thief’s possession. In verse 4, not only the general phrase “the stolen animal” (Hebrew הַג׃ְנֵבָה, “the stolen thing”) but the explicit inclusion of donkeys pushes us towards understanding the fundamental distinction as disposed-of versus still-alive. Jordan’s interpretation, on the other hand, makes sense only on the assumption that the operative contrast is between ox-and-sheep and all-other-animals, or perhaps between animals-offered-in-sacrifice and all-other-animals. But if such were the operative contrast, we would expect a different type of wording, such as, “if another kind of animal is stolen, whether found in the thief’s possession or slaughtered, the thief must restore double.” The main plausibility for Jordan’s reading arises from the mention of oxen and sheep in verse 1, apparently with no other animals included. But the Hebrew word for “ox” is a general name for cattle, both male and female, and the Hebrew word for “sheep” is general enough to include both sheep and goats. Together these two terms included the entire range of the most common livestock animals in Israel. Hence a perfectly general principle concerning disposed-of animals might naturally be formulated in this way. Cases of stolen camels, horses, and donkeys would be less common and might easily be left as a matter of inference from the more common case.

Granted this understanding of the relation of verse 1 and verse 4, it follows that stolen donkeys are handled with double payment only when the animal is found still alive. A bigger payment (four or five?) is appropriate if the animal is killed or sold. Since Jordan’s type of symbolic explanation does not apply to donkeys, it presumably does not offer the correct explanation of the penalty for oxen or sheep either.

However, it is still possible that my explanation is wrong and that Jordan’s is right. Why are donkeys and horses not mentioned in verse 1? In the absence of more explicit information, we should be cautious. Despite the disagreements, Jordan agrees with me concerning the general rule of double payment and its motivation, and that is enough for us to build on (see ibid., pp. 134-35).

7 Ibid., p. 134.

8 James Jordan’s book The Law of the Covenant, p. 135, acknowledges the possibility of my interpretation, but prefers a literal interpretation of “sevenfold.” So I should set forth reasons for my preference.

(1) The Book of Proverbs sets forth wise advice about life similar to the advice that a father would give to his son (cf. Prov. 1:8, 10; 2:1). The mention of Solomon (1:1; 10:1) hints that the advice is most pertinent to a future king. But it is not exclusively advice to judges, much less legal, statutory additions to the law code. Prov. 6:30-31 is therefore most naturally interpreted as an observation about the realities of actual life, not a legal statute specifying what ought to be done. In particular, 6:30 does not match the character of a case law, since the language about not despising appears to be a description of actual life (“men do not despise”) or possibly a prohibition to any arbitrary listener (“do not despise”), but is technically irrelevant to the judicial decision of the judge. The form of language does not suggest that this verse is formally introducing a new case law. But if such a case law is not introduced here, where is it introduced?

(2) Jordan justifies the severity of the penalty by arguing that the poor man is despising God’s mercy as expressed in the laws about gleaning and the tithe (Deut. 14:28-29). But (a) the argument has greatest force only if the rich and prosperous consistently observed their obligations with regard to the poor, which was far from being the case in Israel. (b) The argument shows only that the poor man has offended God grievously, not that he has offended more grievously the person from whom he has stolen. As we shall see, the severity of offense against God has no direct role in the reckoning of debt to other human beings.

(3) It is impossible to deduce sevenfold repayment from the principles of justice enunciated in the time of Moses. During Mosaic times, judges would have acted on the basis of the principle of double payment or possibly fourfold payment in the case of items that had already been consumed or sold by the thief. Thus Jordan’s interpretation implies that Prov. 6:30-31 introduces a change in penalty in comparison with Mosaic times. It is difficult to supply a motivation for such a change.

In an unpublished personal communication Jordan has informed me he has changed his mind and now agrees with my interpretation.

9 Greg Bahnsen comes close to this position by speaking of the social nature of crime (Theonomy in Christian Ethics [2d ed.; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984], pp. 436, 438, 440):

While all crime is sinful, not every sin is a crime. An offense against God’s law is a crime when it is a social misdeed punishable by the governing authorities; sin, on the other hand, is always judged and punished by God. The magistrate cannot presume to punish a man’s sin, but he is obligated to enforce penal sanctions against a man’s crime. Thus a crime bears two punishments: one before the magistrate (as a social misdeed), one before God Himself (as a sin).

. . .

The penalties imposed upon social crime are just as appropriate, equitable, and just with respect to their sphere of reference (civil society) as the eternal punishment for that crime (considered now as sin) is just with respect to its sphere of reference (the God-man relation with respect to eternity).

. . .

The civic punishment upon a man’s crime could not be eliminated even though he was required to make atonement and find God’s ultimate forgiveness by means of sacrifice for sin (cf. Lev. 4-6). Social restitution (the penal sanction) was not incompatible with being forgiven by the trespass offering (6:4-7; Num. 5:5-8). Therefore, the civil punishment was required to be executed upon every criminal unconditionally–without consideration of his status, without mercy, without cancellation through atoning sacrifice. Such are the demands of justice in the realm of civil judgment; a crime always receives what it, with respect to the context of social life, deserves as equitable for the nature of the offense.