The altar of incense and its two carrying poles were to be constructed of (decay-resistant [LXX]) wood (commonly considered to have been acacia wood because of its suitability for the purpose and its availability on the Sinai Peninsula) and then overlaid with gold. Two gold rings on opposite sides of the altar just below the molding or border at its top were to be made for holding the poles. The altar was to be designed with a horn at each of its four corners, and the designated dimensions of the altar were to be one cubit (18 inches [c. 46 centimeters]) wide on each side and two cubits (36 inches [c. 92 centimeters]) high. Upon completion, the altar of incense was to be placed in front of the curtain that separated the Holy from the Most Holy. (30:1-6)
As high priest, Aaron had the responsibility to burn incense on the altar of incense at the time that he prepared the seven lamps to continue providing light in the Holy of the tabernacle. Then, when again preparing the lamps in the evening, he was to burn incense on the altar. This altar was to be used exclusively for burning the specially formulated incense and was never to be used for offering any other incense or any type of sacrifice or libation. Annually, evidently because of having come into contact with priests who were sinners, atonement was to be made for the altar of incense. This was to be done by applying the “blood of the sin offering” to the horns of the altar. Since “horns” represented power, the application of blood to the horns of the altar could signify that the atoning power had its basis in the blood of the sin offering. (30:7-10)
Instead of referring to additional instructions regarding furnishings for the tabernacle, the Exodus account continues with matters pertaining to the taking of a census of men from the age of 20 and upward. So that the people would not be plagued, each man was to pay half a shekel as an offering to YHWH to atone for his life. The payment was to be made “according to the shekel of the holy place” or the sanctuary, suggesting that it was to be based on the standard weight at the tabernacle. Average weights of ancient shekels indicate that a half shekel would have been about 0.2 ounce avoirdupois (c. 0.1835 ounce troy; c. 5.7 grams). The equivalent of one shekel (c. 0.4 ounce avoirdupois, c. 0.367 ounce troy, 11.4 grams) was twenty gerahs, with one gerah weighing about 0.02 ounce avoirdupois (c. 0.01835 ounce troy; c. 0.57 gram). All men were required to pay the same amount, indicating that, whether rich or poor, all of them had the same value from YHWH’s standpoint. The payment served as a contribution for the support of the tabernacle. (30:11-16; see the Notes section.)
At this point, the subject matter returns to items essential for the tabernacle and the priestly services there. For washing their hands and feet, the priests were to be provided with a copper or bronze basin that was filled with water and was to be positioned between the “tent of meeting” or the tabernacle and the altar of burnt offering. Before Aaron or his sons (and later their descendants) entered the tabernacle or carried out their priestly services at the altar, they were to wash. The seriousness of washing as required was emphasized with the words, “and [that] they may not die.” (30:17-21)
A specially formulated oil (consisting of myrrh, cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia, and a “hin” [possibly about 4 quarts or 4 liters] of olive oil) was to be used for anointing the “tent of meeting,” the “ark of the testimony,” the table for the showbread and all its utensils, the lampstand and its utensils, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the copper basin and its base, and the priests. All of the items anointed with this anointing oil became holy (or were set apart for their sacred purpose), and anyone touching them would become holy. The duplication and use by or for anyone else was designated as a serious offense, requiring that the transgressor be “cut off [destroyed (LXX)] from his people.” (30:22-33; see the Notes section.)
Likewise, no one was permitted to make the incense that was to be used exclusively in the sanctuary and that was burned on the altar of incense. The penalty was for the individual to be “cut off [destroyed] from his people.” Ingredients for this incense (stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense in equal proportion) are mentioned in the Exodus account, but it is not possible presently to establish the source for the ingredients that the Israelites used. Based on what Josephus wrote, additional ingredients appear to have been added in later years. “The altar of incense, by its thirteen kinds of sweet-smelling spices with which the sea replenished it [or which were derived from the sea], signified that God is the possessor of all things that are both in the uninhabitable and habitable parts of the earth and that they are all to be dedicated tohis use.” (War, V, v, 5) A portion of the incense was to be placed “before the testimony in the tent of meeting” or where the altar of incense was located in front of the curtain that separated the Holy from the Most Holy. It was there where YHWH is quoted as saying that he would meet Moses. (30:34-38; see the Notes section regarding verses 6 and 36.)
There is archaeological evidence for a cubit of approximately 17.5 inches (44.5 centimeters), but 18 inches (c. 46 centimeters) for a cubit (as commonly found in many reference works) is used in Werner Bible Commentary because it reduces the number of fractions involved when calculating cubit measurements in inches, feet, centimeters, and meters.
From above the cover of the “ark of the testimony”and from between the cherubs on the cover, YHWH purposed to “meet” Moses and to make known to him everything that needed to be related to the “sons [or people] of Israel.” According to the Septuagint, God would be “known” to Moses there. The ark represented God’s presence, and so the reference to it as the “ark of the testimony” could indicate that it served as a testimony or witness that God was present in the midst of the Israelites. Another significance for the designation “ark of the testimony” could be that in it the “testimony” (the two tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments) was stored. The tablets served as a testimony respecting the commands the Israelites were obligated to observe, and this testimony would be a witness against them if they failed to live up to these commands. (25:22; 30:6, 36)
In the Septuagint (30:13), the required payment for each man at the time a census would be taken is expressed in terms of the then-existing coinage. The payment was half a didrachma (or one drachma), and there were 20 obols to one didrachma.
In verse 23, the Hebrew text includes amounts of 500 and 250 without mentioning that the weight is the shekel, but the Septuagint does include the transliteration of the Hebrew word “shekel.” In connection with cassia, however, verse 24 of the Hebrew text does indicate that the weight should be “according to the shekel of the holy place.” This is the same expression found in verse 13. Based on the shekel weight of 11.4 grams, 500 shekels of myrrh weighed about 12.6 pounds (c. 5.7 kilograms), as did 500 shekels of cassia; and 250 shekels of cinnamon weighed about 6.3 pounds (c. 2.85 kilograms), as did 250 shekels of aromatic cane.