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The altar of incense was outside the Holy of Holies but in some sense Hebrews seems to group it along with those things inside the Holy of Holies. What does this grouping mean? Why is the altar of incense grouped with the Holy of Holies?

Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron 's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. (ESV, Hebrews 9:3-4)

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The Greek text of Heb. 9:4 is,

χρυσοῦν ἔχουσα θυμιατήριον καὶ τὴν κιβωτὸν τῆς διαθήκης περικεκαλυμμένην πάντοθεν χρυσίῳ ἐν ᾗ στάμνος χρυσῆ ἔχουσα τὸ μάννα καὶ ἡ ῥάβδος Ἀαρὼν ἡ βλαστήσασα καὶ αἱ πλάκες τῆς διαθήκης

The phrase in question is χρυσοῦν θυμιατήριον (chrysoun thymiatērion). Both the accusative and nominative declension are spelled θυμιατήριον.

However, does θυμιατήριον mean "altar"?

In the LXX, we find the phrase τὸ θυσιαστήριον τοῦ θυμιάματος (to thysiastērion tou thymiamatos) used to translate the Hebrew phrase מִזְבַּח הַקְּטֹֽרֶת, meaning "the altar of incense" (cp. Exo. 30:27).

Note the LXX of 2 Chr. 26:19:

καὶ ἐθυμώθη Οζιας καὶ ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ τὸ θυμιατήριον τοῦ θυμιάσαι ἐν τῷ ναῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ θυμωθῆναι αὐτὸν πρὸς τοὺς ἱερεῖς καὶ ἡ λέπρα ἀνέτειλεν ἐν τῷ μετώπῳ αὐτοῦ ἐναντίον τῶν ἱερέων ἐν οἴκῳ κυρίου ἐπάνω τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου τῶν θυμιαμάτων

Here, we actually find both words: τὸ θυμιατήριον, which is used in reference to a "censer" used by King Uzziyahu to burn incense, and τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου (genitive declension of τὸ θυσιαστήριον) used in reference to the altar of incense itself.

We may conclude that the ESV erroneously translates θυμιατήριον as "altar" instead of "censer" (e.g., KJV).

Although the golden censer was not always located in the Holy of holies, it was brought within on Yom Kippur (cp. Lev. 16:12), which is the general context of that passage (cp. Heb. 9:7).

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+1 - However it seems that the censer verses altar still begs the same question as the censer would usually be with the altar. However you last statement seems to approach the answer why, even though outside the holy of holies the purpose of the altar & censer seem to have their primary significance in their role in entering into the most holy place, thus the Apostle groups them together. At least this is what it seems to me and your answer does seem to imply. – Mike Nov 17 '13 at 6:24

Rabbinical tradition at this time believed all three articles were in the ark: the 10 commandments, Aaron's rod that budded and the golden jar of manna, although we see in Exodus 16:34 God told Moses to put the golden jar of manna BEFORE the ark, Numbers 17:10 The Lord told Moses to put Aaron's rod that budded BEFORE the ark and Deuteronomy 31:26 where the Book of the Law (Pentateuch) was to be placed BEFORE the ark (this article is not even mentioned in Hebrews 9:4).

It is believed that at the time the book of Hebrews was written (before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70) the Holy of Holies was empty.
As Josephus writes: "But the inmost part of the temple of all was of twenty cubits. This was also separated from the outer part by a veil. In this there was nothing at all. It was inaccessible and inviolable, and not to be seen by any; and was called the Holy of Holies." Wars of the Jews V, v 5

Therefore, it is concluded by some that the description given in Hebrews 9:4 was taken from Rabbinical tradition.

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