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This Little Light of Mine: Life in the Presence of a Consuming Fire

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Even though I specialize in Old Testament Studies and interpretive methodology, I still find certain areas of study quite difficult to unravel. The world of the Old Testament has many secrets that the millennia have yet to whisper into our modern ears. The exact meaning of much of the symbols in Ancient Near Eastern worship, whether pagan or Israelite, makes up a goodly number of those secrets. I would like to write, therefore, with a little trepidation and more humility than you will usually encounter from me, about what I believe to be the truest sense of the lampstand in the tabernacle of Moses.

A number of years ago, when I was still a professor at Zion Bible College, now Northpoint Bible College, Haverhill, Ma, I received a call from a group doing a new Sunday School series about Old Testament images in relation to New Testament typologies. The editor of the series wanted me to write the Old Testament portion of the Lampstand type. Someone else, whom I didn’t know was going to write the New Testament portion.

When the editor got my piece, he asked me to re-write it to correspond to the New Testament piece, which rendered the Lampstand an image of Jesus as the light of the world with the general academic flavor of “This little light of mine.” I refused, with what I deemed grace, and what the editor, no doubt, deemed arrogance. Perhaps, my suggestion that the New Testament author actually learn something about the historical, grammatical, and literary context of Israel’s worship system was just too much to consider.

The lampstand, as I see it, is the image of fearful acceptance before Holy YHWH. In it, theophany mingles with ordeal and covenant to symbolize redeemed humanity in audience before an unveiled holy God.

This is the essence of the tabernacle and its services, through which a consuming God dwells among sinful men without consuming them.

The first thing with which to reckon is that the lampstand is carved to look like a burning tree/bush (Exodus 3:1-6). It is the emblem of standing amid a consuming fire without being consumed.

While exact identification of all the Hebrew terms used to describe the lampstand has alluded proof seekers, the lampstand has, essentially, a standing base, a center “reed”, and six separate “reeds” coming from its side. These are seven branches, seven being the symbol of oath and covenant. Each branch has a number of “cups” with a “bulb” and a “sprout” each. Thus, it resembles a blooming tree/bush. On the top of each of these seven branches, a separate lamp is placed, whose wick hangs to the front and casts light across the room in the direction of the table of showbread.

olive bloom smallI am personally convinced that the particular tree that the lampstand is intended to represent is the olive tree, whose blossoms seem to me to resemble a proper rendering of the Hebrew here. Not only is the olive tree is a common emblem for Israel, (Psalm 52:8; Jeremiah 11:16; Romans 11:17-24) but the lamp also burns olive oil. This designation does not, however, make or break my other convictions regarding the general symbolism at work here. I welcome input from those who have other ideas on this score.

YHWH did not choose an unconsumed burning bush for his appearance to Moses haphazardly. YHWH is holy, and ancient conceptions of encounters with the holy, called theophanies, almost always involve images of fire, smoke, thunder, earthquake, strong winds, loud noise, and trembling terror with alluring fascination (Exodus 19:18-24, Isaiah 6:1-4, Ezekiel 1:4-28). In the call of Moses, the angel of YHWH speaks to him from the midst of “tongues of fire” which do not consume the bush.

In the ancient world, images of fire which did not consume, as well as water which did not drown, and lions who did not kill, are part of a world in which men present themselves in the mouth of death before their god for judgment. Men and armies would contest to the death before their gods. Earthly judges would throw their accused into deadly situations upon the mercy of their gods. This is called ordeal. In every way, these people believed in their gods, and they willingly cast themselves into their hands. Acceptance by God brings a man back from death. Rejection by God ushers a man into doom.

In the tabernacle and its services, YHWH lays out for His people the means by which men may approach His holy presence and yet live. In the Law and the Prophets and the other writings, YHWH lays out the means by which men may properly reflect His own character and will in their lives. This approach and reflection is the holiness of the worshiper. YHWH has said, “You shall be holy, for I am Holy” (Leviticus 11:45). Those who trifle with Him discover, as did Nadab and Abihu, what it is to stand before a consuming God and be consumed (Leviticus 10:1-3).

YHWH has warned that by those who draw near to Him, He must be treated as holy. The lampstand is a fearful reminder of the nature of the acceptance granted to those upon whom YHWH’s favor rests.

What do you think?

One thought on “This Little Light of Mine: Life in the Presence of a Consuming Fire

  1. The relationship of Christ to the lampstand is another discussion altogether. It will be rooted in the essential meaning the lampstand. If the lampstand represents Israel in the presence of a holy God then Christ may have some reflection here as True Israel. In revelation he walks among the lampstands he is not the lampstand. This will prove someday, a fascinating conversation.

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