In Exodus 40:26, the Bible states that the “golden altar” was in the holy place of
the tabernacle, in front of the veil. On the other hand, the book of Hebrews (9:3-4) indicates
that the altar of incense was in the most holy place. How can these passages be
In responding to this question, some background information is in order. When the children of
Israel came into the desolate region of Sinai following their exodus from Egypt, Jehovah ordained
a regulated system of worship that was designed to accommodate their sojourn in that wilderness. A
part of that order was the tabernacle—a movable, tent-like structure that was to serve as the
house of the Lord under those temporary conditions. In the construction of the tabernacle, Moses
was “warned of God” that he make all things “according to the pattern” that
was shown to him at Mt. Sinai (Hebrews 8:5).
The tabernacle was divided into two rooms, the holy place and the most holy place (or holy of
holies). Within the former, according to the account in Exodus 40, three items of furniture were
located. On the northern side was the table of showbread, while the golden lampstand was on the
south. Finally, to the west, just “before the veil” that separated the holy place from
the holy of holies, was the golden altar of incense (Exodus 30:6; 40:26).
Here, then, as indicated above, is the problem. In the book of Hebrews, the writer, in
describing the same circumstance, stated that “behind the second veil” there was
a compartment “called the holy of holies; having a golden altar of incense...” (Hebrews
Some critics have not hesitated to declare that the author of Hebrews made a mistake. James
Moffatt observed that “the irregularity of placing it [the golden altar—WJ] on the wrong side of the curtain is simply another of his
inaccuracies” (1957, p. 115). Such a declaration, however, not only is inconsistent with a
respectable view of biblical inspiration, but also is wholly unnecessary.
As I have emphasized in previous discussions (Jackson, 1986, 2:51ff.), no legitimate
contradiction can be charged against statements that superficially appear to conflict unless every
conceivable possibility of reconciliation has been exhausted. One must approach the controversial
text(s) and ask: Is there any feasible way to harmonize these passages? If there is, no allegation
of a real discrepancy can be made. Now, what are the facts of this case? Several solutions to the
difficulty have been proposed. Some of these, however, are less than totally convincing. Let us
reflect upon a few of them.
(1) Some have argued that the golden altar of incense was not in the holy place, as evinced by
the fact that in Exodus 26:35 only the table of showbread and the lampstand are mentioned as items
of furniture in that room. The conclusion thus is drawn that the altar of incense must have been
in the holy of holies. This logic is not persuasive. First, neither is the altar of incense
mentioned in Exodus 26:33-34 as being found in the most holy place. Hence, silence cannot be the
deciding factor. Second, the golden altar clearly is located in the holy place in other passages
(Exodus 30:6; 40:26). Besides that, if the golden altar was in the holy of holies, how could the
priests burn incense thereupon each day (cf. Luke 1:9), since the most holy place could be entered
only yearly—on the day of atonement—and then by the high priest alone (Hebrews 9:7)?
(2) The Greek text of Hebrews 9:4 speaks of a golden thumiaterion for the burning of
incense. The original word denotes either a place, or a vessel, used in burning incense. Thus,
thumiaterion is rendered “censer” (KJV) or
“altar” (ASV). Some argue, therefore, that the
inspired writer of this passage did not allude to the altar of incense, but rather to a
censer that was kept within the holy of holies, but which was employed annually to convey
coals from the altar into the most holy place according to the instructions of Leviticus 16:12-13.
This represents the view of scholars like Albert Barnes, James MacKnight, and S.T. Bloomfield. An
objection to this theory would be that if the writer refers only to a censer, then there is no
mention at all of the golden altar. True, but then there is no reference to the laver or brazen
altar that stood just before the tabernacle, and that likewise were an integral part of the
priestly service. It is possible that only the censer was mentioned “because it was the
principal part of the furniture which the high priest used on the day of expiation” (Bengal,
1877, 3:418). Still, it seems odd that the lesser object, the censer, would be mentioned, while
the greater, the golden altar, was ignored completely.
On the other hand, there is no mention at all in the Old Testament of a “golden”
censer. Moreover, when the high priest entered the holy of holies on the day of atonement, he took
the censer with him, thus implying that it was not already within the most holy place. A defense
of this view appears to require considerable speculation.
(3) The most popular opinion among conservative scholars argues that Hebrews 9:4 refers not to
a censer, but to the golden altar of incense. It is carefully pointed out, though, that this
passage does not actually say that the altar was within the most holy place. The text
literally reads: “...behind the second veil was a room which is called the holy of holies,
having [echousa, present participle] a golden altar of incense” (Hebrews 9:3-4). The verb echo can be employed in the sense of “belonging to,” i.e., in close “association
with” something (cf. Hebrews 6:9). Marcus Dods observed that “the change from en he
[within] of ver. 2 to echousa [having] is significant, and indicates that it was not
precisely its local relations he had in view, but rather its ritual associations” (1956,
4:328). Theodor Zahn stated that the Hebrew writer was describing an “ideal relation” of
the altar to the most holy place (1973, 2:364). John Ebrard contended that one is not required to
interpret echousa “in a local sense” in this verse. As an example, he cited verse
one of this very chapter: “Now even the first covenant had [echein] ordinances...”
That there was a very strong connection between the altar of incense and the most holy place is
evinced by several suggestions in the Old Testament. Note the following. (1) There was a
ritualistic association between the ark of the covenant and the altar of incense in that the high
priest sprinkled blood upon both of them on the annual day of atonement (Exodus 30:10). (2) Also,
on the day of atonement, the high priest carried live coals from the golden altar, along with
incense, into the holy of holies (Leviticus 16:10). Thus, on that day, once a year, the firepan,
in which the coals were transported, became an extension of the altar. In that sense, it might be
said that the altar “belonged to” the most holy place. (3) In a religious sense, the
altar of incense actually was said to stand “before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:12) and
“before the ark of the testimony” (Exodus 40:5). In fact, the author of First Kings states
that the altar of gold “belonged to” the oracle, i.e., the inner sanctuary (see 1 Kings
6:22). Of this passage, R.D. Patterson noted that even though the altar was materially in the holy
place, “functionally and symbolically it was associated with the Most Holy Place” (1988,
4:67). Another scholar observed that while the altar was locally situated in the holy place,
“in its nature and idea” it pertained to the most holy place (Kay, 1981, 10:69).
Professor William Milligan argued, on the basis of inference, that on the day of atonement the
veil between the holy and most holy places was opened so that the altar of incense and the ark of
the covenant stood in close proximity, and that it was from this vantage point that the author of
Hebrews wrote (n.d., 3:230).
Thus, a strong case can be made for the fact that the writer of Hebrews (9:3-4) was not
stressing the location of the altar of incense; rather, he was emphasizing its
theological connection with the most holy place of the tabernacle.
In view of this, let us remind ourselves of the Law of Contradiction. This logical maxim
affirms that a thing cannot both be, and not be, if one is speaking of the same thing, employing
the same time reference, and using his terms in an identical sense. In the case before us, one
should not charge that there is a contradiction between Exodus 30:6 and Hebrews 9:3-4, for the
distinct possibility exists that: (a) two different objects are in view, i.e., the golden altar
and a censer; or (b) what is more likely, two different senses are employed, i.e., the altar was
described in a spatial sense in the Exodus passage, and a theological sense in the Hebrews
context. It is thus wholly unwarranted to suggest that a biblical contradiction must exist with
reference to the location of the golden altar of incense.
Bengal, J. A. (1877), Gnomon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).
Dods, Marcus (1956), “Hebrews,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W.
Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Ebrard, John Henry Augustus (1859), “Hebrews,” Biblical Commentary on the New
Testament, ed. Hermann Olshausen, Ed. (New York: Sheldon & Company).
Jackson, Wayne (1986), Essays in Apologetics, ed. Bert Thompson and Wayne Jackson
(Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, Inc.).
Kay, William (1981 reprint), “Hebrews,” The Bible Commentary, ed. F.C. Cook
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Milligan, William (no date), The Bible Educator, ed. E.H. Plumptre (London: Cassell,
Petter and Galpin).
Moffatt, James (1957), The Epistle to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).
Patterson, R. D. (1988), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. F.E. Gaebelein
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Zahn, Theodor (1973 reprint), Introduction to the New Testament (Minneapolis, MN: Klock
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