There are a lot of places in the book of Leviticus that naturally make the reader pause. Certain images or verses just invite us to stop and take a closer look. Today, we’re going to look at one of those images. In my last full post for this series, I talked about how I smiled the first time I read Leviticus 6:12-13, which tells us that the fire of the burnt offering must never go out.
12 The fire on the altar is to be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest will burn wood on the fire. He is to arrange the burnt offering on the fire and burn the fat portions from the fellowship offerings on it. 13 Fire must be kept burning on the altar continually; it must not go out.
Leviticus 6:12-13, CSB. Emphasis added is mine. Versification copied from Bible Gateway
That fire is to be kept burning all day and all night, 24/7, without cease. I talked about these verses in my post on the Law of the Burnt Offering, but there was a lot of other stuff going on in that passage, too. We had to talk about the “The Lord spoke to Moses” language that signals topic changes. We had to introduce this whole section of what I call “addenda” to the offering procedures that continues through Chapter 7. We had to discuss the priests’ linen garments for handling the ashes, and we had to talk about how the ash heap fit in with the whole sacrificial system. In the short space I could give to verses 12 and 13, I said this:
Constant praise, constant worship, and constant cover for the people.
This is a complex image of eternity. The eternal nature of God. The eternal nature of the covenant. The eternal need for cover in God’s holy presence. It’s a gorgeous picture, isn’t it? The flame must never go out.
My personal read on these two verses has not changed. I still believe this is the “main thing.” Leviticus is never just about the main thing, though, because there is always something bigger and more beautiful going on underneath the obvious. We can’t just walk away from eternal flame imagery without first pausing to give it its due, right? The fire under the altar of burnt offering is very special for several reasons.
1.) It is a Divine Flame
Open your Bible to Leviticus chapter 9. Let’s read verse 24:
Fire came from the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell facedown.
Leviticus 9:24, CSB
Chapter 9 will have its turn with us in this series, but we skipped ahead to read this single verse today because it records the very first time the altar of burnt offering was used. God himself is the original source of the fire. Maintaining that divine flame is of obvious importance.
This fire is holy because it was started by God. If the embers are allowed to die out, then man would have to ignite a new fire with common, corrupted human hands. God provided his own fire for the offerings, which means the fire is his and the smoke from the fire is his. Not only is this a miraculous and valuable thing all by itself, but it also leads quite neatly into the next reason this fire is special.
2.) Pillars of Cloud & Fire
When God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he went before them as a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of flame at night (Exodus 13:21). They could always see this sign and know the Lord was with them. Once the Tabernacle was built, God’s “cloud” descended upon it and filled the Tabernacle with his holy presence. The Tabernacle became the Tent of Meeting–the place where humans could meet with God.
So what does the fire under the altar of burnt offering do? It provides a pillar of smoke during the day and the light of the flames at night…right in the center of the camp. In the reign of Solomon, the Tent of Meeting is replaced by the Temple, and the altar fire there is elevated so that everyone in the city can see it. The altar fire gives a pillar of smoke in the day and a glowing flame at night. It is a clear image of great significance. The people send their offerings up in the smoke of a fire that God provided, and the vertical relationship is both perpetually kept in motion and vividly illustrated through this single image of God’s fire at the altar.
3.) Tāmîd and the Value of Repetitive Ritual Observance
We are told three times that the fire of the burnt offering must never go out (Lev. 6:9,12,&13). Repetition in Scripture is generally a signal to pay close attention because the repeated words hold special significance. Because I do not read or understand Ancient Hebrew, I must lean on the scholarship of people who do. Samuel E. Balentine is one such person, and in his 2002 Interpretations commentary on Leviticus (pictured above), Dr. Balentine says that the Hebrew word, tāmîd, means “perpetual” or “continual,” and it is used for the first time in Scripture right here in Leviticus 6:13*. At the top of this post, you’ll note that I highlighted the word continually in verse 13 with bold letters and a strong red color. This is the English translation of tāmîd.
The fire is to be kept burning.
The fire must never go out.
The fire must be tāmîd.
The fire must never go out.
As I said from the beginning, this is an image of eternal cover, eternal worship, eternal communication, and eternal covenant. It is perpetual. It is tāmîd.
Tāmîd is later used as a noun*, says Balentine, and the daily, repetitive rituals of priestly maintenance within the sacrificial system (dealing with ashes, making the fires, etc.) come to be collectively called, “the Tamid.”
Balentine describes the fire under the altar of burnt offering as a repetitive and rhythmic mirroring of creation itself. He begins by quoting from Genesis 1:
“And God said, ‘Let there be…’ And it was so…
And there was evening and there was morning…
And there was evening and there was morning…
And there was evening and there was morning…”
He then says, “The acts of presenting morning and evening burnt offerings and of maintaining the altar fire ‘all night until morning’ are grounded in this creational rhythm.”* I found this assertion so clear and fitting and right. It fits, doesn’t it? God created in an ordered and rhythmic cycle of mornings and evenings. The offerings are given in an ordered and rhythmic cycle of mornings and evenings. Practicing the offerings would call to mind the wonder of Creation and keep a focus centered on the Creator. I see the symmetry Balentine was pointing out with this, and it tracks for me.
*All quotes and attributions in this section were taken from Samuel E. Balentine, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Leviticus (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 65-66.
As a people with an oral tradition, passing down their histories and traditions through story & memorization, rhythm and repetition were crucial to Ancient Israel’s literature and worship. Ritual observance is very ordered, as well, which is a huge part of the picture here. God brings order from chaos when he creates. We are called to follow God’s example in this by bringing order within his creation. Fill the earth and subdue it. All of these individual images about God and covenant and relationship fit together and overlap and support each other in the beautiful meta-image of the highly ritualistic and ordered sacrificial system.
Leviticus is painting pictures for us. Can you see them?
The fire must never go out. That is one image, and it is an important one I wanted to pause and talk about separately before returning to the place where I left off in Chapter 6. Tomorrow, I will be writing about the Law of the Grain & Purification Offerings, but today, I wanted to revisit God’s holy fire. I hope it was a useful visit.
I want to close out by reorienting our view on the point of this whole project. I started this lay commentary, even though I am not qualified and even though I have no authority, because I feel compelled to share with others the beautiful way that Leviticus’ imagery illuminated the Gospel for me. I know that I frequently tell you not to inject the things we know about Jesus into your study of Leviticus, but I also said that when Jesus shows up in this text, we can’t miss it. Well Jesus was and is and will always be the ultimate Burnt Offering. God gave Israel a holy fire in the Tabernacle so that they could send up offerings, receive cover for their nakedness, and be with Him in sacred space. God sent his only Son and gave himself a sacrifice that would cover us for all time so that we can be with him in eternity. The Son sent the Spirit to abide within us as a living holy fire and he made our bodies the sacred space so that we can be with him until eternity comes.
Look at it. Do you see what I see?
34 The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses was unable to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 36 The Israelites set out whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle throughout all the stages of their journey. 37 If the cloud was not taken up, they did not set out until the day it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and there was a fire inside the cloud by night, visible to the entire house of Israel throughout all the stages of their journey.
Exodus 40:34-38, CSB
2 Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. 3 They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated and rested on each one of them.
Acts 2:2-3, CSB
11 I will place my residence among you, and I will not reject you. 12 I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.
Leviticus 26:11-12, CSB
16 And what agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said:
I will dwell
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
2 Corinthians 6:16 (wherein Paul quotes Leviticus 26:11-12), CSB
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us
John 1:14, CSB
God is with us. Jesus is “God with us.” From the beginning, God wants to be with us, and that has always been the point. As ever, I invite correction if I have gotten something wrong or stretched interpretation in a direction it was never meant to go. I hope this series is useful to people.
See you next time.