“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) seems to suggest that the altar of incense was in the most holy place. How can these passages be harmonized?”
In responding to this question, some background information is in order.
The Tabernacle Arrangement
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 must 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. The golden lamp stand 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 30:1-6; 40:26).
The Problem: Where Was the Golden Altar of Incense?
Here, then, seems to be the problem. In the book of Hebrews, the writer, in describing the same circumstance, stated that “after [behind] the second veil” there was a compartment “called the holy of holies; having a golden altar of incense, and the ark of the covenant?” (Hebrews 9:3-4).
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] on the wrong side of the curtain is simply another of his inaccuracies” (1957, 115). Such a declaration, however, not only is inconsistent with a respectable view of biblical inspiration, it also is wholly unnecessary.
As I have emphasized in Does the Bible Contain Contradictions?, no legitimate contradiction can be charged against statements that superficially appear to conflict unless every conceivable possibility of reconciliation has been exhausted.
You must approach the controversial text(s) and ask: “Is there any feasible way to harmonize these passages?” If there is, no allegation of discrepancy can be made.
The Solution: Where Was the Golden Altar of Incense Actually Located?
Now, what are the facts of this case? Several solutions to the difficulty have been proposed. Some of these may be less likely than others; however, let us reflect upon a several of them.
Solution One: Not in the Holy Place
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 lamp stand 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 on one day of the year, on “the day of atonement” and then by the high priest alone (Hebrews 9:7)?
Solution Two: Altar in the Holy Place, A Censer in the Holy of Holies
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 this: If the writer referred 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 (out in front of the tabernacle), which likewise were an integral part of the priestly service. Bengal opined that 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” (1877, 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.
Solution Three: The Golden Censer Belongs to the Holy of Holies
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.” 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 verse 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, 328).
Theodor Zahn stated that the Hebrew writer was describing an “ideal relation” of the altar to the holy place (1973, 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” (1859, 492).
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.
First, 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).
Second, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest carried live coals from the golden altar, along with incense, into the holy of holies (Leviticus 16:12). Thus, on that day, once a year, the fire pan, 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.
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 Kings states that the altar of gold “belongs 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, 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, 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., 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. The distinct possibility exists that two different objects are in view (i.e., the golden altar and a censer) or—more likely—two different senses are employed.
It seems the most likely view is that the altar was described in a spatial sense in the Exodus passage, but in a theological sense in the context of Hebrews.
It thus is wholly unwarranted to suggest that a biblical contradiction must exist with reference to the location of the golden altar of incense.