One of the most memorable stories in the Old Testament is the story of Moses and the burning bush (Ex 3). According to the story, Moses was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep when God showed up in a burning bush with a big, world-changing job for Moses. When Moses approached the bush to get a closer look, God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:3).

What’s this all about? A burning bush, a voice, and a command for Moses to remove his sandals? Why did God call Moses this way? Surely God could have simply spoken to Moses without the burning bush at all. After all, that’s how He spoke to Abraham in Genesis (Gen. 12). God also spoke to Abraham through rather ordinary messengers (Gen. 18). Why did He appear in a burning bush this time? Perhaps to get Moses’s attention? Surely there could have been other ways to get his attention. Why a burning bush?

The Holiness of God 

It has everything to do with holiness. God wanted Moses (and later Israel, and ultimately all people) to understand that He was holy. In showing up in a burning bush, God is making it clear to Moses that He is no ordinary deity. He’s not similar to the gods of Egypt that Moses was familiar with from his Egyptian upbringing. The God of Israel is different

The gods of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon are merely super-human. They are subject to fate, they have a beginning, they have both positive and negative attributes, and they can die. They can be noble, or they can lie, cheat and steal. These are the gods made in the human image. The God of Israel isn’t like this. He is completely other.[1]

Much of the Old Testament story is about God getting this idea of his holiness into the heads and hearts of Israel. This is also one of the main purposes of the Law: to communicate to Israel that God is set apart. The Law made it so that every dimension of life was categorized by clean and unclean. This is what the food laws were all about. They functioned as an object lesson about the holiness of God. Every time Israel sat down to eat, they had to ask, “Is this food clean or unclean?” The Law made it so that Israel would continually be confronted with the idea of the holy; that God was set apart and that they were to be too in their witness to his holiness. They were to be a witness to the fact that there was a categorically different life out there; that life didn’t have to be dictated by sin and death. Christopher Wright says, 

In Old Testament terms, being holy did not mean that the Israelites were to be a specialty religious nation. At heart, the word “holy” (in Hebrew, qadosh) means different or distinctive.Something or someone is holy when they get set apart for a distinct purpose in relation to God and then are kept separate for that purpose. For Israel, it meant being different by reflecting the very different God that YHWH revealed himself to be, compared with other gods. Israel was to be as different from other nations as YWH was different from other gods.[2]

The Mysterium Tremendum and the Need for Atonement

This utterly different nature of God is what theologian Rudolph Otto called mysterium tremendum, meaning that the holiness of God is a mystery that is at once terrifying and fascinating. I think this perfectly describes what Moses, and subsequently Israel in the tabernacle, experienced when entering into God’s holy presence. Otto goes on to say this about being in the holy presence of God:

The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. […] It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.[3] (Otto, 2013, pp. Kindle Locations 156–162)

Due to the mysterium tremendum (i.e., holiness) of God, provision must be made for Moses to enter into the presence. God is so holy that it is a dangerous for Moses, as a sinner, to be in his presence. In order for Moses to come into God’s presence he must take off his shoes. This little, but important detail of this story harmonizes with the internal logic of the meta narrative of the Bible, and that is that because of sin, special provision must be made for people to enter into God’s special presence. “Moses, take off your shoes. You can’t encounter me the way you are in your sin. Something needs to change for you to come close to me.” This is what the sacrificial system is all about.

The Sacrificial System

The provision for sin which restored human right of entry into God’s presence is what the sacrificial system in the Old Testament is all about. The sacrificial system makes it possible for God’s holy presence to take up residence among the Israelites without utterly destroying them. God’s holiness and sin do not—and cannot—mix. You can’t approach him. He’s simply too holy. God’s holiness is a consuming fire. It completely obliterates sin. Provision for sin is what the word atonement is all about. Sandra Richter writes:

Yes, God lived among his people, but the common worshiper—even the average priest—would never stand in his presence. Only one man, once a year, entered the holy of holies, and he entered under the threat of death (Lev. 16:2). The double-edged sword of the tabernacle was the truth that God was once again with ʾĀdām, but ʾĀdām was still separated from God.…Here we see illustrated in the concreate realities of designated precincts, professional priests and animals slain in sacrifice, the real consequence of sin, the need for mediation and sacrifice, and the possibility of forgiveness.[4]

The Tabernacle

After signing the contract, God instructs Israel to build a tabernacle so that he can fill it with his special presence and glory. Here we have the Genesis 1 forming and filling motif all over again. The tabernacle is constructed as God’s special place of residence just as creation was intended to be back in Genesis 1–2. In a word, the tabernacle, and its later articulation in the temple, is a microcosm of the creation which was the original tabernacle. Psalm 78:69 says, “He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the high heavens, like the earth which he as founded forever.” G. K. Beale writes,

The rationale for the worldwide encompassing nature of the paradisal temple in Revelation 21 lies in the ancient notion that the Old Testament temple was a microcosm of the entire heaven and earth. One of the most explicit texts affirming this is Psalm 78:69 […]. The psalmist is saying that, in some way, God designed Israel’s earthly temple to be comparable to the heavens and to the earth. Similarly, the earlier ‘pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture’ was made ‘after the [heavenly] pattern … which was shown … on the mountain.[5] (Beale G. K., 2004, pp. 31-32)

Israel’s tabernacle wasn’t simply God’s dwelling place, it was his throne room. It was the place from which he reigned over the creation. It was the CEO’s office of the universe. God was to reign over Israel, and by extension, all of the creation from the holy of holies inside the tabernacle. Hays writes

Both the temple and the tabernacle stressed the awesome and powerful holiness of God, underscoring through both architecture and day-to-day practice how the holy presence of God must be veiled or screened away from people so that it does not destroy them The holy God, Kind of all the universe, dwelled in that most holy place, surrounded by his cherubim.[6] (Hays, 2016, p. 187).

The restoration of human access to the all-powerful, holy God via atonement is also why there are cherubim embroidered on the curtain in the temple. The curtain separates the initial vestibule of the temple from the holy of holies, which is God’s throne room. These cherubim symbolize the cherubim in Genesis 3:24 which protects sinful people from God’s holy presence. Now, because sin is dealt with through the sacrificial system, Eden is accessible once again. In other words, the sacrificial system was intended to restore what was lost in Genesis 3. 

Temples in the Ancient Near East

Temples in the ancient Near East were very common. The ancient Israelites did a lot of things differently than their neighbors, but building a temple was not one of them. Even though the Israelites were like their neighbors in this way, the Jewish temple was distinctly different at key points.[7] First, there was only to be one temple in Israel. Additional temples, or high places, were forbidden by God. Constructing more than one temple was forbidden because it gave the impression that God was plural, like the multiple gods of Israel’s neighbors.

God wanted to rid ancient Israel—and the world—of this idea. God wanted the world, through his people, to understand that he Is one—that there is only one God who is unmatched in justice, power, love, and holiness (Dt 6:4). This was Israel’s unique, divinely revealed message of monotheism (i.e., the worship of one god). The Israelites (and Christians today), in their manner of living as stipulated in the covenant, were to testify to this fact. The singularity of the temple was also supposed to testify to the one-ness of God. The message of a single, holy God translated into God manifesting his presence in just one place: the temple. Yes, God is everywhere at once, but, once again, his chosen place of meeting with the world was through Israel and the temple.

The second unique aspect of Israel’s temple was that there was no idol in it. All other ancient Near Eastern temples would have featured an idol—a human-made statue of some sort—that embodied the people’s patron deity (i.e., one deity among a pantheon of gods that has a special allegiance with a particular people group and geographical region). It was the responsibility of the deity to protect and provide for the people. Among Israel’s neighbors, these idols did not just symbolize their patron deity, they actually were the deity.

All non-biblical worldviews are founded on the idea that there is continuity between the physical and spiritual realms. What is true in the physical world is also true in the spiritual world and vice versa. The physical and spiritual worlds are locked in-step. 

This way of thinking has a major impact on everyday life. Superstition and fatalism, for example, result from this kind of thinking. These two concepts alone will fundamentally determine how someone behaves in the world. If everything is left to fate, then I might as well do what I want. Fate, in other words, undermines human responsibility and free will. It tells us that what we do doesn’t matter

The greatest implication of this way of thinking is that things will never change. If things in the spiritual world are just like things in the physical world, then the gods are merely super-humans. They are subject to fate, death, betrayal, dishonesty, infidelity, murder, and the list goes on. If everything in reality is locked together, then there is no such thing as the sacred; there is no possibility for anyone or anything to be set a part, holy, or different.

Reality as the Bible describes it is completely different than this. According to the Bible, God is not part of the cosmos. God is outside of time and space. He is not subject to fate and death. He is holy. That is, he is truly set apart, and it is precisely because he is set a part that there is hope for change. He can break into the cosmos and change things. He can do things that are brand new (Is 43:18–19). Life doesn’t have to just keep going around and around! There is hope for real, actual change! History isn’t simply repeating itself endlessly. To the contrary, history is actually going somewhere precisely because God is not tied to it. God can actually break into the world and set things in a different direction. 

God is adamant throughout the Old Testament that Israel understand that he could not be contained by the creation; that no statue could encapsulate him. He is not synonymous with any created thing. He cannot be summed up in an idol. If God cannot fit into the human head (the most complex and intelligent thing in the creation), then He certainly cannot fit into a statue.

The Ark of the Covenant, God’s Presence, and Israel’s Covenant Faithfulness

We said before that the image of God is on display for the world to see through Israel’s obedience to the Law. We see this in the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant is God’s foot stole (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 80:1; 99:1; Is 37:16). The Ten Commandments were stored in the ark (Heb 9:4). The image that we get with this is God sitting on the Ten Commandments. But, why is God sitting on the Ten Commandments? It is because his abiding presence with Israel is dependent upon their obedience to the Law. This means that God’s saving presence in the world is dependent on Israel’s covenant faithfulness. In order for God’s glory to reach the ends of the earth, Israel must be faithful to the covenant. If Israel is not faithful to the covenant, then the world will never be reconciled to God. The clear implication of this—and this point cannot be overstated—is that God’s glory in the universe is dependent upon Israel’s faithfulness to live according to the behavior prescribed in the Law. Once again, we see that the Law, and holiness as a consequence of obedience to the law, has a missional aim. Once again, Sandra Richter sums it up well with this: 

In its place in redemptive history, the law served to sketch the profile of God to a fallen race who no longer had any idea who God was or what he defined as “good.” Because of the Mosaic law, the Israelites learned that Yahweh (unlike the other “gods” of the ancient Near East) abhorred human sacrifice, self-mutilation and temple prostitution. They learned that Yahweh was immune to magic and competed with no one. They learned that unlike the deities of surrounding nations who were embedded in the created order, Yahweh was independent of his creation. He did not need humanity to feed or clothe him, nor was he impressed or swayed by the construction of fancy temples. Yahweh would no welcome the immolation of their children, nor would he speak to his people my means of entrails of slaughtered beasts. This god was different, and what he expected of his people as different as well. This is what the Mosaic law brought into focus in Israel’s world. It was a very good thing.[8]

This is what the Apostle Paul is talking about in Romans 3:1–2 when he says, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way. For in the first place, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (italics added).[9] Michael Bird comments on this passage with this:

This is far more than Israel running a chain of bookstores that stock editions of the Hebrew Bible. The words in question are in fact the “promises of God,” on which Paul majors—the promises made to the patriarchs about creating a one-world-family through Israel and her Messiah […] Abraham was promised to be a father of many nations. Therefore, Israel’s job description was to be kings of priests of het world, to turn Canaan into a new Eden, and to lead the nations into the worship of God.[10]

Paul later points out in Romans 15:8–12 that where Israel fails in this task, Jesus succeeds. He says, 

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

It is clear. The mission of Israel’s faithfulness was to witness to the world the glory of God. 

King David and the Exile

The story of the chosen people is a sad one. As the story continues, we discover that Israel was not faithful to the covenant. This is anticipated in the many accounts of Israel’s hard-headed rebellion in the desert under the leadership of Moses. From the very beginning they were hard hearted and bent inward on themselves. And, for centuries after the exodus, they remained a rebellious people. They ended up conforming to their selfish Adamic nature rather than the nature described in the Law code.

In the midst of Israel’s continued rebellion, however, was King David. David was a faithful king. David deviated from the Adamic nature in his obedience to the Law.[11] As God intended, when people looked at how David reigned, they witnessed how God reigns. David was a faithful witness to the character of God. Because of David’s faithfulness, God promised him that his epic rescue plan for the creation would be fulfilled through a member of his family. Second Samuel 7:12–16 says,

When your days are fulfilled, and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

Even with David’s faithfulness, Israel continued in their pattern of disobedience. After many warnings from the prophets and opportunities for repentance, God’s tabernacling glory departs from them, the sacred temple is destroyed by foreign nations, and Israel ends up in exile (2 Kgs 25:1–21, 2 Chr 36:15–21). Because of Israel’s infidelity, God’s redeeming presence and glory fails to fill the creation as he intended from the very beginning, and the Kingdom of God remains invisible and uninhabitable by the world. The world remains in darkness.

But what about God’s promises to Abraham? Didn’t he promise that through Abraham’s family redemption would come to the world? Was it not God’s plan to undo the effects of Genesis 3 through the chosen family, the new Adam and the temple? What about the promise that God made to David that his son would sit on an eternal throne and bring God’s cosmic reign to the world? These were precisely the kinds of questions that the Jews in exile were asking. They were confused. How were they to live in light of God’s promises?

While in exile, God speaks to the Israelites through his prophets yet again. The message that God sends through the prophets is, Yes! God will keep all of His promises (Is 40:1–11). Furthermore, God is going to do something entirely new, something that he’s never done before (Is 43:18–19). God’s presence in the Holy Spirit is going to descend from heaven once again, but this time it won’t be on a building. 


God’s plan from the beginning is to fill the creation with his glory through his co-regent image-bearers. This plan is thwarted in Adam and Eve’s rebellion against him in Genesis 3, which ushers into the creation the reign of sin and death. In order to undo the effects of humanity’s rebellion, God launches a creation-rescue-plan through the family of Abraham. God makes a covenant with Abraham’s family. They would be the new Adam and the place of God’s dwelling would be the tabernacle. God’s special presence with Israel in the tabernacle, however, depended on Israel’s covenant faithfulness. In order for God’s life-giving, holy reign to be restored to the creation, Israel had to conform to the life prescribed to them in the Law. Israel failed at this mission. As a result, they ended up in exile and uncertain about whether or not God would fulfill his promises. While in exile, God speaks into their confusion through the prophets. He tells them that he will keep his promises and that he’s going to do something entirely new. Even though Israel failed to fulfill their mission as the new image-bearers, David was faithful. As a reward, God promised David that through his offspring God would fulfill all his promises to rescue the world from the tyrannical reign of sin and death. 

[1] See Psalm 115:11–8 and Isaiah 41:21–29; 44:44:6–20

[2] Wright, The Mission of God’s People, 123.

[3] Otto, 2013, pp. Kindle Locations 156–162.

[4] Richter, Epic of Eden, 182.

[5] Beale, 2004, 31–32. 

[6] Hays, 2016, 187.

[7] For an overview of a biblical theology of the temple, see J. Daniel Hays, The Temple and the Tabernacle (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016).  

[8] Richter, Epic of Eden, 184. 

[9] Cf. Rom. 4:12–18; 9:6–13; 11:28; 15:8–12.

[10] Michael Bird…

[11] Of course, David did violate the Law in the Bathsheba affair recorded in 2 Samuel 11. 

Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary


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