“Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant” (Hebrews 9:3–4, ESV)
Often you run into things that require much research because a casual observation is perplexing. Imagine the consternation of the ancients that looked towards the horizon and concluded that the world was a flat plate and then saw a ship disappear over the horizon. They would have presumed that it fell off the earth. Then, later it miraculously reappeared. This is an example of a contradiction based upon casual observation that required deeper research to ferret out the truth.
Here we have one of these difficulties in the Scriptures. The author has been writing about the furnishings of the Tabernacle. He is laying the groundwork to write about the priestly and high priestly duties according to the Law. This is to show the superior work of Jesus in the true holiest place. Having presented the furnishings of the lampstand and the table of showbread in the holy place, he then writes about the holiest place in the Tabernacle. Here the author seems to indicate that the altar of incense is in the holiest place behind the veil. However, the Old Testament indicates the altar of incense was placed in the holy place before the veil (Exod 40:26).
To investigate this, we must begin with some basic premises: First, the book of Hebrews demonstrates the standard of inspiration necessary to include it in the canon of Scripture. Second, the author knew the Old Testament and the Temple practices sufficiently to record it correctly. Third, The Jewish audience to whom the author wrote understood and saw no contradiction.
After two days of wrestling with this apparent contradiction, I discovered at least eight possible explanations. Some of these are explained in Geisler and Howe’s book, “The Big Book of Bible Difficulties.” Let me give you what I consider the most likely in no order. 1) The translation of “golden altar of incense” can also be translated as, “golden censer” as it is in the KJV. The Septuagint uses the same Greek word thumiaterion to refer to a censer elsewhere in the Old Testament. Moreover, the Jewish Mishna describes this golden censer in detail. 2) The golden altar was moved on the Day of Atonement to be inside the holiest place where the high priest would burn incense on that day (Lev 16:12-13). 3) There was a close doctrinal association between the altar of incense, the ark of the covenant and the sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement. Supporting this, some point to a possible ambiguity in the translation that the participle “having” could refer to an association with rather than a position in the holiest place.
Regardless of how we explain the appearance of a contradiction, we conclude that there is no contradiction. The author and the recipients were on the same page. He knew what he was communicating and they understood him. The bigger point is yet to come in the following verses when the author speaks about the high priest’s duties on the Day of Atonement and how Jesus’ duties as the great high priest in the true holiest place in heaven are infinitely superior. Jesus provided eternal redemption for all who would believe, in a way that none of the high priests according to the Law could ever do.
(Tomorrow, the alter of incense.)