October 20, 2019

The Laver and the Washing and Anointing of Priests

Within the outer courtyard of the Tabernacle of Moses was the bronze laver (see Exodus 30:17-21). It was here at the laver where Aaron and his sons were washed, clothed, and anointed prior to becoming a priest. The laver was also used by the priests for daily ritual washing prior to serving at the Tabernacle. The washing at the laver can symbolize our need to be spiritually cleansed through the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Only the tribe of Levi, and in particular the family of Aaron, could officiate at the Tabernacle; therefore, the Lord commanded that Moses first consecrate them for this sacred service here at the laver. In Exodus 40 it reads, “And thou shalt bring Aaron and his sons unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and wash them with water. And thou shalt put upon Aaron the holy garments, and anoint him, and sanctify him; that he may minister unto me in the priest's office.” (Exodus 40:12-13). This consecration of the priests included three important and symbolic acts: washing, clothing, and anointing. These gestures were to demonstrate and teach Israel that the priests were authorized to act on their behalf.

In ancient times, washing with water often symbolled becoming ritually clean, allowing the person to perform sacred acts such as prayer or sacrifice. Though we are not given any details about the washing process, many scholars speculate that it would include the washing of the full body. [1] The scriptures include many references to ritual washing including one from Psalms “Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalms 51:2).

After the washing with water, the high priest and priests were clothed with the holy garments. Unlike today, clothing in ancient times was very costly and difficult to make. The hand spinning and looming process could take possibly hundreds of hours for a single piece of clothing. Thus, the giving of clothing, especially ceremonial clothing, represented a significant bestowing of authority and power. Interestingly the word atonement in Hebrew, or kaphar, actually means to cover, possibly connecting the sacred priestly clothing, which covered the priests, with the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Moses anointing Aaron with oil, the oil is stored in the horn of a bull
Next, Moses was to anoint Aaron and his sons with sacred anointing oil and blood from the sacrifice. The oil was a special combination of pure olive oil with liquified myrrh and other spices (see Exodus 30:22-30). Several stories in the Bible state that anointing oil was stored in an animal’s horn (see for example 1 Samuel 16:13 and 1 Kings 1:39), the horn often being a symbol of power and strength. [2] The scriptures again do not provide any details how the priests were anointed with oil, but we are told about the process of anointing with blood which may give us hints to the full process. [3] Moses would first kill a ram and then save the blood in a dish. He would then place the blood on the right ear of the priest, then on his right thumb, and then the right toe of his foot. (Exodus 29:20 and Leviticus 8:23-24).

Moses dabbing blood on the right ear of Aaron
Blood being placed on the right thumb of Aaron
Moses placing blood on the right toe of Aaron
This act of covering with blood certain parts of the body might seem strange to modern readers of the Bible, but understanding its significance can help us learn several powerful lessons. First, again the meaning of the word atonement in Hebrew means to cover. Second, each of the body parts could represent the service at the Tabernacle and to the Lord. The ear can symbolize the need to hear and follow the word of God. The thumb can represent our actions and ability to labor in the work of the Lord. The toe often is a symbol of our daily walk possibly teaching the priests that they were to walk in the paths of righteousness. By anointing with blood these parts of the body, it could serve as a reminder to the priests that all their actions and deeds should bring others to the Lord. According to one scholar, it could also symbolize that the priest, who represented Israel, was taking upon him the tokens of the death of the sacrifice. Thus, reminding him that it is only by the blood of the sacrifice that he is worthy and able to enter the Lord’s presence. [4]

After being consecrated just once in their life before becoming a priest, the priests then would ritually wash their hands and feet daily at the laver before performing sacrifices and entering the Holy Place (Exodus 30:19-21). This served as a constant reminder that they were to be spiritually clean prior to coming before the Lord.

The priest ritually washing his hands at the laver
After completing these sacred cleansing rituals, the priests were authorized to serve at the Tabernacle and in particular, enter the presence of the Lord into the Holy Place, and in the case of the high priest, the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Though Israel would not participate in these sacred cleansing acts individually, the priests represented them all as if they too were able to be washed themselves. This would hopefully be a reminder to ancient Israel that as they watched the priest physically and spiritually prepare to act on their behalf, they knew they likewise had to be prepared to enter albeit symbolically through the services of the priests.

These powerful symbolic acts at the laver can teach us of our own need to be cleansed by the waters of baptism, clothed in the power of the atonement, and anointed by the blood of the Lamb of God having our sins covered over or blotted out. These rituals can be an outward representation of the truth that it is only through the atoning power of the Savior that we can ultimately be worthy and able to enter the presence of the Lord!

[1] The Gate of Heaven, by Matthew B. Brown, pg. 79.
[2] The Lost Language of Symbolism, by Alonzo Gaskill, pg. 49-50.
[3] The Gate of Heaven, pg. 79-80.
[4] The Anchor Bible, Exodus 19-40, by William H. C. Propp, pg. 530-531.