Practically speaking, there had to be a light source in the Holy Place. Within the veil where the ark of the covenant resided, the place where God dwelt, the Holy of Holies, was lit by the presence of God Himself and, outside the tent in the outer court, the illumination came directly from the sun.
Here, though, in the Holy Place, though light may be present very dimly through the opening of the canvas door to the outer court, there’s no chance that the illumination necessary for the priest to go about his business would have been present. Therefore, the lampstand (a seven-branched candlestick at that - Ex 25:31-40) represented a practical provision.
But the lampstand probably had a deeper significance to the Israelites than just a light source!
I had, up to this point, always understood the lampstand to be indicative of the presence of God but, having now thought about the implications of such a view, it seems to me to be unlikely that, strictly speaking, this was what the ancient Israelite understood by it.
The presence of God dwelt within the Holy Place where only Aaron and, in later years, the High Priest were to come once a year to secure atonement for the sins of Israel on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus chapter 16). God’s presence was excluded from the outside world by a thick veil that barred anyone’s entrance save the High Priest alone.
Why, then, have a symbol of God’s presence in the Holy Place when He was resident within the Holy of Holies? The parallel seems problematical and I prefer to see an alternative interpretation.
The intention of Lev 24:1-4 is, firstly, to remind the common Israelites that they must be careful to provide the priesthood with oil for the lamp in order that the light might never be extinguished (Lev 24:2) and that Aaron
‘…shall keep the lamps in order upon the lampstand of pure gold before YHWH continually’
It was the High Priest's responsibility, then, to ensure that the lamps were kept in good working order and that the fuel was sufficient for the task assigned to them (he was to trim/attend to the lamps early in the morning at the time when he was to offer incense in the Holy Place - Ex 30:7-8).
It's interesting that the command to look after the lamps was to be carried out by Aaron
'...from evening to morning...'
a phrase that doesn't mean 'continually' but, more specifically 'during the dark hours'. There is an inference here that the light was only necessary to illuminate the Holy Place when the little natural light that diffused into the area was unavailable, and that it's possible that, come morning, the light could be allowed to go out.
However, against this possibility, Lev 24:2 (my italics) is specific that
'...a light may be kept burning continually'
even though some commentators see the word from which we get 'continually' to mean something more akin to 'on a regular basis', thus restricting the artificial light to the dark hours.
By the time of the first century AD, the Rabbis, according to Josephus (himself a Pharisee), understood the Scriptural testimony to be interpreted for the Tabernacle as saying (Aniquities 3.8.3) that the priesthood
'...were...to keep oil already purified for the lamps; three of which were to give light all day long, upon the sacred candlestick, before God, and the rest were to be lighted at the evening'
That is, three of the seven lamps of the candlestick were to be constantly illuminating the Holy Place, while the other four were tended to towards sundown for a greater light during the darkness. Although this is an interpretation of the OT passages, it shows us that they understood the Levitical commands to be that a light was to shine continually before YHWH.
When the prophet Samuel was a young lad and serving in the Tabernacle under the High priest Eli (I Samuel chapters 2-3), we read that Samuel used to lie down to sleep within the Temple courts (I Sam 3:3)
‘…where the ark of God was’
This is a strange enough statement, implying, as it does, that Samuel slept in the Holy of Holies - however, the alternative interpretation would be that he slept in the Holy Place, outside the veil. In the same verse, however, we read that
‘…the lamp of God had not yet gone out’
a similarly strange statement seeing as the lamp was never supposed to go out at all! There are a number of possibilities here but, if the statement is to be taken literally, it would appear that at this time in Israel's experience, they were allowing the light to run out of fuel sometime during the night - or, perhaps, at first light when the light wasn't necessary for the illumination of the Holy Place, and it could well show that the verse noted above concerning the tending of the lamps 'from evening to morning' had been applied without accepting the command of Lev 24:2 that the light was to be continual.
Similarly, in II Chr 13:11, when King Abijah of Judah speaks to King Jeroboam of Israel, he notes that the priesthood in Jerusalem (both the levitical priests and the sons of Aaron)
'...care for the golden lampstand that its lamps may burn every evening...'
a turn of phrase that is more indicative of a provision of light during the night rather than illumination that was to continue 'continually' as Lev 24:2 (Pp Ex 27:20) commanded. The verse stops short of saying that there was no light emanating from the lampstand during the day, however, only that the importance of the lampstand was to provide light during the darkness.
Getting back to Samuel, although the text may be giving us a unique insight into how Lev 24:1-4 was interpreted early on during Israel's settlement, the writer may be alluding to something else here that we could easily gloss over and miss.
In Samuel’s day, there was a great amount of apostasy in the land, men and women walking away from a devotion to God and His commandments, but there were still those who remained faithful to the covenant and to the revealed will of God. Therefore it could rightly be said that God still had people who bore witness to the Truth and who stood for what was right even though there were many (or, probably, most) who went their own way rather than God’s.
Further, in Revelation 1:13,20 we read of Jesus walking in the midst of the lampstands - each lampstand being indicative of His Church and of the witness that the body of believers in certain locations give to those around them.
There are other Scriptures as well which talk of believers being the light in the darkness of the world (Phil 2:15, Mtw 5:14-16) and the concept isn’t unusual to the Old Testament (Is 60:1-3). Therefore, when we read the statement in Samuel, there may be a reference here to the witness of God in the land - the presence of God through His people hadn’t yet been extinguished through their disobedience. God still had people who lived within the land who were shining His presence into the society around them.
The best interpretation of the lampstand in the Holy Place, therefore, seems to me to be that it represented the presence of God within Israelite society - the presence of God being demonstrated through His servants outside the Tabernacle within Israel and, further, the world (a witness) - so that that light must never be put out.
Israel were to be a light in the darkness of the nations that were settled round about them and the lampstand was indicative of this. But the lampstand primarily spoke of the importance of allowing the presence of God to be continually in their midst and to make sure that it was never extinguished. This wasn’t the responsibility of the priesthood, though they had the command to ensure that the light continued to burn - it was the responsibility of the Israelites who were now commanded to provide the oil that enabled the priesthood to carry out their duty.
The priesthood couldn’t replace the responsibility of the common people - indeed, the relevance and effectiveness of the priesthood only found completion as the people set themselves to serve and worship God. Here there was no teaching that the priest maintained the sanctity of the nation but that the priest stood effectively in the gap between their God and His people only if they were careful to make sure that the light of God continued to burn amongst them.
The twelve loaves of bread were to be laid out on the table that resided in the Holy Place (Ex 25:23-30) along with the altar of incense and the lampstand detailed above.
There are some practicalities here that need explaining. Firstly, the bread was replaced every sabbath (Lev 24:8) and replaced with new, fresh bread, twelve loaves set out in two rows (as the RSV) of six and weighing around 3.5 pounds each (as Wenham). Frankincense is generally envisaged as being poured over them at this point ‘as a memorial portion’ (Lev 24:7) and the loaves were to remain there for the next seven days until the following sabbath.
Because of the small surface area of the table and the size of bread loaves used, it may be best to see the bread as being stacked up in a pile (two piles of six, in effect) rather than, as traditionally, laid out in two neat rows - even though the Hebrew word is best understood to mean 'row' and is translated as such.
When the bread was removed, it became the portion for the priests to eat (Lev 24:9) but the frankincense there was to be offered on the altar of burnt offering (Lev 24:7).
Herein lies an interesting question - just what good would seven day old bread be for human consumption? And, more than this, once it had had frankincense poured or sprinkled over it (as is traditionally thought), would it be edible?
That it was fit for consumption should be accepted as it seems unlikely that the Lord would provide food for His ministers that was mouldy (nowhere do we read that the priests were to scrape the mould off before downing it)! But this may tell us more about the type of bread that was used - that it wouldn’t have decayed over a seven day period to the point where it had become inedible. Or are we to think of God's miraculous provision being demonstrated weekly to the High Priest by preventing the bread from becoming inedible?
Although the frankincense is a ‘memorial portion’ burnt upon the altar, it’s probably telling us no more than the similar statement in Lev 2:2 that the same substance was to be used as a memorial portion during the offering of cereal to the Lord. This is, indeed, a type of cereal offering but a special and quite different one in that it was to be laid out for seven days before the presence of the Lord in the Holy Place.
In the absence of a definitive statement that the frankincense was to be poured or sprinkled over the loaves, it may be best to accept a less interpretive explanation and see the table for the bread to be the place where incense was left - not that it was sprinkled over the contents of the table - so that, when Aaron and his sons were to come in each morning to offer incense to YHWH (Ex 30:7-8), there was a ready supply that could be replenished each week at the same time as the shewbread was renewed (I'm grateful to a brother for suggesting this via email correspondence).
The number twelve is used elsewhere in the Tabernacle design and construction and it’s probably in these that we should use the interpretation to understand the significance of the twelve loaves.
In Ex 28:9-12, we read of the engraving of two onyx stones that were to be set upon the shoulders of the ephod of the High Priest (28:12) that they might be
‘...stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for remembrance’
There was also a breastplate which was to have twelve stones inlaid (Ex 28:15-30), one each for the tribes of Israel with individual names engraved into their faces. This breastplate (28:29) was so that
‘...Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment upon his heart, when he goes into the holy place, to bring them to continual remembrance before YHWH’
Therefore it doesn’t seem unreasonable to accept that the twelve loaves were representative of the twelve tribes of Israel and that their placement before the presence of the Lord was to serve as a continual reminder to Him to watch over His people - of course, God needs no such reminder (!!) but the loaves served more as a reminder to the nation that God was continually overseeing their lives and prosperity, not just when Aaron entered the Holy Place bearing their names on his shoulders and upon the breastplate but continually.
That the bread is sometimes referred to as 'the bread of the presence' (or, more literally, 'the bread of the face' - Ex 25:30, for example) fits in with the interpretation here - it was the bread that symbolised the presence of God's people before Him.
The incense, which may have thought to have been indicative of the prayers of the Israelites (Ps 141:2) is better here taken to serve as a remembrance before YHWH for the people (Lev 24:7), and it rounds off the interpretation - the contents of this table was to speak of God's people and their communion with their God. That God could ever forget His people would be impossible, so the bread and incense would be for the reassurance of the Israelites themselves - that they dwelt before the presence of YHWH and that they were acceptable to Him.
Aaron and His sons were commanded to eat the bread at the end of the allotted time of seven days (Lev 24:9) because they were the mediators of the covenant and representative of the people - the people, symbolised by the bread, became a part of the High Priest, just as the High Priest stood before YHWH to minister to Him on behalf of all Israel.
In eating the bread, then, Aaron and his sons would have been continually reminded that, when YHWH accepted their service, it was as if He was accepting Israel for the nation was carried by him. This responsibility, therefore, was brought home to them very forcibly that theirs was a most serious ministry.Leviticus Home Page