The ancient rabbis taught that when you hold the word of God in your hands, your hands should feel filthy. I wonder if that even makes sense to us. Do we have a sense of the terrible holiness of God? Can we grasp our complete lack of purity without crumbling in ourselves? Can the holiness and purity of God still char our conscience? Jean Valjean walks 35 miles and then tries to find a room in an inn. But there is a problem. His passport is yellow telling everyone that he is a convict and written on that yellow passport is a warning telling everyone that Valjean is dangerous. He is thrown out of two inns. He tries to sleep in a dog kennel, only to be bitten by a dog. The sky threatens rain, so in desperation and no hope he knocks on the door of what he believes to be another inn with no hope in his heart. But this is the house of the Bishop of Digne. The Bishop listens to his tail of being a convict and of walking and of refusal and then invites him to stay for supper and a night’s rest. Later, as the Bishop is walking him to his room, Valjean stops, crosses his arm and said bitterly, “So, now! You let me stay in your house, as near to you as that? Have you ever thought I might be a murderer?” The Bishop smiles and replied kindly, “God will take care of that.” Valjean awakens in the middle of the night with thoughts of murder and theft. He ends up leaving as a thief only. But one must wonder why murder. Why want to kill this man who showed kindness when no one else would? Could it be that the goodness of the Bishop emphasized his own baseness?
In Exodus 30:17-21 Moses is given instructions concerning a bronze laver to be placed between the holy place (the tent of assembly) and the altar. Three times Yahweh tells Moses that this basin is for washing. Twice he warns them that this washing is to be done so that the priests will not die. The implication is that if they didn’t wash their hands and feet, God would kill them. Or, maybe, the very Presence; the terrible holiness of God; would overwhelm them and they would die. More on that later. Within these instructions we are not given any measurements. Later, in Solomon’s temple (cf. 1 Kings 7:23-39), a “sea” was placed before the holy place. Many believe that this “sea,” which could hold about 12,000 gallons of water, was what replaced the bronze basin of the Tabernacle. If this is the case, the size would have been much smaller to allow for transportation. Others will look to the ten basins of the Temple and equate them with this single basin. These basins were also probably much larger than the basin described here, although we cannot be sure since no measurements are provided. The “sea” was also for the cleansing of the priests, which makes it the likely candidate.
The priests were commanded as a perpetual ordinance to wash their hands and feet before entering the tent of assembly or the Tabernacle and before they ministered by offering any of the offerings. Washing the feet was a sign of hospitality as seen in Genesis 18:4. But overall, the idea of washing is about ceremonial cleansing. It is possible to view the washing of the hands and feet as a washing away of unclean actions and unclean movements. God is holy boys and girls. He is so holy that his presence should emphasize our baseness. We cannot just approach God’s presence; we cannot just set ourselves to serve in his presence. Not without a washing, we can’t.
God invites the priests into his presence to serve. And as a good host, he provides the means for their being made clean. And just like the rest of the articles in and near the tent of meeting, this is a reminder; a reminder of Yahweh’s holiness; a reminder of their filthiness. But mostly I think we are intended to view a hospitable God; a God whose holiness could kill any non washed approaching filthy human. So, he provides a “sea” of washing before his throne. And it seems likely that the author of Revelation had this “sea” in mind when he paints the symbol of a glass sea before the throne of God. It is a sea of washing so that people can draw near to a holy God.
I am quite sure that I need to work on my idea of God’s holiness. The only reason I can draw near to Yahweh is because I have been washed clean by the blood of Jesus. But because I have been washed clean and I can approach Yahweh with boldness, I often don’t comprehend his awesome holiness; a holiness that would overwhelm and leave me quite dead without the washing. Ah, it is a holiness that makes my hands feel filthy; a purity that emphasizes my baseness; a sanctity that leaves me gasping for breath. But to God be all the glory: He has provided a sea of washing. Whew! Shalom, Walter