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Why Did People Die at the Tabernacle?

When we see an electrical substation surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, we all know why: this area is dangerous. The only people who belong there are trained, authorized professionals. To ignore the dangers, climb the fence, and trespass is to invite death. To be sure, electricity is an amazing gift. We rely on it. Benefit from it. But only if it is used in accordance with and in respect to its nature. Electricity is great good with potentially great harm if misused.

The holiness of God might be compared to this. Divine holiness is a great good. Our holy Lord wishes to sanctify his people so that they might share in his holiness. Plug into it, we might say. But holiness, while an amazing gift, is also highly dangerous. It is incompatible with uncleanness. That is why ritual unclean people cannot enter the holy space of the tabernacle. First, they must cleanse themselves and then they can stand before God.

The Holy of Holies and Holy Space within the sanctuary is like that electrical substation. Just as in that space there is a high voltage, so in the tabernacle there is the highest concentration of holiness in the world because the holy, holy, holy Lord is there. And just as only trained, authorized professionals belong in the substation, so only trained, authorized, sanctified, ordained priests belong in the tabernacle. For a layman to trespass inside is to invite disaster. When King Uzziah trespassed in the temple to burn incense, a skin disease immediately broke out on his skin (2 Chron. 26:19). And when two sons of Aaron did not treat the holy things in the holy place as God had said, they were killed (Lev. 10:2). When Uzzah touched the ark, he died (2 Sam. 6:7). Wrongly handling or treating the holy things of God is akin to standing in water and playing with electricity. You alone are to blame for your ensuing death.

Divine holiness in Israel, therefore, was to be treated with respect and obedience and trust. God wants to share his holiness with his people, but only in the way that he knows is best for them. Through his Word, he spells all of this out. To believe and follow his Word is to step into worship at the tabernacle ready to be blessed, sanctified, forgiven. But to ignore that Word is to invite danger and possible death.

Written by Chad Bird, 1517 Scholar