by Alan Summers, Scotland
When the Authorised Version of the Bible was translated, the word “laver” meant a bowl or basin used for washing. Although the Hebrew word (kiyor) only means a bowl, the translators of the Authorised Version evidently thought that “laver” captured the meaning of the word better than ‘bowl’ or ‘basin’. Some modern translations say “basin of bronze” but for those who study the Tabernacle, “laver” is how this vessel is best known.
The laver was vital if the priests were to do their work effectively. The priests had to kill, butcher and disembowel animals brought to the altar. This would leave their hands smeared in blood. The laver would enable them to wash their hands regularly. It is thought that they carried a towel at their girdle so that they could dry their hands. Clean hands were vital if they were to grip their tools and avoid the risk of bloodstained fingerprints being left on the vessels of the sanctuary. It should also be pointed out that the laver was used to wash the priests’ feet. The priests did not wear shoes. Dirt, therefore, could be picked up from the wilderness floor. Their feet might also get coated in ashes as they raked the grate of the altar. It would not be seemly if the priest left behind a trail of footprints in the holy place. For all these reasons the laver was a vital part of the Tabernacle.
The first reference to the laver is in Ex.30.18, in the section of Exodus where Moses describes the vessels of the Tabernacle. Although dimensions are supplied for other vessels, no dimensions are given for the laver.1 It is reasonable to assume that it was large enough to contain a day’s water supply. Although it could have been replenished at intervals throughout the day, the lamps were trimmed at the beginning and end of each day. This may suggest that the Tabernacle was maintained on a daily basis. If the laver was built to contain a day’s supply of water it may have been of modest proportions. When the Tabernacle was constructed only five priests were in service. Two of them died under God’s judgment at an early stage of Israel’s wilderness experience, Lev.10.1,2. So, assuming that the laver was large enough to meet the needs of a small group of priests, and that the priests were not constantly using the laver, it may not have been that big. There is no indication that it had rings attached to it. Other vessels had rings through which poles were run when the vessel was in transit, but there are no such details in connection with the laver. This suggests that it was small enough and light enough to be carried by one man.
- 1. The great “sea” and the ten lavers of Solomon’s Temple are described in detail in 1Kgs.7.23-39; 2Chr.4.1-10.
Scripture does not give any indication of the shape of the laver. Basins are usually round so it is reasonable to assume the laver was round. Because the priests had to wash their feet as well as their hands some have thought that beneath the main bowl of the laver there was another lower basin. It has even been suggested that there were taps or spouts that enabled water to pass from the upper basin to the lower basin and that the laver resembled a cup sitting in a saucer. Such an arrangement would have given it an unusual appearance. It may be doubted whether the word ‘bowl’ could adequately describe such a two-tier vessel. The main reason for postulating a two-tier arrangement is that some have thought that a priest could not wash his feet if the water was in a basin at waist level. However, water could have been scooped out of the laver by hand or with a smaller cup and applied to the priests’ feet.
Whatever its design, it was based on a pedestal called the “foot”. The laver did not sit on the ground. The “foot”, or pedestal, elevated it above the wilderness floor and made it easy for the priests to access the water. Those who favour the two-tier model of the laver argue that the “foot” was not a pedestal at all but the lower bowl of water. This view has not commended itself to translators. Mainstream translators such as the Authorised Version, English Standard Version, J.N. Darby and New English Translation all translate the word as the “foot” or “stand”.
Like the altar of burnt offering the laver was made of “brass”. The word translated “brass” is nĕhōšet,which can mean either pure copper or bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, or brass properly so called, an alloy of copper and zinc. When the Authorised Version was translated, the word “brass” could mean either copper or one of its alloys. It seems likely that the laver was made of bronze.
For the most part, we are not told where the materials for the Tabernacle came from. The shittim wood (acacia) used for the boards and poles was presumably from acacia trees that grew in the wilderness. There is a possibility that the wood was hauled from Egypt when Israel left but the acacia tree is a tree of the desert. The Sinai wilderness was not, as some suppose, a sandy desert. Although the Sinai Peninsula is now largely deforested, it is entirely possible that the acacia trees used in the Tabernacle grew in profusion over three millennia ago. The precious metals and fabrics may have come from Egypt. The Egyptians gave the Israelites gifts on their departure from Egypt. The Israelites may have had fabrics and precious metals of their own and taken them on the Exodus. Records show that the Egyptians mined copper ore in the Sinai at the time of the Exodus. Another possible source of materials was the merchants who passed through Sinai on the trade routes to Africa and the Middle East.
We do know, however, where the brass for the laver came from. A group of women donated their looking glasses, Ex.38.8. The looking glasses were then melted down and recast as a laver. Even allowing for the fact that the laver may not have been large, there must been a fairly large number of looking glasses to make a laver big enough to be used in the Tabernacle.
The laver is the only Tabernacle vessel made of reconstituted material. The mirrors that had once been used for checking on the women’s appearance were transformed into a laver used to keep the priests clean. Not long after the laver was made, the sons of Korah were slain and their censers used to refurbish the altar, Num.16.38. Scripture does not say how the censers were incorporated into the brazen altar.
Before seeking to explore the symbolism of the laver it is necessary to establish whether it is legitimate to interpret the laver symbolically. This is an important question since there is no verse of Scripture that uses the laver as a symbol. In that situation it might be asked whether caution and a desire not to go “above that which is written” 1Cor.4.6, should prevent us from interpreting the laver in a symbolic fashion?
First it is necessary to notice that the Tabernacle was meant to be understood symbolically by those who used it, even though there is not a word of explanation of its meaning in Exodus. In Hebrews the writer refers to the veil that screened the Holy of holies off from the holy place as a “figure for the time then present” Heb.9.9. The “time then present”2 refers (I think) to the time when the Tabernacle was in operation. This indicates that the Israelites were meant to learn lessons from the Tabernacle. Hebrews say that the veil was a symbol of their exclusion from God’s presence. The writer to the Hebrews goes on to interpret the Holy of holies as a picture of heaven itself, Heb.9.11. In the Tabernacle the glory of God dwelt above the ark and between the cherubim. The Holy of holies was, therefore, a picture of heaven itself. The Tabernacle is described as a “figure of the true” Heb.9.24. In other words, it was a symbol of a greater reality.
- 2. Some translations prefer to translate, “the present age”.
Other writers also use the Tabernacle as a symbol of New Testament truth. Paul, in Rom.3.25, uses the mercy seat on the ark as a picture of the Lord Jesus and His death for sin. Jn.1.14 says He “dwelt among us”. This literally means He ‘pitched His tent’ or ‘tabernacled’ among us. Although tents are used elsewhere in Scripture to describe the human body, John had one particular tent in view. This is obvious when he says, “we beheld His glory”. The only tent linked with the glory of the Lord was the Tabernacle. These verses indicate that the Tabernacle and its vessels were symbolic.
The passage of Scripture, however, that comes closest to referring to the laver is John chapter 13. There the Lord used a basin of water during supper in the Upper Room to teach lessons about cleansing and humility. As we have noted, the laver was a bowl or basin. The analogy is not perfect: the Upper Room was not the Tabernacle or Temple. The disciples were not priests. Nevertheless, there are clear parallels with the Tabernacle and its teaching.
More generally, it is correct to say that Scripture is a book of symbols. Thus, for example, gold in Scripture is a precious metal linked with wealth and nobility. It cannot be a coincidence that the Holy of holies was made of gold. White is linked with purity. It cannot be a coincidence that the linen that formed the curtains that surrounded the Tabernacle was white.
It is, therefore, safe to conclude that the laver should be interpreted symbolically and had both a practical use and a spiritual message.
The Symbolism of Water
The first feature of the laver I wish to examine is the symbolism of the water it contained. Water is a major Biblical symbol. This is due in large measure to the vital role it plays in life. Our planet is called ‘the blue planet’ because so much of its surface is covered in water. It is essential to the planet’s existence. It irrigates the soil and enables crops to grow. It cools and protects the earth. Water is also essential to human existence. We cannot survive long without water. In light of the role water plays in human existence it is no surprise, therefore, to find that it is an important Scriptural metaphor for that which sustains spiritual life. In Jn.3.5, for example, the Lord Jesus links water with the life-giving properties of the Holy Spirit in new birth.
In connection with the laver, however, its water speaks of water’s ability to cleanse from defilement. The first time we read of water being used by man is in Genesis chapter 18, where Abraham meets three heavenly visitors and invites them to rest and eat food. He says, “Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree” Gen.18.4.
Thereafter Scripture repeatedly refers to water as a cleansing agent. When Elisha pours water on Elijah’s hands, 2Kgs.3.11, he cleanses his master’s hands and takes the servant’s part. When Naaman bathes in the Jordan he obeys God and his leprosy is symbolically cleansed by Jordan’s waters, 2Kgs.5.14. In Numbers the ashes of the red heifer are mixed with water and used for ritual purification, Num.19.9. When Pilate washes his hands at Jesus’ trial his gesture symbolises his desire to be cleansed from responsibility for the death of Jesus, Matt.27.24. Although blood is the main symbol of that which cleanses from sin, water is used from time to time to depict the removal of sin.
In connection with the laver it is useful to notice the distinction drawn in Scripture between still water and living water. Spring water is an example of living water. A spring gushes upwards from a hidden aquifer. It is water driven by a hidden power. Thus, a river is an example of living water. Rain and floods are forms of living water. It is, therefore, entirely appropriate that living water is a symbol of God’s power to bring life. The Holy Spirit is depicted by living water, Isa.44.3-5; Jn.4.14; 7.38,39; Rev.21.6; 22.17.
Water that is enclosed in a pool or vessel, by contrast, is still water. When we drink water from a cup we drink from still water. When we wash our hands in a basin we wash in still water. Still water is a symbol of that which cleanses and refreshes. In various places we are told that God’s spoken word, Jn.15.3; Eph.5.25,26, and God’s written word, Ps.119.9, cleanse the believer. In Psalm 23 David speaks of still water. This is water that may be drunk and which brings refreshment.
The laver, therefore, is not a picture of the regenerating power of God. That is linked with living water. The laver is a picture of the cleansing power of God’s Word. God’s Word has a spiritual power that drives away thoughts and influences that contaminate and replaces them with that which tends to purity and holiness. Water does not prevent defilement, but removes it.
When a priest entered the priesthood his whole body was washed, Ex.29.4; Lev.8.6. This cleansing is distinguished from the cleansing offered by the laver in three ways. Firstly, it was for the whole body. This declared that the initial cleansing was comprehensive in nature. The laver, by contrast, was for the hands and feet. It was a partial cleansing. Secondly, it was never repeated. The priest was washed all over when he became a priest and, while he may have bathed at home, the bathing ritual described on his induction as a priest was not done again. The laver, on the other hand, was in constant use. Thirdly, it was purely symbolic. While the cleansing of the laver had a practical purpose, the bathing of the priest on his induction was designed to depict spiritual truth.
The distinction between a once-for-all washing and daily washing appears in John’s Gospel. Before He went to the cross the Lord met with His disciples in the Upper Room. As they were eating He rose from the table and began to wash the disciples’ feet. When Peter refused to permit the Lord to wash his feet, the Lord insisted that He must wash them. While there is no doubt the Lord wished to show them the need for humility, He was also intent on teaching them about the need to be spiritually clean. When Peter tried to stop the Lord cleaning his feet, the Lord said to him, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me” Jn.13.8. On one level this was a preposterous claim. Peter was acting out of concern for the Saviour. He was refusing to be washed because he did not wish his Lord to have to kneel before him as a servant. The Lord, however, saw the issue quite differently. If Peter did not permit Him to wash his feet they could not have fellowship. The Lord was not teaching that fellowship was based on a foot-washing ritual. He was teaching a deeper spiritual truth: that unless a disciple was spiritually clean the Lord could not have fellowship with him. Most commentators assume that the Lord is teaching that without the cleansing of salvation, fellowship with the Lord is impossible, but I think this is unlikely. Although we do not know whether the Lord was speaking in Aramaic or Greek that night, the text of what He said makes an important distinction. The Lord spoke of washing (nipto) and contrasted it with all-over cleansing (louos). He said, “He that is washed [leloumenos] needeth not save to wash [nipsasththai] his feet, but is clean every whit” Jn.13.10. In other words, when someone has bathed at the start of the day, he does not need to keep on bathing during the day. He just needs to regularly wash his hands and feet to get rid of any dirt he may have picked up. The disciples in the Upper Room that evening may have picked up mud or dust as they walked though Jerusalem to the Upper Room. Cities were dirty places in those days. This distinction is the same as the one noted above. The Lord is drawing a distinction between initial cleansing and daily cleansing. Although salvation secures our eternal destiny, constant washing enables us to have practical fellowship with the Lord Jesus.
This distinction is consistent with the New Testament teaching on salvation. In 1Cor.6.11 the apostle Paul teaches the Corinthians that they have been “washed”. Thus, although they had allowed sin to enter and contaminate their lives they did not need to be washed again.
John, who was present in the Upper Room and recorded the Lord’s words, wrote of the ongoing need for cleansing. In 1Jn.1.7 he stresses the importance of living in an upright way (walking in the light) and explains that purity of life is the basis of fellowship with God. In that situation John writes that the blood of Jesus Christ “cleanseth us from all sin”. The word “cleanseth” is in the present tense. This makes it clear that John is not referring to the once-for-all cleansing that occurred at salvation. Some eminent writers and teachers have sought to say that these verses refer to initial salvation, and they are driven by this view to argue that walking in the light is positional truth. The better view is that John is referring to the truth of the laver: that is, the need for ongoing cleansing following the once-for-all cleansing of salvation. It would be odd indeed if the believer’s “walk” referred to his standing. In Scripture the “walk” of a believer is his daily life. A believer’s standing “in Christ”, his justification and imputed righteousness are to be distinguished from his behaviour. If we are to “walk in the light” and enjoy daily cleansing from sin we must avail ourselves of the laver.
John no doubt had often reflected on the Lord’s words, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me” Jn.13.8. Although many commentators understand these words to refer to the cleansing of salvation, I believe they refer to fellowship with Christ. It is hard to accept that Jesus was telling Peter that if he did not submit to foot washing he could have no salvation. Peter was already justified by faith. He was in the priesthood by virtue of initial cleansing. However, he lacked practical sanctification. We all need our minds and hearts cleansed. That can only be done if we allow the Lord to use ‘water from the basin’. Confessing our sins, 1Jn.1.9, is the acknowledgment that we are defiled. Applying the Word of God is the means of cleansing.
It is also necessary to note that the defilement that is contracted by the priest comes about through the performance of his duties. Not all defilement is the result of deliberate wrongdoing. We can be defiled by exposure to sin. The water of God’s Word can then help remove the contamination.
The Symbolism of the Position of the Laver
The positions of the vessels in the Tabernacle were significant. The brazen altar was the first vessel that a priest or worshipper met as he entered the courtyard, Ex.40.6,7. This is consistent with the idea that if man is to approach God his sin must be put away. The laver was positioned between the altar and the Tabernacle itself. It was not used by the worshipper but by the priest. I consider that sin is presented here in two aspects. The sin of the sinner requires sacrifice. It is his sin that is put away; but the priest becomes defiled in assisting with the offering. Gal.6.1 and Jude v.23 warn us that something that starts out with the best of intentions can lead to spiritual disaster. Our sinful nature can be attracted by what we profess to hate. Thus, although we may not commit the high-handed sins that necessitate a sin offering, we may need cleansing from the associations such sins create. Another thought associated with the position of the laver is that it stood before the holy place. Its position is consistent with the idea that defilement must be removed before a priest can enter God’s presence. It was positioned before the vail that led into the holy place. It was not positioned inside the holy place. A priest could not stand in the light of the lamp or offer the incense of worship or handle the shewbread unless he had first of all been cleansed.
The Symbolism of Brass
The laver was, like the altar, made of brass. Today “brass” means an alloy of copper and zinc. When the Authorised Version was translated, brass was a broader expression which included copper and bronze and their alloys. It is not entirely clear whether the word used means copper or bronze. It was less valuable than gold and silver, the other two main metals used in the Tabernacle, but valuable nevertheless. The two vessels in the courtyard, where man appeared, were made with the baser metal. The vessels in the holy place and the Holy of holies, where God appeared, were made with gold.
Brass is repeatedly connected in Scripture with God’s judgment. Israel was given a brazen serpent when they sinned, Num.21.9. It symbolised the fiery serpents that brought judgment to Israel. When Israel broke the Law the curses of the Law followed behind. These included drought and famine. When the heavens were “as brass” Deut.28.23, the farmer had no rain.3 When the Lord appears as the Judge and Conqueror of the world John describes His “feet like unto burnished brass” Rev.1.15, R.V. We may deduce from this that just as the brazen altar was linked with man’s sin and God’s judgment, so too was the laver.
- 3. This may mean that when sandstorms blew in and destroyed the crops the sky was copper coloured because of the sand in the air. It is more likely, however, in context that it means the skies did not rain. Just as a solid like brass exudes no moisture, so the sky gave no rain. Either way it signified God’s judgment during drought conditions. Compare Lev.26.19, where the imagery is reversed.
The laver was made from looking glasses. Today a looking glass costs very little, but in the days when the laver was made, a looking glass was an expensive item. The laver was constructed before techniques for manufacturing glass had been developed. Looking glasses were made of highly polished brass or copper. The donation of the glasses was a considerable sacrifice. Apart from their value they were useful. In sacrificing their looking glasses, the women gave up something they particularly valued. They put the Lord’s interests before their own interests.
A looking glass shows me as I am and not as I imagine myself to be. What I see will enable me to take corrective action if appropriate. Scripture performs the same function in the spiritual realm. James likens Scripture to a looking glass, Jms.1.23-25. The laver was not designed to adjust the priest’s headdress or beard. It was to enable him to wash his hands and feet. If they were contaminated the priest would be able to see that and take action. Unlike the mirror, which was powerless to cure the defect it showed, the water in the laver enabled defilement to be removed. In the spiritual realm God’s Word has a powerful, corrective effect. Those who fail to use the laver will not be able to serve as they should.
The laver is a powerful symbol of the power of God to cleanse those whose lives have been contaminated by sin. Although there is no doubt it speaks of God’s power to cleanse sin generally, it particularly speaks of the power of God to cleanse those who have been defiled unwittingly or ‘in the line of duty’. When the priest offered a sin offering, brought to the Tabernacle, he was not offering for his own sin, but he became contaminated by the act of offering the sacrifice. So today, we are sometimes contaminated by sin even when we have not chosen to sin. Our sinful nature is attracted by sin and enables sin to cling to our hands and feet. Like the laver, the Word of God has been provided to keep us clean.