Every year, hundreds of people climb famous mountains like Everest and Kilimanjaro. Some do it for adventure, some for a challenge, and others because they’re adrenaline junkies. Whatever their individual motivations might be, they all want to reach the summit. That’s their goal.
In Israel, once a year, one man would reach the summit of a very different kind of mountain. And he got there without going up, even a little.
To explain how it worked, we need to go back in biblical history to the time of the exodus.
At Mount Sinai
When Israel camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, only one man climbed to the peak: Moses. When the “glory of the Lord dwelt [שׁכן (shakan)] on Mount Sinai,” Moses entered his presence (Exod. 24:16). Here the Lord gave him the two tablets of stone and spoke to him. Moses then descended the mountain to the people.
At the base of the mountain were the tribes of Israel and the altar. Here the covenant ceremony took place and sacrifices were offered. From the mountain itself, however, even the slopes of the mountain, the rest of the Israelites were to keep away.
Once the tabernacle was constructed, a change took place. The divine presence relocated. The glory of the LORD, which had "dwelt [שׁכן (shakan)] on Mount Sinai,” left that peak and “dwelt [שׁכן (shakan)]” in the tabernacle instead (40:34).
God’s glorious presence moved from the top of Sinai to the Holy of Holies.
Do you see what’s happening?
The tabernacle has become a portable Sinai.
This is the mountain that Israel moved.
Sinai Within the Holy of Holies
Here are just a few of the more obvious parallels between Sinai and the tabernacle:
Where did the divine glory dwell [שׁכן (shakan)]? Atop Sinai.
Where did it move? To the tabernacle, specifically, the Holy of Holies.
(Indeed, the Hebrew word for tabernacle is מִשְׁכָּן [mishkan], which is from the verb שׁכן [shakan], so that “tabernacle” simply means “dwelling place.”)
Where were the tablets of stone given? Atop Sinai.
Where were they moved? Into the ark of the covenant, in the Holy of Holies.
Where did God speak to Moses? Atop Sinai.
Where did he speak thereafter? Atop the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, as Exod. 25:22 says.
Moreover, just as the altar was at the base of Sinai, so the altar of the tabernacle was “at its base,” as it were, out in front of it. Just as the Israelites were not allowed to climb even the slopes of Sinai, so they are not allowed to enter either the Holy Place or Holy of Holies.
There are many other parallels between Sinai and the tabernacle, noted long ago by Jewish scholars, but these sufficiently explain the connection between the two.
Israel never really left Sinai; they took it with them in this holy tent.
The Israelite Mountain Climber
So, to return to where we started, in Israel, once a year, one man would reach the summit of a very different kind of mountain. And he got there without going up, even a little.
The high priest, like Moses, would “ascend” to the peak of the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. When Moses went to the summit of Sinai, it was “covered [כסה (kasah)]” with a cloud (Exod. 24:15). So likewise, when the high priest went into the Holy of Holies, it was to be “covered [כסה (kasah)]” in a cloud of incense (Lev. 16:13).
There, blood would be sprinkled. There, atop Mount Holy of Holies, in the presence of the God who dwelt in that beclouded darkness, atonement would be made.
The Good Friday Yom Kippur
All of this, however, could never really solve the problem of sin, as Hebrews starkly reminds us: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4) and the law “can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (Heb. 10:1).
Only the sacrifice of Christ could do that on the ultimate crucifixion Day of Atonement. Though no mortal eyes could see it, as this Priest in the order of Melchizedek hung upon that cruel altar of a Roman cross, by his own blood, Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places…thus securing an eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12). “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).
We sometimes call the cross Mount Calvary. It is fitting. Indeed, this was the messianic mountaintop atonement on the Good Friday Yom Kippur.
Before that sacrifice happened, however, once a year, a priestly Israelite mountain climber, with incense and blood, would ascend the summit of the sanctuary to enact the ritual that pointed ahead to when Christ the Priest would ascend to heaven itself, with his own blood as the offering for us and our salvation.
*There are many helpful resources on this material. An especially useful and insightful one is the book by L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus (IVP Academic, 2015).