lechem ha-panim, "bread of the presence"; he prothesis ton arton (Heb 9:2); the American Standard Revised Version "showbread").
1. The Term:
The marginal reading of Ex 25:30; 35:13, the Revised Version (British and American) "Presence-bread," exactly gives the meaning of the Hebrew. In 2Ch 2:4 it is spoken of as the "continual showbread," because it was to be before Yahweh "alway" (Ex 25:30).
2. Mosaic Regulations:
Later Judaism has much to say as to the number and size of the loaves, more properly thin cakes, which bore this name, together with many minute regulations as to the placing of the loaves, the covering of them with frankincense, and other ritualistic vapidities. All that the Mosaic legislation required was that, once in every week, there should be twelve cakes of unleavened bread, each containing about four-fifths of a peck of fine flour, placed in two piles upon a pure table with frankincense beside each pile and changed every Sabbath day (Le 24:5-9). From the description of the table upon which the fiat cakes were to lie (Ex 25:23-30; 37:10-16), it held a series of golden vessels comprising dishes, spoons, flagons and bowls. As it is unlikely that empty cups were set before Yahweh--they being described as "the vessels which were upon the table"--we may conclude that the table held presentation offerings of "grain and wine and oil," the three chief products of the land (De 7:13). The "dishes" were probably the salvers on which the thin cakes were piled, six on each. The "flagons" would contain wine, and the bowls (made with spouts, "to pour withal"), the oil; while the "spoons" held the frankincense, which was burned as a memorial, "even an offering made by fire unto Yahweh." The cakes themselves were eaten by the priests on every Sabbath day, as being among the "most holy" sacrifices. Each of the synoptists refers to the incident of David and his companions having eaten of the shewbread (hoi artoi tes protheseos), as told in 1Sa 21:4-6 (Mt 12:4; Mr 2:26; Lu 6:4).
3. On Journeyings:
At such times as the removal of the tabernacle took place, the separate appointments of the table of incense were not parted from it, but were carried with it--dishes, spoons, bowls, and cups (Nu 4:7). These, like the other furniture, were borne by the Kohathite Levites, but a few articles of lighter weight were in the personal care of the high priest. These comprised the oil for the candlestick, the sweet incense, the holy oil of consecration, and the meal for the continual bread offering (Nu 4:7,8,16). Small quantities of these alone would be borne from place to place, such as would be needed with the least delay to refurbish the vessels of the sanctuary on every reerection of the tent of meeting.
With this view of the nature, we have a natural and adequate sense of the meanings and importance of the shewbread, in the economy of the temple ritual and service. It was a continual reminder to the worshippers of the truth that man does not live by bread alone, emphasized by the fact that these most holy offerings were afterward eaten. It was the Old Testament version of the prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread"; and in the fact that the holy table was never for a moment left without some loaves lying on it, we have the symbol of man’s continued and unbroken dependence upon God. Even during the travels of the table of shewbread with the tabernacle, the "continual bread" was required to be in its place thereon (Nu 4:7).
It has been usual to say that "frankincense in golden urns stood beside the twelve loaves" (EB, IV, col. 4212). But this is a mere repetition of a Jewish legend, as spoons were the recognized holders of the frankincense to be burned (compare Nu 7:14 ff). Such spoons formed a part of the equipment of the shewbread table, and on the removal of the week-old cakes the spoons were carried forth and the frankincense in them burned on the great altar on the Sabbath day. If this were done while the grain and wine and oil were being consumed, it would derive additional significance, as betokening the gratitude and adoration of the representative recipients of the bounties of Nature, just as the daily burning of incense in the holy place betokened the worship and adoration of the praying multitudes without the temple (Lu 1:10).
See Table of Shewbread.
W. Shaw Caldecott