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Shemot/Exodus 27:1 And you shall make the altar [out of] shittim wood
This phrase throws us immediately into a serious question: how can man make an altar, which is later itself to be consecrated and declared holy, on which to bring holy offerings for atonement, sin and guilt offerings, out of wood? How can anything that man could make be holy and acceptable to G-d?
Sarna opens the conversation by explaining which altar is in view. Because of its size - the incense altar is only one cubit square - this must be the altar of the burnt offerings, where the twice daily offerings were made. "This altar is also known as 'the alter of bronze' on account of its metal overlay and to distinguish it from the altar of gold, which was used for incense. A third name, found in rabbinic literature, is 'the outer altar'. This name derives from its location and is to be contrasted with the 'inner altar', the golden incense altar that stood in the Holy Place." Sarna also makes the point that the cult could not function without the ritual of sacrifice, so "its presence in the Tabernacle is taken for granted", which is why it referred to here with a definite article - - the altar. From archaeology comes the observation that the altar for burnt offerings uncovered in the Judean temple at Arad in the Negev corresponds exactly to the dimensions here. DonAbravanel, takes the argument a little further; also starting from the use of the definite article, he comments that "the Israelites knew there had to be one - this was how all the ancients served their gods, by offering sacrifice on an altar" (in Carasik). This was how all the primitive religions worked - offering gifts, burnt offerings and libations upon an altar - that marked a total consecration of the offering to the god.
Hirsch connects with the debate conducted by the Sages of the Talmud concerning the dimensions and placement of the altar (b. Zevachim 59b-62a). He summaries that, "for the altar to be used, it had to be square, but its dimensions, length, breadth and height could vary. Nevertheless the height never did and never will change. The altars erected by Moshe, by Solomon and in the second Temple, were all of equal height although the length and breadth rose from the five cubits of Moshe's altar to thirty two cubits in the second Temple." He then quotes Maimonides: "The altar in the Temple of the future, as envisioned and described by Ezekiel will have the same height" (, II, 5; Ezekiel 43:15). This obsession with detail is typical of the rabbinic debate, but points to two essential truths. Friedman highlights the first: "The quantity and detail in these chapters is an indication that these are authentic descriptions of the Tabernacle and its accoutrements. What motive would there be to make all of this up?" The amount of description of the various components of the tabernacle, its furniture, the clothing of the priests and the ritual of the cult, makes it very unlikely that this would all have been fabricated. If this were not how it was done and what it looked like, there were plenty of witnesses around who would corroborate or deny this account. The text and the following debate confirm the veracity and existence of a real altar. The second truth, however, takes us closer to an answer to our original question. This is one of the reasons that the Rabbis debated at such length and with such tenacity: to preserve the divine essence and origin of the specification.
The sanctity of the altar is guaranteed not by the builders - who, even though selected and nominated byHaShem, were men - nor by either the building or consecration process, but because HaShem has commanded it to be so. Betzalel's gifted obedience to the building instructions is important; Moshe's inspired obedience to the process of consecrating the whole of the Tabernacle assemblage and installing Aharon as High Priest is important. Ultimately, though, the whole process works because G-d Himself has declared the altar to be holy or "set apart" for Him. He is the one who makes it holy; He declares it to be an acceptable platform for the offering of sacrifice to Him; He stipulates the rules of engagement so that it retains it holiness and is not profaned. Holiness comes from G-d; it is declared and commanded by Him: "Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, 'You shall be holy, for I the L-RD your G-d am holy'" (Vayikra 19:2, NASB).
So in our post-Calvary world, where although sacrifice remains the only means of obtaining forgiveness for sin - "All things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Hebrews 9:22, NASB) - that obligation is met by receiving and appropriating the sacrifice that Yeshua made on the stake for us, how do we make an altar and what is to go on it? That our worship of G-d is still to be based around the principle of sacrifice is not open to debate; Rav Sha'ul wrote: "I exhort you, therefore, brothers, in view of G-d's mercies, to offer yourselves as a sacrifice, living and set apart for G-d. This will please him; it is the logical 'Temple worship' for you" (Romans 12:1, CJB). But how are we to interpret that? What does that mean in our every day lives?
Even before Yeshua's day, the prophets spoke to articulate what was on G-d's heart: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of G-d rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6, NIV); our sacrifice is to be of ourselves, not in death, but of our lives. Remaining alive, both physically and to G-d, we offer Him our lives, our lifestyles, our emotions and desires, our finances, our very being, to be a continual and living sacrifice. Dead to the world, yet raised already to new life in Messiah Yeshua, this is how we live out the ancient command of the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d is One. And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your life and with all your essence" (D'varim 6:4-5). We are holy because G-d has declared us to be so and we are called to prove or demonstrate this each moment of every day by living holy lives that embody His standards of holiness. That is why Rav Sha'ul writes, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of G-d, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20, NASB). Because He lives, we live; because He is holy, we are holy. Our sacrifices are accepted before the Throne because Yeshua Himself - "our great High Priest" (Hebrew 4:14) accepts them and takes them into the presence of our Father G-d, they are "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" (Revelation 5:8, NASB).
Further Study: Shemot 20:24-26; Hebrews 13:10-13
Application: Holiness is not something that we have to achieve; Yeshua has achieved it for us and gives it to us. We only have to live out what He has done, so build an altar of your life to offer yourself to G-d, knowing that no matter where you are, you can be be acceptable to Him when you ask and come in Messiah Yeshua.
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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