Ignore the Law of the Altar At Your Peril

September 5, 2016

 If you were to give any Adventist 5 seconds to answer the question: “What are the two major laws found in Exodus 20?” most would be able to correctly answer one as, “The 10 Commandments.”

 Ask them, “What’s the other one?” and you’d probably get bewildered looks. I know this because I asked my churches this question and got the same reaction. I don’t hold it against them though; I responded the same way until I had a great conversation with a friend of mine, Henry Johnson, about this a few years ago and broadened my thinking.

 Go ahead and reread Exodus 20. You’ll find that after the episode where the 10 Commandments are given, it says that the children of Israel freak out (for lack of a better term) and ask Moses to speak to God directly because they’re terrified of him.

 Moses then goes into the darkness where God is and hears the law that most Adventists might have never heard of: the law of the altar.

 Now, an altar is usually a structure where sacrifices are offered and religious rites performed for a deity, in this case, the Judaeo-Christian deity known as Yahweh.

 They may not seem like much at first, but they are worth knowing because they reveal how all people approach (or, rather, should approach) God for worship. As we’ll see, the differences that Yahweh makes between Himself and other Ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) forms of worship are just as relevant and applicable for the ways we understand and approach worship today.

 First, there is the preamble to the laws in Exodus 20:22-23:

 22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make anything to be with Me—gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.

 In context, He was speaking to a group of newly freed poor slaves who had lost all touch with their cultural and religious heritage after almost 400 years of continued bondage in Egypt. So, in a way, Yahweh was giving them a reintroduction to their own heritage which had been lost.

 Worship to the deities in Egypt was full of precious metals, materials which would mostly be out of the means of the average person in large amounts. How could you worship if the primary means was out of your hands? Yet, Yahweh is not interested in pomp and circumstance. Gold and silver are not needed to approach Him.

This is where the law of the altar starts (and gets interesting).

 24 An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record My name I will come to you, and I will bless you.

 Not everyone has access to gold, but who has access to earth? I suppose that the better question would be who doesn’t have access to it? Earth is the very name of our planet. Even the ice-covered continent of Antarctica is covering earth. The point is, since earth is accessible to everyone, an altar for worship is accessible to everyone as well.

 God provides.

 This first point is easy enough for most people to grasp. The real friction begins with the second section of the law.

 25 And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it.

 Stone was the basic building block of most altars in the ANE. The command here was to use stones as you found them, with no additional modification. To give you a visual example, these stone are good:

This stone is not good:

 A hewn stone is a stone that has been modified by means of a tool. Usually someone might inscribe the occasion for which an altar was built or they could write in the name of their tribe or clan to avoid confusion. You might ask, what’s the big deal with personalizing stones that were being used for worship?

 Here’s the problem: Any modification to the stones that were used for altar building added human effort the moment that tools were used to personalize or customize them (even if done with the best of intentions). Therefore, the stone became profaned and no longer suitable for worship.

 The stones represent work. Who provided the stones? Who put them there? The same One who liberated Israel from Egypt. The moment they added anything to the stones, the were symbolically saying, “We had something to do with it.” It was a way of adding their mark on worship.

 Again, even done with the best of intentions, God was essentially saying, “I don’t need any help. I provided everything needed for worship without your assistance. Take what I’ve provided. You don’t have to work for this; everything you need has given. Don’t add or take away from it.”

 The New Testament affirms this same point over and over again. The moment we say that you’re saved by grace plus anything else, it ceases to be grace. We must accept that God’s provision is enough.

 God sustains.

 The final lesson is taken form the final verse of the chapter:

 26 Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.

 There are two ways that this text could be taken. First is the interpretation that says no steps were to be made leading up to altars because someone might see you naked. Simple and straightforward. Considering the attire of the time period, it could be argued that this was God’s way of maintaining modesty so that the worshipers wouldn’t have to worry about climbing stairs or ladders in what we would describe as a dress.

 With the second meaning, I’m going beyond a plain reading of the text, but I think there’s something worth learning so keep an open mind.

 If you read later in Scripture, you’ll notice that in King Solomon’s temple, their altar had steps (compare 2 Chronicles 4:1 with Ezekiel 43:17). Therefore, I don’t think that God was against the wholesale use of any stairs, per se.

 Consider what high places meant in many parts of the ancient world in spiritual and religious circles. Many times, high places were dedicated to idol worship (Numbers 33:52; Leviticus 26:30), especially among the Moabites (Isaiah 16:12). According to one source, these high places had almost everything that God prohibited in the law of the altar:

 “These shrines often included an altar and a sacred object such as a stone pillar or wooden pole in various shapes, identified with the object of worship (animals, constellations, goddesses, and fertility deities).”

 By prohibiting steps, I believe that God wanted to ward against the incorporation of “levels of holiness” in Israel like the surrounding nations were practicing.

 Naturally, humans seek higher positions of prestige and authority. Altitude is, in many cases, an implicit mark of power. The loftier your title, position, steeple, structure, etc. the more important you portray yourself as being.

However, these are man-made divisions and not divine mandates. Suppose your altar was ground level, but your neighbor’s altar was 10 feet off the ground. What message could that send? Maybe that your neighbor was more pious or sacrificial than you.

 Today, because we’ve largely ignored these laws, some churches make rules that make you scratch your head.

 I personally know of churches that have a practice where only baptized members can participate on the platform during worship while everyone else can participate in worship as long as they don’t climb the steps to the altar platform. This practice really seems to be more in line with the pagan practices of altar-building than the law described in Exodus 20.

 Some argue that the platform is a holy place. However, this paradigm considers the church building as the modern day equivalent of the Old Testament sanctuary.  Humans have the ability to make an area off limits, but they don’t have the ability to make anything sacred. An area or object is holy because of either God’s indwelling presence and/or declaration of it.

  •  The Burning Bush: God declared the ground around it holy because His presence was there.
  • The Sabbath: God declares it holy and fills it with his presence.
  • The Old Testament Sanctuary: God declared it holy and filled it with his presence.

 God has not declared our church buildings or our platforms as being holy. Furthermore, it is the believers, not physical buildings, that are the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 1 Corinthians 6:15-20; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5).

 I do not have the authority to make myself, anyone, or anything else holy. Only God has that right. Why were there no steps to altars? Because the ground is level at the foot of the cross.

 God declares.

 There you have it, the law of the altar. It’s ironic that this law is written right after the 10 Commandments. These grace-filled requirement reemphasize the importance of humility and gratitude in light of a section that has historically tended to produce a legalistic faith. We ignore it at our peril. Any thoughts? Share below!

Any thoughts? Share below!