Make an Altar of Earth and Sacrifice on It

20: 22-26

    DIG: How does 20:23 compare with 20:3-4? What can the one true God do that metal gods cannot? How will this come back to haunt the Israelites (see Gr - The Israelite's Sin of Idolatry)? Why only an altar of earth and not one of dressed stones? What does this say about the place where the LORD is worshiped?

    REFLECT: What distracts you from meeting God? What can you do about it?

    Then ADONAI said to Moses His servant: Tell the Israelites this: You have seen for yourself that I have spoken to you from heaven (20:22). God came down from heaven, His eternal dwelling place, to the top of Mount Sinai (19:20) in order to tell the Jewish people: Do not make any gods to be alongside Me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold (20:23). This statement was a reiteration of the first and second commandments. As a result, before giving the Torah, general principles were restated and elaborated on.

    From inside the cloud, ADONAI told Moses that the Israelites could either make an altar of earth or an altar of stones. Altars were for the purpose of sacrifice. There was no altar in the garden of Eden because God did not intend for them to break the Torah. An altar exists where sin flourishes and forgiveness is required. So it is not surprising that the same chapter that gave the Israelites specific instructions regarding the Torah also gave them specific instructions about an altar. It was an impossible standard and the LORD made provision for when the people broke them. The altar would be a foreshadowing of Messiah, who would pay the ultimate price for our sin.

    First the LORD said: Make an altar of earth for Me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. The earth, which had been involved in the curse of sin, was to be renewed and glorified, not by sinful men, but by the glorious hand of God.403 He said: Whenever I cause My name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you (20:24). The purpose of burnt offerings (see Fe - the Burnt Offering) was to atone for sin, whereas the peace offerings (see Fg - The Peace Offering) gave the people an opportunity to enjoy communion with ADONAI.404

    Isra'el was not to erect an altar in any place it might choose, but only in every place that God would bring His name to remembrance.405 Throughout the book of Genesis, the patriarchs were allowed to build altars anywhere they wished. Where Abraham settled, he built an altar. Where Isaac settled he built an altar and where Jacob settled he built an altar. In fact, each patriarch built more than one altar in his various travels. That was not to be the case now with the Torah. The first place the LORD would choose after they entered the Promised Land was in the city of Shiloh, in the territory of the tribe of Ephraim. That would be a temporary place, because later in the days of King David, ADONAI would choose a new place, the city of Jerusalem. From that point on, Tziyon was the place chosen by God where He would be remembered and His altar would be built.

    Secondly, God required a humble altar for sacrifice. He stressed: If you make an altar of stones for Me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it (20:25). The moment a tool was put to stones made for an altar, it was polluted. the LORD rejected it. The Canaanites and others made their alters with cut, finished stones. Alters with elaborate craftsmanship and elevated platforms with staircases were common in the worship of false gods.406 The Israelites were not to be like them, so as not to be tempted into making idols.

    God did not despise craftsmanship, as seen in the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. The fit of the hewn stones there is still marveled at today. But here, He wanted it natural, not marred by man’s works. The altar would be a place of faith, not works, once again pointing to Jesus Christ, a rock not cut by human hands (Daniel 2:34).

    But regardless, of weather they built an altar of earth or of stones, there was to be no sexual elements of their worship. Specifically, there were to be no steps associated with it, least the nakedness of the priest would be exposed. ADONAI said: Do not go up to My altar on steps, lest your nakedness be exposed on it (20:26). Later, when God allowed His people to build stepped altars (Leviticus 9:22; Ezekiel 43:17), Aaron and his descendents had already been instructed to wear linen underclothes (Exodus 28:42-43; Leviticus 6:10, 16:3-4; Ezekiel 44:17-18).407

    The Ten Commandments begin with prohibitions against polytheism and idolatry. There is only one God; no others are to be worshiped and no images are to be made of Him or of other gods. The Book of the Covenant also opens with these commandments. The point underscores monotheism and Israel’s faithfulness to God as the two most important teachings of the Torah. They are the core teachings of which the Jewish faith is based. Hear, Isra'el! ADONAI our God, ADONAI is One; and you are to love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 CJB). The truth of this teaching is no less important for believers today than it was for Isra'el in the wilderness. When a certain lawyer came to Jesus, he asked Him: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Torah? He answered saying: Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:36-37).408


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