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The day began with trumpets, distant and haunting. An army was coming. The morning sky turned dark as the clouds gathered, thick and threatening. Lighting split the sky. Thunder shook the tents. Onward the trumpets came. Closer. Louder.

From the plain, they watched the heavens fall on the mountain in fire. Smoke poured out of the rocks and the ground quaked. But above the groans of the earth, the rattling of the rocks, and the splitting peals of the sky sounded the trumpets louder. And LOUder. And LOUDER still. Moses spoke. And God answered.

In the hearing of all the children of Israel, YHWH declared His Ten Commandments. The people cowered. Terrified, Moses trembled in fear. The people drew back. But Moses pressed in and walked up into the thick darkness where God was.[1]

Exodus 20:22-25[2]
22 And the Lord said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.
23 Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold.
24 An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.
25 And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.

In light of the finely detailed instructions given in Scripture for the building of the brazen altar for the court of the tabernacle and the golden altar of incense for the holy place, I find the sparseness of description regarding the altars of earth and stone here arresting. We aren’t given height, length, or width. We are not even told how many stones to use. For religious hearts inclined to follow the letter of the law, these simple rules are challenging. How is one to know if it’s being done right?

I know, I know. This is the Old Testament. And if you are a New Testament believer, I’m supposing that you aren’t inclined to slicing sheep’s throats and splashing their blood about. So what need have you of altars of earth or stone? Fair enough. But the Scriptures don’t start in Matthew. They start in Genesis. And comprehending what the New Testament is about is nigh unto impossible without a reading of the Torah.[3]

What are these altars of earth and stone? Perhaps we should ask an even more basic question. What is an altar? We get our English word altar from the Late Latin altare, meaning high or higher. The Hebrew word translated “altar” in these verses has the same sense. It signifies a raised place where a sacrifice is made. So an altar is a high place, a place elevated above the regular grade of the earth, on which sacrifices are offered. And the specified sacrifices for these altars were burnt offerings and peace offerings.

Unlike the altars, there is a wealth of Scriptures regarding these sacrifices. Burnt offerings were essentially dedicatory.  The entire offering was given over to the flames on the altar. Neither the priests nor the people kept any piece of it. The peace offerings were communal. They were given in thanksgiving or in performing a vow. The kidneys and fat were burned, but the meat was eaten both by the priests and the people who brought the sacrifice. The feast after the fire signified their peace with God and one another: God supping with man, men breaking bread together.

Though the altar of earth is mentioned before the altar of stone, let’s examine the altar of stone first. After nearly forty years of wilderness wanderings, Moses told the children of Israel what they had to do once they entered the Land.

Deuteronomy 27:5-7
5 And there [Mt. Ebal] shalt thou build an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones: thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them.
6 Thou shalt build the altar of the Lord thy God of whole stones: and thou shalt offer burnt offerings thereon unto the Lord thy God:
7 And thou shalt offer peace offerings, and shalt eat there, and rejoice before the Lord thy God.

Upon crossing the Jordan, the tribes of Israel were to divide up between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. From Gerizim, the blessings in the law were to be declared. The curses were spoken from Ebal.[4] This is why the altar was built there. The burnt and peace offerings involved blood. Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission for sin. And it is sin that gives ground for the curse to land.[5]

In building the altar, they were to only stack stones as they found them. They weren’t to shape them or dress them in any way. They were to use them as God had provided them in nature. This meant that in order to build a stable structure, they would have to figure out how the stones best worked together. They each had to be set in the right place. They couldn’t be fractured to fit through the skilled manipulation of human hands.

We aren’t told how the altar of earth was to be built. But it is interesting to note the difference in the directions that are given. In Exodus 20:24, the Lord says, “An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me…” But in verse 25, He says, “And if thou make me an altar of stone…” There are two small words that make huge impacts to the meaning of Scripture; “if” is one of them. Without the earthen altar, I believe the stone one is inaccessible. But what is this altar of earth?

Here we have a challenge, because Exodus 20:24 is the only place in the Bible where this language – “altar of earth” – appears. Since we can’t go to other sections of Scripture that specifically mention it, we must flesh it out in another way. We have to look at its constituent parts. Since we’ve already identified what an altar is, that leaves us with earth. The word in the Hebrew is ‘adamah, reddish soil. It is derived from the word ‘adam, which means “to show blood in the face”[6], the same word from which Adam was named.

Genesis 2:7
And the Lord God formed man [‘adam] of the dust of the ground [‘adamah], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

The dust of the earth is the base material of our flesh. As the Lord told Adam after the curse, “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”[7] Being lower than dirt is difficult, but our dust frame isn’t without benefits.

Psalm 103:2, 12-14
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:
12 As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
13 Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.
14 For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.

Thankfully, God is fully aware of our weakness. The Potter knows how He molded the clay.[8] And though weak and frail, our flesh was designed with a purpose. It was crafted to be a spirit jar.

2 Corinthians 4:6-7
6 For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

When we came to saving faith in Jesus Christ, God took up residency in us through the Holy Spirit.[9] He redeemed us from death and destruction, the curse of the law. The systematic doctrine of this reality is laid out in the first eleven chapters of Romans. But after laying out the case of justification by faith and salvation through Jesus Christ, Paul moves to what our response should be.

Rom 12:1
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

This is the burnt offering on the altar of earth: our flesh given over to the service of the Lord. In light of all the apostle had written before, any other response would be unreasonable. He gave His life for us and set us free from sin through death. Now we commit our flesh to Him and walk free of sin through living for Him.

And what of the altar of stone?

1 Peter 2:2-5
2 As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby:
3 If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.
4 To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious,
5 Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.

As living stones, God places us as the building blocks of His true temple – the Church – where He has created us to be; not where human manipulations would force us. As altars and priests, we are to offer up spiritual sacrifices.

Hebrews 13:9-10, 15-16 NKJV
9 Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods which have not profited those who have been occupied with them.
10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.
15 Therefore by Him [Jesus] let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.
16 But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.

Recall that in the peace offering, the priests and people ate the sacrifice. We have an altar that offers finer fare. The heart, the spirit of man, is fed with grace. As we offer sacrifices of praise as an altar of stone and take care of others through our altar of earth, we access a spiritual bounty to which the Levitical priesthood had no right. Spirit food in the form of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is laid out as a feast before us. All we need do is eat and share.

[1] Exodus 19:16-20; 20:1-21; Heb 12:21
[2] All Scripture references are from the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.
[3] John 5:46-47
[4] Deut 11:26- 32; 27:11-12; Josh 8:30-35
[5] Prov 26:2; Gal 3:10-14
[6] From Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006 Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc.
[7] Gen 3:9
[8] Isa 45:9-12; 64:8
[9] John 7:37-39; Acts 2:38; Rom 8:9-16