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"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, con
cerning the word of life -- the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it ...." I John 1:1-2 (RSV)

"After his resurrection the disciples saw the living Christ, whom they knew to have died, with the eyes of faith (oculata fide)." Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, 55, 2 ad 1, as quoted in D. M. Stanley, Jesus in Gethsemane (New York, Paulist Press 1980).

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Law of the Altar - No Stairway to Heaven

Exodus 20: 22-26 in the NRSV  says this:

22 The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

Exodus 20: 22-26 (NRSV).   Lawyers are fascinated by specific rules which come from general rules (key ideas).   The key idea  is that there shall be no idolatry.  Here in verses 22-26 is a case law application of that.  The law prohibiting idols applies  as God’s people,  who are  out in the wilderness before there was a temple,   address this issue:  How do you build an altar?  God tells them  not to make gods (images) of silver or gold and,  as I read verse 24,  not to put  silver or gold into their altars.  And, they are not to use “hewn stones” or use a chisel,  and may not have a stairway to the altar.  

            Avoiding silver and gold is simple advice to keep the people from building  idolatrous structures and images.   But why avoid the hewn stone, the chisel and the stairway?  Iain D. Campbell offers these helpful comments:

An altar is a place of sacrifice and worship. God is to be worshipped only in the way that he demands and requires. He forbids idols of silver or gold to be crafted, because he is a spirit. His altar must be made either of earth or of uncarved stones, and there must be no elaborate stairway or step up to the altar. The emphasis is on simplicity, plainness and earthboundness.

Iain D. Campbell,  Opening Up Exodus (Day One Publications 2006).

            Verse 26 states,  “You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”   Sarna’s comment shows that this is a statement against pagan rituals and against connecting worship with sex: 

The altar must be so designed as to permit access to it with suitable propriety. This contrasts with many scenes in ancient Near Eastern art that feature priests officiating in the nude. Ritual nudity is a phenomenon known to many religions. It is symbolically associated with both death and rebirth, and it also has a variety of magical uses.  The instruction is clearly intended for the layman at a private altar ….

Nahum Sarna,   The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus שמות (Jewish Publication Society, 1991) (also explaining that this is directed at laymen at a private altar, not priests, because priests had linen clothing which covered up nakedness). 

            The worship of God must be pure and simple, and have no connection with sex.  God is a spirit, and as Sarna says, “God is content with a simple earthen altar and requires no elaborate structure.” 

            I have titled this post, "Law of the Altar," but Exodus 20:22-26 is much more than law.  Verse 22 says in part:  “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven."  This whole section, verses 22-26,  expresses the idea  that when God speaks from heaven he is making a momentous statement about himself, and about what he expects.   By communicating through his voice rather than from some visual image, God makes a statement that he is above all gods.   The people experience the voice, and that's a spiritual experience which radically opposes the idolatrous spirituality which the people knew from life in Egypt where they worshiped man (Pharaoh) and animals, and  earthly places and things,   The voice from heaven naturally leads to the law of the altar.  The voice is a statement against idolatry, and the law of the altar flows out from that.

            This scripture opens up huge areas for application today, which are beyond the scope of this post.  But one thing can be said:  We have just as many idolatrous forces in our world as they had in the days of Moses.   This scripture at verse 24 teaches that God "will come to you and bless you," but this promise of blessing assumes that the person seeking God has made the right disconnections from these other forces.