An Altar of Acacia Wood
An Altar of Acacia Wood
Exodus 27:1-21 & 38:1-20
by William Klock
We’ve taken a break from our study of Exodus since March since it seemed appropriate to take some encouragement from Scripture in the midst of a difficult time, but this morning we’ll be picking up where we left off in Exodus, at Chapter 27. We were in the middle of the bit of Exodus—actually a fairly large “bit”—that describes the instructions for and the building of the tabernacle. As I said earlier this year, while there are a lot of people who see the giving of the torah, the law, as the high point of Exodus, I’m convinced that the high point is actually the tabernacle. Exodus is about the Lord creating a people for himself—that’s the “You will be my people and I will be your God” covenant—and the Lord then taking up his residence in the midst of that people, God returning to dwell with human beings. God created human beings to live in his presence and to rule his creation as stewards. That’s what the garden was about in Genesis. In the garden humans shared in the life of God. But we rebelled. Because of our sin, we were case out, no longer able to live in the presence of the holy. We lost our access to the life of God and became subject not only to our broken and sinful wills, but to death. And, apart from the Lord, humanity eventually lost all knowledge of him. This is the main message of the Tower of Babel story. And yet the very next thing we read in the narrative is the calling of Abraham. In Abraham, God spoke into the darkness of the world and summoned a man from whom he would establish a people—a people amongst whom he would dwell, but also a people through whom the human race would once again know our Creator—and not only know, but eventually be reconciled with him. This is why I say that the tabernacle is the high point of Exodus. This is what God’s been working towards since calling Abraham: creating a people in whose midst he would dwell. The torah was given to set the people apart from the rest of humanity. The sacrificial system was to give them a means of approach. The tabernacle, though, was the heart of it: the place in which the Lord would be present at the heart of the Israelite camp and, later, at the heart of their life in the promised land.
And so, last time back in March, we read about the instructions (and how those instructions were followed) for this beautiful tent. It wasn’t big by modern standards. It was about as long as our church, about as wide as the centre portion of pews and aisles, and about as high as the tie rods that cross our ceiling. It wasn’t big, but it was beautifully made, not only fit for the presence of the Lord, but full of imagery that both hearkened back to the garden and that reminded the people of the holiness of God. And this tent was to be setup in the middle of the Israelite camp. There the Lord’s presence rested on the mercy seat, on the ark of the covenant, and around this great tent the Lord’s people went about their lives according to the covenant he’d established with them. And as I said last time, the tabernacle wasn’t a church. Only the priests were allowed inside—and only the high priest once a year into the most holy place where the Lord’s presence was manifest. But there was a greater complex to the tabernacle, a complex where the people brought their offerings that they might remain in right relationship, might maintain the covenant with the Lord. And that’s what we get to today. Chapters 27 and 38 are mainly about the courtyard surrounding the tabernacle and, more importantly, about the altar that stood in its centre, outside the tabernacle. We’ll focus on Chapter 27 where the instructions are given, but if we turn over to Chapter 38:1-20 we see the report that these instructions were followed out, the court and the altar made, and the writer of Exodus makes the point by repeating the language of the instructions almost verbatim, highlighting the faithfulness of the people to the Lord’s instructions.
Let’s start in the middle of Chapter 27, with the tabernacle courtyard, then we’ll work our way back to the altar. Look at verses 9-19:
“You shall make the court of the tabernacle. On the south side the court shall have hangings of fine twined linen a hundred cubits long for one side. Its twenty pillars and their twenty bases shall be of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. And likewise for its length on the north side there shall be hangings a hundred cubits long, its pillars twenty and their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. And for the breadth of the court on the west side there shall be hangings for fifty cubits, with ten pillars and ten bases. The breadth of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. The hangings for the one side of the gate shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. On the other side the hangings shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. It shall have four pillars and with them four bases. All the pillars around the court shall be filleted with silver. Their hooks shall be of silver, and their bases of bronze. The length of the court shall be a hundred cubits, the breadth fifty, and the height five cubits, with hangings of fine twined linen and bases of bronze. All the utensils of the tabernacle for every use, and all its pegs and all the pegs of the court, shall be of bronze.
What’s being described here is the public area surrounding the tabernacle. Well, public in the sense that the covenant people, marked out by circumcision were permitted. Gentiles and anyone who was ceremonially unclean were unable to enter. What’s described here is the heavy linen fence that will surround the tabernacle itself. It’s to be one hundred cubits long and fifty wide or about 50 metres by 25 metres. The fine twined linen is the same as that used for the tabernacle and the veil, although this apparently wasn’t dyed and wasn’t embroidered with angels. The hardware is similar to that of the tabernacle, but whereas the hardware in the tabernacle was of gold and silver, this is of silver and bronze. The metals become more precious the closer we get to the presence of the Lord. The tabernacle was to be situated in the back half of the court with its entrance at the court’s centreline. Opposite the entrance to the tabernacle was the entrance to the court, curtains of blue, purple, and scarlet suspended from four pillars, similar to the entrance to the tabernacle.
Again, the tabernacle was designed to remind people that they were entering the presence of the holy. From the colourful gate made of expensive yarns and linens with bronze and silver hardware to the tabernacle itself and its embroidered angels and its gold and silver.
Now, aside from the tabernacle itself, the most prominent feature of the court was the altar. This is described in verses 1-8:
“You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad. The altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits.
Five cubits is about 7 ½ feet. For reference our centre pews are just a bit longer than that. So the altar is 7 ½ feet square and about 4 ½ feet high.
And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze
It’s not clear exactly what the horns are. Horns were common on both pagan and Israelite altars. In other cultures they were symbols of strength and fertility. We don’t know if they were on this altar for that reason or not. In Exodus 29:2 and in Leviticus 4:7 we read that blood from the sacrifices was daubed on the horns. Again, Scripture never tells us explicitly why, so any answer we may come up with is going to be speculative. Similarly, we’re read, for example in First Kings, that running to the tabernacle and clinging to the horns of the altar was a way of seeking refuge in God’s presence. It may be that the horns were a symbol of the Lord’s strength. To take hold of them was to dedicate oneself to the Lord, which meant anyone else lost whatever claim they might have on you. The horns also served a practical purpose for the binding of the sacrifices. Psalm 118:27 describes this:
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
Animals tend to run away when they sense a threat, so the sacrifices were—at least sometimes—tied to the horns of the altar to secure them in place before they were slaughtered. And it’s hard to pass this by without thinking about St. Paul’s exhortation to present ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. It’s not easy to die to ourselves and to live for God. Those animals tied to the horns of the altar had no choice in the matter. They were dumb brutes. They had to be tied down lest they run away. But Brothers and Sisters, we’re called to offer up ourselves to the Lord in light of what he has done for us. Rather than being bound with ropes, we are bound to the altar by the love of Jesus who gave himself as a sacrifice for sin. We’re tempted every day to climb down from the altar and to run away, to live for ourselves, and so we need to remind ourselves each day of the love that God has poured out on us in Jesus—a love to which the only response is utter devotion of ourselves.
Now, verses 3-8 give the rest of the details:
You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and fire pans. You shall make all its utensils of bronze. You shall also make for it a grating, a network of bronze, and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. And you shall set it under the ledge of the altar so that the net extends halfway down the altar. And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze. And the poles shall be put through the rings, so that the poles are on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. You shall make it hollow, with boards. As it has been shown you on the mountain, so shall it be made.
Everything about the altar is bronze: the horns, the utensils, the rings, the poles, the grate. The grate is difficult to picture. These descriptions, for all their technicalities, don’t give the information needed to actually construct any of these things. The descriptions give us lot of details about dimensions and materials, but not a lot more. Some commentators think that the stone tablets likely contained actual drawings of the tabernacle and its furnishings. Some understand the grate to surround the altar, but most seem to think that it was the surface on which the sacrifices were actually burnt, allowing air to flow to the flames from below and for ashes to drop through from above.
Interestingly, the altar is said to be hollow and made of acacia boards covered with bronze. Just based on the description, it doesn’t sound like something that would survive the fire needed for one sacrifice, let alone many. I’m inclined to agree with the commentators who believe that the hollow altar was filled with dirt or stones when it wasn’t being transported. This would have provided a fireproof base for the sacrifices and could be emptied when the altar was carried. And, of course, that’s what the poles were for: carrying the altar when the Lord directed the camp to move to a new location.
It’s telling that even when the altar wasn’t being transported, the poles stayed in place, just as with the ark of the covenant. Everything about the tabernacle was portable and the people were reminded of that. Eventually the tabernacle would be set up in a permanent spot in the promised land—and later replaced by a permanent temple—but the Lord condescended to travel with his people as they made their way there. He didn’t rescue them from Egypt, point them in the direction of the Holy Land, and say, “I’ll meet you there.” He remained with them in the journey through the wilderness. He guarded and guided them. They were his people and he was their God. It’s a reminder that we belong to this same God as we travel through our own wilderness. He has not left us. As Jesus promised when he ascended, he has given, he has indwelt us by his own Spirit.
But the altar itself: It was the first thing the Israelites saw when they entered the court. The tabernacle rose behind it, but from their perspective, the tabernacle dominated the court. Its sights and sounds and smells dominated the Israelite camp—a constant reminder. All day long, day in and day out, the priests offered sacrifices on the altar. Even on the outside of those linen curtains, unable to see the altar itself, the Israelites throughout the camp heard the sounds of the animals being led to the slaughter, tied to the horns. The smell of those burnt offerings would have dominated the camp. And rising from the court, there would have been a nearly perpetual pillar of smoke.
The Israelites in the wilderness saw the visible presence of God in the cloud or in the fire when the people were on the move, but when they stopped and set up the tabernacle, the Lord’s presence descended to the most holy place. No one could see the cloud of glory. Again, that first generation in the wilderness had seen it, but once the Israelites were established in the promised land, the tabernacle itself and sights, sounds, and smells of the altar served to remind the people that the Lord was present. The altar and the sacrifices, in particular, also reminded the people that to remain in his presence required sacrifice. The altar was a reminder of the seriousness of sin. The writer of Hebrews says, “Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). Adam and Eve were cast from the garden because of their sin. In the tabernacle, the Lord returned to dwell with human beings, but human sin still had to be dealt with. Only blood covers sin. Only by blood can sinners remain in the presence of the Lord. As the altar ingrained this principle in the people it prepared them for Jesus. If we continue on in the book of Hebrews this is what we read in 13:10-16:
We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
You see, Jesus did something new. He established something new. In the First Century church there were Jews who continued to offer those sacrifices of the old covenant and some insisted that gentile converts needed to join them in those sacrifices. But Jesus has done something that superseded those old sacrifices and the whole of the old covenant—even the idea of the holy or sacred ground of the old covenant. Jesus offered his blood as a sacrifice for sins, but as the writer here points out, he offered himself up, not in the sacred confines of the temple, not on the sacred altar where atonement for sins was supposed to be made, but outside the camp—in the place that would have rendered the priests of the old covenant unclean. For the writer of Hebrews, this highlights the fact that what Jesus did at the cross has established something new and better, something that renders the old obsolete. Our liturgy sums it up this way:
“All glory to you, our heavenly Father, for in your tender mercy you gave your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death on the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.”
Jesus has accomplished once and for all and for everyone what those old sacrifices could do only temporarily for the person who offered the sacrifice. In that, Jesus has become not just the sacrifice, but also the priest and the altar. This is why the Christian priest is not the same thing as the priests of the Old Testament. The Christian priest is “presybter”—the Greek word for “elder”. The role of the Old Testament priest, one who offered sacrifices and stood as a mediator between human beings and God, that role has been taken on by Jesus, who shares it with every believer.
This is also why Christians have no altar. We have the Lord’s Table. Here he invites us to share in this meal in which we recall and participate in the events of Jesus death and resurrection, but the only sacrifice we offer here is ourselves. We recall the love of God poured out in Jesus as the cross and in response we bind ourselves to the altar, dying to self, and offering ourselves as living sacrifices to the God of loving mercy and grace.
These were important aspects of our faith that were reasserted by the Protestant Reformers. At the time of the Reformation, Archbishop Cranmer, for example, ordered that the medieval altars be moved into the choirs or naves of the churches so that the communicants could gather around them, a reminder that the Lord’s Supper is a banquet, not sacrifice. Our Declaration of Principles, the “constitution” of the Reformed Episcopal Church reiterates both of these points about priests and the Lord’s Supper, adding clarity to the Article of Religion. We read there that “This Church condemns and rejects the following erroneous and strange doctrines as contrary to God’s Word…That Christian Ministers are ‘priests’ in another sense than that in which all believers are a ‘royal priesthood:’ [and]…That the Lord’s Table is an altar on which the oblation of the Body and Blood of Christ is offered anew to the Father.”
Brothers and Sisters, the cross was the altar. Here the Lord invites to his Table to share in the meal that commemorates that sacrifice, a meal like the Passover, in which each new generation participates in those events and claims them as our own. This is the meal in which the Lord reminds us once again, “I will be your God and you will be my people”.
Now, there’s one last thing in Chapter 27 that we’ll end on. Look at verses 20-21:
“You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.
We read the instructions for the lampstand a couple of chapters back. It’s not clear why the instructions for the oil are here and they seem to look forward to the time when Israel would be in the promised land. Where they would find olive oil in the wilderness is a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, the people provided oil for the lampstand, which was to burn perpetually. One of the jobs of the priests was to keep it full of oil and to trim the wicks. The lampstand was symbolic of the Lord’s presence with his people. But here’s the thing: Only the priests would ever see it. It was in the holy place, inside the tabernacle, out of view.
And, again, we see that in Jesus something new has happened. In the Incarnation God has taken on our flesh and come to dwell—to tabernacle—in our midst. In Jesus, John writes, the light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it. And yet, even we look forward to a better day. The tabernacle reminded the people of the old covenant of the garden and of their lost fellowship with the Lord—a fellowship still obviously broken as the altar made clear. And even though you and I live in this new covenant, we too are making our way through the wilderness. We see the brokenness of the world around us and as glorious as the Incarnation and the gift of the Spirit are to us, they also reminds us that both humanity and the world were meant for something still better. We live in hope of the day when all creation will be set to rights. And I think, when John described that new creation, he had in mind the lamp in the tabernacle. That lamp symbolized the presence of the Lord, but it was hidden away. Only the priests could see it. But in his vision of creation set to rights, in his vision of heaven and earth rejoined, John writes, “night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). Brothers and Sisters, God with us. That’s been the end to which the story has pointed and given hope ever since humanity was cast out of his presence. Come to the Table this morning as Jesus reminds us that, by his death and resurrection, he has made us his people and that at his people we live in hope of that day when all will be set to rights and we will need neither sun nor lamp, because we will once again be living in the presence of God.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, we thank you for your word and for the assurance we find there. You love your people and even though we have rebelled against you, you have not given up on us. You desire for us to be in your presence. As we look to Jesus and the cross, remind us of your love for us and strengthen our love for you that we might, each day, offer ourselves to you as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable. Through Jesus we ask this. Amen.
 See Robert D. Haak, “Altar” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary and Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Skokie, Ill.: Varda Books, 2005), 362.