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XIX. The Altar of Burnt Offering
The Tabernacle of Israel, by George de Charms, 1969
The center of Jewish worship was the altar of burnt offering. Upon this a fire was continually burning, and sacrifices were offered many times a day. The ark in the sanctuary, with the tables of the Law, was indeed the remote symbol of the presence of Jehovah; but the brazen altar was the active medium of approach and communication with Him. Of the sacrifices and their intimate association with the individual and national life of the Jews, we shall speak in a subsequent chapter. It is necessary, here, only to refer to them as connected with the altar of burnt offering, which was in a sense at least, the most important article of furniture in the tabernacle.
This altar was situated nearest to the people, being placed immediately inside the gate of the court, probably one-third of the distance between the gate and the east end of the tabernacle. Here, although separated from direct contact with the people by the wall of the court, and protected by every tradition of holiness, it could be seen by the congregation, who, from their tent doors in the encampment, might look over the wall and see the priests performing the daily sacrifices. This sight was daily impressed upon the minds of the whole people, who saw the smoke ascending from the altar as if carrying up their supplications to God.
Altar of Burnt Offering
These sacrifices were most intimately interwoven with the life of the people. Every national danger or catastrophe was accompanied by a suitable sacrifice, to express the pleading of the whole congregation for the intervention of Jehovah on their behalf. Every national victory was marked by a sacrifice of thanksgiving. There was no personal or individual experience, no loss or crime, no occasion of rejoicing, as in the birth of a child or in any unexpected good fortune, which did not call for an appropriate sacrifice, either of expiation or of glorification. The conscious intercession of Jehovah on their behalf, protecting, forgiving, warning, and condemning -- was daily called to their minds by these sacrificial rites. In the efficacy of these sacrifices the people had implicit trust. It is difficult for us now to realize how all-pervading was the influence of these religious rites upon the emotional life of the Jews. But certain it is that the spiritual power by which they were molded into a nation, and by which their destinies were directed in a peculiar sense from within, was exercised by means of the altar and its perpetual fire.
The description of this altar, found in Exodus 27:1-8, and 38:1-7, is such that it has given rise to many and varied interpretations as to the way in which it was made. It was made of shittim wood, joined in the form of a hollow square, each side measuring five cubits. The boards of which it was constructed were one cubit and a half in width, according to the same measurements as those of the tabernacle wall. We have assigned to them the same thickness, one-sixth of a cubit, there being no direct statement on this point. The sides of the altar were formed by two boards joined together, one above the other. They were covered on the outside by a plate of copper. Later an additional covering was provided, made from the flattened censers of the two hundred and fifty men who, with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, rebelled against Moses, and burnt strange incense before the Lord.1 No representation of this has been attempted in the model.
Over the boards and extending across the top of the hollow square formed by them was placed a grate "of network of copper." How this was constructed, and the manner in which it was placed upon the altar, have been the subject of wide dispute. It is said in Exodus 27:4, 5: "Thou shalt make for it a grate of network of copper, and upon the net shalt thou make four copper rings, in the four corners thereof, and thou shalt put it under the compass of the altar, beneath, that the net may be even to the midst of the altar." Some interpret this as meaning that the grate was passed through the sides between the boards and thus formed a division halfway down the inside of the altar. Others contend that it was made in the form of a square basket fitting inside the altar, and covering the upper half of the boards on the inside, the grate extending, as before, across the middle line. In both cases the grate would be seen only from above. Its situation, one cubit and a half below the top of the altar, would make it difficult for the priest to burn sacrifices upon it. Also the upper half of the side of the altar would conceal the sacrifices from view. It would appear also that according to this arrangement the inside of the altar where the boards are exposed would be subjected to the effects of the fire. There is direct indication given in the Arcana Coelestia 9727 that the grate was not so placed, but extended round about the outside of the altar, where it would be seen. In this passage the representation depends upon this situation. We hold, therefore, with Dr. E. E. Iungerich in his opinion that the grate was extended across the top of the boards, and was bent down on the outside of the altar on all four sides, reaching to the middle.
There is also a great difference of opinion as to what is meant by the "compass" since it is said of the grate, "Thou shalt put it under the compass of the altar beneath." By some, this compass is supposed to have been a sort of platform of copper extending from the median line of the sides in a horizontal position, and forming thus a sort of step on which the priest might stand while ministering at the altar. This does not seem to allow for the provision that the grate should be placed under it, nor does it seem to be a feasible position in which to place a step, for it would be 27 inches above the ground. We understand that by the "compass" is meant a strip of copper about one-third of a cubit in width, bent at right angles along its median line, and so placed around the top of the altar, above the grate, that it would serve to bind the grate firmly to the altar, rivets being passed through the compass and the grate and into the tops of the boards. This interpretation gives a definite reason, and an understandable use for what is called the compass, and places it in a position that meets every requirement of the text.
On the north and south sides of the altar at the corners, just below the compass, were placed the orbs through which the staves were passed that the altar might be carried. These orbs were welded or riveted to the grate, and probably were also fastened through the boards, because the entire weight of the structure had to be borne by them in carrying.
Another fact that has given rise to much speculation is the prescribed height of the altar which was too great to allow for the convenient operation of the priest in performing the sacrifices if he were standing at the level of the ground. To meet this practical difficulty, some have provided steps, and a sort of platform by which the priest might ascend, although these are nowhere described or indicated in the Scripture. Others, as we pointed out, considered that the "compass" was intended to form a step. That there was some means of ascending to the altar is indicated in many passages, for it is said of the officiating priest that he "ascended" to the altar and "came down" from offering sacrifices thereon. In the altars subsequently used in the temple of Solomon, the temple of the restoration, and the temple of Herod, the prescribed height of the altar was many times as great as was that of the tabernacle altar, and some mode of ascent was obviously necessary; yet steps are nowhere mentioned. There is, indeed, a law stated in Exodus 20:26 which forbids the priest to "ascend by steps to the altar." As to the larger altars, no Scriptural indication is given as to the mode of ascent; but in connection with the altar of Herod's temple, Josephus describes an inclined plane built of unhewn stones. We think it altogether probable that if there had been steps they would have been prescribed, and the mode of their construction indicated. It is more likely that when the altar was set up, a gradual ascent to it was formed by mounding the earth against its sides to the depth of a foot or more, giving the appearance of a low hill with the altar at the top. Recalling what is said in connection with the altar of incense, about the worship of ancient peoples upon hills and mountains, and the subsequent representation of this by setting altars upon high places, there would seem to be good reason to suppose that the ascent to the altar of burnt offering was a conventionalized representation of a hill.
This mounding of earth, however, was on three sides only -- the north, the south, and the west. On the eastern side, instead of a mound there was a depression which allowed for the removal of the ashes that accumulated under the altar. For this removal long-handled shovels were provided. The ashes which fell through the grate with the burning of the sacrifices were sacred, and their removal was part of the priestly service. It was commanded that they should be piled between the altar and the gate of the court. Later they were put into copper pans by the priests to be carried outside the camp and deposited in "a clean place."2 At which side of the altar the priest stood while offering the sacrifices, is nowhere indicated. There is, however, a tradition that he stood at the side facing the south, and this is strengthened by the testimony of Josephus who places the inclined plane of stones toward the south of the altar in Herod's temple.
The fire of this altar, in addition to being kept burning continually, was the only source from which fire might legitimately be obtained for the lighting of the lamps and for the burning of incense. This is because this fire represented love to the Lord, from which all true worship must be performed.
PLAN OF THE
ALTAR OF BURNT OFFERING MATERIALS
We cannot, for lack of space, enter into an explanation of all the details of this altar. The reader is referred to the teaching of the Arcana Coelestia 9713-9739, for more particular study. The altar itself is there said to represent the Lord, and indeed His presence in the exterior mind, represented by the court. As stated in the last chapter, it is related to the laver as the will is related to the understanding, and the fire continually burning upon it represents love to the Lord which should always be the governing affection of the mind. Love is the very fire of life whence comes spiritual heat and light, or affection and understanding. Worship in its essence is the activity of the love that is man's very life. The quality of the love determines the quality of man's worship. Whatever one loves supremely is his God. This is the highest good toward which he is continually striving, and for the attainment of which all lesser things are to be sacrificed. This is true no matter what a man's creed or professed religion may be. Every man is judged by the Lord according to his inmost love. In the Writings this is called his "ruling love" because it governs and qualifies all his thought, speech and action. According to this love his character is formed.
The altar of burnt offering was dedicated to the worship of Jehovah as the one God, the source of all good and of every blessing. Every hope for the future of the nation rested upon His promise to come as the Messiah to redeem and save His people. This promise was fulfilled when Jesus Christ was born into the world. For Christians He became the sole object of worship. He is indeed Jehovah made visible in a Divinely Human form, and in Him the true nature of God is revealed as never before. He is now the sole object of worship, and the only source of salvation.
To the Jews, God was invisible; yet He was present to lead them and teach them from behind the veil of the tabernacle. Their only hope of salvation was to worship HIM ALONE, and to them the idolatrous worship of other nations in the land of Canaan was a deadly sin, against which they were most urgently warned.
The worship of Jehovah from love was represented by the perpetual fire on the altar of burnt offering. To be true to that worship was to keep the covenant that had been established between the sons of Israel and their God. On this depended the favor and the protection of Jehovah. When the people fell away from this worship and adopted the religious customs of the surrounding nations they forfeited the promised blessings of heaven, and came under the influence of the hells. This brought dire punishments upon them, and at last the complete destruction of their national life. Spiritually, this is the inevitable consequence when the church turns from the worship of the Lord to the loves of self and the world.
Curiously enough, in the internal sense, the fire of the altar creates its own grate. The grate is said to represent the "sensuous" by which is meant, not the five senses of the body, but the conscious life of the imagination.3 We have already referred to the fact that man is aware only of that to which he pays attention. This is but a thin thread selected from the mass of sense impressions that impinge upon the mind every waking moment. Which of these shall be impressed upon the memory and pictured in the imagination, depends upon the love that dominates the mind. Perhaps a term more expressive of what is here meant by the "sensuous" might be the word sensibility. Two men in the same environment will give evidence of widely different sensibilities according to their natural disposition and developed interests. Certain things will be deeply impressed upon the mind of one that will wholly escape the attention of the other. The conscious world in which a man lives is made up of those things to which he actually pays attention and of which, in consequence, he becomes distinctly aware. These he absorbs into his mental environment, and from them his ideas, thoughts, and emotions are formed. Inmostly, the ruling love determines the quality of this awareness by selecting certain things from the environment, and rejecting others.
This selective process is what is represented by the "grate of network of copper," on which every sacrifice was burned. That burning is the actual activity of life to which man is impelled by his love. All that is not in accord with the love is disregarded, and that which is in accord is, as it were, metamorphosed, changed in form, and adapted to promote the end man has in view. The picture formed in the imagination, therefore, is always an ideal. It is never in exact accord with the objects of nature from which it is derived.
The point of interest here is that whenever a sacrifice was burned, a residue of ashes fell through the grate. As above noted these ashes were ceremoniously removed by the priests and deposited outside the camp "in a clean place." By these ashes are meant things that are retained in the unconscious mind, and that continue secretly to influence thought and feeling long after they have been completely forgotten. They include everything that has become habitual, spontaneous, and what is called "second nature." A child learns the letters of the alphabet, and by that means acquires the tools of reading and of writing; but after the letters have been learned he pays little or no attention to them. One must laboriously practice scales and finger-exercises in the process of learning to play a musical instrument; but when this technique has been mastered, his fingers respond without conscious effort to the dictates of the will. When any learning has been fully acquired, the mind is set free to enjoy the fruits of his labors. This is a miracle of the Divine Providence. Without it man would remain in perpetual slavery to technical details. The miracle is that these bonds are removed from the conscious mind, and yet are fully retained for future use, as is so graphically represented by the fact that the ashes from the altar of burnt offerings were ceremonially removed by the priests from the camp of Israel, and were deposited "in a clean place."
This removal happens spiritually with everyone; and if the life's love is good, it produces habits that continually perfect man's ability to perform uses, and from them to derive ever increasing happiness. If however, man's life's love is evil, the habits which are formed will be contrary to the order of heaven. They will confirm the delight of self-love and the love of the world. They will cause man to strive for personal ambitions, regardless of the welfare of the neighbor. The Lord must, for the merciful protection of the innocent, prevent him from attaining these ambitions. This is the reason why, in the last analysis, the evil can know nothing but frustration, and in this the punishment of the hells consists.