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Shemot/Exodus 27:7 And its poles shall be put into the rings, and the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried.
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Here we find ourselves back in our annual review of the instructions for making the Tabernacle and its furniture. While critical scholarship over the last hundred years or so has taught that the Tabernacle never actually existed - that this account is just fiction - Richard Elliott Friedman argues that this is not the case: "The quantity of detail in these chapters is an indication that these are authentic descriptions of the Tabernacle and its accoutrements. What motive would there be to make all of this up?" Our questions and the many unknowns about the materials and processes involved should be used not as an excuse to deny the text, but as stimuli to interrogate the Torah more deeply and discover the truths that it carries both for the ancient Israelites and for us today.
Archaeology supports Friedman's position. Nahum Sarna points out that "the altar was an indispensable implement of worship and ritual" - after all, the patriarchs frequently built them and Moshe himself did so twice - and reports that "the altar for burnt offerings uncovered in the Judean temple at Arad in the Negeb corresponds exactly to the dimensions of the altar in the Tabernacle." That shouldn't surprise us if we are prepared to take the Torah seriously. Whilst its sparse text often omits what we moderns consider to be essential details for construction and use, those were all well known and understood at the time of writing, so the Torah gives us a bare skeleton and instead focuses on the spiritual principles that lie behind the mere mechanics of the Tabernacle. These take a little thought and concentration, to locate in amongst the dimensions and materials that are specified, but time spent fine-combing the text and teasing out the reasons for the sometimes rather arbitrary instructions - "You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide -- the altar is to be square -- and three cubits high" (Shemot 27:1, NJPS) - will be amply rewarded.
Our text is concerned with the long poles that are used to lift and carry the bronze altar - used for the burnt offerings (and many others also) - located in the courtyard surrounding the Tabernacle, in front of the door to the Tent of Meeting. The altar is made of planks of acacia wood, overlaid with bronze; it is hollow, rather than being a solid piece of wood, so that it can be carried: "made of planks and hollow inside" (v. 8, CJB). The weight of a solid block of acacia wood, five by five by three cubits - that's nearly twenty cubic feet at sixty two pounds per cubit foot, so more than twelve hundred pounds - would be prohibitively heavy to lift or carry any distance. More, as a hollow structure, whenever it arrived at a resting place, it could be filled with earth, thus fulfilling the command HaShem gave earlier: "Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices ..." (20:21) and at the same time forming a heat sink to dissipate the heat of the fire so that the top surface of the altar under its bronze covering was not charred away on almost a weekly basis.
But let's go back to the poles for the moment. The text says that they are inserted into the rings at the four corners of the mesh surrounding the top of the altar, but Umberto Cassuto comments, "not permanently, like the poles of the ark, but only when it is carried - in order to carry the altar by means of them, when the Tabernacle is moved from place to place."1 From this we learn that the altar isn't shuffled around in the courtyard once it is in position; it stays there until the whole Tabernacle moves to a new location. The poles are not needed while the Tabernacle is stationary; they can be removed from the rings and stored until next time. Given the number of sacrifices each day and the number of priests moving and working around the altar - splashing blood, arranging pieces of sacrificial animal and so on - the Ancient Israelite Health and Safety Executive are much happier that the poles are removed when the altar is in use.
During the instructions to the priests and Levites about packing, moving and carrying the Tabernacle, we learn that after the priests have removed the ashes from it, they are to "spread a purple cloth over it. Upon it they shall place all the vessels that are used in its service: the fire pans, the flesh hooks, the scrapers, and the basins -- all the vessels of the altar -- and over it they shall spread a covering of dolphin skin; and they shall put its poles in place" (B'Midbar 4:13-14, CJB). It is then carried by Kohathites, the same clan of the Levites who carry all the furniture from inside the Tent of Meeting itself: the ark, the incense altar, the menorah and so on.
Why all this fuss about the bronze altar? It doesn't live in the Tent of Meeting, hidden from everyone but the priests or the High Priest; on the contrary, sitting outside the Tent in the main courtyard, it is clearly visible to all in the courtyard. Jewish tradition records that the priests walk on the altar at times to move stuff around; they cannot avoid touching it, leaning on it, bumping up against it, when they take the ash off each day and put the sacrifices on: "the priests shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar" (Vayikra 1:8, ESV). In spite of being a commonplace to the priests, the Torah is nevertheless quite explicit that "the altar will be especially holy, and whatever touches the altar will become holy" (Shemot 29:37, CJB). In an argument about swearing oaths, Yeshua confirms this when He asks, "which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift holy?" (Matthew 23:19).
What is it about handling the holy? Is there a difference between touching the holy and carrying/conveying the holy? Can we touch it, lean on it, be close to it, work with it 'locally', but then have to step away for transport? The first thing to notice is that it is the priests who are close to, working with and touching the holy. They are consecrated - set apart, made holy - for that purpose. If they become ritually unclean, they cannot come to work but must wait until they have purified themselves before returning to the Tabernacle service. On a daily basis, they wash their bodies and change their clothing before coming on and off duty so that they are themselves holy when they make contact with the holy things. Perhaps this is part of what is going on when Yeshua is baptised in the Jordan by John. Although Yeshua hasn't sinned and doesn't need to repent, He identifies with the process of ritual washing to demonstrate His holiness before the Ruach - the Holy Spirit - descends upon Him and He starts His years of ministry.
Secondly, we should notice that the holy is carried by the Levites, who although consecrated for their work in the Tabernacle, may not touch the altar itself; the poles for carrying and the coverings provide a level of distancing between them and the holy. They carry it, but only indirectly. Ordinary folk are not allowed to touch the holy; the consequences are fatal. The Tanakh records what happens when David was bringing the ark up to Jerusalem on an ox cart: "when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of G-d and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled" (2 Samuel 6:6, NJPS). Uzzah was zealous for the ark and prevented it falling to the ground when the cart jolted. Scholars think that, like his father Abinadab and his brother Ahio who was leading the oxen, Uzzah was a Levite - one of those permitted to carry the holy things, yet "the L-RD was incensed at Uzzah. And G-d struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of G-d" (v. 7, NJPS). Zeal for the holy and the things of G-d was not enough.
How, then, do we handle the holy today? Can the holy be a commonplace for us as followers of Yeshua so that we can treat it casually and simply get on with our work regardless? John the Baptist told the people, "After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:7-8, ESV). If we know Yeshua and He has baptised us with the Spirit, are we not holy and - like the Aharonic priests - able to handle the holy? Peter quotes from the Torah when he tells his readers that they are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for G-d's own possession" (1 Peter 2:9). If we have been chosen and called by Yeshua, been filled with the Holy Spirit and now seek to serve Him, then we can handle the holy today; we can touch the altar - in Yeshua, that falls within our job description.
However, two important corollaries apply: attitude and awareness. Taking attitude first, Rav Sha'ul tells us that we should "have this attitude in [ourselves] which was also in Messiah Yeshua" (Philippians 2:5): an attitude of humility and obedience. Yeshua was not insensitive, casual or inappropriate. We must share His attitude towards life and each other: being thoughtful, intentional, caring and appropriate. We must not handle the holy in casual or inappropriate ways. Secondly, in order to handle the holy aright, we must be aware of what is holy and the context in which we are operating at any one moment. This in turn means that we have to define who or what is holy. Not, in our day, a bronze altar, but many things that are equally tangible: a sacrificial gift, an embrace with a recent mourner, a shared confidence or confession, a sincere apology, a moment of laughter during mentoring - times when someone's soul is bared, vulnerable moments in counselling, a warm smile over a cup of coffee, watching G-d touch a heart or release a captive, being present at someone's passing. All these are holy ground and need to be handled well.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 364.
Further Study: John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:10-12; 1 Peter 1:13-15
Application: Are you sensitive enough to the holy moments that happen all around us, every day? We need the prompting and guidance of the Ruach to handle these well, as Yeshua did and as He calls us to do on His behalf. Ask Him to sharpen your perception and open your heart to see, hear and handle the holy!
Comment - 04:48 19Feb23 Ann Pangbourne: Thank you, once again, for opening up the text of the Torah in such an inspirational way.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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