27 July 2022

Altars, and how God expects us to use them.

ALTAR 'ɔl.tər noun. A table or block used as the focus for a religious ritual, particularly offerings or ritual sacrifices to a deity.
2. In Christianity, the table used to hold the elements for holy communion.
3. In some churches, the stage, the steps to the stage, or the space in front of the stage, where people go as a sign of commitment.

Whenever humans ritually worship God, we usually need a table to put stuff on.

Might be the stuff we need for our rituals. Might be something we’re gonna give to God, or sacrifice for God. If there’s nothing else around—we just kinda did this on the spur of the moment—often humans will use the table itself as the ritual: “Hey God, I built you an altar!” and then we pray at the altar. Which is exactly what we Christians do whenever we use our churches’ various tables or raised platforms (or, y’know, actual altars for holy communion) as makeshift altars for our “altar calls.”

Humanity instinctively just finds something profound about using a raised platform for God-stuff. It’s not solely practical.

When spur-of-the-moment altars get built, it’s usually because we wanna worship God so bad, we can’t wait to get to an existing altar. Or we figure we’re gonna worship God at that place, and frequently, so we may as well have a regular altar around. Sometimes it’s a memorial altar: God did something at that location, so let’s mark it with an altar, and people can use it to continue to worship him.

Among the ancients Hebrews, any flat-surfaced rock would do. But typically they did stuff to make the altar more obviously an altar, and not just some flat rock. Ancient middle eastern custom was simply to stand a rock upright: A rock lying flat on the ground was obviously a product of nature, but a rock standing upright for no good reason probably had some good reason: Somebody propped it up that way as a memorial or an altar. That was the idea when the Hebrews left 12 rocks near the place they first crossed the Jordan River into Palestine:

Joshua 4.8 KJV
And the children of Israel did so as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones out of the midst of Jordan, as the LORD spake unto Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and carried them over with them unto the place where they lodged, and laid them down there.

Iron Age massebót, or standing stones, found in the middle east. Biblical Archaeology Review

“And laid them down” (Hebrew וַיַּנִּח֖וּם/vey-yannikhúm, “and placed them”) implies they put ’em flat on the ground, or in a pile, or even in a tower. That wasn’t the middle eastern custom. They stood up. It needed to be obvious humans had placed them there for good reason. These were a memorial; these were for worship; sometimes these were altars. They weren’t random rocks in a weird formation.

Y’might notice lots of ancient cultures put up “standing stones” for exactly the same reason. Like the obelisks and steles of ancient Egypt, or the megaliths and menhirs and stone circles found all over the Celtic regions. Heck, I’ve known kids who like to stand rocks upright for fun, so it’s no surprise you’ll find ’em everywhere. But for the really big stones which take effort to put in place, we’re talking important reasons for it: Memorials and worship.

Fancy altars. Or, as God prefers, not.

Some religions get really intricate with their altars. Ancients did too, and built ’em all sorts of ways. Christians vary. The first church I remember attending, they had a wooden table with “Do this in remembrance of me” carved into the side. Lk 22.19 (It’s not proper KJV, but it’s proper present-day English.)

I’ve seen other churches where they built some really intricate, heavily carved, ornate altars. Craftsmen go to town on those things.

And of course I’ve seen churches where they grab one of those plastic folding tables, throw a nice tablecloth over it (or a not-as-nice plastic tablecloth, which is at least clean), and today it’ll be an altar. And next week it’ll be where the kids do some art project for Sunday school. Week after that, they’ll serve coffee from it.

Certain Christians get alarmed at that idea: This is an altar. It’s for worship. It’s holy. It oughta be something only for holding worship stuff, holding pulpit bibles, holding communion elements, holding prayer cards and anointing oil and other holy stuff. It can’t just be some plastic folding table from Walmart, or even some plain wooden table from Ikea. Don’t use common stuff for God; use holy stuff. Make it fancy because God deserves only the best.

Well he does, but I think they’ve missed the point about what altars are about. Remember when Jesus once critiqued Pharisees for some of their hypocritical loopholes? Somewhere in there was this comment about what they taught about the temple altar:

Matthew 23.18-20 KJV
18 And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. 19 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? 20 Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.

Making a really fancy table for worship is a gift to God. Nothing wrong with that, so long that you’re legitimately doing it for God, and not to show off your artistic ability, nor to claim he can only be worshiped with ornate bespoke stuff. Because it’s not the craftsmanship of the table which makes it an altar: It’s the fact it’s gonna be used for worship. At this time. And if you want it to be an altar all the time, okay!—it saves all the trouble of digging another table out of the storage room, and finding a clean tablecloth to cover up the coffee stains. But it’s about the purpose of the table, not its innate, intricate greatness. Any table used for legit worship is an altar, no matter how well-made it might be… or not.

’Cause when the LORD describes altars in the scriptures, his emphasis is on not. He doesn’t want them to waste their time, or placing way too much value, on a really complicated and decorated altar. Put some thought into it of course, and follow his instructions. But don’t go nuts.

Exodus 20.24-25 KJV
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.

Yep, the first altar he described is “an altar of earth.” Of dirt. He’s totally cool with a mound of dirt. (Considering the ancients used to burn dead animals on their altars, dirt kinda makes sense.)

You rarely read of the Hebrews using a mound of dirt as an altar; they preferred stones. Makes sense; the land of Israel has stones everywhere. Farmers have to dig ’em out of the ground all the time. A mound of dirt dissolves in the rain, but stone takes way longer to erode. But y’notice the LORD told Moses these needed to be natural rocks—that if anybody took a tool to it, to smooth out a corner or carve a bible verse on it, “thou hast polluted it.” Literally wounded it (Hebrew וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ/va-tekhalléha, “pierced [to death]”) and made it ritually unclean for worship. You want the stones to not wobble, you need to find different stones. Yeah that’ll take longer. But God only wants stones which nature shaped. Not us.

The prophet Elijah generally followed this idea when he rebuilt an altar on Mt. Carmel for his challenge against Baal-Hadád. There was an existing altar to the LORD on the spot, and Elijah renovated it for the occasion.

Matthew 23.18-20 KJV
30 And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down. 31 And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the LORD came, saying, Israel shall be thy name: 32 and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.

Y’notice in the LORD’s instructions, you didn’t have to make an altar of only 12 stones. But Elijah was trying to emphasize the tribes; that the LORD is God of their ancestors, and Baal-Hadad isn’t.

So does God’s requirement to the ancient Hebrews about unhewn stone, mean all our hewn-stone Christian altars are ritually unclean? Um… yes. Even though we’re not using ’em for the same thing the Hebrews did (i.e. ritual animal sacrifice), God did say to keep ’em simple and uncut, and insisting we make ’em our way instead of the way he prefers, exposes the fact our “worship” doesn’t really give a rip about God’s wishes and will. We elevate a fancy stone table over knowing God. Not good.

Does this also mean our fancy wooden tables, or metal tables, or even plastic tables, are likewise unclean? Nah; God only said this stuff about stone altars. He told ’em to include a wooden incense altar in his temple too, Ex 30.1 and Bezaleel ben Uri didn’t just make it of wood, but covered it in gold. Ex 37.10 He probably went to town on it in exactly the same way churches still do with their ornate altars. ’Cause he could! ’Cause he was doing it for God.

I should add: Is ritual cleanliness even a thing when we Christians are the Holy Spirit’s temple? When we worship God, altars aren’t a requirement; they’re optional. And kinda useful. But not necessary, and if we need a table, honestly any table will do. If you gotta have a special customized table, either you’re missing the point… or your church is trying to con you into buying unnecessary fancy tables.

Altars, and getting naked.

That Exodus passage I used to describe how God wants his altars built: That’s not the whole passage. There’s another line, and I remember this time a youth pastor read it to our group as he was trying to tell us about altars… and of course we all giggled.

Exodus 20.26 KJV
Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.

He never did explain what God meant by this. I will.

In Christian art and movies, whenever you see images of the ancient Hebrews trekking their way through the wilderness after they left Egypt, they typically dress like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, only not as white: Robes from your collar to your ankles, sandals, and a kefiyyeh on your head (that’s the veil with a rope or headband on top of it to keep it from falling off). That’s how people dressed in Jesus’s day, and often still dress. It’s not how the former Hebrew slaves dressed. When they left Egypt, they still dressed like the ancient Egyptians.

So men wore tunics and kilts. ’Cause if you’re doing any kind of heavy labor, it’s way easier to move around with a kilt than in an ankle-length shirt and an ankle-length robe. (And if you need to relieve yourself in the bushes, it’s likewise way easier.) They dressed this way for centuries thereafter. Only the wealthy, who didn’t labor, wore ankle-length robes.

And, same as the Scots, men didn’t wear anything under their kilts. So let’s say you were dancing before the LORD with all your might. 1Sa 6.14 What are the chances you might unintentionally flash people? 1Sa 6.20 Better than average. Would it distract people during worship? Of course. Hence God’s rule: Don’t build steps to my altar; people might see up the priests’ kilts, and I don’t want that.

Other commentators suggest the reason for this rule might be because Canaanite religions had creepy sexual stuff as part of their worship. But you could do that stuff with or without steps. This is solely a modesty issue, considering the clothing of the day. Over time, the Hebrews and Jews simply wore longer robes, whether they were hard at work or not. Problem solved. But their altar still had no steps to them, and that’s fine: It’s not about the size or grandness of your altar anyway. It’s about worship.

Lastly I’ll mention the temple’s altar had “horns.” Some ancient altars had corners which deliberately stuck out a little bit. Since the temple’s altar obviously couldn’t be made of carved stone, we don’t know how they got the corners to stick out… or even if they did stick out, and “horn” is just another way of saying the corner of the altar. When Moses first ritually purified the altar and priests, he dabbed blood on the “horns,” Lv 8.15 same as he dabbed blood on the priests’ earlobes, thumbs, and big toes. Lv 8.24 Anyone who touched the altar was holy, Ex 29.37 and since the horns were considered an extra-holy part, fugitives who wanted sanctuary from the LORD typically grabbed the horns. 1Ki 1.50-51 Not that the LORD guaranteed them sanctuary; this wasn’t a free pass for murderers. Ex 21.14

Fancy names for the altars.

I briefly touched on the names of various altars in my article on God’s names. Really, they need their own article. Maybe multiple articles. Generally the altars were named for something God did at the time, which led people to respond by building him an altar. So they’re usually titled “YHWH-[ADJECTIVE],” with the adjective being whatever God did. The LORD our help, the LORD our healer, the LORD our provider, or even “the LORD’s here”—because he is.

I have yet to find a Christian church that’s named their altar. Well, named it for something other than the donor who paid for it. The “Fred Smith Memorial Altar” just doesn’t evoke God’s greatness in the way those old Hebrew altars did. I’m sure some churches have given their altars appropriate names, but like I said, I’ve not found ’em. Maybe you can encourage your church to give your altar a really good name. Get creative. God’s awesome.