Scripture: “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.” Exodus 20:24-26 ESV
Observation: Chapter 20 closes with God mandating Moses to remind the people that they shall have no other gods before him and nor create idols (Commandments 1 and 2). In the above verse, he further instructs Moses to convey to his people formal elements of holy worship:
- construct altars from the earth or unhewn stone,
- do not build steps, and
- do not expose your nakedness.
As with most of the Levitical law, the above practices set Israel apart from the pagan worship practices of their neighboring nations, who showed little modesty or restraint of their sexual appetites in their religious rites (nudity and ceremonial prostitution were commonplace). In contrast, God provided additional instruction to wear linen undergarments to ensure that the Hebrew priests did not inadvertently expose themselves (28:40-42).
As for the earthen or unhewn stone altars, again, these measures ensured distinctive elements of Godly worship in contrast to their neighbors, who would erect elaborate altars that took the shape of idols and promoted fetishes.
Takeaway: As theologian Peter Enns contends, these temporary altars, constructed in sanctified places designated by God, and the stipulations for making sacrifices on the altars, would remind Israel of three critical elements of their relationship with their Lord:
- redemption from Egypt that prepared them for meeting God,
- proper worship of God, and
- obedience to God through his law.
The same applies to us. Redeemed from our bondage to sin through the blood of Christ, he has prepared us to meet our Father. Hence, we worship our Triune God reverently with modesty and humility. And our sacred worship practices move us to obedience: to love the Lord our God with all our mind, heart, strength, and soul and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-38) and, thus, go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for redeeming us from the bondage of sin through the sacrifice of your Son. Would you please help us live as your redeemed children, reverently worshiping you and your Son in a manner that moves us outwardly toward loving our neighbors and making disciples of all nations? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling