Our portion this week is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yithro (Exodus 18-20). As usual, a lot happens in the text but I’m going to focus basically on one sentence right at the end:

“And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it.” (Exodus 20:25)

I decided to do this because the further we go into Exodus, the more we’re going to encounter the laws which God gave to Moses. And while many Christians don’t typically seem to find it a very interesting/enlightening subject, I’m going to be writing about it quite a bit because that’s the nature of this blog. So this is as good a place as any to start.

A lot of people say that there’re portions of the law which are simply ceremonial in nature and no longer relevant to believers today. I don’t agree with that. Even if there’re aspects of the law which cannot be practised because there’s no Temple in Jerusalem, or because Yeshua fulfilled them sacrificially through the cross, the law is essential to understanding the character and perspective of God as they relate to life here on earth. And when I read it, I find myself feeling edified, fascinated and fed more often than not.

… Personally I think it’s because I was raised in an Eastern context. Because of that cultural, spiritual background, there’s a part of me that’s naturalised to worship not just with thoughts and words and songs, but also through physical objects and actions. And when it comes to things like altars and sacrifices and rituals, there’s something in me which instinctively understands that there’s an importance and significance about them that’s missing in much of today’s Judeo-Christian notions of worship… something that gravitates toward wanting to inhabit and understand it all as I once understood, from the core of my being, why we worshipped our gods in Chinese folk religion a certain way – and then proceeded to do so with all my heart. Because as pagan and corrupted as those paths are, I believe they’re actually echoes of acceptable, sacramental worship towards God that was co-opted and counterfeited long ago by the enemy, to be used for his vainglory and blasphemous purposes.

I don’t talk about this often (especially not to Westernised Christians) because I’m aware that what I’m saying can easily be misunderstood… or worse, dismissed out of hand. I realise that it can come off as strange, unfamiliar, or even alarming to normative Protestant theology. But since this is my own blog, I want to be honest. It’s especially important because once we get to Leviticus, this perspective of mine will become even more pronounced because I’ve found that it’s been crucial to helping me appreciate certain things about Levitical law that’re more visceral than intellectual.

… The fact is, as I’ve written before in my 3-part series On spirituality and atheism, from an Easterner’s perspective, I believe that atheism is unnatural to the human condition, and that there isn’t actually supposed to be an Eastern/Western culture divide when it comes to matters of spirituality. I wrote:

Once upon a time, man who is spiritual knew that he was spiritual, and embraced it unreservedly, even in the West. Once upon a time, there was one culture, born from humanity’s in-felt lack of its separation from God, with expressions that differed in varying degrees across ethno-geographic regions, but which were essentially the same in their perceived need for a bridge back to the life and divine access which the human race had lost, as well as their understanding of that need.

Contemporary Western society, with its commitment to a general atheistic culture of naturalism, is an aberration in this history, and it’s affected Christianity in such a way that there’s now a dividing line, however tenuous it may be in some places, which separates the spiritual/supernatural from the earthly/natural, and has severed worship as an understanding and expression of the whole man and whole life right at the root.

Consequently when faced with a brief verse, for example, about how hewing stone to make an altar for God will profane it, some people might just shrug their shoulders at the strangeness of the statement and move on, not even registering how there could possibly be anything truly significant, theologically, about something so remote that it’s practically trivial.

And while there are theological truths of admittedly greater import in the Bible, this command nevertheless reveals certain spiritual realities which, when put together with other such truths scattered throughout the Scriptures, help to constitute a truly Biblical worldview – and this is crucial to the renewing of the mind.

So, to explore the matter at hand: why does hewing stone to make an altar profane it?

Here’s what the Scriptures say. The Torah relates the prohibition of using cut stone in the building of an altar in two places – the aforementioned Exodus 20:25, and Deuteronomy 27:5-7:

“And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it.”

“And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones; you shall not use an iron tool on them. You shall build with whole stones the altar of the Lord your God, and offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God. You shall offer peace offerings, and shall eat there, and rejoice before the Lord your God.”

Deuteronomy 27:5-7, in my opinion, gives the keys to understanding. Firstly, the tools prohibited were specifically so because they were made of iron; and in Exodus 20:25, the word for “your tool” in Hebrew is חַרְבְּךָ (harbeikha), which is more accurately translated “your sword” – iron and the sword, therefore, are linked in the interpretive context of these passages.

Secondly, the altar was a place for making offerings to God: burnt offerings and peace offerings, where worshippers were to eat and rejoice before the Lord; so it was, effectively, a site of communion. Moreover, in Deuteronomy 27:6, the Hebrew for whole stones is אֲבָנִים שְׁלֵמוֹת (avaneem sheleimoth), with the word for whole, שְׁלֵמוֹת (sheleimoth), coming from the word שָׁלֵם (shaleim) – meaning complete, whole, perfect, safe, at peace (it’s the same root from which the word “shalom” is derived). Thus in having the altar made of whole stones, there’s a reinforced sense in the text that it’s a place where peace is made with God – in keeping with the subsequent command for Israelites to bring peace offerings there.

When you put these considerations together, the reason for the prohibition becomes clear: since the altar is a site of communion and fellowship with God, using iron to bring it into being is really antithetical to the very cause for which it exists. Juxtapose the two and you see that it’s a matter of the natural/unadorned vs. the artificial/man-made; violence and force vs. reconciliation and peace/life with God; the ability to mediate and atone vs. the ability to kill and destroy. … Or as the Jewish sage Simeon ben Eleazar put it, “The altar is made to prolong the years of man and iron is made to shorten the years of man. It is not right for that which shortens life to be lifted up against that which prolongs life.”

… Of course, there could also be practical reasons for God to give Moses such a command. For instance, to hew stone when fashioning an altar could, in the end, make the whole process about the construction of the altar itself, rather than what the altar is for. And this opens the door to the temptation of idolatry, as illustrated in verses like Isaiah 44:12-13, which describes the painstaking, labour-intensive process of idol-making:

The blacksmith with the tongs works one in the coals,
Fashions it with hammers,
And works it with the strength of his arms. …
The craftsman stretches out his rule,
He marks one out with chalk;
He fashions it with a plane,
He marks it out with the compass…

According to the Scriptures, such work is considered offensive to God in its focus on futile, miss-the-point aesthetics and overwrought emphasis on human effort. Apart from that, there’s also the question of what might be done with any fragments that’re left over from the building of the altar if cut stones were to be used: in the Bible, objects that’re employed for holy purposes are typically prohibited from being left over – especially for undesignated common/mundane use – or from being haphazardly disposed of, because that would profane them (off the top of my head, the manna and Passover lamb are 2 examples of this).

… But the most important thing about this commandment, in my opinion, is the fact that it connects to other teachings and notions in Scripture – conceptually, hermeneutically, prophetically – in such a way, as I said before, that it helps to construct a truly Biblical way of perceiving and organising Scriptural ideas. This is because a physical action or object given in the law is often a means of opening up a greater vision and understanding of spiritual things – in this case, the juxtaposition of stone against iron in the metaphorical/allegorical sense.

In Genesis 49:24, Jacob said that Joseph’s arms were made strong by the Mighty God of Jacob, from whom is “the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel” – that Stone being Christ according to 1 Corinthians 10:4. This imagery of the Messiah/Israel as stone/rock appears numerous times in the word, particularly in conjunction with the enemies of God/Israel as iron/sword. For example, Jacob received his dream of the angelic ladder at Bethel as he slept on a stone (which he further set up and anointed with oil when he woke up – Genesis 28:18-22); Esau, on the other hand, was told during Isaac’s blessing that he would live by his sword (Genesis 27:40). Moses helped the Israelites gain victory over the sword-wielding Amalekites (Numbers 14:43) by sitting on a stone while his arms were supported by Aaron and Hur (Exodus 17:11-13); David defeated Goliath with a stone in the name of YHWH, and cut off the giant’s head with his own sword (1 Samuel 17:48-51). Moreover, in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the Babylonian king beheld a stone not cut by human hands destroying all the other kingdoms, which were symbolised by various kinds of metal, in the great image he saw – the last being an empire of iron, and iron mixed with clay (Daniel 2:31-45): a picture of God’s kingdom defeating and triumphing over all others, including the Antichrist’s, in the earth.

All of which are interesting things to note, and sufficient to establish the fact that the Scriptures are complex, intentional and multiply layered with self-referencing contexts, allusions and meaning, just waiting to be mined by the willing student. But here’s another question: how is all this supposed to apply to the individual believer? Can this one relatively obscure commandment in the Torah be used in any way to form a theology of personal obedience?

Well, 1 Peter 2:5 says that in coming to Christ as a living stone, we also, “as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” As a source of teaching meant to mould the people of God via practices, actions and life pictures into vessels suitable for receiving His truths, the Torah ultimately functions as a living illustration that’s meant to ground us in a uniquely God-defined perspective of reality. And in this particular case, as Peter understood, a believer is basically a living altar. This is why the prayers of the saints are likened to incense (Revelation 5:8); why we are described as diffusing the aroma of the knowledge of Christ in every place (2 Corinthians 2:14-15); why Paul exhorted the Romans to present their bodies as living sacrifices (a concept which I’ll write more about when we come to Leviticus). When you read about how iron – which in this hermeneutic context symbolises negative things like human-centred effort and violence – is not supposed to be used in the making of an altar of God, you start to see how the principle applies when you put the spirit and the letter of the law together.

Because our prayers/words are likened to the smoke/fragrance which arises from the altar, it is not fitting that violence or wicked speech should be found in us, hence Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 3:5-10:

Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.

But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him…

It’s also why Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9) – as living altars, we’re supposed to be vessels pleading with men to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20), so that we, like the stone altars of old, may be sites of peacemaking between men and God. It is why Jesus rebuked Peter, saying, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) – because those whom God desires to live as uncut stones unto Him ought not to be shaped by iron, much less wield it (at least, not as a way of life; I don’t think self-defence is the same thing). It’s also why James 3:11-12 says, “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh” – like iron and uncut stone, two antithetical things cannot (or should not) exist in the composition of the same altar.

All of which is not to say that there’s anything inherently evil about iron… iron tools were used to fashion all manner of articles for the Tabernacle/Temple; the warriors of Israel used iron weapons; and the Messiah will rule the nations with a rod of iron. But in the context of this one particular commandment, iron alludes to a spiritual truth that’s woven through various parts of the word, and provides a fascinating form of instruction in its own right.

Neat, huh?

Next week, we plunge into more of the law as Israel continues its stay at the foot of Sinai. Shalom. :)