Exodus 20:24
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.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(24) An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me.—The earliest altars were, naturally, either of earth, or of unhewn stones, gathered into a heap, since these could be constructed with little labour, and without tools. But, as civilisation advanced, more elaborate structures took the place of the primitive ones. It became usual to erect altars of hewn stone, adorned with carvings more or less rich, among which might often be introduced human and animal forms. We must understand the command here given, and that of Exodus 20:25, as intended to forbid structures of this latter kind, which, if allowed, might have led on to idolatry.

Thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings.—Sacrifice began soon after Paradise was quitted (Genesis 4:3-4), and shortly became a universal practice. Noah offered sacrifice on leaving the ark (Genesis 8:20); and in the family of Abraham the rite was an established one (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 15:9; Genesis 22:7; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 31:54, &c.). Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Phœnicians, Greeks, Romans, Scythians, Celts, Germans, all equally regarded sacrifice as a main element of their religion; and if the Hebrews had not offered actual sacrifices during their oppression in Egypt, they had, at any rate, maintained the wish to offer them, and it was (primarily) for the purpose of sacrificing that they had quitted Egypt. The legislation assumes that they are acquainted with the difference between “burnt offerings and “peace offerings,” and desirous of offering both kinds.

Exodus 20:24. An altar of earth — It is meant of occasional altars, such as they reared in the wilderness before the tabernacle was erected, and afterward upon special emergencies, for present use. They are appointed to make these very plain, either of earth or of unhewn stones. That they might not be tempted to think of a graven image, they must not so much as hew the stones into shape that they made their altars of, but pile them up as they were in the rough. In all places where I record my name — Or where my name is recorded; that is, where I am worshipped in sincerity; I will come unto thee, and will bless thee.

20:22-26 Moses having entered into the thick darkness, God there spake in his hearing all that follows from hence to the end of chap. 23, which is mostly an exposition of the ten commandments. The laws in these verses relate to God's worship. The Israelites are assured of God's gracious acceptance of their devotions. Under the gospel, men are encouraged to pray every where, and wherever God's people meet in his name to worship him, he will be in the midst of them; there he will come unto them, and will bless them.Nothing could be more appropriate as the commencement of the book of the covenant than these regulations for public worship. The rules for the building of altars must have been old and accepted, and are not inconsistent with the directions for the construction of the altar of the court of the tabernacle, Exodus 27:1-8 (compare Joshua 22:26-28). 24. An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me—a regulation applicable to special or temporary occasions. An altar thou shalt make for thy present use, or whilst thou art in the wilderness: this he commanded, partly, that they might easily and readily erect an altar upon all occasions, which it might be hard for them to do there of better materials; partly, to mind them how much more God regarded the inward holiness than the outward pomp of their devotions; partly, because God would make a conspicuous difference between them and idolaters, who used much cost and curiosity about their altars; partly, that the altars might, after they left them, fall down and moulder away, and not remain as lasting monuments, which might be afterward abused to idolatry by any persons that came thither; partly, because they were uncertain of their stay any where, except at Sinai, and therefore must raise such altars as they could suddenly do. But this command only concerned their wilderness state; for there were better and more durable altars in the tabernacle and temple.

In all places, therefore there is no need of building any stately altar in a certain place, as if my presence were fixed there, and not to be enjoyed elsewhere.

Where I record my name, or, cause my name to be remembered by you; i.e. not in every place which you shall invent, but in all such places as I shall appoint for the remembrance or celebration of my name, or for the service of my majesty, whether it be in the wilderness, and in divers parts thereof, or in the tabernacle and temple.

An altar of earth thou shall make unto me,.... This was a temporary precept, and only in force until the tabernacle was built, and respects occasional altars, erected while on their travels, and were to be made of turfs of earth, and so easily and quickly thrown up, as their case and circumstances required, and as easily thrown down, as it was proper they should, after they had no more use for them, lest they should be abused to superstitious uses; for afterwards the altar for burnt offerings was made of Shittim wood covered with brass, and that in the temple was wholly a brazen one, Exodus 27:1 this precept seems to suggest the plainness and simplicity in which God would be worshipped, in opposition to the pomp and gaudy show of idolaters intimated in the preceding verse; though Tertullian (t) relates of the Romans in the times of Numa Pomptitus, that they had neither images, nor temples, nor capitols, only altars made of turfs of earth hastily thrown up; and this altar of earth might be, as Ainsworth observes, a figure of the earthly or human nature of Christ, who is the altar, whereof believers in him have a right to eat, Hebrews 13:10.

and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen; which were the creatures offered in the said sacrifices, as also in the sin offerings and trespass offerings, which, though not mentioned, are included:

in all places where I record my name; or, "cause it to be mentioned", or "remembered" (u); where he manifested himself, displayed the glory of his nature and perfection; or, as the Targum of Jonathan expresses it, caused his Shechinah or divine Majesty to dwell, or gave any intimations of his presence, as at the altar now erected to him, and at the sacrifices offered up thereon, and afterwards in the tabernacle, between the cherubim over the mercy seat, and ark of the testimony; which was removed to various places before the temple was built at Jerusalem, where he took up his residence, and his name was called upon, made mention of, and recorded for many generations: but that being destroyed and worship there at an end, men may now worship God in any place, so be it they do it in spirit and in truth; and wherever the name of God is truly called upon, and the glory of his divine perfection, as displayed in the salvation of sinners by Christ, is set forth, and Christ and him crucified is preached; and mention is made of his name as the only one in which salvation is; of his glorious person and offices, of his righteousness, blood, and sacrifice, for justification, remission of sins, and atonement; and his ordinances are administered, which are memorials of his love and grace; there Jehovah grants his presence:

I will come unto thee: not locally or by change of place, nor by his omnipresence merely, so he is everywhere; nor in any visible way, but in a spiritual manner, by the communications of his grace and favour, see John 14:21, and I will bless thee; with his presence, than which nothing is more desirable and delightful; with the supplies of his grace, with peace and pardon, with a justifying righteousness, with a right and title to eternal life, with enlarged views of these blessings and of interest in them.

(t) Apologet. c. 25. (u) "memorare faciam nomen meum", Pagninus, Montanus; "ubi recordari faciam nomen meum, seu ubi faciam ut recordemini nominis mei", Piscator.

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.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
24. altar] The word in Heb. (mizbçaḥ) means a ‘place of slaughter or sacrifice.’ Altars of earth were also common among the Romans (Tert. Apol. 25 attributes temeraria de caespite altaria to the earliest times; cf. the arae gramineae of Aen. xii. 118 f., and the ‘positusque carbo in Caespite vivo’ of Hor. Od. iii. 8. 3 f., &c.), and, according to Sil. Ital. iv. 703, the Carthaginians: for an example of a large natural stone, extemporized rapidly into an altar, see 1 Samuel 14:32-35. On the probable primitive idea of an altar among the Semites, as an artificial substitute for a natural object, especially a rock or boulder, supposed—like other striking natural objects, as a tree, stream, or spring (EB. iii. 2981 f.)—to be the abode of a deity or numen loci, see Rel. Sem.2 206 ff., or DB. s.v. Altar. Ancient rock-altars have been discovered recently in Palestine; see the writer’s Schweich Lectures on Modern Research as illustrating the Bible (1908), p. 66 f.; and cf. Jdg 6:20 f.

shalt sacrifice, &c.] ‘The words are addressed not to the priests, but to Israel at large, and imply that any Israelite may approach the altar, (W. R. Smith, OTJC.2[181] p. 358: so Di., pp. 385, 457, 460 [ed. 2, pp. 425, 500, 503]; Baudissin, DB. iv. 70a; cf. Kautzsch, DB. v. 648 f.). The right of sacrificing was not limited to the priestly class till long afterwards. For examples of laymen offering sacrifice, see 1 Samuel 6:14; 1 Samuel 13:9 f., 2 Samuel 6:13; 2 Samuel 6:17; 2 Samuel 24:25, 1 Kings 1:9; 1 Kings 3:4; in 2 Samuel 8:18 = 2 Samuel 20:26 David’s sons are priests (so Di.).

[181] W. R. Smith, Old Testament in the Jewish Church, ed. 2, 1892.

sacrifice] lit. kill or slay. The verb (zâbaḥ) may be used of killing domestic animals for food without religious rites (see in the Heb. Deuteronomy 12:15; Deuteronomy 12:21, 1 Samuel 28:24); but since in early times animals were seldom, if ever, killed without an accompanying sacrifice, it commonly denotes sacrificial slaying.

burnt offerings, and … peace offerings] The two commonest kinds of sacrifice, often mentioned together, especially in the earlier historical books, but also elsewhere: see e.g. Exodus 24:5, Exodus 32:6, Deuteronomy 27:7 (E), 1 Samuel 10:8; 1 Samuel 13:9, 2 Samuel 6:17; 2 Samuel 24:25, and with ‘sacrifices’ for ‘peace-offerings,’ Exodus 10:25 (see note), Exodus 18:12, 1 Samuel 6:15; 1 Samuel 15:22, 2 Kings 5:17. In the burnt-offering (Heb. ‘ôlâh, that which goes up—most probably upon the altar, though according to others in κνίση or ‘sweet smoke’ [Exodus 29:13] to heaven), the whole animal was laid on the altar, and consumed there by fire (cf. LXX. ὁλοκαύτωμα ‘something wholly burnt,’ Vulg. holocaustum; hence some moderns render by holocaust); in the peace-offering, the fat and certain of the entrails having been consumed upon the altar, and certain parts of the flesh having been given (at least in later times) to the priest, the rest of the flesh was eaten by the worshipper and his friends at a sacred meal (cf. Exodus 18:12). The later ritual of these two species of sacrifice is given in Leviticus 1:3.

peace offerings] shelâmim: LXX. (in Sam. Kgs.) εἰρηνικά, i.e. sacrifices symbolizing mutual peace and amity between those who participated in the sacred meal (which was the distinctive feature in this sacrifice), both among themselves and also with God. This explanation seems the most probable; but others have been adopted. LXX. render mostly by θυσία σωτηρίου ‘safety- (or welfare-) sacrifice’: in this case, the ‘peace,’ or ‘welfare,’ implied would be that of the worshipper, for which, by his sacrifice, he either petitioned, or returned thanks (so Keil). Ges. Ew. Kn. render thank-offering (so Leviticus 3:1 RVm.; Josephus χαριστήρια), from the sense of the root in Piel, to make good or pay (Psalm 66:13, &c., Proverbs 7:14). See further on Leviticus 3. The word occurs in the Carthaginian inscription now at Marseilles (Auth. and Arch. p. 77 f.), as the name of a sacrifice; but it is not known of what nature the sacrifice was.

in every place where I cause my name to be remembered (marg.)] viz. by a theophany, a victory (Exodus 17:15), or other manifestation of My presence: those who offer sacrifice at places thus distinguished may expect Jehovah’s presence and blessing. A plurality of altars is thus sanctioned: but they must be erected not at places chosen arbitrarily, but at places which have been marked in some way by Jehovah’s favour and approval (cf. Rel. Sem.2[182] p. 115 f.). The reference cannot be to the altar of Burnt offering before the Tabernacle (Exodus 27:1-8, &c.): not only is a far simpler structure evidently in the writer’s mind, but the alternatives offered (earth, or unhewn stone, v. 25) shew that altars in general are referred to, and that the intention of the law is to authorize the erection of altars, built in the manner prescribed, in any part of the land. With the liberty of sacrifice thus permitted, as Di. points out (pp. 224, 384 f., ed. 2, pp. 247 f., 425), the practice in Israel for ‘a series of centuries after Moses’ conforms: in Jos.—1 K. sacrifices are frequently mentioned as offered in different parts of the land, without the smallest indication on the part of either the actor or the narrator that any law is being infringed. An altar, or sacrifice, is authorized by a theophany, or special command, Genesis 35:7, Joshua 8:30 f. (on mount Ebal; see Deuteronomy 27:5-7 a), Jdg 2:5; Jdg 6:24; Jdg 6:26 f., 1 Samuel 16:1-3, 2 Samuel 24:18; 2 Samuel 24:25, by a victory, Exodus 17:15, 1 Samuel 14:35 : in other cases the occasion is not stated, though the places mentioned are often ancient sanctuaries, consecrated by traditions of the patriarchs, Joshua 24:1; Joshua 24:26 (the ‘sanctuary’ at Shechem, cf. Genesis 33:20), 1 Samuel 7:9 f. (at Mizpah, v. 6; cf. Jdg 20:1unto Jehovah at Mizpah,’ 1 Samuel 10:17), 1 Samuel 7:17; 1Sa 9:12 f., 1 Samuel 10:3 (at Bethel, Genesis 28:11-22; Genesis 35:1), 1 Samuel 10:8 (at Gilgal—like Bethel, known independently to have been a sanctuary; so 1 Samuel 11:15), 1 Samuel 14:35 (the first of the altars built by Saul),1 Samuel 20:6, 2 Samuel 15:7 f., 2 Samuel 15:12 (at Hebron, Genesis 13:18), 2 Samuel 15:32 (‘where men used to worship God’), 1 Kings 3:4; 1 Kings 18:30; 1 Kings 19:10; 1 Kings 19:14. A tendency towards centralization, due to the natural preeminence of the sanctuary at which the Ark was stationed, and afterwards to the prestige of Solomon’s Temple, no doubt made itself felt before the principle of the single sanctuary was finally codified in Deuteronomy 12; but it cannot be doubted that for long after the time when Israel was first settled in Canaan, numerous local sanctuaries existed, and sacrifice at them was habitually offered—both the sanctuaries and the sacrifices being justified by the present law (see further Di. ll.cc.; DB. v. 661a; or the writer’s Comment. on Deut. pp. xliii f., 136–8; and cf. on Exodus 22:29).

[182] W. R. Smith, The Religion of the Semites, ed. 2, 1894.

24, 25. Altars were to be of the simplest material, of earth, or, if of stone, of unhewn stone: they might be erected wherever Jehovah gave occasion for His name to be commemorated; and any Israelite might sacrifice upon them. The passage evidently reflects an early stage of Heb. usage: in later times much more elaborate altars were constructed (Exodus 27:1-8, 1 Kings 8:64, 2 Chronicles 4:1), and the right of sacrifice was ultimately restricted to the priests.

24–26. Altars, their construction, and the places at which they may be erected.

Verse 24. - An altar of earth. Among the nations of antiquity altars were indispensable to Divine worship, which everywhere included sacrifice. They were often provided on the spur of the occasion, and were then "constructed of earth, sods, or stones, collected upon the spot." The patriarchal altars bad probably been of this character, and it was now provided that the same usage should continue: at any rate, elaborate structures of hewn and highly ornamented stone should not be allowed, lest thus idolatry should creep in, the images engraved upon the altars becoming the objects of worship. Thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings. The mode in which these are introduced implies that sacrifice was already a long-standing practice. The patriarchal sacrifices are well known (Genesis 8:20; Genesis 12:7; Genesis 22:9; Genesis 35:1). Jethro had recently offered sacrifice in the camp of Israel (Exodus 18:12). If the Israelites had not sacrificed to God during the sojourn in Egypt, at any rate they had kept up the idea of sacrifice; and it was for the purpose of offering sacrifices that Moses had demanded permission to go with all his nation into the wilderness. I will come unto thee and I will bless thee. The promise is conditional on the observance of the command. If the altars are rightly constructed, and proper victims offered, then, in all places where he allows the erection of an altar, God will accept the sacrifices offered upon it and bless the worshippers. Exodus 20:24For the worship of Jehovah, the God of heaven, Israel needed only an altar, on which to cause its sacrifices to ascend to God. The altar, as an elevation built up of earth or rough stones, was a symbol of the elevation of man to God, who is enthroned on high in the heaven; and because man was to raise himself to God in his sacrifices, Israel also was to make an altar, though only of earth, or if of stones, not of hewn stones. "For if thou swingest thy tool (חרב lit., sharpness, then any edge tool) over it (over the stone), thou defilest it" (Exodus 20:25). "Of earth:" i.e., not "of comparatively simple materials, such as befitted a representation of the creature" (Schultz on Deuteronomy 12); for the altar was not to represent the creature, but to be the place to which God came to receive man into His fellowship there. For this reason the altar was to be made of the same material, which formed the earthly soil for the kingdom of God, either of earth or else of stones, just as they existed in their natural state; not, however, "because unpolished stones, which retain their true and native condition, appear to be endowed with a certain native purity, and therefore to be most in harmony with the sanctity of an altar" (Spencer de legg. Hebr. rit. lib. ii. c. 6), for the "native purity" of the earth does not agree with Genesis 3:17; but because the altar was to set forth the nature of the simple earthly soil, unaltered by the hand of man. The earth, which has been involved in the curse of sin, is to be renewed and glorified into the kingdom of God, not by sinful men, but by the gracious hand of God alone. Moreover, Israel was not to erect the altar for its sacrifices in any place that it might choose, but only in every place in which Jehovah should bring His name to remembrance. וגו שׁם הזכּיר does not mean "to make the name of the Lord remembered," i.e., to cause men to remember it; but to establish a memorial of His name, i.e., to make a glorious revelation of His divine nature, and thereby to consecrate the place into a holy soil (cf. Exodus 3:5), upon which Jehovah would come to Israel and bless it. Lastly, the command not to go up to the altar by steps (Exodus 20:26) is followed by the words, "that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon." It was in the feeling of shame that the consciousness of sin first manifested itself, and it was in the shame that the sin was chiefly apparent (Genesis 3:7); hence the nakedness was a disclosure of sin, through which the altar of God would be desecrated, and for this reason it was forbidden to ascend to the altar by steps. These directions with reference to the altar to be built do not refer merely to the altar, which was built for the conclusion of the covenant, nor are they at variance with the later instructions respecting the one altar at the tabernacle, upon which all the sacrifices were to be presented (Leviticus 17:8-9; Deuteronomy 12:5.), nor are they merely "provisional" but they lay the foundation for the future laws with reference to the places of worship, though without restricting them to one particular locality on the one hand, or allowing an unlimited number of altars on the other. Hence "several places and altars are referred to here, because, whilst the people were wandering in the desert, there could be no fixed place for the tabernacle" (Riehm). But the erection of the altar is unquestionably limited to every place which Jehovah appointed for the purpose by a revelation. We are not to understand the words, however, as referring merely to those places in which the tabernacle and its altar were erected, and to the site of the future temple (Sinai, Shilloh, and Jerusalem), but to all those places also where altars were built and sacrifices offered on extraordinary occasions, on account of God, - appearing there such, for example, as Ebal (Joshua 8:30 compared with Deuteronomy 27:5), the rock in Ophrah (Judges 6:25-26), and many other places besides.
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