Genesis 8:20
And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
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(20) Noah builded an altar unto the Lord (Jehovah).—The account of this sacrificial act is said to have been an interpolation of the Jehovist. Really it forms an integral portion of the numerous traditions of the flood. Thus in the Chaldean Genesis, after the sending forth of a dove, a swallow, and a raven, we read (p. 280):—

“I sent them forth to the four winds; I sacrificed a sacrifice;

I built an altar on the peak of the mountain.”

This extreme antiquity of sections ascribed to the Jehovist, and supposed to be an after-thought, is seriously detrimental to the whole theory.

One result of the flood was to sweep away all traces of the earthly paradise and of the subsequent abode of Adam; and it is probable also that Noah was removed far away from his previous home by the floating of the ark. Thus to him and his family it was a new earth, with no holy places, no spots hallowed by the past history of man. He therefore determines to consecrate the earth to Jehovah, who had been the object of the worship of his family since the days of Enos, and therefore builds an altar, the first mentioned in the Bible. By so doing he provided for future generations a central spot and sanctuary, round which their religious ideas would group themselves. The animals offered were probably the seventh of all clean kinds (see Note on Genesis 7:2). With Noah’s burnt offerings we must not connect any of the later Levitical ideas. Apparently it was a simple thank-offering, the dominant thought of which was the hallowing man’s future life by commencing it with worship. It thus contained within it the presage that a better state of things had now begun. Subsequently the thank-offering became a feast, at which the offerer and his family partook of the victim as Jehovah’s guests; and as God during this sacrifice gave Noah permission to eat flesh (Genesis 9:3), it is probable that such was the case now, and that the eating of flesh was inaugurated in this solemn way. We have, however, previously seen reason to believe that the flesh of animals had occasionally been eaten before, though not as an ordinary article of diet.

Genesis 8:20. Noah builded an altar — The first altar that we read of; but not the first which was built; for the sacrifices which were offered before, Genesis 4:3-4, presuppose an altar or altars. And it ought to be well observed, that the silence of Scripture concerning any thing is not sufficient evidence that it was not done; to remember which will greatly assist us in understanding many passages of the sacred oracles. Here we see, that the first thing that he did after his wonderful preservation was to pay this debt of gratitude so justly due to that God who had so wonderfully preserved him. Hitherto he had done nothing without particular instructions and commands from God: but altars and sacrifices being already of divine institution, he did not stay for a particular command thus to express his thankfulness. And he offered on the altar, of every clean beast, and of every fowl — One, the odd seventh that we read of, Genesis 7:2-3.

8:20-22 Noah was now gone out into a desolate world, where, one might have thought, his first care would have been to build a house for himself, but he begins with an alter for God. He begins well, that begins with God. Though Noah's stock of cattle was small, and that saved at great care and pains, yet he did not grudge to serve God out of it. Serving God with our little is the way to make it more; we must never think that is wasted with which God is honoured. The first thing done in the new world was an act of worship. We are now to express our thankfulness, not by burnt-offerings, but by praise, and pious devotions and conversation. God was well pleased with what was done. But the burning flesh could no more please God, than the blood of bulls and goats, except as typical of the sacrifice of Christ, and expressing Noah's humble faith and devotedness to God. The flood washed away the race of wicked men, but it did not remove sin from man's nature, who being conceived and born in sin, thinks, devises, and loves wickedness, even from his youth, and that as much since the flood as before. But God graciously declared he never would drown the world again. While the earth remains, and man upon it, there shall be summer and winter. It is plain that this earth is not to remain always. It, and all the works in it, must shortly be burned up; and we look for new heavens and a new earth, when all these things shall be dissolved. But as long as it does remain, God's providence will cause the course of times and seasons to go on, and makes each to know its place. And on this word we depend, that thus it shall be. We see God's promises to the creatures made good, and may infer that his promises to all believers shall be so.The offering of Noah accepted. The return to the dry land, through the special mercy of God to Noah and his house, is celebrated by an offering of thanksgiving and faith. "Builded an altar." This is the first mention of the altar, or structure for the purpose of sacrifice. The Lord is now on high, having swept away the garden, and withdrawn his visible presence at the same time from the earth. The altar is therefore erected to point toward his dwelling-place on high. "Unto the Lord." The personal name of God is especially appropriate here, as he has proved himself a covenant keeper and a deliverer to Noah. "Of all clean cattle, and every clean fowl." The mention of clean birds renders it probable that these only were taken into the ark by seven pairs Genesis 7:3. Every fit animal is included in this sacrifice, as it is expressive of thanksgiving for a complete deliverance. We have also here the first mention of the burnt-offering עלה 'olâh; the whole victim, except the skin, being burned on the altar. Sacrifice is an act in which the transgressor slays an animal and offers it in whole, or in part as representative of the whole, to God. In this act he acknowledges his guilt, the claim of the offended law upon his life, and the mercy of the Lord in accepting a substitute to satisfy this claim for the returning penitent. He at the same time actually accepts the mercy of the Most High, and comes forward to plead it in the appointed way of reconciliation. The burnt-offering is the most perfect symbol of this substitution, and most befitting the present occasion, when life has been granted to the inmates of the ark amidst the universal death.20. Noah builded an altar—literally, "a high place"—probably a mound of earth, on which a sacrifice was offered. There is something exceedingly beautiful and interesting to know that the first care of this devout patriarch was to return thanks for the signal instance of mercy and goodness which he and his family had experienced.

took of every clean beast … fowl—For so unparalleled a deliverance, a special acknowledgment was due.

This is the first altar we read of, but not the first which was built; for the sacrifices which were offered before, Genesis 4:3-4, presuppose an altar. Therefore it is no sufficient evidence that such things were not done because they are not said to be done in Scripture; which will be a useful consideration for the understanding of many passages in Scripture hereafter.

The first thing Noah doth, is to pay his debt of justice and gratitude to that God which had so miraculously preserved him, and restored him to his ancient and proper habitation. God expects to be served in the first place. What beasts were clean and what unclean, see Genesis 7:2 Leviticus 11:2, &c.

And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord,.... Not an house for himself and his family, but an altar for God; his first and greatest concern being for the glory of God, and not for the temporal good of himself and his: this altar was erected, and devoted to the service of God; it was built according to his will, and by his direction: Noah's view was to renew the worship of God, preserve and propagate it by his example; and this was done by way of thanksgiving to God for his wonderful preservation of him, and was also propitiatory and typical of Christ: the Jewish writers (d) say, this was the altar on which Adam sacrificed, when expelled the garden of Eden, and on which Cain and Abel offered; and being demolished by the flood, was rebuilt by Noah, which is not at all probable; it is much more likely what Aben Ezra says, that it was built on one of the mountains of Ararat, and that as Noah took the first opportunity, so he built it in the first place he came to, or at least not far from the place where he came out of the ark:

and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar; the clean beasts were the bullock, the sheep, and goat, and the clean fowl, the turtle and young pigeon, one of each sort at least was taken. The Targum of Jonathan says, he offered four upon the altar: these were typical of Christ; the bullock or heifer might denote his strength, the sheep or lamb his patience and harmlessness, the turtle or dove his meekness; and being burnt offerings, may signify the painful and dolorous sufferings of Christ, when the wrath of God was poured on him like fire.

(d) Zohar in Gen. fol. 51. 3, 4. Targum Jon. in loc. Pirke Eliezer, c. 23.

And Noah {i} builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.

(i) For sacrifices which were as an exercise of their faith, by which they used to give thanks to God for his benefits.

20. builded an altar unto the Lord] It will be noticed that, in this account by J, the first thing that Noah does, on leaving the ark, is to build an altar, and to offer sacrifice. In J’s estimation sacrifice was primitive, and not merely Mosaic, in origin. See note on Genesis 7:2.

In P there is no mention of “altar” or “sacrifice” before the institution of the Levitical system in the wilderness.

of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl] The clean animals were used for sacrifice. Cf. Genesis 7:2. Observe the mention of “clean fowl” implying the distinction between clean and unclean fowl. This distinction was not observed in Genesis 7:3; Genesis 7:8. The number of “clean” animals, seven pairs of each, in the ark, according to J, would allow for the offering of sacrifice.

In the Babylonian account, also, sacrifices were at once offered to the gods on quitting the ark.

and offered burnt offerings] The word for “burnt offering” is ‘ôlâh, which is derived from a verb meaning “to go up.” A burnt-offering, or ‘ôlâh, was the sacrifice which “went up” to God, being different from other sacrifices, because the whole of it was consumed in the fire of the altar. The offerer of an ‘ôlâh ate nothing of the sacrifice; nor did the priest. It was in an especial sense a propitiatory offering: compare David’s offering in 2 Samuel 24:25. The ‘ôlâh is different from the minḥah of Genesis 4:3. LXX renders εἰς ὁλοκάρπωσιν, Lat. holocausta.

20–22. Noah’s Burnt-offering and Jehovah’s Acceptance of it. (J.)

Verse 20. - And Noah builded an altar. Mizbeach, a place for slaying sacrifices, from zabach, to slaughter animals (Genesis 31:54), to slay in sacrifice (Leviticus 9:4; 1 Samuel 1:4), as θυσιαστήριον, from θύειν, is the first altar mentioned in history. The English term (from altus, high) signifies a high place, because the altar was commonly a raised structure or mound of earth or stones (Exodus 20:24). Keil thinks that altars were not required prior to the Flood, the Divine presence being still visibly among men at the gate of Eden, "so that they could turn their offerings and their hearts towards that abode." Poole, Clarke, Bush, and Inglis hold that the antediluvian sacrifices presupposed an altar. Unto the Lord. Jehovah, the God of salvation. And took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl. Vide Genesis 7:2. "Seldom has there been a more liberal offering in proportion to the means of the giver. His whole stock of clean animals, wherewith to fill the world, was seven pairs of each" (Inglis). And offered. By Divine appointment, since his service was accepted; and "all religious services which are not perfumed with the odor of faith are of an ill savor before God (Calvin); but "God is peculiarly well pleased with free-will offerings, and surely, if ever an occasion existed for the exercise of grateful and adoring sentiments, the present was one" (Bush). Burnt offerings. 'oloth, literally, things that ascend, from 'alah, to go up, alluding not to the elevation of the victims on the altar, but to the ascension of the smoke of the burnt offerings to heaven (cf. Judges 20:40; Jeremiah 48:15; Amos 4:10). On the altar. Genesis 8:20The first thing which Noah did, was to build an altar for burnt sacrifice, to thank the Lord for gracious protection, and pray for His mercy in time to come. This altar - מזבּח, lit., a place for the offering of slain animals, from זבח, like θυσιαστήριον from θύειν - is the first altar mentioned in history. The sons of Adam had built no altar for their offerings, because God was still present on the earth in paradise, so that they could turn their offerings and hearts towards that abode. But with the flood God had swept paradise away, withdrawn the place of His presence, and set up His throne in heaven, from which He would henceforth reveal Himself to man (cf. Genesis 9:5, Genesis 9:7). In future, therefore, the hearts of the pious had to be turned towards heaven, and their offerings and prayers needed to ascend on high if they were to reach the throne of God. To give this direction to their offerings, heights or elevated places were erected, from which they ascended towards heaven in fire. From this the offerings received the name of עלת from עולה, the ascending, not so much because the sacrificial animals ascended or were raised upon the altar, as because they rose from the altar to haven (cf. Judges 20:40; Jeremiah 48:15; Amos 4:10). Noah took his offerings from every clean beast and every clean fowl - from those animals, therefore, which were destined for man's food; probably the seventh of every kind, which he had taken into the ark. "And Jehovah smelled the smell of satisfaction," i.e., He graciously accepted the feelings of the offerer which rose to Him in the odour of the sacrificial flame. In the sacrificial flame the essence of the animal was resolved into vapour; so that when man presented a sacrifice in his own stead, his inmost being, his spirit, and his heart ascended to God in the vapour, and the sacrifice brought the feeling of his heart before God. This feeling of gratitude for gracious protection, and of desire for further communications of grace, was well-pleasing to God. He "said to His heart' (to, or in Himself; i.e., He resolved), "I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake, because the image (i.e., the thought and desire) of man's heart is evil from his youth up (i.e., from the very time when he begins to act with consciousness)." This hardly seems an appropriate reason. As Luther says: "Hic inconstantiae videtur Deus accusari posse. Supra puniturus hominem causam consilii dicit, quia figmentum cordis humani malum est. Hic promissurus homini gratiam, quod posthac tali ira uti nolit, eandem causam allegat." Both Luther and Calvin express the same thought, though without really solving the apparent discrepancy. It was not because the thoughts and desires of the human heart are evil that God would not smite any more every living thing, that is to say, would not exterminate it judicially; but because they are evil from his youth up, because evil is innate in man, and for that reason he needs the forbearance of God; and also (and here lies the principal motive for the divine resolution) because in the offering of the righteous Noah, not only were thanks presented for past protection, and entreaty for further care, but the desire of man was expressed, to remain in fellowship with God, and to procure the divine favour. "All the days of the earth;" i.e., so long as the earth shall continue, the regular alternation of day and night and of the seasons of the year, so indispensable to the continuance of the human race, would never be interrupted again.
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