Exodus 27: 1-8 The Altar
You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide; the altar shall be square, and it shall be three cubits high. 2 You shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. 3 You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and firepans; you shall make all its utensils of bronze. 4 You shall also make for it a grating, a network of bronze; and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. 5 You shall set it under the ledge of the altar so that the net shall extend halfway down the altar. 6 You shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze; 7 the poles shall be put through the rings, so that the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. 8 You shall make it hollow, with boards. They shall be made just as you were shown on the mountain.
Most people assume that the sacrificial rites were at the center of the religion of the ancient Jewish people, yet this assumption is incorrect. The altar for sacrifice is placed outside of the tabernacle itself in the court of the tabernacle. The altar is made out of lesser materials than the materials used for the ark of the covenant and the lampstand and the table where the bread of the presence is placed. Instead of gold, bronze is used to overlay the acacia table and poles that make up the altar. The sacrifice is done in that space between the holy place of the tabernacle and the common space where the people live, work and worship.
The altar itself is massive, roughly seven and a half feet square and four and a half feet tall. It is also a significant departure from the low stone or earth altars discussed earlier in Exodus. Also at four and a half feet tall the priest would need some type of stair or pedestal to stand upon to be able to use the altar. This new altar is a departure from the open, simple and very modest temporary altars. Yet, it is also very functional for use with larger animals and for regular use. Perhaps the altar was placed closer to the front of the court of the tabernacle so that the priest when he ascended the stairs would be facing away from the tabernacle and not have to worry about exposing himself when climbing the stairs.
As a Christian, I also think this provokes some interesting thoughts about the way in which we arrange things in our worship spaces. Many traditions will call the fixture in the front of their worship space an altar, and particularly for a Catholic perspective where they can talk about the sacrifice of the mass this makes sense. From a Lutheran perspective, we may officially call the fixture a table but many people still consider it an altar even though we have a different perspective on exactly what communion is and what it is for. Many older churches have this table or altar pushed against the back wall there the pastor or priest faces away from the people (and presumably toward God) but most newer church buildings place the altar away from the wall and the pastor/priest faces the people. The architecture and where the pastor/priest faces makes a theological point about the character of worship and who the act is for. From a Lutheran perspective, the act of communion is primarily for the people, and for the ancient Jewish people there is a part of the sacrificial act which is for the people since much of the sacrifice was not burned up but eaten by the family or the priests. From a Catholic perspective, the sacrifice is offered up before God as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, and from the ancient Jewish perspective there is also the element of the sacrifice raising up a pleasing odor to God. Ultimately all of these traditions attempt to give glory and offer up their best to the God they attempt to serve faithfully.
Exodus 27: 9-19 The Court of the Tabernacle
9 You shall make the court of the tabernacle. On the south side the court shall have hangings of fine twisted linen one hundred cubits long for that side; 10 its twenty pillars and their twenty bases shall be of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands shall be of silver. 11 Likewise for its length on the north side there shall be hangings one hundred cubits long, their pillars twenty and their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands shall be of silver. 12 For the width of the court on the west side there shall be fifty cubits of hangings, with ten pillars and ten bases. 13 The width of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. 14 There shall be fifteen cubits of hangings on the one side, with three pillars and three bases. 15 There shall be fifteen cubits of hangings on the other side, with three pillars and three bases. 16 For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework; it shall have four pillars and with them four bases. 17 All the pillars around the court shall be banded with silver; their hooks shall be of silver, and their bases of bronze. 18 The length of the court shall be one hundred cubits, the width fifty, and the height five cubits, with hangings of fine twisted linen and bases of bronze. 19 All the utensils of the tabernacle for every use, and all its pegs and all the pegs of the court, shall be of bronze.
Over the past couple years, I have learned a lot about church design because I was involved with planning, and now executing an expansion to the congregation I serve. There is a lot of work and planning that goes into utilizing the resources that people commit to the church and to attempting to design space faithfully. One thing I have learned that designing sanctuary space or holy space is much more expensive than designing office space or fellowship space. Holy space attempts to communicate something of a connection to God and it frequently uses various types of precious things: metalwork, art, stained glass, high ceilings or large windows. Typically, when you build a church these are the first things that you design and build since they serve the central functions of worship where the other spaces serve a supporting function. That doesn’t mean these other spaces are unimportant but for religious spaces the highlight of their function is for worship and the most precious resources go into those places. The design of the tabernacle reflects this. The tabernacle itself uses primarily gold and gold overlaid pieces of furniture, clasps, and utensils. For the court, the primary metals used becomes bronze and silver.
The tabernacle’s walls are twice the height of the court’s walls and would be seen from the exterior of the structure, and yet this courtyard does provide a buffer between the holiest place of the tabernacle and the mundane place where the people live. It is an open-air area which is very common in ancient dwellings and temples since much of the activity would be outside. The court of the tabernacle is larger, roughly 150 feet by 75 feet, than the tabernacle but still not a huge space by modern standards of building. Yet, the structure is primarily a place where the priests would be and not the people, like in modern worship spaces, and the structure had to be portable so that also puts a severe limit on the size of the structure.
Exodus 27: 20-21 The Lamp
20 You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. 21 In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant,1 Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by the Israelites.
An olive oil lamp that is to be tended by the priests is to provide light outside the tent of the tabernacle perpetually burning during the night, or perhaps perpetually depending on how the translation is rendered. Either way the lampstand outlined previously now is given its function and a part of the role of Aaron and his sons is to maintain this light and keep the lampstand burning. In many churches, they keep perpetual candles going as a symbol of the presence of God or as a reminder of the eternal light of God. Most of these in modern churches are long burning candles that are replaced regularly rather than an oil lamp, but the distinctive lampstand becomes an important symbol for the Jewish people as discussed in Exodus 25: 23-40.