Altars of Earth, Stone, and Wood

Introduction

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Wooden and Copper Altar

In Shemot 27, as part of the blueprint of the Mishkan and in its courtyard, Hashem commands the construction of an altar made out of acacia wood ("עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים") and plated with "נְחֹשֶׁת" (copper / brass / bronze).

EN/HEע/E
(א) וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים חָמֵשׁ אַמּוֹת אֹרֶךְ וְחָמֵשׁ אַמּוֹת רֹחַב רָבוּעַ יִהְיֶה הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשָׁלֹשׁ אַמּוֹת קֹמָתוֹ. (ב) וְעָשִׂיתָ קַרְנֹתָיו עַל אַרְבַּע פִּנֹּתָיו מִמֶּנּוּ תִּהְיֶיןָ קַרְנֹתָיו וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת.

(ח) נְבוּב לֻחֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר הֶרְאָה אֹתְךָ בָּהָר כֵּן יַעֲשׂוּ.

(1) And you shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long, and five cubits wide; the altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. (2) And you shall make its horns on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it; and you shall plate it with copper.

(8) Nevuv Luchot you shall make it; as you have been showed on the mountain, so they shall make it.

This description raises some important questions:

  • How could a wooden altar survive the constant sacrificial fire burning on its top?1
  • What does the term "נְבוּב לֻחֹת" mean?

Earthen and Stone Altars

Only a few chapters earlier, immediately following the Decalogue in Shemot 20, Hashem commands the nation to build him either an earthen or stone altar:

EN/HEע/E
(כ) מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת שְׁלָמֶיךָ אֶת צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת בְּקָרֶךָ בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת שְׁמִי אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ. (כא) וְאִם מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי לֹא תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ. (כב) וְלֹא תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלֹת עַל מִזְבְּחִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ עָלָיו.
(20) You shall make an altar of earth for me, and shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I record my name I will come to you and I will bless you. (21) And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you lift up your sword on it, you have defiled it. (22) And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be revealed upon it.

These verses present additional difficulties:

Additional Altars

In addition to these two general commands to build an altar, the Torah describes the construction of national altars near or on top of two different mountains. The first of these takes place at Mt. Sinai in Shemot 24, right in between the two commands cited above:

EN/HEע/E
(ד) וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי ה' וַיַּשְׁכֵּם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּבֶן מִזְבֵּחַ תַּחַת הָהָר וּשְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה מַצֵּבָה לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. (ה) וַיִּשְׁלַח אֶת נַעֲרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זְבָחִים שְׁלָמִים לַה' פָּרִים. (ו) וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה חֲצִי הַדָּם וַיָּשֶׂם בָּאַגָּנֹת וַחֲצִי הַדָּם זָרַק עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ.
(4) And Moshe wrote all the words of Hashem, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. (5) And he sent the youths of the children of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to Hashem. (6) And Moshe took half of the blood, and put it in basins, and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar.

The second case is found in Devarim 27, where the nation is commanded to build an altar at Mt. Eival:

EN/HEע/E
(ד) וְהָיָה בְּעָבְרְכֶם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן תָּקִימוּ אֶת הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּהַר עֵיבָל וְשַׂדְתָּ אוֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד. (ה) וּבָנִיתָ שָּׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים לֹא תָנִיף עֲלֵיהֶם בַּרְזֶל. (ו) אֲבָנִים שְׁלֵמוֹת תִּבְנֶה אֶת מִזְבַּח ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהַעֲלִיתָ עָלָיו עוֹלֹת לַה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
(4) And when you cross the Jordan, set up these stones which I command you on this day, at Mt. Eival, and you shall coat them with plaster. (5) And you shall build there an altar to Hashem, your God, an altar of stones; you shall not lift up an iron tool on them. (6) You shall build the altar of Hashem, your God, of uncut stones, and you shall offer burnt offerings thereon to Hashem, your God.

This latter altar bears some striking parallels to the verses in Shemot 20, as both refer to a stone altar and the concern of a sword being used in the construction process. Is there a connection? What is the relationship between the altars built at the mountains of Sinai and Eival and the altars commanded in Shemot 20 and 27?

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