You shall make its horns on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze.
The next thing that God tells Moses to make is an altar that is roughly 7 1/2 feet square and 4 1/2 feet tall. The altar is to be made of acacia wood — the same wood used for the Ark and the table and the panels inside the tabernacle — and overlaid with bronze — which, the footnote tells me, could also be translated as copper. This is the altar that will be used in many of the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus, most notably the sin offering. This is where the sacrifices for fellowship and atonement are made.
There are a few things worthy of note here.
God had previously told the patriarchs and the Israelites that altars were to be made from stones that were just piled up. No stonecutting. No shaping so they fit together better. Just find stones that fit and pile them up accordingly. This practice would persist all the way to at least the time of the prophet Elijah. That sets this altar apart and marks it as something of which I should take note.
This altar was portable. The altar’s design included poles with which it could be carried. This meant that sacrifices could be offered anywhere, therefore worship could take place anywhere. But, and this dovetails into other noteworthy things about the altar, the altar needed to be carried around. There is a verse in the New Testament (NT) that says believers are always carrying around in our bodies the dying of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:10).
This altar is covered in bronze. Fast-forward to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness and there is another thing made of bronze that must be carried around, viz. the bronze serpent (Numbers 21:9). The serpent was a direct result of sin and the punishment thereof. The Israelites sinned and God disciplined their sin by sending serpents into the camp. Whoever was bitten and did nothing died and whoever was bitten and looked at the bronze serpent lived. Both the altar and the serpent are methods of sin being addressed. So it is not surprising to me that bronze is often associated with judgment in The Bible. Both the serpent and the altar also point to an important truth: It is a simple thing to get hung up on the symbol and forget what the symbol points to. A modern case in point is the cross — which has some pretty amazing parallels to the altar, when God prescribes how the sacrifices are made.
This altar is square. I know that does not mean much to most, but the earliest versions of the cross used in crucifixion were in the shape of an X, which makes the square dimensions of the altar’s top a bit more meaningful — especially when the methods of the sacrifices are prescribed.
The application of this, for me, comes from the idea that the altar is portable and must be carried; comes back to the idea that believers are to be carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. Jesus tells those who would follow Him to take up their cross; take up the instrument on which atonement for sin was made. God tells the Israelites to do the very same thing. The conditions of discipleship have not changed, only the symbol. I am to carry the awareness of my sin and the cost of it with me wherever I go. This is not morbid — it might seem so to some — but is a healthy thing. A person with a persistent condition — diabetes, for example — cannot live a healthy and good life without the awareness of his condition present at all times. Likewise, I will never progress in my walk with God unless I am persistently aware that sin must be dealt with and that dealing with sin involves death.
Father, thank You for this reminder. Please keep me mindful of the cost of atonement and teach me to sarry that awareness with me at all times.