#137. Does Yahweh decree that his altars are to be built of earth OR his one altar of acacia wood plated with bronze, 5 cubits by 5 cubits? (Ex 20:24 vs Ex 27:1-2, 38:1-2)
#138. Are sacrifices to Yahweh permitted on any altar OR only the altar before the Tabernacle? (Ex 20:24 vs Lev 1-9, 17)


Today’s contradiction actually marks our first contradiction between the Pentateuch’s law codes. As it has come to be assembled, the Pentateuch contains three separate law codes: Exodus 20-23, Leviticus 17-27, and Deuteronomy 12-26. Each one of these law codes was written by a different author, in a different historical era, and to address the concerns and needs of different audiences. In general they share much in common, but there are also gaping differences in their worldviews, ideologies, and even conceptions of religion.

Of the 3 law codes in the Pentateuch, the one at Exodus 20:22–23:19 is the oldest. It has been attributed to the Elohist tradition of the north, and displays features common to northern religious practices and agrarian society. The law code in Leviticus, which focuses on maintaining purity, is from the Priestly writer, and Deuteronomy 12-26 from the Deuteronomist, and displays a greater interest in secularism.

These 3 law codes also have distinct settings for the giving of their laws. The Elohist laws get delivered at Horeb. The Priestly law code gets delivered at the Tent of Meeting, where Yahweh’s glory now resides; and the last law code is given approximately 40 years later on the plains of Moab. The plains of Moab law-giving is presented as a re-telling of the Horeb event, but it displays some significant differences. We will look at the contradictions which resulted from the Deuteronomist’s reworking of the Elohist material later when we get to Deuteronomy. For now, we’re interested in the differences between the Elohist law code and the Priestly code.

Where are sacrifices permitted, i.e., on which altar(s), and by whom were questions that received various responses by biblical scribes. The response preserved in the Elohist account (Ex 20:24-26) represents a more archaic form of worship: altars to Yahweh are to be made of earth or unhewn stone. Multiple altars are permissible, and sacrifices and petitions to the god are performed at these altars. There might have been priests presiding at these altars, but the text leaves this silent.

The text of Exodus 27:1-2 and 38:1-2, however—indeed all of its immediate context, Ex 25-31 & 35-40—presents a whole different picture of the cult, sacrifices, Yahweh’s altar, and the priest who preside over it. Exodus 25-31 & 35-40 explicitly detail the cultic institution and its components. It establishes a whole sacrificial edifice, the Tabernacle. It is where Yahweh abodes, the holy of holies, where sacrifices and atonement are performed, and solely by priests from Aaron’s seed. The cult, in other words, is centralized around the Tabernacle and officiated over by Aaronid priests. Here, all the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle and its components are given to Moses by Yahweh (Ex 25-31), and then constructed (Ex 35-40). Yahweh’s altar is but one component.

And he [Bezalel] made the altar of burnt-offering of acacia wood, its length 5 cubits and its width 5 cubits, square, and its height 3 cubits. And he made horns on its four corners. Is horns were part of it. And he plated it with bronze. And he made all of the altar’s equipment: the pots, the shovels and the basins, the forks and the fire-holders. He made all of its equipment bronze. (Ex 38:1-3)

The whole passage is written by someone whose central concern is the cultic institution and proper ritual. It was written by Aaronid priests and it was used to legitimate their sole authority to minister before Yahweh’s cult.

You [Moses] shall bring Aaron and his sons forward to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and wash them with water. And you shall dress Aaron with the holy clothes and anoint him and make him holy, and he shall function as a priest for me. And you shall bring forth his sons and dress them with coats and anoint them as you anointed their father, and they shall function as priests for me. And it will be for their anointing to be theirs as an eternal priesthood through their generations. (Ex 40:12-15)

In this priestly conception there is only one altar, and that is officiated over by only one family, the Aaronids. And there is a whole ceremony to the cult and its sacrifices (Lev 1-9, 16).

The interesting thing that happens when these two textual traditions and their unique law codes are edited together is that now Yahweh commands his altars to be made of earth and that sacrifices can be offered up on any altar and by anyone (Ex 20), Moses conveys these laws to the people and they accept them (Ex 24), and then he mounts again only to be commanded by Yahweh—on literally the same or next day!—that there is but one altar and that’s in front of the Tabernacle, it’s not made of earth but bronze plated acacia wood, and it’s officiated over by Aaronid priests only. These are two vastly different perceptions of religion and/or the cult.

Additionally, under the priestly-run temple-state no sacrifices apart from the altar of Yahweh before the Tabernacle were permitted!!

Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a sheep or a goat in the camp or who slaughters outside the camp and has not brought it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to bring forward an offering to Yahweh in front of Yahweh’s Tabernacle: blood will be counted to that man! He has spilled blood. And that man will be cut off from among his people.  (Lev 17:3-4)

The safeguarding of proper sacrificial procedure was of the utmost importance to the Aaronid priests who wrote this literature and to the community they depicted. Not only were burnt-offerings and peace-offerings to be sacrificed at the Tabernacle altar by Aaronid priests, but its blood also needed to be atoned for by splattering it on the altar. “And the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall bring the blood forward and fling the blood on the altar.” Only Aaronids can officiate the cult (cf. Lev 1-9).

In sum, the two contradictions here concerning Yahweh’s altar(s) and sacrifices are best understood as parts of two competing religious practices. The earlier Elohist text seems to portray a popular form of Yahwism with local altars and no strict sacrificial requirements. It most likely represents the popular religious practices of the north during the 9th and 8th centuries BC. The much more ritual account given from Exodus 40 to Leviticus 23 was penned by an elite priestly guild and represents the cult from the perceptive of this priestly guild. Whether or not it was practiced as portrayed in the literature—as an idealized and pure form of Aaronid led Yahwism—and when is still debated. But the best era seems to have been the Persian era of the 5th – 4th centuries BC when Judah was a temple-state run by Aaronid priests.

5 thoughts on “#137. Does Yahweh decree that his altars are to be built of earth OR his one altar of acacia wood plated with bronze, 5 cubits by 5 cubits? (Ex 20:24 vs Ex 27:1-2, 38:1-2)
#138. Are sacrifices to Yahweh permitted on any altar OR only the altar before the Tabernacle? (Ex 20:24 vs Lev 1-9, 17)

  1. Dear Steven ,
    there is another text where altar is described , Exodus 30:1-7, that you did not mantion :
    1And you shall make an altar to burn incense on: of shittim wood shall you make it. 2A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be: and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same. 3And you shall overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and you shall make to it a crown of gold round about. 4And two golden rings shall you make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, on the two sides of it shall you make it; and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it with. 5And you shall make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. 6And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with you.

    Is the above another contraddiction With Ex 20, 27, 38 ?

    1. Gianni, as far as I am aware, no. This particular altar was solely used for burning incense, so it doesn’t really come into contradiction with different sources on the construction and use of Yahweh’s sacrificial altar. As I write this I cannot remember if the New Testament preserves any variant traditions on the incense altar. Of course there were contradictory traditions concerning who could burn incense. #254. Who can burn incense in front of Yahweh: only Aaronids OR not?

      Thanks for joining in!

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