Lessons from an Altar of Uncut Stones

As much as ever, we live in perplexing times. Honestly, I can’t think of a time in my life when that couldn’t be said, but each time presents its own set of befuddling questions and problems. Christians are regularly challenged to think about how to address these problems both inside and outside the church. There are many voices in the culture telling the church what it should do and how it should behave. It is tempting to adopt the modern, progressive advice, but this should not happen without first checking the ancient wisdom from which the faith was formed (new is not always better). I have found one piece of this wisdom in an unlikely place: the instructions for building an altar.

After a generation of wandering through the wilderness, the people of Israel were finally on the verge of crossing the Jordan and going into the promised land. Before they were to do so, they were given specific instructions about what they should do once they crossed the Jordan: they were to build an altar to the Lord which they would use to offer up burnt sacrifices – fellowship offerings which everyone would eat and enjoy in the presence of the Lord. Essentially, it would be a big family barbecue to celebrate and reaffirm the covenant between God and his people. The nature of this altar may be easily overlooked for the sake of the party, but it has great significance for those who would follow God.

The leaders of Israel were instructed to build analtar with stones, but were told “You shall wield no iron tool on them; you shall build an altar to the Lord your God of uncut stones.” (Deuteronomy 27:5b-6a) The use of stones for an altar is not surprising, but why insist they be uncut – stones right out of the field?

It might be thought this was in opposition to the type of altars built by pagan religions found in Egypt and Mesopotamia – that God did not want any carved images associated with the altar which might lend itself to idol worship. However, in God’s design for the tabernacle, there were plenty of instructions about decorative elements in its various structural and instrumental components. God even conferred a special blessing and anointing on craftsmen who would be responsible for ornamentation. So, this would seem to be a less likely explanation.

The stones placed into the altar were specified to be large, but they could not be just any large stones. The altar was to be covered in plaster, and then have the law written upon it (more on this in a moment). That means the stones used for the altar had to fit together well enough to make a relatively even surface which would accommodate a layer of plaster. One way to accomplish this would be to cut and chisel the stones to make them fit together, but God tells them to use uncut stones. That means the stones had to be specially selected so they could fit tightly together. This reflects the concept that the people of God are a chosen people.

An old stone altar in Megiddo, Israel

The apostle Peter uses a similar metaphor in speaking about the followers of Jesus: “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-6)

From a human standpoint, it makes little sense who God chooses for his kingdom. He chose a convicted felon who stutters to lead his people out of Egypt and into the wilderness. He chose a conniving adulterer to be Israel’s greatest king. He chose a man who systematically hunted down and killed Christians to be a missionary and church planter. Nevertheless, He chose men and women with all their differences and rough edges knowing how they could fit together to accomplish His purposes in history.

It is important to recognize that all God followers come before the Lord as we are – there is nothing anyone can do to make themselves acceptable in God’s eyes – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) We can rejoice that God is willing to take us as we are and place us into the altar. Once these stones were made into an altar, though, it was not God’s intention they should remain that way.

Ancient fresco on stone (British Museum)

After the altar was built, the people were then instructed to cover the stones with plaster and then write the words of the law on the altar. The process described here is that of making a fresco – a process which would have been familiar to Jews coming out of Egypt. In this process, the painting does not lay just on the surface of the wall. A wet plaster is smoothed over a stone wall and binds to the stone surface. When the pigment used in the painting is applied to the wet plaster, it penetrates the plaster and becomes an integral part of the wall.  

This instruction from God reflects the importance of His word in the lives of His people. It is not something superficial, but is to be integral to their life and well-being. Previously, the people of God were told to put the law on their door posts, wear it on their arms and foreheads, and meditate on it day and night (Deuteronomy 11:18-20). This is how God smooths over the rough edges and does a transforming work in the lives of the people who will follow him. The prophet Jeremiah looked forward to the time of the new covenant when the law would become internalized: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

This Old Testament imagery serves as a reminder and admonition for us today. The Church (with a capital “C”) has been built from a wide diversity of people from all over the world – each one laden with their own rough edges. It has not been assembled by human effort, but by the Spirit of God. We have only been called to edify and love one another despite our differences whether those are differences in race, ethnicity, culture, or personal preferences. Collectively, the first job of the Church is worship God – to know God and enjoy Him forever.

The very same Spirit which builds the church also works to smooth over the rough edges of us stones – conforming each one to be the true person God meant us to be. Much of this transformation occurs through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, scripture study and fellowship. Knowing that each of us must undergo this transformation (I dare say, a lifelong process), we must move forward in humility seeking ways to love one another and developing servant hearts to meet the needs of those in our community. In so doing, we become the living altar described so long ago.

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