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God told Moses that the altar must be made of unhewn stones:

And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.—Exodus 20:22 (NJPS)

Deuteronomy 27:5 includes a similar command. The word for indicates that there is a connection between cutting a stone and making it unfit for being included in the altar. Lacking the proper historical context, I don't understand what makes an altar of stones different from the acacia wood and bronze altar God commands to be built (presumably with tools) in Exodus 27, for instance.

How does using tools profane the stone?

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I note that the Masoretic text referenced in my answer combines your verse 2 and 3, hence my referencing 20:21. –  Double AA Apr 25 '12 at 22:08

7 Answers 7

The word in Exodus 20:21 which you translate as 'tool' is the Hebrew חרב which most literaly means 'sword'. Rashi there explains that a sword is designed to shorten life, while an altar is designed to lengthen life by being used to achieve atonement. It makes sense, therefore, that one should not be used in the formation of the other.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! That's fascinating. I see that the word is overwhelmingly translated with warlike imagery in the NET translation. So, of course, it would be contrary to the purpose of an altar to use such a tool to create it. Even so, it's odd to think of using a weapon to dress stone. So it's a case of now I know the answer to my question, but a whole new one takes its place. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Apr 25 '12 at 23:59
    
@JonEricson You should know that the 'parallel' verse in Deuteronomy is used in Jewish law to forbid all metal implements in hewing the stones for the altar. They can be hewn with anything except metal for this reason. –  Double AA Apr 26 '12 at 0:19
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Although of course an altar shortens the life of that which is sacrificed... –  Wikis Apr 26 '12 at 5:45

Calvin, Gill citing Maimonides, and Mathew Henry all give the reason as the prevention of idolatry. Drawn from them:

  • Such an altar is easily thrown down to prevent idolatry associated with it.
  • This would remove the temptation of making it into a sort of graven image.
  • The other nations cut stones for their altars
    • Many holiness laws have them not do things that are nations did which may otherwise have been morally neutral)
    • The removal of this association may have helped keep them separate from idolaters
  • "The beauty of holiness needs no paint."—Henry

(Calvin criticizes those who try to find an allegorical meaning in this.)

Additional thoughts from my own reading of Scripture:

  • Because such an altar is easily thrown down, this command is probably related to the prohibition against "high places" and the eventual selection of one place of worship in Deuteronomy 12 and 16:5-7 (symbolic of Jesus Christ as the one way to God). In Solomon's temple, hewn stone was used, and also in the ideal temple of Ezekiel that was never realized (e.g. the tables).
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(This answer is from a Christian perspective.)


Since this question deals with the significance of the imagery, it is helpful to look at other places in Scripture that use similar imagery.

1) 1 Kings 18:30-32 recounts a time when Elijah rebuilt one of these altars after it had been torn down:

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Now come to me.” So they gathered around him, and Elijah rebuilt the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. He took twelve stones, one stone for each of the twelve tribes, the number of Jacob’s sons. (The Lord changed Jacob’s name to Israel.) Elijah used these stones to rebuild the altar in honor of the Lord. Then he dug a ditch around the altar that was big enough to hold about thirteen quarts of seed.

Apparently the stones of the altar had some relation to the people of Israel.

2) 1 Peter 2:4-5 describes Christ and the Church as "living stones" that are being built up for the purpose of offering spiritual sacrifices:

And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

It is hard to miss the similarity... the people of God are being built up together like "stones" for the purpose of "offering sacrifices."

3) In Daniel God gave Nebuchadnezzar a dream which also used the imagery of a "stone cut without hands." A few verses later it is explained: God was using a "stone cut without hands" to represent a Kingdom which would be set up by God (as opposed to man).

Conclusion

I believe Exodus 20:22 has similar significance...

  • Why should the altar be made of stones? An alter is a place where sacrifices and offerings are presented. Not all sacrifices and offerings are acceptable to God, but only those given at the right altar -- that is, by the right people, in the right Kingdom. Thus, the altar should represent the Kingdom of God, and should be made of stones, which represent the people of God.

  • Why uncut stones? God is the Master Builder of the Kingdom. Sacrifices and offerings are only acceptable because of what He has done. The stones in the altar should represent the work of God, and thus, should be unhewn (like the "stone cut without hands" in Daniel.) If the stones were to be hewn by human hands, it would profane the imagery.

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The law is an aspect of Holiness. The Kingdom will be a Holy kingdom as will the church. "Be ye therefore Holy". There is one stone that was broken by the rod of God, from which came living water. –  Bob Jones Jul 6 '12 at 12:24

Even though allegorical methods are criticized they should not be excised from the conversation.

Acceptable worship of God is done God's way. The stone is the way God created it. It requires no work of the hands of men to be acceptable to Him.

An idol is a creation of man where he worships his own effort. We might paraphrase the words of Nebuchadnezzar "Isn't this great [whatever] that I have built..." just before he started eating grass. [1]

The imagery of the sword as the word says that the Word of God should not be used to make an idol of God's altar, as Satan perverted the word to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. He was hacking at Christ (the Stone) with the sword/word in order to destroy the altar of God and engender worship of himself.

Recognizing the stone as the Word of God expressing the law/Holiness, having intact stones is the equivalent of "not a jot or tittle" being lost before the law is fulfilled.


[1] Da 4:30 The king spake, and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?

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Bob, thanks for persisting in providing allegorical solutions to our questions. This answer in particular is very helpful to me. It's a valuable addition to the site. –  Jon Ericson Jun 6 '12 at 1:04
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Thanks Jon. I would hope that my allegorical solutions are self consistent and that those answers which appear to be out in left field only appear to be because of my failure to explain them well. Perhaps some well placed questions on them will help me to clarify them. –  Bob Jones Jun 6 '12 at 1:31

The altar is a place for sacrifice. The enigma of the command not to cut the stones on the altar as opposed to the other stones in the temple that can be cut, is God's way of pointing to a later fulfillment. In Daniel 2, there will be a stone uncut by human hands (that is, not a human creation), that will smash away the kingdoms of the world, grow into a mountain, and fill the earth. This is a picture of the kingdom of God that will arise from a stone that is uncut by human hands. It also speaks of a kingdom not established by the sword. The Christian view ties all the images with cohesion because Jesus is the sacrifice on the altar. He is sent by God and therefore the uncut stone of Daniel 2. Upon his death and resurrection, he is given authority over all creation, and his kingdom work has begun. The uncut stone in altar building has meaning in that it depicts sanctity at the highest level, that the sacrifice for sin, will not be a work of man. This becomes a foreshadow of the fulfillment found in Jesus Christ.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Thank you for taking the time to share your insights. Due to the nature of this site, a reference may be required to support your conclusions. –  Paul Vargas Jul 29 at 19:05

An altar made of unhewn stones is an Adam drawn from the ground, assembled but not yet "filled" with fire (breath) from heaven.

The Temple's "dressed" stones are bridal. The sound of the chisel could not be heard.

One is earthy, one is heavenly. We see the same difference in the Bronze Altar (death - outside the tent) and the Incense Altar (fragrant spices - resurrection).

So an unhewn altar is raw Adam, not yet filled, and not yet "cut" (without hands) to begin construction of the bride.

There are counterfeits to this, grabs for glory before God's time - the "bricks" of Babel and Pharaoh. Babel is always built quickly, using slavery and robbery, but God's cities take longer to build because they are constructed in righteousness.

Another like symbol is the names of the tribes on the High Priest's shoulders. They all look alike - like children. They are Adamic in a sense. But the "fiery" gemstones on the breastplate are the "mature" bridal versions. They are cut stones, filled with fire. Each has its own glory.

So, "uncut" is earthy, outside the tent (like Adam and Cain and Esau) and "cut" is heavenly, or bridal. God's people are cut off from the world, tested, qualified and re-enter the world to serve him. Those who remain "natural" are not cut off from the world, but eventually are cut out of history.

The knife and fire at the Garden gate are sacrificial, transformative. Every man is to be an altar, a miniature Sinai - hence the flames on the heads at Pentecost. Then we see those same altar-men glorified with "Tabernacle metals" for their apostolic witness in Revelation 9. Like the new Israel that took Jericho, the firstfruits saints are mustered to "circumcise" Herodian Jerusalem and put her under the ban. Pentecost makes every man a Tabernacle, a gate, a minister of knife and fire. But it begins with an unhewn stone outside the camp.

The statue in Daniel 2 is a "Gentile tabernacle." At its foot are the Herods (Edomites) as red clay, attempting to "intermarry" (as a harlot) with the statism of Rome (the beast), but, like Cain, without a priestly mediator before God. Jesus came as an altar stone, like the one under Jacob's head at the foot of his "ziggurat," a true foundation for glory.

One more point: the stones picked up to execute the death sentence are the ground itself taking vengeance, gnashing upon flesh with its teeth in a sense. If blood was not avenged or atoned for eventually the Land would vomit the Covenant people out, which Jesus refers to in Revelation 3:16. He is the new Land. We are buried in Him, resurrected and dressed as bridal stones.

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Welcome to our Biblical Hermeneutics site and thanks for the answer! I gather you've published some books exploring the structure of the Bible, so it's especially exciting to get your insight into my question. For those of us who would like to read more, which of your books would be the best place to start? –  Jon Ericson Feb 14 '13 at 21:59
    
Hi Jon Thanks for the welcome. Best place to start is Bible Matrix, which traces the pattern laid down in Genesis 1 thoughout the Bible, mainly through corresponding the festal calendar, the Covenant pattern and the Tabernacle furniture with the process of dominion. The Bible is a fractal, similar to the pattern we see in nature. amazon.com/Bible-Matrix-Michael-Bull/dp/1449702635 I have some introductory videos here: bullartistry.com.au/wp/videos Blessings, Mike –  Mike Bull Feb 15 '13 at 3:07

By the very definition of the stone age, pre-stone-age altars were made from unhewn stone. When the stone age came along, the technology for "hewing stone" was available for the first time. It would naturally seem unnatural to build an altar using the "newfangled" technology. Similar horror was expressed by religious people when the radio came along, and even when writing came along. The radio was "the Devil's tool." Writing would weaken the capability of educated people to remember things.

Even after such technology is well-established, the cultural memory of the "better quality" of the pre-technological times remains. Thus Baroque acapella singing seems more "holy" than singing accompanied by musical instruments. A speech that is read from a transcript seems less "real" than a speech given without the speaker having to refer to written notes. A children's Christmas pageant is more enjoyable if one is there than if it is heard over a radio, even if one is blind.

So, uncut stone seemed more "holy" to the peoples of 3-4 Ka B.C. Hewn stone did not seem to be "real stone." It had been "changed" and hence "profaned" by the "hewing" process. Even today any religious "change" seems to be "profane" to many religious people. Consider, for example, the uproar that can result after a pastor moves an organ from the front to the back of the church.

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Thank you, Sarah. –  Deacon John Feb 13 at 22:08
    
Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. Do you have any sources for these claims? What scholars share these thoughts? We care far more how you know things than what you know here. Unsourced material may be edited or removed. –  Dan Feb 16 at 3:56
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For instance, most scholars think the stone age had been ongoing for over 3 million years by the time this passage in Exodus was written, hardly new technology, so your argument is pretty weak. I'd like to know if it is original to you or if any reputable scholar actually thinks this (and how they date Exodus and the Stone Age). –  Dan Feb 16 at 4:01

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