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What does God mean ''and you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it''? Should this verse be taken literally?

Exodus 20:26 And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.

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    Please explain what difficulty you have understanding the verse. Nov 9 '18 at 19:01
  • There is clearly a spiritual meaning involving the flesh, covering, clothing,the service of God and the priestly offering of sacrifice.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 9 '18 at 19:58
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    Altar literally means high or elevated place. If one climbs up, this would have enabled the people gathered below to see his nakedness through his skirt-like clothes, since the ancients did not wear trousers.
    – Lucian
    Nov 17 '18 at 14:55
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According to Cassuto (whom Constable quoted here), the priests in the nations surrounding Israel were known to have performed their priestly duties either in the nude or clothed with an ephod. Since Israel was to be for YHWH a beacon of light in the midst of the spiritual darkness surrounding her, her worship of the one true God was to be carried out holily, according to God's instructions.

I must insert here that God is not a prude. Nakedness is not a big deal to Him. However, in the wake of our first parents' disobedience, what was one of the first things God did for them? He clothed them with the skins of animals. From Genesis:

They [viz., Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, "Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (3:8-11 NASB, my emphasis).

The fear of exposure before a holy God originated in our first parents, not God. For a priest of the LORD to uncover what the first parents covered--in fear and shame because of their disobedience--would fly in the face of the priest's raison d'etre; namely, to intercede before God on behalf of himself and other sinners.

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    Don't you think it's uncalled for an false to say God is not a 'prude' which according to prevailing definitions means, "one concerned with decorum or propriety?" Surely the grossly out of proportion, or unmarital, public nakedness is a shame He does not look lightly upon.. Nov 11 '18 at 14:29
  • @SolaGratia: I think we need to distinguish between modesty, on the one hand, which is quite biblical, and prudishness, on the other hand, which is excessive modesty. In the OT account of David dancing before the Lord ( 2 Sam 6), David was uninhibited and exuberant before his LORD, but he was not being intentionally immodest. The prude in that story was Saul's daughter Michal whom God punished by making her barren for life. (She obviously had other issues, such as hatred and bitterness). I suggest you expand your definition of prudishness to include excessive decorousness & propriety. Nov 12 '18 at 1:12
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    "excessively modest?" Nov 12 '18 at 15:12
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    @SolaGratia: Yes, excessively modest. Even a good thing (e.g., modesty) can be overdone. While I understand the thinking of some Christian denominations regarding dress, makeup, hair issues, head coverings, coed swimming, bathing suits, and their clearly erroneous interpretation of 1 Peter 3:1-5 (particularly v.3), Christians worldwide have differing ideas about what constitutes modesty. Perhaps these differing ideas can be categorized in terms of the weak and the not weak, à la Romans 14. Nov 12 '18 at 19:13
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    The thesis of Romans 14 is two-fold: 1) each person, whether weak or not weak, should be convinced in their own mind before the Lord that they are doing the right thing; and 2) each person should do only the loving thing by not putting a stumbling block in a brother's or sister's way and by not judging them. I believe that modesty qualifies as a "grey issue," for the reason I've given above regarding cultural differences among Christians worldwide, and also because there is such a thing as being overly righteous (see Ecclesiastes 7:16). Nov 12 '18 at 19:30
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I see the Hebrew of Exodus 20:6 like this:

And you will not ascend by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed because of it.

Details:
enter image description here

Interesting:
The Hebrew word for "by steps", בְמַעֲלֹ֖ת (from מַעֲלָה: Strong's H4609 - ma`alah), only occurs this once in the Torah. In fact, the next occurrence of מַעֲלָה is not until 1 King 10:19 in regard to Solomon's great white (ivory) throne, which had six steps going up to it.

Since there is no mention of steps in the construction of the Tabernacle, this cautionary instruction was likely due to the nature of the construction of the altar and the careless practices of the priests of other nations in their worship of gods of silver and gold (Exodus 20:23).

The dimensions of the altar were:

And thou shalt make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be foursquare: and the height thereof shall be three cubits.
-- Exodus 27:1 (KJV)

enter image description here
Image courtesy of Altar (Bible) - Wikipedia

In modern units, a short cubit* (for small constructions) was equivalent to about 17½″ (44.5 cm), so the dimensions of the altar were 7′ 3½″ (2.225 m) long x 7′ 3½″ (2.225 m) wide x 4½′ (1.334 m) high.

Given these dimensions, it would be tempting for the priests to want to elevate themselves with steps to reach all areas upon the altar without stretching. However, Exodus 20:26 forbids them to do so. The LORD had provided instruments for the priests to be able perform their service without need of them:

And thou shalt make his pans to receive his ashes, and his shovels, and his basons, and his fleshhooks, and his firepans: all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass.
-- Exodus 27:3 (KJV)

Conclusion
The Tabernacle was a portable tent, with no mention of steps in the details of its construction. There is also no mention of steps in regard to the altar.

The details given in regard to the dimensions of the altar suggest that the priests would have found steps a convenient aid in placing offerings and in cleaning away residue, perhaps even to get up upon the altar to do so. This prohibitive commandment suggests that the LORD/Moses considered such a practice to be potentially indecorous, and not in keeping with the LORD's holiness.


Notes:

* How Long Was the Original Cubit?

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First, "lest your nakedness be uncovered" precludes any reference to pagan rites and worship which are supposed to be here compared with Israelite worship, because it is governed by "you shall not ascend upon steps;" meaning ascending on steps, not pagan worship or succumbing to the practices thereof, is that which would have the possible effect of allowing unclothed portions of your body to be seen in a holy setting—something entirely unseemly. of course, and altogether avoided even as a possibility with this commandment.

Exodus 20:24-26 (DRB)

You shall make an altar of earth unto me, and you shall offer upon it your holocausts and peace offerings, your sheep and oxen, in every place where the memory of my name shall be: I will come to thee, and will bless thee. 25 And if thou make an altar of stone unto me, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones: for if thou lift up a tool upon it, it shall be defiled. 26 Thou shalt not go up by steps unto my altar, lest thy nakedness be discovered.

The theme and intent of these specifications teaches the Israelites that what they offer to God must offered purely by His grace—symbolized by using only natural offerings and altars, untainted, as it were, from the futile attempt and effort of man to provide God with some good He did not already possess—it is about their need for His propitiation, not His to be propitiated.

I think this is purely about modesty, not spiritual nakedness. Since if it were about spiritual nakedness, it would necessitate that going up step to an altar is intrinsically evil and shows God how evil you are. I don't think this is reconcilable with revelation or reason.

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Benson Comments as follows:

Exodus 20:26. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar — Indeed afterward God appointed an altar ten cubits high. But it is probable they went not up to that by steps, but by a sloping ascent. The garments worn in those countries, being perfectly loose, were easily blown aside, so as to discover the lower parts of the body; to prevent, therefore, this inconvenience, and that no indecency might be intermixed with the service of God, this precaution was necessary. And for the same reason the priests were afterward appointed to wear breeches, which were worn by none of the people besides, Exodus 28:42.

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There is a longstanding principle of "Biblical hermeneutics" that says that there is a single interpretation of a text but there can be many applications. This view has of late come under fire by several contemporary authors.

In the one view, the text says what it says and it is not legitimate to extrapolate out from a specific assertion to similar situations.

The other says that one can extrapolate, as Jesus did, that "you shall not kill" also forbids wanting to kill because in divine juris prudence, intention is the sin. The relevant term there is "Sensus Plenior".

Personally I'm both very much a literalist in that an interpretation literally must be true, not just the Sensus Plenior, but I think that once you have the correct literal interpretation the fun kind of just begins as you can make many applications.

I have long suggested that the organization of the scriptures is similar to that of a rat's nest. That is, the visible surface is connected to all kinds of supporting materials. So also the scriptures are a "rat's nest" of interconnected passages the together surfaces the meaning of seemingly unrelated passages in powerful ways:

Rat's nest

So I consider it a false dilemma to say it must be either literal or figurative. In the passage of the stairs, the instruction is clear and practical when taken literally. Ramped altars have been unearthed that match the description.

So the altar becomes a metaphor of the contrast between approaching God's altar "clothed completely in God's righteousness" and approaching God with the "nakedness" of our Adamic selves.

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Many spiritual systems require that you 'ascend' up to God in degrees or by steps. A good example is that of the Freemasons and their 'degrees'. Many such systems set up hierarchies ranging from the initiates to the Masters. I have come across believers who believe that Jesus had an special inner circle of Three - Peter, James and John - who were given the right to climb some of the higher steps in the 'mysteries' of God. I see this verse as encouraging those who love God to not try to 'ascend' by steps to higher degrees of knowledge and experience and insight into the mysteries of God but to stick to the 'simplicity of Christ' through whom Grace and Truth appeared. Faith in Christ and the Father is a gift from above. Grace and faith in the 'It is Finished' of Christ leads one to Galatians 2:20 - I AM CRUCIFIED with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me." That is, my self-ego-will was crucified with Him and the Resurrected One lives in me to cause me to will and to do His will. This is accessible to all without anyone having to go up steps of a spiritual ladder. In fact, the point is perhaps to 'descend' into humility before the face of God, the Altar where Christ the Lamb was sacrificed as propitiation for the sins of the world instead of seeking to 'ascend' by steps to the Highest Reality.

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