How would private parts be exposed on altar steps?

Exodus 20:26 (NIV)
And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.


Benson comments on this verse 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.

  • Although this does address the question, it would be preferable to include some of your own content rather than solely quoting an outside source. – Susan Nov 12 '18 at 9:19

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.

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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 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)

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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)

Regardless of the struggle to understand how the nakedness of the priests might have been exposed, the text clearly indicates that it was a contingency that needed to be taken into account, and steps were strictly forbidden in the service of the LORD at his altar because of the risk.


* How Long Was the Original Cubit?


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