Altars of Dirt

In the movie “Indian Jones and the Last Crusade” Indiana is searching for the holy grail; the cup that Jesus took up at the Last Supper. Drinking from this cup is said to heal all wounds and provide, if not eternal, then prolonged, life. I know that the physical cup can do nothing. It is Jesus who heals all wounds and gives life. You know, just in case you were unsure of my understanding the difference between Bible and Indiana Jones. Anyway, near the end of the movie Indiana must choose from several cups and drink. Any cup but the cup of Jesus will kill you. One of the bad guys grabbed up an ornate goblet and drank up the contents and died. He chose badly. Indiana picks an old wooden cup; the cup of a simple carpenter, drinks and does not die. He chose wisely. Now, I know that this is all Hollywood nonsense, but there are some lessons here for us. We tend to think that if something is imbued with divine power it must be gloriously ornate. But I am concerned with something else here. The things I make and claim that they are for God, are they really? Am I holding up what I’ve created proclaiming, “to God!” while secretly hoping that others will praise my skill and hard work?

Exodus 20:22-26 is the beginning of a long monologue that stretches through 23:33 delivered by Yahweh to Moses. Some have labeled this speech as “Divine Guidance”. But our passage looks decidedly different than the rest and 21:1 reads a bit like an introduction. This, of course, has generated a lot of discussion. But before God can begin with his guidance, he must establish who is to be worshiped and how. I mean if they are not worshiping Yahweh and only Yahweh, why should they listen to his guidance any more than any other god’s instructions? So, Yahweh begins with a command about what not to make. Don’t make gods and it doesn’t matter if you use precious metals. Just don’t do it. But there is more. Because if they make these gods they are making them for themselves. Using gold and crafting a beautiful statue is more about creating something for yourself than honoring God. And this brings us to the very core of why idol worship is so tempting. We want a personal god; a god that we created for ourselves. Whatever god we create would have to answer to our wants and needs, wouldn’t they? So, God first establishes what they are not to create and who they are not to create it for. Do not make gods for yourselves!

Then Yahweh commanded them to make an altar and he makes it very clear that they are to make the altar for him. Now, if you are going to make something for God, you’re gonna want to use the best of all materials. Right? Except God instructed them to use earth. While some will spend time debating exactly what kind of earth, I want to focus on the contrast. When man makes gods for himself he uses precious metals. When Yahweh commands the building of an altar for him, he demands they use earth. Nothing fancy or rare or ornate; just ordinary common dirt. Well, they could use stones, but God warns them not to cut the stones. They are to use rocks and to throw them together into an altar exactly how they were found. No intricate carvings; no polishing; no working on them to make them better. So, wherever God decides that he wants his name to be remembered, they are to gather a bunch of dirt or rocks and create an altar for God. What in the world? If God wants to be remembered, he should have them use something spectacular; something memorable. Oh, maybe that’s the point. Recently, I went to Vatican City and viewed the Sistine Chapel. I was impressed, but I was more overwhelmed by the accomplishment of Michelangelo than I was by the creation he depicted. God wants them to remember him; his name; his character. They are also not to have steps that the priest would have to climb in order to offer the sacrifices. The reason given is so that the priest will not expose his shameful nakedness. This was before God commanded the making of priestly underwear. This command may be twofold: treating the place as holy where God comes to them and blesses them. If their nakedness is exposed that would defile the altar and the place. It may also serve to keep them from making the altar monstrously large as man is want to do.

So, God commands, “Do not make for yourself! Do make for me!” And upon the altar the people offered up whole burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. Forgiveness and fellowship with Yahweh is what was being remembered here. Are you creating altars that will shout out the name of Yahweh? Or are you creating gods for yourself; pouring your skill, money, and sweat into ornately carved idols which proclaim more of your skill and ability than of God. Build altars of dirt and rejoice in the presence of God. Peace!