04 August 2011

"Then he said to me: Mortal, thus, says the Lord God: These are the ordinances for the altar." (v. 18)


To understand today's passage we need to remember again something of the circumstances in which Ezekiel first saw this vision. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was a particular cause of despair for Ezekiel and his generation; for them the temple had symbolised the presence of God with them and more than that, the promise that God would always be with them. Earlier (in chapter 8) Ezekiel had seen a vision in which God abandoned the temple because of the sins of his people. The idea that the altar would be rebuilt and reconsecrated was central to the hope of God's return.

The dimensions given from verse 13 onwards are quite confusing at least partly because they are difficult to translate into English. Basically verse 13 tells us that the altar proper was to sit on a series of ledges while verse 17 gives us the dimensions of the altar proper (14 x 14 cubits). This means that if the altar was viewed from the top and measured including the bases on which it stood it would have been 20 x 20 cubits or about 34 x 34 ft. In other words it would have been a large structure dominating the room in which it stood.

From verse 18 onwards we have a series of rituals to purify this altar and for the Israelites it was important that the altar was purified so that it could symbolise the presence of God. It is worth emphasising verse 27; once the altar had been purified it was to become the centre of a relationship with God symbolised by burnt offerings (the animal is consumed by fire as a way of giving it to God) and offerings of well-being (the animal is eaten by the worshipper as a sign that God nourishes them). To a people who had been wondering if God has rejected them the final words in this passage are particularly important, "I will accept you," says God: the temple is open so that worship may begin.

To Ponder

Can you think of any equivalent ceremonies which emphasise the need to be purified in order to worship a holy God? What are they?

To what extent is the sense of needing to be pure still relevant today and in what ways might it shape your faith and discipleship?

Bible notes author: The Revd Judith Rossall

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