The altar of burnt offering was one of the most highly visible features in the courtyard of the portable tabernacle and subsequently in the Jerusalem temple. Because it was situated between the entrance to the courtyard and the doorway that led into the Holy Place of the sanctuary, no one could come into God’s presence without first encountering this sizable altar. Its central location is significant, for it reminded Israelite worshipers that access to God depended on the efficacy of the various kinds of sacrifices presented on it. These sacrifices were vital for ensuring that sinful, defiled people could approach God’s holy presence in safety.
To appreciate the function of the altar located outside the sanctuary where God dwelt, it is helpful to observe that the atonement rituals associated with the tabernacle/temple altar originated at Mount Sinai, when the Israelites entered into a unique covenant relationship with God.
On arriving at Mount Sinai, the Israelites were strictly forbidden from ascending the mountain (Ex. 19:12–13). Mount Sinai was set apart as holy, and a barrier was placed around it to prevent the people from ascending. Moses alone was permitted to go up; anyone else attempting to do this was to be put to death.
The altar of burnt offering emphasizes the need for sacrificial atonement and consecration.
This changed, however, after God made a covenant (or friendship treaty) with the people. When all the people affirmed their commitment to obeying the covenant obligation—the conditions of which are given in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 19:2–17) and the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 20:22–23:33)—representatives of the Israelites crossed the boundary and went part of the way up Mount Sinai. As they did, they experienced an extraordinary vision of God (24:9–11). While their view was restricted, they witnessed “under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (v. 10). Not only did they see something of God’s majestic splendor, but they celebrated their new covenant relationship with Him by feasting on the mountain (v. 11).
Importantly, before the people could ascend toward God on Mount Sinai, they had to offer sacrifices on a newly constructed stone altar at the foot of the mountain (vv. 4–5). On this altar, the Israelites presented to God two distinctive types of sacrifice: burnt offerings and peace offerings. Interestingly, this is the first mention in the Bible of peace offerings being made.
Soon after this initial covenant-sealing event, the Israelites constructed the tabernacle, a very ornate tent designed to be both a dwelling place for God and a “tent of meeting” where people could approach God. To facilitate this latter function, certain Israelites were made holy as priests. Strikingly, the process by which they were consecrated resembles what happened when the covenant was ratified at Mount Sinai. Once again, burnt and peace offerings were presented to God (29:15–34).
The ritual for making the priests holy takes on added significance when we appreciate that for the Israelites, the tabernacle was thought to be, among other things, a miniature Mount Sinai. The three parts of the tabernacle complex represented different parts of the mountain. The Most Holy Place paralleled the top of the mountain; the Holy Place paralleled the side of the mountain; the courtyard with its bronze altar paralleled the foot of the mountain. Just as the representatives of the people had to be consecrated through sacrifices on an altar before ascending Mount Sinai, the priests had to be consecrated before entering the Holy Place.
On the basis of what is said in Exodus 29 about the consecration of the Levitical priests, the burnt and peace offerings achieved a number of outcomes. Those who offered the sacrifices were ransomed from the power of death; the animal functioned as a substitute, taking the punishment that should have fallen on the priests. When they were daubed with blood taken from the sacrifice, they were cleansed from the defilement of sin. Blood from the altar was then sprinkled on the priests to make them holy. Finally, having been consecrated, the worshipers were to eat the consecrated meat of the sacrifice.
After their initial consecration, the priests were still expected to present each day two burnt offerings, one in the morning and one in the evening (29:38–43). These daily sacrifices, which replicated what happened when the covenant was sealed, enabled the priests to come close to God.
The ratification of the covenant at Mount Sinai was a one-off occasion, but it provides an important illustration of what must happen to enable people to come safely into God’s presence. The altar of burnt offering emphasizes the need for sacrificial atonement and consecration, but in the Old Testament, animal sacrifices only gave access to a copy of the heavenly temple, and these sacrifices needed to be repeated daily. Jesus’ sacrificial death is a perfect, once-for-all-time sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus Christ ransoms, cleanses, and sanctifies those who trust in Him alone by faith. Only those who have been made holy by Christ may approach God without fear.
Dr. T. Desmond Alexander is senior lecturer in biblical studies and director of postgraduate studies at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is author of From Eden to the New Jerusalem.