Joshua 8:31: Sacrifice upon Ebal’s Altar

Verse 31:[1] As Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the (Ex. 20:25; Deut. 27:5, 6) book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up any iron: and (Ex. 20:24) they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings.

[Of unpolished stones, which iron has not touched,אֲבָנִ֣ים שְׁלֵמ֔וֹת אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹֽא־הֵנִ֥יף עֲלֵיהֶ֖ן בַּרְזֶ֑ל] Whole (that is, not cut or hewn, as next he explains himself [Vatablus]) over he had not waved iron (Junius and Tremellius); he did not polish (Vatablus). Namely, either, 1. Joshua; that is, which Joshua had taken care not to be carved, etc. (Masius): or, 2. a stonemason (Vatablus): or, 3. it is translated passively, upon which iron was not lifted (Syriac, Arabic, similarly Jonathan). Thus the Hebrews are wont to translate it, as it is noted in the case of קָרָא, to call[2] (Masius). Question: What is the reason for this? Responses: 1. It was sin to have iron, a thing forged to destroy, serve Divine worship, upon which the salvation of things depends (thus the Hebrews in Masius). Hence Cicero, Concerning Law 2, keeps brass and iron away from temples, as instruments of warfare, not of worship. But iron does not so displease God that He does not order it to be brought into His own treasury, Joshua 6:19 (Masius). 2. Lest that which men are granted at altars from God be able to be credited to human labor. Thus Isaac Arama.[3] The altar of God is perfected, not by artifice, but by its own material, so that those that busy themselves to obtain the favor of God might understand that God is perfect and good in His own nature: Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon (Masius). [But for more concerning these things see Exodus 20:24. Masius observes here that the altars of the ancient Christians were very simple, and our ancestors responded with detestation, if they observe any likeness or image on altars. For which reason Serarius flogs him, and makes a defense of likenesses on altars.]

[1] Hebrew: כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוָּה֩ מֹשֶׁ֙ה עֶֽבֶד־יְהוָ֜ה אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל כַּכָּתוּב֙ בְּסֵ֙פֶר֙ תּוֹרַ֣ת מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִזְבַּח֙ אֲבָנִ֣ים שְׁלֵמ֔וֹת אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹֽא־הֵנִ֥יף עֲלֵיהֶ֖ן בַּרְזֶ֑ל וַיַּעֲל֙וּ עָלָ֤יו עֹלוֹת֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַֽיִּזְבְּח֖וּ שְׁלָמִֽים׃

[2] For example, Genesis 4:26:  “And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enos: then began men to call upon (לִקְרֹא, or, to be called by) the name of the Lord.”

[3] Isaac ben Moses Arama (c. 1420-1494) was a Spanish Rabbi.  He wrote Talmudic and philosophical commentaries upon the Pentateuch (a classic in Jewish homiletics), the Five Scrolls (Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), and Proverbs.

2 thoughts on “Joshua 8:31: Sacrifice upon Ebal’s Altar

  1. Matthew Henry: “In token of the covenant…[t]hey built an altar, and offered sacrifice to God (Joshua 8:30, 31), in token of their dedication of themselves to God, as living sacrifices to his honour, in and by a Mediator, who is the altar that sanctifies this gift. This altar was erected on Mount Ebal, the mount on which the curse was put (Deuteronomy 11:29), to signify that there, where by the law we had reason to expect a curse, by Christ’s sacrifice of himself for us and his mediation we have peace with God; he has redeemed us from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us, Galatians 3:13. Even where it was said, by the curse, You are not my people, there it is said, through Christ the altar, You are the children of the living God, Hosea 1:10. The curses pronounced on Mount Ebal would immediately have been executed if atonement had not been made by sacrifice. By the sacrifices offered on this altar they did likewise give God the glory of the victories they had already obtained, as Exodus 17:15. Now that they had had the comfort of them, in the spoils of Ai, it was fit that God should have the praise of them. And they also implored his favour for their future success; for supplications as well as thanksgivings were intended in their peace-offerings. The way to prosper in all that we put our hand to is to take God along with us, and in all our ways to acknowledge him by prayer, praise, and dependence. The altar they built was of rough unhewn stone, according to the law (Exodus 20:25), for that which is most plain and natural, and least artful and affected, in the worship of God, he is best pleased with. Man’s device can add no beauty to God’s institutions.”

  2. James Begg’s “Anarchy in Worship”: “It is too much the fashion in the present day to speak as if men might act in the worship of God according to their own whim and fancy, and without regard to His high and sacred authority. Angels vail their faces in heaven whilst they adore the Majesty of the great God[cf. Isaiah 6:2, 3; Exodus 3:6; 1 Kings 19:13]; but guilty man speaks and acts as if nothing were so light and trivial as an act of worship; nay, as if he might convert a professed act of worship into a source of amusement. We know nothing which so clearly proves the deep and fearful depravity of man and the abounding infidelity of the present day in the midst of much high profession. It is an illustration that ‘blasphemy’ and ‘truce breaking’ are closely connected (1 Timothy 3:1-6). A dreadful story is told of the notorious Claverhouse, viz., that when asked how he would answer for the murder of the pious Ayrshire carrier, he said, ‘To man I can be answerable, and as for God, I will take Him into my own hands.’ Whether this be true or not, it is the very spirit in which many professing Christians act in the matter of worship. They forget the warning of God; ‘These things thou hast done and I have kept silence. Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself, but I will reprove thee and set them in order before thine eyes. Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest He tear you in pieces, and there is none to deliver’ (Ps 50:21-22).

    Is it possible to find a single instance in Scripture of accepted worship that was not prescribed by God? In the first act of worship recorded after the Fall, we are told that the person and offering of Cain were rejected, whilst those of Abel were accepted [cf. Genesis 4:3-7]. Apart from the fact that a mere thank-offering, although it might suit an angel or an unfallen man, was totally unsuitable for a sinner, it is clear that there was a divine appointment of sacrifice pointing to the cross of Christ, for it is said, ‘By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain’ [Hebrews 11:4]. Now faith implies a revelation or a testimony on which to rest, and it is evident that by the first promise in Eden, and the emblematical coats of skins [cf. Genesis 3:21], implying that the innocent must suffer that the guilty might be clothed, the doctrine of substitution was taught to our first parents before they were driven from the scene of their transgression. From the very first, therefore, acceptable worship was coupled with God’s appointment of sacrifice, and with the principle that ‘without shedding of blood there is no remission’ [Hebrews 9:22]. Proceeding on this central principle, when men ceased to use their simple altars of earth or stone [cf. Exodus 20:24-26; Deuteronomy 27:5; Joshua 8:31], and when an elaborate system of worship was introduced embodying still clearer types and emblems of the coming Messiah and His work, nothing was left to the invention of Moses [cf. Exodus 25:40], although so eminent in wisdom, and although God spake to him ‘as a man speaketh to his friend’ [Exodus 33:11]. The most minute arrangements were made by God in regard to all parts of worship down to the pins of the tabernacle [cf. Exodus 27:19], and He said to Moses, ‘See thou do all things after the pattern skewed thee on the Mount’ [Exodus 25:40]. God said, ‘What thing soever I command you, observe to do it; thou shalt not add thereto nor diminish from it’ [Deuteronomy 12:32]. When David gave instructions to Solomon in regard to building the temple, it is said he gave ‘the pattern of all that he had by the Spirit’ [1 Chronicles 28:12]; and at the end he repeats this Divine appointment as follows:—’All this, said David, the Lord made me understand in writing by His hand upon me; even all the works of this pattern’ (1 Chronicles 28:19). Every deviation from this, even in the smallest particular, and even when a good motive might have been pleaded, was condemned and resented by God. By and by this system, with all its peculiarities, as having served its purpose, was done away with [cf. Hebrews 8:13], and we emerge into the clearer light of the New Testament dispensation as foretold by Christ to the woman of Samaria [cf. John 4:7-26]. But the same principle still continues, and is clearly enforced. Christ commands His apostles to go and teach all nations, but still it is with this solemn injunction, ‘Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’ [Matthew 28:20]; it is not whatsoever I have not forbidden. They were simply ambassadors for Christ [cf. 2 Corinthias 5:20], acting under written and limited instructions which were also in the hands of all the people, that all might judge how far they acted in accordance with them. Accordingly, when the Apostle Paul gives instructions in regard to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, he says, ‘I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you’ [1 Corinthians 11:23]. There is no permission to be found in the Word of God to alter, add to, or modify the ordinances of Christ. ‘If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book’ [Revelation 22:18-19].”

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