Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.XXVII.
THE ALTAR OF BURNT OFFERING.
(1) Thou shalt make an altar.—Heb., the altar. It is assumed that a sanctuary must have an altar, worship without sacrifice being unknown. (See Exodus 5:1-3; Exodus 8:25-28; Exodus 12:27; Exodus 18:12; Exodus 20:24-26, &c.)
Of shittim wood.—This direction seems at first sight to conflict with those given in Exodus 20:24-25, where altars were required to be either of earth or of unhewn stone. But the explanation of the Jewish commentators is probably correct, that what was here directed to be made was rather an “altar-case” than an altar, and that the true altar was the earth with which, at each halt in the wilderness, the “case” of shittim wood covered with bronze was filled. (So Jarchi, Kalisch, and others.)
Foursquare.—Ancient altars were either rectangular or circular, the square and the circle being regarded as perfect figures. A triangular altar was discovered by Mr. Layard in Mesopotamia, but even this had a circular top. In Hebrew architecture and furniture curved lines were for the most part avoided, probably as presenting greater difficulties than straight ones.
The height thereof . . . three cubits.—A greater height would have made it difficult to arrange the victims upon the altar. Otherwise the notion of perfection in form would probably have led to the altar being a cube.
And thou shalt make the horns of it upon the four corners thereof: his horns shall be of the same: and thou shalt overlay it with brass.(2) The horns of it.—It is not true to say, as Kalisch does, that “the altars of almost all ancient nations were frequently provided with horns.” On the contrary, horns were, so far as is known, peculiar to Israelite altars. Originally, they would seem to have been mere ornaments at the four upper corners, but ultimately they came to be regarded as essential to an altar, and the virtue of the altar was thought to lie especially in them. The victims were bound to them (Psalm 118:27); criminals clung to them (1Kings 1:50; 1Kings 2:28); and the blood of sin offerings was smeared upon them for purposes of expiation (Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 8:15; Leviticus 9:9, &c.).
His horns shall be of the same—i.e., of one piece with the rest of the altar, not separate portions attached by nails or soldering. (Comp. Exodus 25:19.)
Thou shalt overlay it with brass—i.e., with bronze. All the woodwork of the tabernacle was overlaid with one metal or another. Here a metallic coating was especially necessary, to prevent the wood from being burnt.
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.(3) His pans to receive his ashes.—Scuttles, in which the ashes were placed for removal from the sanctuary, are intended. The word translated “to receive his ashes” is a rare one, and implies a mixture with the ashes of unburnt fat.
His shovels.—A right rendering. The “shovels” would be used in clearing away the ashes from off the altar.
His basons.—Basins were needed to receive the blood of the victims (Exodus 24:6), which was cast from basins upon the foot of the altar.
His fleshhooks.—Implements with three prongs, used for arranging the pieces of the victim upon the altar. The priests’ servants sometimes applied them to a different purpose (1Samuel 2:13).
His firepans.—The word here used is elsewhere translated either “snuffdishes,” or “censers.” Probably vessels employed in carrying embers from the brazen altar to the altar of incense (Leviticus 16:12) are intended.
And thou shalt make for it a grate of network of brass; and upon the net shalt thou make four brasen rings in the four corners thereof.(4) A grate of network.—Rather, a grating of network. The position of the grating is doubtful. According to one view, it reached from the middle of the altar to its base, and protected the sides of the altar from the feet of the ministering priests. According to another, it surrounded the upper part of the altar, and was intended to catch any portions of the victims that accidentally fell off. There are no sufficient data to enable us to determine between these views.
Upon the net shalt thou make four brasen rings.—The brazen altar, like the ark and the table of shewbread, was to be carried by the priests when the Israelites changed their camping-ground. It therefore required “rings,” like them (Exodus 25:12; Exodus 25:26). These were, in the case of the altar, to be attached to the network, which must have been of a very solid and substantial character.
And thou shalt put it under the compass of the altar beneath, that the net may be even to the midst of the altar.(5) Under the compass of the altar beneath.—The position of the network depends upon this expression. Was “the compass of the altar” its circumference at the top, or was it a belt or step encircling the altar half-way up? The low height of the altar—four feet six inches—would seem to make a “step” unnecessary; but the altar may undoubtedly have been surrounded by a “belt” for ornament.
And thou shalt make staves for the altar, staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with brass.(6) Staves for the altar.—See Note 2 on Exodus 27:4.
Hollow with boards shalt thou make it: as it was shewed thee in the mount, so shall they make it.(8) Hollow with boards.—Compare the second Note on Exodus 27:1.
(9-18) Almost every ancient temple stood within a sacred enclosure, which isolated it from the common working world, and rendered its religious character more distinctly apparent. Such enclosures were particularly affected by the Egyptians, and were usually oblong squares, surrounded by walls, with, for the most part, a single entrance. An open space of this kind, always desirable, was absolutely necessary where the sanctuary itself was covered in, since it would have been intolerable to kill and burn victims in a confined and covered space. The altar which has been described (Exodus 27:1-8) was necessarily placed outside the tabernacle, and formed the chief furniture of the court, for which directions are now given.
(9) For the south side southward.—Rather, for the south side upon the right. (See Note on Exodus 26:18.)
Hangings.—The word used is new and rare. It is rendered ίστία, “sails,” by the LXX., and seems to designate a coarse sail-cloth, woven with interstices, through which what went on inside the court might be seen. The court, it must be remembered, was open to all Israelites (Leviticus 1:3, &c.).
Of fine twined linen.—Made of linen thread, i.e., each thread having several strands; not “fine linen” in the modern sense.
And the twenty pillars thereof and their twenty sockets shall be of brass; the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver.(10) And the twenty pillars thereof . . . —Heb., and its pillars, twenty (in number), and their bases, also twenty (shall be) of bronze. Kalisch says that the pillars of the court were “of wood, not plated with metal” (Comment., p. 371); but the present passage, and also Exodus 38:10, rightly translated, contradict this view.
The hooks of the pillars.—Comp. Exodus 26:37. As the pillars were for the support of the “hangings,” they required “hooks,” whereto the “hangings” might be attached.
Their fillets.—Rather, their connecting-rods. The pillars of the court were to be united by rods, which would help to support the “hangings.”
And likewise for the north side in length there shall be hangings of an hundred cubits long, and his twenty pillars and their twenty sockets of brass; the hooks of the pillars and their fillets of silver.(11, 12) The north side . . . This side of the court was to be in exact correspondence with the south. The western side was to be of only half the length (fifty cubits), and required therefore only half the number of pillars and sockets.
And the breadth of the court on the east side eastward shall be fifty cubits.(13) On the east side eastward.—Rather, in front, towards the east. Both the tabernacle and the Temple faced to the east, which was regarded as “the front of the world” by the Orientals generally. The belief was probably connected with the sun’s rising, towards which men in early times looked anxiously. It was, however, a belief quite separate from sun-worship.
The hangings of one side of the gate shall be fifteen cubits: their pillars three, and their sockets three.(14) The hangings of one side.—Rather, at one side. On three sides of the court—the south, the west, and the north—there was to be no interruption in the hangings—no entrance or gateway. But it was otherwise on the fourth side, towards the east. Here was to be the entrance to the court, and here consequently the line of hangings was to be broken in the middle. A curtain, similar to that at the east end of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:36), but hung on four pillars instead of five, and capable of being drawn up of down, was to give admission to the court on this side, and was to occupy twenty cubits out of the fifty which formed the entire width of the court. On either side would remain a space of fifteen cubits, which was to be occupied by “hangings,” similar to those on the other three sides of the court. Each of these lengths of fifteen cubits required three pillars for its support. Thus the pillars on the east side were ten, as on the west.
And for the gate of the court shall be an hanging of twenty cubits, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, wrought with needlework: and their pillars shall be four, and their sockets four.(16) For the gate of the court—i.e., the entrance.
An hanging.—The word is the same as that similarly translated in Exodus 26:36 and Exodus 26:37 of Exodus 26; and the description of the “hanging” is also, word for word, the same. It would contrast strongly with the plain white “sail-cloth” round the rest of the enclosure, and would clearly point out to all the place of entrance.
All the pillars round about the court shall be filleted with silver; their hooks shall be of silver, and their sockets of brass.(17) Filleted with silver.—Rather, united by silver rods. (See the last Note on Exodus 27:10.)
The length of the court shall be an hundred cubits, and the breadth fifty every where, and the height five cubits of fine twined linen, and their sockets of brass.(18) The length . . . an hundred cubits.—Comp. Exodus 27:9, where this is given as the length of the hangings.
The breadth fifty.—Comp. Exodus 27:12.
The height five cubits.—This had not been previously either stated or implied. It has been noted that, with one exception, all the measurements of the tabernacle and the court, as distinct from the furniture, are either five cubits or some multiple of five. The one exception is the length of the inner covering (Exodus 26:2), which was determined by the pitch of the roof.
(19) All the vessels of the tabernacle—i.e., all those which had not already been appointed to be of a richer material. (Comp. Exodus 25:38.) Bronze was the most convenient material for vessels, and maintained its place even in the magnificent Temple of Solomon (1Kings 7:15-45; 2Kings 25:13-14).
All the pins thereof.—These had not been previously mentioned; but the writer assumes it as known that every tent (’ohel). Such as he has described, can only be erected by means of cords and tent-pegs, or “pins.”
All the pins of the court.—The “pins of the court” seem to be pegs employed internally and externally to keep the pillars of the court in place. Their employment implies that of cords.
(20) Thou shalt command the children of Israel that they bring thee pure olive oil.—This instruction had been already given (Exodus 25:2; Exodus 25:6), only not with such particularity. “Oil” had been required, but not “pure olive oil beaten.” By this is meant the best possible olive oil—that which was obtained by “beating,” or pounding in a mortar; which was free from various impurities that belonged to the oil crushed out, after the ordinary fashion, in a mill.
To cause the lamp to burn always—i.e., every night without intermission. Josephus says that three lights were kept burning both night and day (Ant. Jud., iii. 7, § 7); but there is nothing in Scripture to confirm this. The tabernacle would have received sufficient light during the daytime through the entrance curtain, which was of linen (Exodus 26:36), not to mention that the curtain may, when necessary, have been looped up. The lighting of the lamps every evening is distinctly asserted in Exodus 30:8; their extinction in the morning appears from 1Samuel 3:3.
In the tabernacle of the congregation without the vail, which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the LORD: it shall be a statute for ever unto their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel.(21) In the tabernacle of the congregation.—Heb., in the tent of meeting—i.e., the place where God met the earthly ruler of His people. (See Exodus 25:22.)
Before the testimony—i.e., in front of the Ark which contained “the Testimony,” or “Two Tables.” (See Note on Exodus 16:34.)
Aaron and his sons.—The priestly character of Aaron and his descendants, laid down in the next chapter, is here anticipated.
From evening to morning.—See the second Note on Exodus 27:20.