The Bronze Altar Has Horns

Horns on the Bronze Altar

This little tidbit truly surprised me. I don’t mean to sound as if God doesn’t have anything new to teach me, but that’s how my pompous mind works sometimes. I have to audibly confess to God that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the truths of His Word. Maybe the following is something that you already understand, but here it is for the first time from me.

In Exodus 21:12-14, we have a passage that seems to be a bit mysterious. We are in the portion of the giving of the law just after the ten commandments. Moses has drawn near to God while the Israelites stand afar off. The Israelites can still see Moses, as he has not yet gone up for the 40 days and 40 nights yet. This portion of the law in Exodus 20:22-23 contains an expansion of the ten commandments. Sort of like, "yes stealing is one of the thou-shalt-nots, but ‘what happens if someone does steal?’" The section I am referring to is sort of, ‘what happens when a murder occurs?’

Exodus 21:12-14

Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die. ESV

Here we can discern a couple of things. God commanded that killings be placed into two categories, intentional and unintentional. If the killing was intentional, that makes it a murder punishable by death. The person who took the life must pay with their life. If the killing was unintentional, then there would be a place appointed by God to which the person who did the killing could flee. The implication is that they could flee there in order to escape the death penalty. The next verse tells us that the altar would be the place to which they would flee. If it was found that there was cunning (i.e. forethought, willful intent, malice) involved, they were to be taken from the altar in order to be put to death.

Next, understand that there were two altars which God ordered to be crafted for the tabernacle. The altar of incense was to be gold, located within the holy place where only priests could enter, and only incense was to be offered up on it. The altar of burnt offering was to be bronze, located in the outer court where all Israelites would bring their sacrifices, and animals were to be sacrificed upon it by the priests. It is this altar which is being referred to by the LORD as a place of mercy for an unintentional killing.

Later in Numbers 35, God commanded for cities within the promised land to be selected for the purpose of being that place of refuge for someone who killed someone unintentionally. The same principles are outlined in this chapter. Killings were to be placed into two categories, intentional and unintentional. Another revelation given in this chapter is one that was common practice in those days. There was to be an avenger of blood appointed to slay the one who committed the murder, or was the manslayer. If the killing was determined to be unintentional by the congregation, then the manslayer could live in that city of refuge with no fear of retribution from the avenger of blood. Until the death of the high priest, that city of refuge was to be their home. There was no fear of repercussion as long as they stayed within that city of refuge. Deuteronomy 19 explains that multiple cities were to be available so that the way would not be too long for an innocent man to travel and give the avenger the possibility of overtaking him while he is hot with vengeance in his heart.

Here’s the connection: Until the appointment of these cities, the bronze altar was to serve as the place of mercy, refuge, and justification for one who had unintentionally done wrong. We often think of the bronze altar as the place of sacrifice, which is true, but there is more to this story. When Moses received the commandment upon Sinai to build the bronze altar, the horns upon on its four corners to were to be of one piece with the altar. In essence, you could not have an altar without these horns. The horns are not a separate part attached later; they were part of the altar from the beginning.

Apparently, these horns were the part of the altar which the person who wished for mercy and refuge was supposed to grab onto. When we come to the story of Adonijah in I Kings 1-2, we really could not make sense of why Adonijah goes into the tabernacle, grabs the horns of the altar, and begs Solomon for mercy unless we understand this little nugget of truth from Exodus 21:12-14. It seems that even with the establishment of the cities of refuge, there really was no way that Adonijah could flee there when his crime was against the king himself. His only hope was to go to the tabernacle and grab hold of the horns of the bronze altar itself, which superceded any city of refuge. This act signified that Adonijah felt he was innocent of any wrongdoing and wanted mercy for the apparent crime. Solomon gave Adonijah the benefit of the doubt that day. He received the mercy, refuge, and justification that he sought by grabbing the horns of the altar.

Not too long after that, David died having given some instructions to Solomon. There may have been another conspiracy between leaders for Adonijah to take the throne, but we aren’t sure. Solomon takes Adonijah’s request for David’s former concubine as a play for power, which it was. This time, Adonijah shows that he is worthy of the very death which he escaped before by grabbing onto the horns of the altar. Before, he had received the benefit of the doubt. Now there was no doubt. Solomon assumes that Abiathar and Joab are both involved in this power play. Abiathar is stripped of his priesthood. Joab can see what is coming from a mile away.

Joab flees to the tabernacle, grabs onto the horns of the altar, and hopes for mercy. Here it is important to understand that Joab is most likely attempting to obtain mercy for the apparent crime of helping Adonijah to usurp the throne. Joab felt he was innocent here. But Solomon pointed out that justice had been delayed in two other matters overlooked by his father. Joab had murdered two men in cold blood, and it was for these that Joab obtained no mercy on that day. Solomon was wise to outline the reason for Joab’s death even though he was holding the horns of the altar. Joab did not receive the refuge that he sought by grabbing the horns of the altar.

It seems that Solomon used the principle of a city of refuge for Shimei immediately after this. Shimei could obtain mercy for his crimes against David, but only if he remained within the city of Jerusalem. Solomon was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, extend to him mercy, refuge, and justification, but Shimei must submit himself to the principles of the law which Solomon set down for him. At first, Shimei submits to the king and obeys the law set down for him. Alas, he could have been spared, but he chose to disobey the law for the sake of recovering two servants. As long as he remained in the city of Jerusalem, there was no fear of retribution. When he stepped outside the city, vengeance was served.

The bronze altar obviously foreshadows the sacrifice that Christ would make on the cross. This altar must also foreshadow a place of mercy, refuge, and forgiveness. We cannot approach this altar with the attitude that we didn’t do it on purpose. We grab the horns of the altar knowing that we are worthy of death. But we still grab the horns of the altar because we know our God to be merciful, gracious, and longsuffering. We know our God to be the justifier of those who are guilty. We know our God to be a refuge to those in search of salvation from the storm of sin. The bronze altar of sacrifice has horns as a very part of its being. Those horns are for us to grab onto for mercy, refuge, and justification.

Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

-The Orange Mailman

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