September 26, 2010

To build an altar

“From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD.” Genesis 12:8 (NIV)

            On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what is widely known to be the highest point of the civil rights movement in the United States.  Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, speaking to a crowd of thousands but heard by the entire globe, he boldly proclaimed, “I have a dream!” 
            The fact it was delivered at the Lincoln Memorial was significant as well, as it was built to honor president Abraham Lincoln who led the US during the Civil War and helped bring about the end of slavery in the country.  So as King spoke, he was standing at the feet of Lincoln (as a giant, seated statue stood behind him) as he expressed gratitude for the past, accepted the role of the present, and shared his hope for the future.
            The Lincoln Memorial was built in the form of a Greek Doric temple and has a large reflecting pool in front of it. It is quite striking on the landscape of a city known for its power, it’s history, and its memorialization of significant people and events in the country that has helped shaped it into the nation that it has become.  Millions of visitors experience this memorial every year.
            In the Old Testament, as the people of God moved from place to place, altars they built were a part of their experience and a part of the landscape.  In Genesis 12, as Abram traveled from Haran to Canaan, he built altars at Shechem and Bethel, and both went on to serve as major sacred sites in the history of Israel. John H. Walton writes, “At each one Abram builds an altar. What function do these altars serve? It is of interest that the text makes no specific reference to offering a sacrifice at either site (though that may be implied in his calling on the name of Yahweh in 12:8).[1]  Since we are looking strictly at what scripture says here, we will not delve into the sacrificial component of altars – simply the act of calling upon the name of the Lord.  In Genesis 12:6-7, it is written, “Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “to your offspring I will give this land” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.”
            Walton notes, “The building of the altars in the places where Abram settles are advances. God is bringing to the land, establishing him in the land, and renewing the promise of the land (e.g. 12:7).[2]
            Regarding the city of Hebron, he goes on to write, “Ancient roadways converge on this site coming east from Lachish and connecting with the road north to Jerusalem, indicating its importance and continuous settlement. The construction of an altar here, as at Bethel, transforms it eventually into an important religious site, and its subsequent use as a burial place for the ancestors established its political importance.”[3]
            These altars are places of remembrance where the promises of God are acknowledged that are built up by those who are in covenant with God.
            In many places in the Old Testament, people are recorded as calling upon the name of the LORD. Walton comments, “The phrase ‘to call on the name of the LORD’ is not unique. People call on the name of the Lord when they worship him at an altar or any other sacred spot. They call on the name of the Lord for deliverance. Calling on his name involves proclaiming his reputation and attributes.  It is equated to taking hold of him, aligning with his cause, and acknowledging him as one’s God.”[4]
            The value of calling up on the name of the Lord in conjunction with an altar is important because by building a memorial, one can remember both God’s fulfillment of a promise and man’s acknowledgement of it. It serves to be a significant place where beyond Abram himself, but the countless generations after him are able to be reminded of it and acknowledge the continued promises of God to their family.
            Our culture today still places significance as to defining moments in our culture for future generations to remember.  The Lincoln Memorial itself was built in honor of Lincoln, however, today when you visit it, a stone has been placed at the exact spot where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous speech. A visitor can now stand where he stood, imagining the thousands he spoke to on that day many years ago, remembering both what the promise of his dream of racial equality was then, but since we are many years later, see how it has been fulfilled in so many ways.  Like Abraham was unable to see the fulfillment of God’s promise, and King was unable to personally see fulfillment of his dream, millions of people after them are able to look back and remember their roles in the process.
            In the very first instance of an altar being built in all of Scripture is in Genesis 8:20 where Noah, after emerging from the ark with his family and the animals that would eventually repopulate the entire earth, built an altar to the Lord.  It was not a part of a Mosaic law, nor are we told how or why he did it.  But we simply know that he did.  And throughout the Old Testament, we are presented with the construction of many altars with stories of how people many years later see what was built, and can still remember why someone had previously called upon the name of the Lord.  Even if one might have not known why, they would have at least known people were acknowledging the God of heaven and the fact he is pro-active in the blessing of mankind.
            God continues to bless us today and often we remember and acknowledge God for what he has done.  However, years, months or even days go by, and the excitement of that moment is forgotten.  When a new challenges arises, like a fading memory, the activity of God is not easy recalled.  We wonder where God is in the new situation.  But then he reveals himself and once again we praise him, but then we forget.  And the cycle continues.
            Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we ourselves had physical remembrances of what God has done for us?  Things we could look upon and remember of his continual presence, leading, and blessing in our own lives. However, it should be much more than that – it should be for our own families, our children, and their children could have continual reminders of God’s activity in our lives.
            While we may not have an entire countryside to ourselves in which we can build mounds of stones strewn across the ages, we can deliberately construct items – photographs, stories compiled in a book, videos, audio recordings posted on the internet – whatever seems most relevant in our cultural context which can remind us and all those around us that we serve a living God who keeps his promises to his people – and that we receive these blessings time and time again.

[1] John H. Walton, The New Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 394.
[2] Ibid. 398.
[3] Ibid. 415.
[4] Ibid. 279.

1 comment:

Spiglet said...

This is sooo interesting.
So provoking in a great way.

Have you ever built an altar?
I never thought about alternative altars like you suggest.... hmmmm.
I'm going to talk this with Kathy.