November 19, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.”
You’ve likely heard the cynical adage “good enough for government work.” In so many words it connotes that when you consider the recipient of the labor, only minimal attention and effort is required; meticulousness would be a waste of energy. The same jaundiced attitude finds its way into most domains of labor; sometimes you even hear it voiced “good enough for religious work.”
With Ai now lying in ruins, its king dangling from a tree, Israel builds an altar upon which to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. Joshua and his men gather stones in gratitude for the Lord’s renewal of their strength and restoration of their purpose. Not just any stones though. These were to be “uncut” stones “upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” Why give such detailed instruction on the nature of the stones that would comprise the altar of thanksgiving? It’s an instruction with a long history.
Before they’d entered the land, Moses commanded Israel in Deuteronomy 27:4–6, “When you have crossed over the Jordan . . . you shall build an altar of stones to the Lord. You shall wield no iron tool upon them; you shall build an altar to the Lord of uncut stones.” So Joshua’s motive here in chapter 8 is to follow precisely the instruction given Israel. But it still doesn’t explain why the stones must be uncut and why no iron tool may be applied to them. For that you have to venture back further in Israelite history.
With the Ten Commandments still echoing in Moses’ ears, the Lord turns his attention to the issue of altars. In Exodus 20:25 the rationale for uncut, unhewn stones materializes: “If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.” There it is. Cleaving a stone by the blows of an iron tool would for some reason render the altar unfit for sacrificial use. It would be profaned.
Scholars debate why the application of an iron tool would have profaned the stones. The medieval French rabbi Rashi intuited a reason from the juxtaposition of iron tool and altar: “The altar was created to lengthen a man’s days and iron was created to shorten a man’s days; it is not fit that the means of shortening should be brandished over the means of lengthening” (cited in Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses). A few centuries later, Rashi’s fellow Frenchman John Calvin understood the prohibition to be against establishing a permanent altar formed by iron-hewn stones. Since Israel had not yet settled in a permanent locale, an unmarked, unsupervised, yet enduring altar of worship might “entice superstition” (Calvin’s Commentaries).
Others advance alternative theories, but in the end, why iron tools would profane the stones remains a mystery to us (Deut. 29:29). What is crystal-clear, though, is Joshua’s, Moses’s, and the Lord’s ultimate concern: that offerings of worship not be profaned. Bringing blemished sacrifices (e.g. Exod. 12:5), offering worship in pretense (Isa. 29:13), or making sacrifices without corresponding love (Hosea 6:6)—Each represented a profound desecration worthy of sharp rebuke.
In view of God’s mercies to us in Christ, Paul exhorts, we ought to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). Christ Jesus sacrificed Himself for us, so that we might live for Him (2 Cor. 5:15) and be “poured out like a drink offering” (2 Tim. 4:6).
What tends to profane our offerings most often? Hypocrisy? Prejudice? Licentiousness? Perhaps. Consider another likely suspect: stinginess—that is, giving what’s left over in us rather than what’s first and best from us. If all things were “created through Him and for Him,” and “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16–17),” then He is worthy of first position in all things we have and create. Our first attention of the day. The firstfruits of our labors. Giving first consideration to His purposes for us as the basis for all our choices.
What might it look like to set down your iron tool in the fashioning of your own kingdom in order to give first attention to the building of His?