Pulpitless Persuasions II: Altar Ed
Welcome to another in a continuing series of commentaries on seldom preached sermon material from the Bible. Today we’ll take a look at Altar Ed. Yes, Virginia, the bible does have an Altar Ed. I don’t think there’s a Mr. Ed in the bible, even though Balaam in his travels came close by talking to a donkey, which is similar to a horse, but not like an altar. Well, an altar isn’t a horse of course, of course, and no one should talk to an altar, of course, that is, of course, unless, of course, it’s the famous Altar Ed. (Hello, Wilbur!, ahem, but I digress.) Although the name “Ed” doesn’t necessarily appear in the original manuscripts of scripture it is nevertheless in a few bible versions such as the KJV, which many stalwart Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and other demonizations, er, denominations, hold dear. They mention this name probably because it is the Hebrew word for “witness”, which has everything to do with the story in Joshua chapter 22. Far be it from me to dispute those KJVO (King James Version Only) folks who want their tribulation and rapture too (preferably with crispy fries for the heathen).
In any event, this Altar Ed is mentioned in Joshua 22:34 as follows: “And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar Ed: for it shall be a witness between us that the LORD is God.” The background to this verse is interesting as well, although arguably not as interesting as having an Altar Ed. As Joshua 22 begins, all the tribes of Israel have taken all the land given to them in battle by the Lord. Two and a half of the tribes of Israel, the Reubenites, Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh, already requested and had been given land on the East of the Jordan, but Moses would command them to continue to fight along side the other nine and a half tribes of Israel to help them gain all their land promised of God. Now, all Israel is at peace and told to go back to their homes. After the two and a half tribes return to their land they build a great altar which the rest of the tribes of Israel see. This makes them want to go to war against the two and a half tribes, giving them the impression that they are sinning against the Lord by offering sacrifice outside of the law of Moses. Phineas and the leaders of the tribes meet with those of the two and a half to talk about it. Quickly the people of the two and a half tribes explain that the altar isn’t for sacrifice, but is to serve as a testament to their faithfulness to the Lord, and a witness to the future children of all the tribes of Israel that they fear God.
The significant application for today from this is one which Jesus Himself alluded to in Mark 9:38-40, particularly with the words, “For he who is not against us is for us.” Religious dogmatism, which to different degrees and in different formats is the same contention churches have today. This can be focused inward or outward, because denominations and religious institutions like uniformity and exclusivity. Generally, when an institutional church has a tendency toward the inward they focus on uniformity even though they prefer to think of it as unity. The fact is that there is an enormous difference between the two. Unity among church members is a great thing, and even encouraged in scripture, as Ephesians 4:3,13 points out. Uniformity, on the other hand, is the means of keeping an institution cohesive, keeping members performing together. Everything on the surface looks good, but there is little regard for the relationships between or the underlying conditions, spiritual or otherwise, of the individual members . Exclusivity, of course, focuses on the outward. The church views itself in relation to the rest of the church world. Their efforts are evaluated in terms of whether or not its programs or other initiatives are good or will work. The exclusivity isn’t necessarily in particular churches having a corner on the truth, although that does happen, it’s that each church distinguishes its identity in pragmatic ways.
Unity is found in following the One, Christ, not in everyone doing the same things. Hopefully, Altar Ed still stands today as witness of the faithfulness and freedom that is in Christ. May we come to know the truth, and may the truth set us free.