1 He made the altar of burnt offering of acacia wood. Five cubits was its length, and five cubits its breadth. It was square, and three cubits was its height. 2 He made horns for it on its four corners. Its horns were of one piece with it, and he overlaid it with bronze. 3 And he made all the utensils of the altar, the pots, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the fire pans. He made all its utensils of bronze. 4 And he made for the altar a grating, a network of bronze, under its ledge, extending halfway down. 5 He cast four rings on the four corners of the bronze grating as holders for the poles. 6 He made the poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with bronze. 7 And he put the poles through the rings on the sides of the altar to carry it with them. He made it hollow, with boards.
8 He made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting.
9 And he made the court. For the south side the hangings of the court were of fine twined linen, a hundred cubits; 10 their twenty pillars and their twenty bases were of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets were of silver. 11 And for the north side there were hangings of a hundred cubits; their twenty pillars and their twenty bases were of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets were of silver. 12 And for the west side were hangings of fifty cubits, their ten pillars, and their ten bases; the hooks of the pillars and their fillets were of silver. 13 And for the front to the east, fifty cubits. 14 The hangings for one side of the gate were fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. 15 And so for the other side. On both sides of the gate of the court were hangings of fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and their three bases. 16 All the hangings around the court were of fine twined linen. 17 And the bases for the pillars were of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets were of silver. The overlaying of their capitals was also of silver, and all the pillars of the court were filleted with silver. 18 And the screen for the gate of the court was embroidered with needlework in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It was twenty cubits long and five cubits high in its breadth, corresponding to the hangings of the court. 19 And their pillars were four in number. Their four bases were of bronze, their hooks of silver, and the overlaying of their capitals and their fillets of silver. 20 And all the pegs for the tabernacle and for the court all around were of bronze. – Exodus 38:1-20 ESV
God’s house had a yard. Surrounding the Tabernacle was a large fenced enclosure referred to as the courtyard. The perimeter of this roughly 75-foot by 150-foot space was marked by a fence made of linen fabric hung between 56 wooden posts. Each of these wooden posts featured a bronze base and a top overlaid with silver. The east side of the enclosure, which always faced the rising sun, had a screen that served as a gate and was “embroidered with needlework in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen” (Exodus 38:18 ESV).
Even the fence which surrounded the Tabernacle was intended to reflect the glory of God and serve as a barrier to keep out prying eyes and all those who were unworthy to enter God’s presence. God’s house was at the same time both accessible and off-limits. There was a gate through which entrance into God’s courtyard could be gained, but its use was restricted to the priests only. The rest of the Israelites were required to remain outside the fence, which was high enough to keep anyone from seeing what took place inside. God had agreed to dwell in the midst of His people but access to His presence would be highly restricted and regulated by stringent ceremonial laws. In a sense, the fence served the same purpose as the boundary that God had Moses place around Mount Sinai.
“Mark off a boundary all around the mountain. Warn the people, ‘Be careful! Do not go up on the mountain or even touch its boundaries. Anyone who touches the mountain will certainly be put to death. No hand may touch the person or animal that crosses the boundary; instead, stone them or shoot them with arrows. They must be put to death.” – Exodus 19:12-13 NLT
God had just told the Israelites, “Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6 NLT). Yet, their status as God’s chosen people and His special treasure came with restrictions. They could not enter into His presence flippantly or inappropriately. There were conditions. He was holy and they were not. That is why God instructed Moses to have the people of Israel go through a purification process before they came anywhere near the mountain.
“Go down and prepare the people for my arrival. Consecrate them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothing. Be sure they are ready on the third day, for on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai as all the people watch.” – Exodus 19:10-11 NLT
Mount Sinai was immovable, so it served as a temporary meeting spot between God and His people. The Tabernacle was designed to be movable so that God could have a permanent, yet portable place in which to dwell among His people. Yet, wherever His presence came to rest, that place became holy and inaccessible to all those who were marked by the impurity of sin. That’s why Aaron and his son had to go through their own purification ritual before they could pass through the gates of the courtyard and enter God’s house. Even their clothing had to meet God’s exacting standard before they could pass through the gate and perform their priestly functions.
“Clothe your brother, Aaron, and his sons with these garments, and then anoint and ordain them. Consecrate them so they can serve as my priests. Also make linen undergarments for them, to be worn next to their bodies, reaching from their hips to their thighs. These must be worn whenever Aaron and his sons enter the Tabernacle or approach the altar in the Holy Place to perform their priestly duties. Then they will not incur guilt and die.” – Exodus 28:41-43 NLT
And when they entered God’s courtyard, their first responsibility was to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. There in the center of the courtyard stood the Bronze Altar. This 8-foot wide by 5-foot tall structure was built by Bezalel and his team of craftsmen. It was made from acacia wood and then covered in beaten bronze. This metallic layer made it fireproof so that it could withstand the constant heat of the perpetual flames that burned day and night.
The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not go out. The priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and he shall arrange the burnt offering on it and shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out. – Leviticus 6:12-13 ESV
The altar that Bezalel made was second in importance only to the Ark of the Covenant. This one sacred object would receive almost constant use as the priests offered up the countless sacrifices and offerings provided by the people of Israel. It was the Bronze Altar where the priests placed the whole burnt offerings of the people. These offerings could be “livestock from the herd or from the flock” (Leviticus 1:2 ESV). These were sacrifices of atonement, where the animal served as a substitute for the sins of the people. The priests also offered up sacrifices to restore fellowship with God, atone for specific sins, and atone for guilt. And once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would offer sacrifices for his own sins and those of the people.
The Bronze Altar would prove to be a well-used and vitally important part of the Tabernacle’s ritual service. Its location in the courtyard of God’s house provided a much-needed means by which the Israelites could receive cleansing, atonement, and forgiveness. This was to be the place of reconciliation and purification.
“It dominated the entrance, reminding them of the wages of their sin and offering them a way to get right with God. Only a blood sacrifice could save them. As they came to offer their sacrifices, again and again they learned that blood was the way to God.” – Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus
It is impossible to miss the juxtaposition between the opulent splendor of the Tabernacle and the gruesome nature of the sacrificial system that accompanied it. The courtyard of the Tabernacle would have been a place of slaughter with the blood of countless animals soaking the ground around the altar. The immaculate garments of the priests would have been covered in blood by day’s end. So, God provided a large basin of bronze in which the priests could cleanse themselves. Before they could enter the Holy Place to minister to God, they had to be cleansed from all the impurities they had taken upon themselves as they offered sacrifices on behalf of the sins of the people. In a sense, they had taken upon themselves the sins of the people and required purification before they could enter into God’s presence. The bronze basis served that purpose.
“They must wash with water whenever they go into the Tabernacle to appear before the Lord and when they approach the altar to burn up their special gifts to the Lord—or they will die!” – Exodus 30:20 NLT
Everything about the Tabernacle was intended to illustrate the glory and holiness of God. But there was a constant contrast between God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness. The courtyard would have been a place of death and blood. It was there that the atonement for Israel’s sins would have taken place. And the priests of God, having offered up sacrifices on behalf of the people, would have been required to go through their own purification process before they could enter into God’s presence. Sin separates people from God. Unrighteousness cannot dwell in the presence of perfect righteousness. So, God made a way for sinful men and women to come before Him, and it involved the shedding of blood. But, like so much about the Tabernacle, it was a shadow of something far greater to come. As the author of Hebrews points out.
Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. – Hebrews 10:11-12 NLT
Jesus was the great high priest who offered the final atoning sacrifice that fully satisfied the just demands of a holy and righteous God. He offered His life as the final payment for the sins of mankind, providing a permanent means of forgiveness “and when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices”(Hebrews 10:18 NLT).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.