The Bronze Plating of the Altar: Numbers Versus Exodus
Following the dramatic death of two hundred and fifty rebellious tribal leaders who brought incense, God tells Moses to instruct Elazar to remove the fire-pans for they have been sanctified, and to turn them into plating for the altar:
במדבר יז:ג …וְעָשׂוּ אֹתָם רִקֻּעֵי פַחִים צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ כִּי הִקְרִיבֻם לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה…
Num 17:2 …Hammer the fire-pans into sheets to overlay the altar, for they were presented before YHWH and have become holy…”
We are then told that Elazar carries out this instruction:
במדבר יז:ד וַיִּקַּח אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיבוּ הַשְּׂרֻפִים וַיְרַקְּעוּם צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ.
Num 17:4 Elazar the priest took the bronze fire-pans which had been used for offering by those who died in the fire; and they were hammered into plating for the altar.
Isn’t the Altar Already Bronze? Exodus’ Tabernacle Account
God’s command to Elazar contradicts the verses in Exodus’ Tabernacle account, where God tells Moses to have Bezalel cover the altar in bronze at the time that the Tabernacle was first constructed (Exod 27:2):
שמות כז:א וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים חָמֵשׁ אַמּוֹת אֹרֶךְ וְחָמֵשׁ אַמּוֹת רֹחַב רָבוּעַ יִהְיֶה הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשָׁלֹשׁ אַמּוֹת קֹמָתוֹ. כז:בוְעָשִׂיתָ קַרְנֹתָיו עַל אַרְבַּע פִּנֹּתָיו מִמֶּנּוּ תִּהְיֶיןָ קַרְנֹתָיו וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת.
Exod 27:1 You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide — the altar is to be square — and three cubits high. 27:2 Make its horns on the four corners, the horns to be of one piece with it; and overlay it with bronze.
Later, Exodus reports that Bezalel carries this out (38:1):
שמות לח:א וַיַּעַשׂ אֶת מִזְבַּח הָעֹלָה עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים חָמֵשׁ אַמּוֹת אָרְכּוֹ וְחָמֵשׁ אַמּוֹת רָחְבּוֹ רָבוּעַ וְשָׁלֹשׁ אַמּוֹת קֹמָתוֹ. לח:בוַיַּעַשׂ קַרְנֹתָיו עַל אַרְבַּע פִּנֹּתָיו מִמֶּנּוּ הָיוּ קַרְנֹתָיו וַיְצַף אֹתוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת.
Exod 38:1 He made the altar for burnt offering of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide — square — and three cubits high. 38:2 He made horns for it on its four corners, the horns being of one piece with it; and he overlaid it with bronze.
Instead of the bronze coming from Korah’s repurposed fire pans of the incinerated rebels, Exodus envisions the bronze coming from the donations of the Israelites (cf. Exodus 35:5). These two accounts of the altar’s plating are clearly contradictory.
The Original Plating Was with the Firepans (LXX)
The Septuagint translators were well aware of this difficulty. They thus supplied the following in their rewrite of the second passage:
This one made the bronze altar from the bronze fire-pans that belonged to the men who revolted with the gathering of Korah.
According to the Septuagint, the altar was indeed covered in the bronze fire-pans of the rebels of Numbers 16 already in Exodus! This, however, creates more problems than it solves. First, the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus occurs well before Korah’s rebellion. The very fact that the rebels are called upon to approach the “tent of meeting” (Num 16:17) with their fire-pans clearly indicates that the story was seen as taking place after the sanctuary was already constructed.
Second, according to the clear implication of the Septuagint version, the “this one” who made the bronze altar is none other than Bezalel. Yet Numbers 17:1-5 presents the bronze plating as the work of Elazar! Clearly, the Septuagint offers no more than a late and rather forced, harmonizing addition.
Another solution is that the bronze plating was designated for the altar inside the sanctuary, that is, the altar of incense (Exodus 30:1-8). Since this altar was covered in gold, it would have been striking and unusual to see a bronze covering added to it and this would have served as a reminder to the Israelites. Further, Numbers 17:5 refers to the reminder as teaching that no outsider was to offer incense before the Lord, so it makes sense that the plating should on an incense altar.
This approach, too, however, suffers from difficulties. First of all, only priests were allowed to enter inside the sanctuary (cf. Numbers 18:1-7; 21-22). The “sign” would thus not have been visible to its broader intended audience.
Second, there is no mention of the altar of incense in the rebellion of Numbers 16. The type of incense offering that it depicted there occurs outside the sanctuary, in the vision of all of Israel (cf. verse 19) and is carried out with the use of the fire-pan rather than an altar of any kind.
Bronze Plating the Bronze Plating (Rashi)
The most common solution to the difficulty is to simply deny that any difficulty exists. Many scholars, including Rashi, assume that Numbers 17:1-5 is referring to a second bronze plating, covering the first one. This, however, is hard to accept both because it seems pointless to cover bronze with bronze, and because the text of Numbers 17 fails to give any indication that the bronze plating on the altar would in fact be a second layer.
In fact, to avoid this answer, the 13th century French exegete, Hizquni, argued that the bronze wasn’t meant for plating at all, but for a covering on the top (since the altar was built hollow):
צפוי למזבח – עד עתה לא היה לו גג.
“Plating for the altar” – until now it didn’t have a cover.
This is not a possible peshat, since צפוי means plating of solid material and not a cover over a hollow space; Hizkuni’s interpretation shows how far traditional exegetes were willing to go to avoid the bizarre notion that the plating was to plate the plating. And yet, this remains a common explanation for this passage even among critical scholars.
Two Priestly Traditions
The reason scholars have accepted “bronze plating bronze” is due to an understandable reluctance to see these texts as standing in conflict with one another since they both belong to the Priestly stratum of the Pentateuch. If P is “one document,” should it not have a consistent image of the Tabernacle’s accoutrements? Yet many scholars, especially those who do not follow a strict “documentary” approach but allow for layers of supplementation and inclusion of fragmentary sources, have come to acknowledge that the Priestly “source” is far from uniform.
I suggest that this is the case with the bronze-plated altar accounts; we must acknowledge that we are dealing here with two independent traditions. The author of Numbers 17:1-5 was unaware of the Exodus texts about the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, just as the author of the Exodus texts was unaware of Numbers 17:1-5.
While the Exodus texts describe God commanding Bezalel to plate the altar in bronze from the start, the Numbers tradition explains that this happened at a later point in the wilderness period, and in response to a particular historical event. And while the Exodus texts failed to assign any didactic significance to this bronze plating, the Numbers tradition provided one that coincided with the agenda of the Numbers 16 Priestly narrative.
A Wood Altar? Not in Numbers
The suggestion that we are dealing with two distinct Priestly traditions about the bronze plating of the altar can be confirmed and sharpened in light of a simple but decisive technical observation. According to the texts in the book of Exodus (27:1-8), the altar was a hollow box of acacia wood, overlaid with a bronze plating.
Yet the author of Numbers 17:1-5 could hardly have thought of the altar in terms of a wooden box. He imagines the altar functioning for some time before acquiring its metallic plating. There would have been nothing to stop the altar from being consumed together with the animal sacrifices offered on top of it had it consisted simply of a wooden box! And, in this author’s conception, this plating would never even have been added had it not been for the incident with the fire-pans.
A Stone Altar
So, if not wood, what was this altar made of? Most ancient altars, whether those described in the Bible or those found in archaeological contexts, were made of a large stone or stones. It thus seems likely that this is what the author of Numbers 17:1-5 was picturing.
Avoiding the Deuteronomic Prohibition: Late P versus Early P
The “unorthodox” character of the bronze-plated Priestly rock-altar of Num 17 contravenes the law of Deuteronomy about building the altar on Mount Ebal:
דברים כז:ה וּבָנִיתָ שָּׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים לֹא תָנִיף עֲלֵיהֶם בַּרְזֶל.
Deut 27:5 There you shall build an altar to YHWH your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them.
Plating an altar in bronze necessitates the use of an iron hammer. While it is generally assumed that the purpose of this Deuteronomic law is to simply prohibit the hewing of stones, there is little justification for limiting the scope of the law in this way. Tellingly, with regard to the construction of Solomon’s temple, 1 Kings 6:7 reports:
וְהַבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה מַסָּע נִבְנָה וּמַקָּבוֹת וְהַגַּרְזֶן כָּל כְּלִי בַרְזֶל לֹא נִשְׁמַע בַּבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ.
As the Temple was being built, only stones shaped at the quarry were used; the sound of hammers, pickaxes, or any other iron tool was not heard at the Temple while it was being built.
Here, the law about not using iron tools on the stones of the altar is extended to the entire temple, though the restriction, at least regarding the Temple structure, is apparently taken as applying only within the Temple vicinity. In any event, the text takes it as self-evident that iron tools could not be used for work of any kind with stones of a sacred nature.
It seems quite possible that the depiction of the Tabernacle altars as made of wood in the late Priestly texts of Exodus reflects a concern to circumvent this legal difficulty. After all, the Deuteronomic law only restricts the use of iron tools on stone, not wood. In contrast, the presumably earlier Priestly tradition of Numbers 17:1-5, with its bronze plated altar of stone, seems unconcerned or unaware of this issue.
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June 13, 2018
September 6, 2020
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
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