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Pardon my theological naivety, but I had assumed that atonement was something that a righteous person suffered for a guilty person, or a ritual that a priest performed for a sinner; something that had to do with persons rather than places, for example, the sufferings of the sinless Jesus for a sinful world; His taking upon Himself the deserved punishment for the world’s sins, thereby meeting the strict demands of justice on the world’s sinful behalf and in the process reconciling a prodigal world back to God and bringing humanity into the state of being at-one with God. Very well then, I considered, is atonement said to mean being at-one-ment with God.

Studying my Bible, however, I came upon a New Living Translation of Ezekiel 43:22, where atonement is to be made for the altar, not for a people. Curios, I checked the passage up in the King James Version (KJV), and found the word “cleanse” (in Hebrew chata) in verse 22, and the word “purge” (in Hebrew kaphar) in verse 26. In chata, we have the idea of a sinner, an offender, who has to be appropriately reconciled; in kaphar, we find the purging, the pacification and pardon for the trespass or trespasser; in other words, atonement– for an altar.

On the second day, sacrifice as a sin offering a young male goat that has no physical defects. Then cleanse and make atonement for the altar again, just as you did with the young bull (Ezekiel 43:22, New Living Translation).
According to that passage (in the KJV), the sacrifices for the atonement of the altar are meant to “purify” (Hebrew:taher) it, that is, to cleanse or make pure the altar, to cause it to be bright, to make it shine. That strikes me:

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Does an altar have a life of its own? Is it possible to have a dull (or not-bright altar)? Can an altar shine? What happens to a shiny object, especially a bright object in the dark? It attracts; it compels attention; numbers flock to it from all directions. Is it possible then that deserted altars are dull and lightless altars in need of atonement? Does the physical state of an altar say something about its spiritual condition?

It says in our passage that the atonement for the altar is to be made “again,” suggesting that one polishing is not sufficient to give the altar an eternal shine. The priests were to repeat in that verse a process or condition they had already fulfilled in a previous verse (v.20). How many atonements then might an altar need, to be sufficiently bright?

The priests were also required to do for themselves as they would do for the altar. For as many as seven consecutive days, they were to “purge the altar and purify it; and they shall consecrate themselves” (v.26). What they do for the altar was going to have implications on the quality of the service of the priests who serve from that altar, therefore we read in the final verse of that chapter: “AND I will accept YOU, saith the Lord GOD” (v.27).

That might be Old Testament, but does my altar need a cleansing, a purification, an atonement? Is it possible that some of the personal struggles a priest experiences from an altar, which he does not experience at other altars, is because the ‘hard’ altar is in need of atonement? Can an altar sin, and so be in need of a cleansing? What does God mean by saying to the priests, “and I will accept you”? Is it possible to wear the holy garments of a priest, stand in the office of a priest, be actively involved in offering priestly sacrifices to God from an altar, yet be not accepted by Him? Am I serving from an altar in need of atonement? Might priestly service flow more freely, more acceptably, more effortlessly (Zechariah 3:1) if the altar and the priest received atonement?
Are you serving from an altar in need of atonement?

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