WORSHIP THROUGH THE AGES (3) – He Built An Altar To The Lord

The very thought of God – of contemplating his power or his holiness – is very unsettling to mankind. The thought of approaching God is evocative of not only feelings of reverence, awe and adoration, but also of a kind raw of terror and dread. This ambiguity is due to the fact that not only do we recognize God as being so far greater than we – he is, after all, the creator of all things – but also because we are aware of the fact that we are unworthy to stand in his presence because of our sin. If we think this is so now, think what it must have been like for Adam and Eve and their early descendants.

Surely the earliest generations of mankind were aware of what they had lost through the sin of our first parents. Remember how long people lived then? Genesis 5:5 “Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years…” Adam lived 800 years after Seth was born. How many tales of Eden did he pass on to him? According to the genealogy in this chapter, Adam would have known Noah’s father, Lamech, and would have died only 56 years before Noah was born. How many times did he repeat the stories of Eden to his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, etc? How much regret and shame went unspoken? How many tears of sorrow were shed? How much grief for the lost relationship with God?

It seems strange to us, however, that there is no more said in the early chapters of Genesis about man seeking a relationship with God. Other than the sacrifices of Cain and Abel and the mention of men beginning to call on the name of the Lord, the only other direct reference to a man making any effort to have a relationship with God is of Enoch who “walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). No doubt with the overlapping lifespans of these patriarchs they did pass their knowledge of God and their faith in him from one generation to the next. Maybe there was more thought about God and their relationship with him than is recorded in the first five chapters of Genesis. We simply do not know whether there was a uniform practice of worship, of sacrifices and offerings or not.

The first to build an altar on which to offer sacrifices to God was Noah – at least so far as the Biblical record is concerned. (There is no mention of an altar in the case of Cain and Abel although they very well could have had one of some sort.). The first thing Noah did after unloading the ark was to build an altar.

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease(Genesis 8:20-22).

As can be see from this reading, Noah’s offering had an effect upon God. The Lord was said to have “smelled the pleasing aroma” of the sacrifices. When I smell steak being cooked on a charcoal grill or pork or chicken being barbecued, it has an effect on me! I get hungry! Smell has effects other than to stimulate hunger. It is said that the smell of things is one of the most powerful stimulants of memory for human beings. I remember the many delicious back yard meals I have enjoyed with my family and friends!

When God “smelled” the sacrifice Noah was offering it had an effect on him. It was not a good memory that came to God’s mind, though the aroma of the sacrifice was pleasing. God “said” these things in his heart. Those thoughts reveal to us his purpose toward creation and toward man. The purposes God revealed here have the effect of a covenant. The thought seems to be that though the thoughts of man’s heart may be evil, as long as he recognizes his sinfulness, God will deal mercifully with him – he will not destroy mankind but will continue to provide for him.

Indeed, while worship has an effect upon God, it has and effect upon man also. God is pleased when we worship him. It is not as though God needs our worship but that we need to worship. God is not made to feel better about himself when we worship, but we feel better about our relationship with him when we through worship come to know that we are the creature and he our creator and that we are offenders and God the offended. We need to draw near to God. We need to honor him. We need to long for him, to seek him, to call upon his name. We need his forgiveness.

Perhaps this is why we do not read that much about man calling upon God or offering to God until we come to the time of Noah and later. Some of mankind – those who were identified as the “sons of God” – seemingly realized their need of having a worshipful relationship with the Creator. How much of what they did came as a result of direct revelation from God we do not know. I cannot conceive of a God who would not tell man what he needed to do to approach him in order to seek his blessings. But we simply are not treated to information of that nature.

We do know that God communicated with certain people. Noah certainly received an astounding message from God …

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth” (Genesis 6:13).

I think it is significant that the first thing Noah does after disembarking from the ark was to build an altar. Although we are not told what the nature of his first sacrifice was, I would not doubt that it was a thank-offering. If you had been cooped up with all those animals for something over a year, wouldn’t you think he would be thankful to just be able to breathe fresh air?

Seriously though, to have gone through the trauma of such a devastation as the destruction of every living thing – man and beast – from the face of the earth and come out the other side would have been something to give thanks to God for. There had been incessant rain, great wind, probably earthquakes (and tsunamis?) when the “fountains of the deep” were broken up. There would have been toil in caring for the animals and for themselves. There would have been the crashing boredom of the confinement on the ark. Only by God’s provident care could they have survived. Wouldn’t you have been thankful when it was all over with had you been on the ark?

Another reason for thanksgiving would have been the fact that now Noah is given the privilege of starting things all over. The world has been washed clean. This is a new beginning – a new creation. Noah and his family are given the same basic task as had been given to Adam and Eve in the beginning. They are to “be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7).

And then again, maybe Noah’s offering was an offering for sin. Wouldn’t there have been many temptations and provocations, being on the ark for as long as they were, cooped up with all those animals and with the family for that long? Talk about short tempers and short words! I know it would have been rough! But whatever the reason, Noah knew the need of remembering God and seeking his blessings.

We aren’t given any information about how Noah handled with God the sad end to his story in the last few verses of Genesis 9:20-29. The story tells of how he became a farmer, planted a vineyard, got drunk from the wine he made and exposed himself in his drunken stupor so that his youngest son saw him and apparently disrespected his father. This simply underscores the fact that mankind was (and is) still under the curse of sin. We all have and will continue to make mistakes. We are all affected by sin. There is none righteous.

It is exactly this reason that made the offering of sacrifices and increasing necessity from this time onward throughout the Old Testament until Jesus died as the final sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It is this fact that leads, in the remainder of the “books of Moses” or the Pentateuch, to the multiplication of sacrifices until it would seem that a veritable river of blood flowed from Jerusalem in the later times.

We will think about that in a later post.

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**(For some interesting reading on this period, the “Chronicles of the Nephilim” books by Brian Godawa are quite interesting and educational in addition to being very entertaining. They are fictionalized stories of Enoch, Noah, Abraham and one that maybe is not a Bible character, Gilgamesh – unless, as legend has it, he was Nimrod. Much of what he writes is based on archeology and on pseudepigraphical books and legends from the Jewish second temple era. All in all, Godawa has gone to great lengths in researching his stories. He is a Bible scholar who knows the difference between inspired truth and apocryphal legends! These stories are not history and they are not Bible – weren’t meant to be – but interesting nevertheless. You can read his reason for writing as he does in the “Look Inside” on the Amazon.com web page linked here.)

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