By Bettijane Eisenpreis
“The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out; every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offering of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”
The fire on the altar has to be kept burning at all times and cannot be allowed to go out. This is so important that it is mentioned twice in two verses. We know that fire is important. Throughout the Bible, the Eternal Lamp above the altar, the Ner Tamid is a central part of the Temple, and later the synagogue. The whole book of Maccabees is about the desecration and rededication of the Temple and the re-lighting of the Eternal Light.
But this fire is different. It is not a sacred light, hung in front of the Torah. Instead, it is the fire on the altar where the sacrifice is burned. And by sacrifice, let’s face it, we usually mean bloody pieces of meat. So it’s not just a fire burning in a sacred lamp, clean and pure. It’s a working bonfire, burning up pieces of cow, sheep, goats and birds. The priest has to wear special clothes to take out the remains so that he does not get his regular priestly garments contaminated. When he comes back from disposing with the remains, he has to undergo an elaborate cleansing before he is fit to return to his holy duties.
You’d think it would be enough for the priest to light this fire when he was about to offer someone’s sacrifice. After all, it was only the priest who could offer a sacrifice. I doubt if he was going to be on duty 24-7; even priests had to sleep. There were set times for the people to offer their sacrifices; it seems unlikely that someone would come in the middle of the night, wake up the priest and say, “I just committed a sin; I’ve got to make a sin offering right away or God is going to strike me dead.” If it were that bad a sin, he would probably try to flee from the wrath of his neighbors, not hang around to offer a sacrifice.
The awesome nature of fire made the Israelites and other ancient peoples regard it as sacred. Fire restores – it makes food edible, makes homes warm and protects people from the cold – but it also consumes. The Hebrews were not alone in respecting fire; in other societies at that time, fires in sacred spaces were kept burning perpetually, for example the hearth in Rome, where the vestal virgins were in perpetual attendance.
That fire on the altar was not just any old fire; it represented life and death, creation and destruction. Like his contemporaries in the Middle East at that time, the priest was worshipping God, even if he was just taking out the ashes. That seems reason enough to repeat the admonition twice in one paragraph: “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”
Before we laugh at our ancestors’ superstitions about fire, let us remember the recent catastrophe in Paradise, California – a whole community wiped out in a deadly fire. Those early Israelites were not wrong – fire must be respected, whether it comes from God or man.