by Farrell Till
The fire on the altar at the door of the tabernacle was a permanent fire that never went out: "And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereon; it shall not go out, and the priest shall burn wood on it every morning; and he shall lay the burnt-offering in order upon it, and shall burn thereon the fat of the peace-offerings. Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually; it shall not go out" (Lev. 6:12-13). Even if this statement were not in the sacred word, we would have to conclude that the fire on the altar had to burn continuously, because the daily sacrificial rituals, officiated by only three priests (four after Aaron's grandson Phinehas was ordained), would have had to have burned continuously. Even then, with three or four priests working nonstop, they could hardly have attended to all of the sacrifices necessitated by 2.5 to 3 million people trying to heed Yahweh's holy commandment to incinerate animals and birds and meal to him for their sins and other needs. Even if we assume that only the previously estimated 1.5 million adults in the band of three million refugees trekking to the promised land offered sacrifices and that each adult offered only an average of one sacrifice per year (which certainly would not have satisfied Yahweh's ordinances concerning sacrifices), the three (or four) priests would have had to officiate at over 1,000 sacrifices per day. If we divide these evenly among the four priests, each one would have had to officiate at 250 sacrifices per day, which would have averaged more but a division of labor like this would not have been possible, since all sacrifices had to be made on the altar at the door of the tabernacle. Perhaps we can imagine a scenario where one priest made an offering, while a second one prepared another, which he would slap onto the altar as soon as the first one had been duly incinerated, after which a third priest would throw on a third, etc. Even at this, each priest would have had to do 85 sacrifices per hour, if they had all worked nonstop without eating or sleeping. That would amount to 1.4 sacrifices, per priest, per minute, a scenario that would hardly have been possible, since the fire on the altar could not have consumed animals as large as bullocks that rapidly. We must also remember that the offal of the animals and the ashes left over from the sacrifice had to be carried by the priest "out of the camp" and duly disposed of in accordance with Yahweh's other holy ordinances. Since the tabernacle was always located in the center of the camp (already estimated at a conservative size of 9 square miles), the disposal of offal and ashes would have required at least a 1.5 trek, even if we visualize the chosen ones sleeping in their tents like sardines to keep the size of the camp to just 9 square miles. Of course, if the encampments were made to provide each person a little elbow room, the treks out of the camp would have been longer for the priests (who were all loaded down with offal and ashes). And inerrantists try to tell us that the Bible is a work of perfect harmony!
At any rate, we are told that the fire on the altar burned continuously. If that is so, we have to wonder where all of the wood was obtained in the Sinai wilderness to keep it burning. Every morning a priest had to put wood on the fire, but one would think that the years and years that this fire burned would have depleted what wood may have grown naturally in the area. This would be especially true, since we have to believe they the chosen ones wandered about in circles. One would think that once a circle had been completed, the need for wood would have been an especially acute problem for the priest who had to keep the fire burning on the altar. We have to wonder too where the people obtained wood for their personal fires, which they would have needed to cook and stay warm at night. With up to three million people in the encampments, there was surely keen competition for wood. Despite this, we are asked to believe that an altar fire was kept burning continuously and that somehow wood was always available for the altar in a region that would surely have been stripped of wood in the forty years of wandering about in circles.
I'm sure that there must be a simple explanation for this problem but that I have just overlooked it. Perhaps some inerrantist reader could tell us what the explanation is.