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In exodus God expressly forbade going up the stairs to the altar.

Exodus 20:26 Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.

So why does Ezekiel mention stairs to the altar?

Ezekiel 43:17: The upper ledge also is square, fourteen cubits long and fourteen cubits wide. All around the altar is a gutter of one cubit with a rim of half a cubit. The steps of the altar face east.

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Exodus and Ezekiel are talking about two different Temples. The apparatus to the JPS Tanakh Jewish Study Bible 2nd Edition states:

The details of the Temple, its courts, furnishings, and laws and the technical terminology presented here differ in many respects from those for the wilderness Tabernacle (see esp. Exod. chs 25– 30; 35– 45), Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings chs 6– 7; 2 Chron. chs 3– 4), and the Second Temple (m. Mid. 5). Indeed, the differences in the portrayal of the Temple were, according to the Rabbis, a major discrepancy that Hananiah son of Hezekiah reconciled so that Ezek. could be included in the biblical canon (b. Shab. 13b). Because of the discrepancies, there is a strand in Jewish tradition that regards these chs as Ezekiel’s vision of the Third Temple to be built in future days (Seder ʿOlam Rab. 26; Rashi; Radak).

Regarding Exodus 20:26 (v.23 in the Tanakh), the explanation is given:

The altar must either be low or, if built on a platform, have a ramp rather than stairs to climb onto it, lest one’s private parts be exposed beneath the skirtlike garments that were worn. According to the Priestly legislation, in the Tabernacle the priests were required to wear undergarments for this reason (28.42).

A Christological interpretation of Ezekiel would be that the Temple he is describing is not a physical Temple on earth, but rather a heavenly one (viz. Hebrews 12:22, Revelation 21:10). That being the case, perhaps the purpose of the original prohibition on steps would no longer be relevant.

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The altar was quite large. Here are some illustrations of Solomon's temple that take biblical and historic record into account:

Altar Detail Temple Exterior Temple Exterior Temple Exterior

Image sources:

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    I am not sure that Ezekiel's description matches the description of Solomon's Temple in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, but I could be wrong. – user22553 Jun 29 '16 at 18:40
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Note the difference between "up to the altar" versus "onto" the altar. If the altar was placed on a terrace (so it could clearly be seen by all) the priest would need stairs merely to get "up to the altar" so he could stand NEXT to the altar to perform his duties; but he should not get "onto the altar" - as forbidden in Exodus 20:26.

For the same token: If you are a D.I.Y guy, you would use a ladder to climb "up to" your sattelite dish, implying that you would stand on the roof, next to the dish - but you would not use a ladder to climb "onto" your sattelite dish.

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    Welcome! Thanks for contributing. Could you explain why you interpret Exodus 20:26 as a prohibition of standing on top of the altar? That isn't clear from the passage quoted in the question. And if you haven't already done so, I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. – Nathaniel is protesting Jul 5 '16 at 20:02

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