TorahBytes - Back to home pageZav & Zakhor
For the week of March 15, 2014 / 13 Adar II 5774
Torah: Vayikra / Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36 (English: 6:8 - 8:36) &
Devarim / Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

Hidden Meanings

Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out. (Vayikra / Leviticus 6:6 [English: 6:13]; ESV)

Centennial Flame, Ottawa, Canada

By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

My family and I live in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. We love to take visitors on tours of the Parliament Buildings. We always begin just inside the grounds at the Centennial Flame (pictured above). One of the things that makes this structure so impressive is that it is actually a fountain, with the flame on top. It was built in 1967 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Canada as a country. It includes the shields of the provinces and territories of Canada as of the centennial, with the dates when each joined the federation[1]. But what is the meaning of the flame?

The Centennial Flame is commonly called the "Eternal Flame," but technically it is not since it is shut off for maintenance four times a year, sometimes for a full day. Elsewhere in the world, there are all sorts of eternal flames, commemorating one thing or another[2]. You will also find them in churches and synagogues. In synagogues it is called "ner tamid" (eternal light) and hangs by where the Torah scrolls are stored[3]. The ner tamid has several meanings, including symbolizing the metaphorical light of the Torah and the presence of God, which is often associated with fire in the Bible. It also harkens back to the menorah, the seven-branched lamp in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple. It may also refer to what I read at the start, that the fire for burnt offerings "shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out." (Vayikra / Leviticus 6:6 [English: 6:13]; ESV).

There is something about the command to ensure that the fire on the altar never goes out that begs for speculation, to discover meaning that isn't explicitly stated in the context. I do the same thing every time I take people to see the Centennial Flame. What a wonderful image. Is it a symbol of hope, of enlightenment? Or how about peace? I am not sure how fire and light symbolize peace, but everyone likes peace!

So I looked it up. The Centennial Flame was originally designed as a temporary structure, scheduled to be extinguished at the end of the centennial year[4]. So any eternal aspect associated with the flame is unintentional. Besides marking the special year, the flame helps keep the water in the fountain from freezing in the winter. Makes sense in one of the world's coldest federal capitals[5].

So what about the everlasting fire on the altar? Does it have any special meaning? Well, the passage doesn't say it does. But a note for Leviticus 8-13 in the ESV Study Bible makes this observation: "This requirement would in turn serve as a special exhortation to the priests to be faithful in their duties so that the worship of the Lord could continue without interruption." The fire on the altar had to always be ready. Therefore it was the priests' job to keep it burning-simple and practical; like the Centennial Flame.

I am not saying that there is never deep metaphorical meaning to be found in Scripture, but we should be careful not to read in meaning that's not there. More importantly, let's not let our hunger for deep meaning distract us from the practical things God is calling us to do. I don't know what fire you are responsible to tend, but is it still burning?






Comments? E-mail:, or
leave a comment on

E-mail this TorahBytes to someone? Click here

Subscribe? To have TorahBytes e-mailed to
you weekly, enter your e-mail address and press Subscribe


[ More TorahBytes ]  [ TorahBytes Home ]