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Holman Bible Dictionary
Old Testament The Hebrew word for altar that is used most frequently in the Old Testament is formed from the verb for slaughter and means literally, “slaughter place.” Altars were used primarily as places of sacrifice, especially animal sacrifice.
While animals were a common sacrifice in the Old Testament, altars were also used to sacrifice grain, fruit, wine, and incense. The grain and fruit sacrifices were offered as a tithe of the harvest or as representative first fruits of the harvest. They were presented in baskets to the priest who set the basket before the altar (Deuteronomy 26:2-4 ). Wine was offered along with animal and bread sacrifices. Incense was burned on altars to purify after slaughterings and to please God with sweet fragrance.
“Altar” is distinct from “temple.” Whereas temple implies a building or roofed structure, altar implies an open structure. Altar and temple were often adjacent, though not all altars had a temple adjacent. The reference to Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1 ) may indicate that the animal to be sacrificed was placed on the altar alive, but bound, and slaughtered on the altar. Such may have been the earliest practice. By the time of the Levitical laws, the animal was slaughtered in front of the altar, dismembered, and only the fatty portions to be burned were placed on the altar (for example, Leviticus 1:2-9 ).
In the Old Testament, altars are distinguished by the material used in their construction. The simplest altars, and perhaps oldest, were the earthen altars ( Exodus 20:24 ). This type altar was made of either mud-brick or a raised roughly shaped mound of dirt. Mud-brick was a common building material in Mesopotamia, so mud-brick altars would have appeared most likely in Mesopotamia. An earthen altar would not have been very practical for permanently settled people, for the rainy season each year would damage or destroy the altar. This type altar might be more indicative of a nomadic people who move regularly and are less concerned with the need for a permanent altar. It might also reflect the Mesopotamian ancestry of the Hebrews, since the mud-brick was the typical building material there.
The stone altar is the most commonly mentioned altar in biblical records and the most frequently found in excavations from Palestine. A single large stone could serve as an altar ( Judges 6:19-23; Judges 13:19-20; 1 Samuel 14:31-35 ). Similarly, unhewn stones could be carefully stacked to form an altar (Exodus 20:25 , 1 Kings 18:30-35 ). Such stone altars were probably the most common form of altar prior to the building of the Solomonic Temple. A number of examples of stone altars have been excavated in Palestine. The sanctuary at Arad, belonging to the period of the Divided Monarchy (900 B.C. to 600 B.C.) had such a stone altar. The Hebrew stone altars were not to have steps (Exodus 20:25-26 ), probably in part to distinguish them from Canaanite altars which did have steps. A striking circular Canaanite altar dating from 2500 B.C. to 1800 B.C. was excavated at Megiddo. It was 25 feet in diameter and 45 1/2 feet high. Four steps led up to the top of the altar. Apparently in later times, the requirement forbidding steps on Hebrew altars was not enforced, for in Ezekiel's vision of the restored Temple, the altar has three levels and many steps.
Other stone altars have been escavated in Palestine. One from Beersheba, belonging also to the period of the Divided Monarchy, was of large hewn stones and had, when reassembled, horns on the four corners (Exodus 27:2; 1 Kings 1:50 ). Apparently the Exodus restrictions concerning unhewn stones, like those concerning steps, were not consistently followed throughout the Old Testament period.
The third type altar mentioned in the Old Testament is the bronze altar. The central altar in the court of Solomon's temple was a bronze altar. Its dimensions are given as 20 cubits by 20 cubits by 10 cubits high (about 30 feet square and 15 feet high) [ 2 Chronicles 4:1 ]. Yet is unclear whether the entire altar was made of bronze, or if it had a bronze overlay on a stone altar. It is also possible that the bronze portion was a grate set on top of the otherwise stone altar (Exodus 27:4 ). This altar is regularly known as the altar of burnt offering . The earlier tabernacle had a similar altar made of acacia (or shittim, KJV) wood overlaid with bronze (Exodus 27:1-2 ). The tabernacle altar was smaller, only 5 cubits square and 3 cubits high. The location of the altar of burnt offering of the tabernacle and Solomon's Temple is not given specifically. It is located “at” or “before” the door of the Tent of Meeting, which is also the place sacrificial animals are slaughtered. Generally reconstructions of the tabernacle and Temple locate the altar in the center of the courtyard, but the text seems to favor a location near the entrance of the tabernacle/Temple structure. The rationale was probably to locate the altar as close as possible to the focal point of God's presence, near the ark itself.
Ezekiel's vision of the restored Temple had the altar of burnt offering located in the center of the courtyard. Although the dimensions are not fully given in the text, it seems that this altar was approximately 18 cubits square and 12 cubits high (Ezekiel 43:13-17 ). Ezekiel's altar had three superimposed levels, each slightly smaller than the preceding, and had steps from the east leading up to the top.
Both the altar of the tabernacle and that of Ezekiel are described as having horns. It is likely that the altar of burnt offering in Solomon's Temple also had horns. The stone altar found at Beersheba has such horns preserved. Apparently grasping the horns of the altar was a way of seeking sanctuary or protection when one was charged with a serious offense (1 Kings 1:50-51; 1 Kings 2:28-34; compare Exodus 21:12-14 ). More importantly, the horns of the altar were the place where blood from a sacrificial animal was applied for atonement from sin (for example, Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 4:7 ). Jeremiah graphically described the people's sin as being so severe that they were engraved on the horns of the altar (Jeremiah 17:1 ). During certain festivals a sacred procession led into the Temple and up to the horns of the altar (Psalm 118:27 ). Probably this procession carried the chosen animal sacrifice to atone for the people's sin and ended at the place of sacrifice.
During the reign of Ahaz, the bronze altar or altar of burnt offering in Solomon's Temple was displaced by an altar that Ahaz had built on a Syrian model (2 Kings 16:10-16 ). This altar was apparently larger than the bronze altar of Solomon and was placed in the central position in the courtyard to be the main altar of sacrifice.
No biblical description exists for the altar of burnt offering from the Second Temple. However, such an altar was constructed even before the Temple was rebuilt (Ezra 3:2 ). Josephus described the altar in the rebuilt Temple of Herod. He wrote that the altar was fifty cubits square and fifteen cubits high with a ramp leading to the top. This altar would have been much larger than the earlier ones.
A fourth type of altar mentioned in the Bible is the gold altar or altar of incense . It was located in the inner room of the sanctuary, just outside the holy of holies (1 Kings 7:48-50 ). The incense altar is described in Exodus as constructed of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, with dimensions one cubit square and two cubits high (Exodus 30:1-6 ). Like the altar of burnt offering, the altar of incense had horns on the four corners. As its name implies, incense was burned on this altar. The incense served as a means of purification after slaughtering animals, a costly sacrifice, and also as a sweet smelling offering that would be pleasing to God.
Another Hebrew word for altar that is used infrequently in the Old Testament means literally, “high place” (Hebrew, bamah ). Such “high places” were probably raised platforms at which sacrifices and other rites took place. The “high place” may have been itself a kind of altar, though this is not certain. The circular Canaanite altar mentioned above may be an example of a “high place,” an elevated place of sacrifice and worship.
New Testament The Greek word used for altar literally translates “place of sacrifice.” New Testament references to altars concern proper worship (Matthew 5:23-24 ) and hypocrisy in worship (Matthew 23:18-20 ). The altar of incense described in the Old Testament (Exodus 30:1-6 ) is mentioned in Luke (Luke 1:11 ). Several New Testament references to altars refer back to Old Testament altar events (Romans 11:3; James 2:21 ). In Revelation, John described a golden altar (Revelation 9:13 ) that, like the Old Testament bronze altar, had horns.
While direct references to altar and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ are few in the New Testament (Romans 13:10 ), the message that Jesus Christ is the ultimate sacrifice who puts us right with God is the theme of the New Testament.
Theological Significance Altars in the Bible were places of sacrifice. Beyond that function, altars also were places of God's presence. The patriarchal narratives regularly record the building of an altar at the site of a theophany, a place where God had appeared to an individual (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 26:24-25 ). It was quite natural to build an altar and commemorate the appearance of God with a sacrifice. If God had once appeared at a site, that would be a good location for Him to appear again. Thus sacrifices would be offered there with the feeling that God was present and would accept the offering. With the building of the Solomonic Temple, the presence of God was associated especially with the ark of the covenant. The altar of burnt offering then came to signify more of a sense of reconciliation or mediation. The worshiper brought a sacrifice to the altar where it was burned and thereby given to God. The acceptance of the offerings by the priest symbolized God's acceptance, manifest in blessings (Exodus 20:24 ) and covenant renewal.
Joel F. Drinkard, Jr.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Altar'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/a/altar.html. 1991.