Altar

ALTAR (Heb. mizbēah, place of slaughter, Gr. bomos, in Acts only, and thysiastērion). In OT times altars were many and varied, their importance seen in the fact that the Hebrew and Greek words appear some 360 times.


With the erection of the tabernacle, altars were constructed by the Hebrews for two chief purposes: the offering of sacrifices and the burning of incense. Moses was commanded to make the altar of burnt offering for the tabernacle exactly as God had commanded him (Exod.25.9). It was to be made of acacia (shittim) wood, which was to be overlaid with brass or, as is more probable, bronze. The shape was a square of five cubits, three cubits high. At each corner of the altar there was to be a projection or “horn.” This feature is found outside Israel, as in the tenth-century b.c. altar discovered at Megiddo. The purpose of the horns is not known, and the popular belief that clinging to the horns gave security from justice is disproved by 1Kgs.1.50-1Kgs.1.53; 1Kgs.2.28-1Kgs.2.34. A bronze grating was placed in the center of the altar that projected through the opening on two sides. Four rings were fastened to it in which two poles of the same material as the altar were to be placed to carry the altar. Steps leading up to the altar were forbidden (Exod.20.26). For seven days atonement was to be made for the altar—apparently to sanctify it for the uses to which it was to be devoted (Exod.29.37); it was to be cleansed on the Day of Atonement after the presentation of sin offerings for the high priest and the nation (Lev.16.19-Lev.16.20).

Certain bronze utensils were made in connection with the altar. There were pans to hold the ashes, shovels for removing the ashes, basins to receive the blood and to convey it to the varied places for sprinkling, three-pronged flesh hooks with which to remove the flesh, and censers for carrying coals from the altar (Exod.27.3). Once the fire on this altar was kindled, it was required that it burn continually (Lev.6.13).

The altar of burnt offering was also in Solomon’s temple, the second temple, and in the temple built by Herod. Its form was altered to fit into the varying sizes of these structures. Solomon made his altar of bronze twenty cubits square and twenty cubits high (2Chr.4.1). After its construction it had a very interesting history. Because idols had polluted it, King Asa rededicated it (2Chr.15.8). Later on Uriah removed it from its regular place, in order it seems to make room for another altar that he had patterned after the one King Ahaz had seen in Damascus (2Kgs.16.11-2Kgs.16.14). The terrible pollution of spiritual things in the reign of Ahaz led Hezekiah to cleanse the altar (2Chr.29.12-2Chr.29.18). Finally it was repaired and restored to its place by Manasseh (2Chr.33.16).

In Zerubbabel’s temple the altar was built first (Ezra.3.2), on the exact spot where it previously stood (Antiq. 11.4.1). After it had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes, it was rebuilt by Judas Maccabeus, apparently with unhewn stone (1Macc.4.47).

Moses was also commanded by God to make “an altar...for burning incense” (Exod.30.1), sometimes called “the gold altar” (Exod.39.38; Num.4.11). It was to be a cubit square and two cubits high (Exod.30.2) with horns at each corner. It was made of acacia (shittim) wood overlaid with pure gold. Around the top of this structure a crown of gold was placed, beneath which were fixed two golden rings, one on each side. Staves of the same construction as the altar were placed through these rings to carry it (Exod.30.1-Exod.30.5).


There are no altars recognized in the NT church. While Heb.13.10 is sometimes used to prove the contrary, a careful study of this passage in its context is fatal to such an idea. The concept in this passage is that Jesus Christ is the true altar of each believer. Paul mentions in Acts.17.23 the inscription on an altar, “to an unknown god,” which he saw in Athens. Such inscriptions were common in pagan cultures and are referred to by a number of early writers (see Augustine, The City of God, 3:12).

There is good reason to believe that the need for altars was revealed to man very early as basic in approaching God. The altar played a leading role in all OT worship of the true God, as well as a prominent part in most pagan religions. A careful study of the use of this article of furniture in Israel’s worship furnishes us with many spiritual lessons today. It was the place of sacrifice where God was propitiated and where man was pardoned and sanctified. It looked to the great sacrifice that the Son of God was about to make on the cross. The altar of sacrifice, the first thing visible as one approached the tabernacle, spoke loudly to man that without the shedding of blood there would be no access to God and no forgiveness of sin (Heb.9.9, Heb.9.22). Most scholars say that the brass or bronze speaks of divine judgment.

Bibliography: G. B. Gray, Sacrifice in the Old Testament, 1925; W. F. Albright, Archeology and the Religion of Israel, 2d ed., 1946; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, 1961, pp. 406-14; F. F. Bruce, IDB (Supp. Vol.), 1976, pp. 19ff.——HZC


(Lat. altus, “high”). A place where sacrifice is offered. There is frequent mention in the early period of the OT of altars at which various animals were ritually killed. In later years sacrifice was centered on the altar in the Temple at Jerusalem. The death of Christ, being “for all time one sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:12 NEB), put an end to sacrificial worship and hence any need for altars. The reference to an altar in Hebrews 13:10 is a reference to the death of Christ. Although both Greek and Latin writers in the early church used the term “table” for the place where the Eucharist was celebrated, the word gradually became replaced by “altar.” This was a consequence of the Eucharist itself being regarded as sacrifice, which partly arose from patristic exegesis of Malachi 1:11, partly from the habit of signs being called by the names of that which they represented.

Altars were originally made of wood, but while the material varied in the East, in the West stone became increasingly the rule. As the material changed, so did the shape from a table to that of a tomb, possibly because the Eucharist was often celebrated at the tomb of a martyr. This latter practice is reflected in the way in which later altars were consecrated by having relics of martyrs placed within them, a practice supported by an interpretation of Revelation 6:9. As altars became fixed they acquired greater architectural importance; churches were built so that the altar was the focal point. In the beginning there was only one altar in each church, but gradually, perhaps under the influence of private masses, altars were multiplied. In Eastern Orthodox Churches there is only one altar, and only one Eucharist may be celebrated at it during any one day.

At the Reformation, change from the sacrifice of the Mass to the Lord's Supper meant that the altar was replaced both in name and fact by tables usually of wood. The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer refer only to tables, and these have to be movable. The word “altar,” however, is often popularly used to refer to the Communion table. Where reference is made to a high altar this means the principal altar of the church.


ALTAR (מִזְבֵּחַ, H4640; Gr. θυσιαστήριον, G2603, place of sacrifice; βωμός, G1117, elevated platform).

The name.

The common Lat. word for altar was ara. Altare or altarium, from which the Eng. word derives, was late and ecclesiastical. It was a noun formed from the adjective altus, which meant “high,” and implied any raised structure with a flat top, on which offerings to a deity were placed or sacrifice made.

The common Gr. term was bomós which derives, apparently, from baino, “to come” or “go.” The basic meaning would thus appear to be an “approach,” since it was applied originally to any raised platform on which to place something, e.g., a raised parking place for chariots (Iliad 8.441) or the base of a statue (Odyssey 7.100). The early Gr. apparently felt the need of adding the adjective hieros (“holy”) when bomos was used to denote an altar proper. In the NT this Gr. term is used only once, significantly enough in reference to the Athenian altar to the unknown god. The term marks Paul’s characteristic adaptation to his non-Christian audience (Acts 17:23).

The other twenty-one instances of the word altar in the NT (H. Cremer lists them in his Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, 292) represent a word which appears to have been coined by the LXX tr. as a literal tr. of the common Heb. word for altar. It is thusiastērion from thuo (“to sacrifice”). The Heb. word, of which Gesenius (Lexicon, 258) lists 401 instances, is mizbēah, a noun derived from zābah (“to sacrifice”). The fundamental meaning of the Heb. term is, therefore, the raised place where sacrifice was made, although it came to be used for any form of offering table, e.g. the “altar of incense” (Exod 30:1-10).

The shape.

The altar, therefore, in all ancient religious practice took shape from the idea of a raised table of stone or turf (Horace, Odes 1.19.3) on which an offering of blood, and later burned flesh, or even the products of agriculture (Gen 4:3) were set before the deity. Combined with the notion of a table was prob., in pagan practice, an idea more ancient still, that deity resided in great stones and could receive strength by an oblation of shed blood.

The altar was a feature of universal worship taken over by the worship of the OT and developed as an object of ritual and sanctity. It was the centerpiece of every sanctuary and the place of sacrifice: “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen....And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you wield your tool upon it you profane it” (Exod 20:24, 25). This simple structure continued to be a normal Heb. form until the end of the nation’s history (1 Macc 4:41; Jos. War V. v. 6).

A curious feature of the altar, not adequately explained, is the pointed elevation at the four corners known as the “horns” (Ps 118:27; Amos 3:14; Rev 9:13). These details were regarded as of such special sanctity that they were individually marked by the blood of sacrifice in the Levitical ritual (Lev 4:30; 16:18). Perhaps their original intention was to contain the sacrifice on the plane top of the altar, while at the same time allowing the blood, which had deep mystic significance in the ritual, to drain away completely.

The Heb. altar was constructed without steps, though Canaanitish structures had no such prohibition. The regulation (Exod 20:26) was designed to preclude any unseemly exposure of feet or legs by the officiating priest in the midst of the solemnities of sacrifice.

Pagan altars.

All types of altars have been discovered in Canaanitish Pal. They range from the small Early Bronze Age structure of plastered stones, set against a wall in a small temple at Ai, to the mud brick and lime-plastered stone rectangular altars of Middle and Late Bronze Age construction, discovered at Megiddo, Lachish, Bethshan, Hazor, and other places. A large structure of rubble and unhewn stone at Megiddo, an elevation twenty-six ft. in diameter and over four ft. high, is perhaps rather to be called a “high place” than an altar. Such an objection may beg the question if altars generally are, in fact, miniature “high places,” and find at least one root of their origin in a symbolic rendering of the common habit of hilltop sacrifice. Such speculation is inconclusive, and the proliferation of all types of altars in pre-Heb. Pal. is of interest to the Bible student from this major standpoint only. They demonstrate the manner in which the Mosaic code took over, purified, and adapted to its symbolic ritual and monotheistic purposes the forms and practices of alien religion. It is notable, here and elsewhere, how carefully the Pentateuch regulates the construction and use of the altar.

Patriarchal altars.


It would appear that the special regulations by which the two altars of the Tabernacle were set up did not preclude the construction and use of the altars authorized in Exodus 20. The patriarchs seem to have set up altars as symbols of some notable encounter with God and memorials of spiritual experience. The concentration of the Israelitish worship in the service of the Tabernacle does not appear to have withdrawn from the individual the satisfaction of setting up an altar to commemorate some act or outcome of private devotion. Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal (Josh 8:30), and Gideon built one at Ophra (Judg 6:24); an unnamed holy man built one at Bethel, or, like Elijah, rebuilt a disused structure there (Judg 21:4). Similarly, Samuel built one at Ramah (1 Sam 7:17), Saul after the victory at Michmash (1 Sam 14:35), and David on the threshing floor of Ornan (1 Chron 21:26). As a solemn prelude to his sacrifice, Elijah on Carmel rebuilt an old altar of unhewn stones. None of these acts appear to have been in conflict with the prosecution of formal worship at a central and authorized sanctuary.

The altars of the Tabernacle.

The more farfetched speculations of typological teaching need not be accepted along with the ready admission that the Tabernacle was a great object lesson and a demonstration of spiritual truth. Its presence in the midst of the marching or encamped host, and the entire pattern of its worship and ritual, were of prime educative importance for a people which was being molded and instructed for a great historic purpose. With meticulous care every detail of construction and furniture was recorded in the account.

Two altars were specified. One, which stood in the eastern half of the courtyard, was of “brass,” prob. bronze, laid over acacia wood (Exod 27:1-8; 38:1-7). This piece of furniture measured five by five by three cubits and was called the altar of burnt offering from the use required of it. It had projecting horns and fittings for transport. No top is mentioned, as in the case of the second altar, and it is reasonably conjectured that it was a hollow metal frame packed with earth. This would account for the preservation of the wooden frame in spite of the heat of the fire of sacrifice.

The second altar was a smaller piece, one by one by two cubits, made of acacia wood plated with gold (Exod 30:1-10). It had four horns and a crown of gold, together with devices for transport as the nomad host moved its place of encampment. Curiously enough, these two altars are named elsewhere only in the Chronicles (1 Chron 6:49; 16:40; 21:29; 2 Chron 1:5, 6).

The placing of the two altars is significant. The altar of burnt offering stood in the eastern part of the court and would thus be the first major feature visible to one who approached the Tabernacle, setting forth symbolically the truth that the shedding of blood provided access and forgiveness for the rebel, a truth spiritualized and consummated in the NT (Heb 9:9, 22). The altar of incense was set before the veil which screened the Holy of Holies (Exod 30:6; 40:5). It was thus called “the altar before the Lord” (Lev 16:12). Incense was burned twice daily symbolizing the offering of prayer (Rev 8:3). Zechariah was on duty at this place when he received his vision (Luke 1:8-11). See Incense.

The Temple altars.

In the “upper court” (Jer 36:10) of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was placed a vast altar of bronze, fifteen ft. high and thirty ft. long. It was, no doubt, an enlarged replica of the Tabernacle, departing from that model only in the fact that it was approached by a flight of steps, a sheer necessity to cope with its elevation. The hollow interior was filled with stone and earth so that the blaze of sacrifice should be visible to the crowd in the courtyard below (2 Chron 4:1). Before this altar, prayer was made (1 Kings 8:22, 64), and periodic sacrifice offered (1 Kings 9:25). Solomon’s altar stood thus for almost three centuries.

Early in his reign Ahaz (735-715 b.c.) sought the assistance of Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria against his northern neighbors and won some dearly bought political success. It confirmed him in his apostasy (2 Chron 28:23-25, where in v. 23 “Assyria” should be read), and this may be the explanation of the altar which he set up to replace that of Solomon in the temple courtyard. The story is told in 2 Kings 16:7-16. Ahaz visited, as an ally, the conquered city of Damascus and saw “the altar” (not “an altar” as KJV 2 Kings 16:10). Perhaps this was the altar of the defeated Syrian god, Rimmon, reconsecrated by the Assyrian victor in honor of one of his own deities. In gross flattery, if this conjecture holds, Ahaz sent to the head priest Urijah a careful drawing of the altar which had so struck his fancy. The subservient priest undertook without protest to have a replica ready against the king’s return to Jerusalem. Ahaz, usurping the priest’s office, likewise without protest from a hierarchy which once had firmly resisted Uzziah’s intrusion into the sacerdotal office, made offerings personally on his new altar.

It was in the course of this same apostasy that Ahaz removed the bronze altar of Solomon from its place in front of the Temple porch. He coveted this position of honor for his own altar. Solomon’s ancient altar was removed to the N side. Ahaz called his altar “the great altar,” and ordered that all sacrifices should henceforth be made upon it. The old altar, he said, “shall be for me to inquire by.” Does the Heb. mean, “I can wait until I consider what to do with it”? The whole passage in 2 Kings 16 demands careful reading.

It is not clear what happened upon Ahaz’ death. In 2 Chronicles 29 there is a full account of the reconstitution of the Temple worship under Hezekiah. The chronicler’s narrative would appear to indicate that the reforming monarch invalidated the procedures of his predecessor’s day (29:7), and the “cleansing” of the altar (29:18) may perhaps indicate that Solomon’s altar was restored to its proper place. It seems unlikely that the altar of Ahaz, considering its Damascene and pagan origins, survived an inspired iconoclasm as thorough as that of Hezekiah. An enigmatic reference (2 Chron 33:16) suggests that some restoration was effected in Manasseh’s superficial reformation fifty years later. It would appear (Jer 52:17-20) that the altar of Solomon, or the essential metal parts of it, was part of the loot which Nebuchadnezzar carried off to Babylon.

Perhaps it was this fact, or even the known and visible presence of the piece of sacred furniture in Babylon, which inspired the vision of Ezekiel’s ideal Temple. Through the three gateways which led to the inner court, right in the middle so that it should be in full view, a great altar of burnt offering was projected, a huge stone structure rising in three terraces to a height of eighteen ft., having a breadth and length of twenty-six or twenty-seven ft. at the base. The altar thus placed was to be the center of the sanctuary, for the consciousness was growing that the altar was the one indispensable adjunct to the sacrificial worship and the one vast lack for those in exile. When the first exiles returned to the ruins of Jerusalem, and before they were able to rebuild the Temple, Jeshua erected an altar on the site and instituted the daily ritual (Ezra 3:2). From Ezekiel’s vision, it is evident that the sacrificial consecration of the altar was equated with the dedication of the whole sanctuary (Ezek 43:18-27).

The second Temple no doubt had its altars, and it is unlikely that the tradition of two altars, established with the Tabernacle, was fundamentally broken. nodetitle is said to have carried off a golden altar of incense in 169 b.c. (1 Macc 1:21). Two years later the same tyrant set up an “abomination of desolation,” prob. an image of Zeus, on the altar of burnt offering (1 Macc 1:54). The Maccabees restored both altars (1 Macc 4:44-49). It is not known whether these altars were incorporated in Herod’s enlarged shrine, but it is known that in this final Temple the altar of burnt offerings was a pile of unhewn stone, approached, not by the forbidden steps, but by a ramp.

It may be noted, in conclusion, that the growing consciousness of the centrality and importance of the altar in the Temple worship led to the doctrine that the great altar in Jerusalem was the one valid place of sacrifice. Hezekiah seems to have been the first to enforce this, and to have incurred some popular resentment in so doing, if the propagandist taunt of Sennacherib’s envoy be read aright (2 Kings 18:4, 22). It would appear from the Assyrian’s words that these altars were considered places of orthodox worship. In Josiah’s case it is not so clear that the altars broken down and defiled in the course of the great religious revival were other than pagan (2 Kings 23:8, 20). To set up an altar, as Ahab had clearly demonstrated (1 Kings 16:32), was to adopt and sanction a special form of worship and to recognize a god. The presence of the central altar at Jerusalem was, as Jeroboam foresaw (1 Kings 12:26-33), a source of tremendous prestige for the city. Thus was the altar welded to politics and Jerusalem established as a holy city, a role which it fulfilled to the end of its history and which it continued to play in the symbolism of the New Jerusalem, wherein was no temple nor the altar which accompanied it (Rev 21:22).

The altar in the NT.

In the worship of the Church, as envisaged in its beginnings in the NT, no altar is prescribed. The furniture of Judaistic religion is set aside and all the symbolism of the altar has found fulfillment. This fact, of course, does not preclude a new Christian symbolism which makes use of a formal altar, provided that no practice associated with it conflicts with central theological doctrine.


In all these cases, the NT writers use the LXX coinage, thusiastērion, which literally renders the Heb. word mizbēah (see section 1 above).

The altar of the Areopagus address.

The only NT writer to use the pagan word bomós is Paul, who employs it properly in the context of his address to the Court of the Areopagus to refer to a special feature of the Athenian city scene, the altars to “unknown gods,” of which epigraphical evidence survives. The matter merits a paragraph because of the importance of the address. Paul’s approach was conciliatory and courteous, but perhaps just touched with that irony which was the common fashion of Athenian speech. “Athenians,” said Paul, “I observe that in every way you are uncommonly religious. As I have moved about your city looking at the objects of your worship, I came upon an altar inscribed TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:22, 23). Thus it must be tr. In the Gr. there is noun and adjective only, without either a definite or indefinite article. One or two examples of such inscrs. survive, but always in the pl., TO UNKNOWN GODS. In the pl., Eng. can avoid a choice. In the sing., choice must be made between the definite and indefinite article. The definite is better, provided the reference and context of the inscr. are realized. The inscr. in each case refers to the unknown deity concerned with the altar’s foundation, not generally or transcendentally to a god vaguely realized and sought. Paul adapted the inscr. for homiletic ends. He was not deceived about its meaning, but like any perceptive preacher sought an illus. and a point of contact in a known environment. The device captured attention and anchored the theme in experience.

What did the inscr. mean? Plato preserves a tradition that Epimenides, the Cretan religious teacher and miracle worker, was in Athens about 500 b.c. Some said it was 600 b.c., but dates are unimportant in a half-legendary situation. The story was that to combat an epidemic, Epimenides directed the Athenians to loose sheep from Areopagus, and wherever they lay down, they were to build an altar “to the unknown god” of the place and to make sacrifice. Perhaps the story is an etiological myth, a tale invented to explain a visible phenomenon. Perhaps the altars merely represented a scrupulosity which, in a city full of deities from all the Eastern Mediterranean, sought to avoid offense to any in this slightly naive fashion. It is impossible to say more.

The altar of Pergamum.

In the imagery of Revelation is a reference to one of the most famous altars of the ancient world. It stood on the crag of the hill above the Asian city of Pergamum and was described by the Gr. traveler Pausanias. It was discovered in 1871 and taken to Germany, where it stands reconstructed today in the E Berlin Museum, something like a small version of Italy’s elaborate Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome. The structure, a perron of steps leading to a huge altar, commemorated the defeat of a Gallic invasion two centuries before. The roving Celts, who also reached Rome and Delphi in this era of their folk wanderings, infiltrated Asia Minor where they gave their name to Galatia. Pergamum was a royal city and strong enough to drive them off. It celebrated the deliverance with the altar to Zeus. Its frieze represents the gods of Olympus battling with the giants, shown in the sculpture as a brood of muscular warriors with snake-like tails. The Zeus to whom the altar was dedicated was called “Zeus the Savior,” a blasphemous offense to Christian minds. The altar must be the “Satan’s seat” of the letter’s imagery.

There is a curious footnote. One of the recent archeological curiosities was the discovery of the battered marble figure of a giant in the junkyard of the Worksop Town Council, England. Experts from the British Museum have pronounced it to be part of the frieze from Pergamum’s altar, brought to England by the Earl of Arundel two centuries ago, and fallen on evil days when Worksop Manor was demolished. See High Place.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(mizbeach, literally, "place of slaughter or sacrifice," from zabhach, which is found in both senses; bomos, (only in Ac 17:23), thusiasterion):

I. CLASSIFICATION OF HEBREW ALTARS Importance of the Distinction

II. LAY ALTARS 1. Pre-Mosaic

2. In the Mosaic Age

3. Dangers of the Custom

4. The Mosaic Provisions

III. HORNED ALTARS OF BURNT OFFERING 1. The Tabernacle Altar

2. The Altar of Jos 22

3. The Altar till Solomon

4. The Horned Altar in Use

5. The Temple of Solomon

6. The Altar of Ahaz

7. Ezekiel

8. The Post-exilic Altar

9. Idolatrous and Unlawful Altars

10. The Horns

IV. ALTARS OF INCENSE V. RECENT ARCHAEOLOGICAL MATERIALS 1. A Gezer Altar

2. The Taanach Altar of Incense

LITERATURE A. CRITICAL

I. Classification of Hebrew Altars.

Before considering the Biblical texts attention must be drawn to the fact that these texts know of at least two kinds of altars which were so different in appearance that no contemporary could possibly confuse them. The first was an altar consisting of earth or unhewn stones. It had no fixed shape, but varied with the materials. It might consist of a rock (Jud 13:19) or a single large stone (1Sa 14:33-35) or again a number of stones (1Ki 18:31 f). It could have no horns, nor it would be impossible to give the stone horns without hewing it, nor would a heap of earth lend itself to the formation of horns. It could have no regular pattern for the same reason. On the other hand we meet with a group of passages that refer to altars of quite a different type. We read of horns, of fixed measurements, of a particular pattern, of bronze as the material. To bring home the difference more rapidly illustrations of the two types are given side by side. The first figure represents a cairn altar such as was in use in some other ancient religions. The second is a conjectural restoration of Hebrew altars of burnt offering and incense of the second kind.

Importance of the Distinction:

Both these might be and were called altars, but it is so evident that this common designation could not have caused any eye-witness to confuse the two that in reading the Bible we must carefully examine each text in turn and see to which kind the author is referring. Endless confusion has been caused, even in our own time, by the failure to note this distinction, and the reader can hope to make sense of the Biblical laws and narratives only if he be very careful to picture to himself in every case the exact object to which his text refers. For the sake of clearness different terms will be adopted in this article to denote the two kinds of altars. The first will be termed "lay altars" since, as will be seen, the Law permitted any layman to offer certain sacrifices at an altar of earth or unhewn stone without the assistance of a priest, while the second while be styled "horned altars," owing to their possession of horns which, as already pointed out, could not exist in a lay altar that conformed with the provisions of the law.

II. Lay Altars. 1. Pre-Mosaic:

In Genesis we often read of the erection of altars, e.g. Ge 8:20; 12:7; 13:4. Though no details are given we are able to infer their general character with considerable precision. In reading the accounts it is sometimes evident that we are dealing with some rough improvised structure. For example, when Abraham builds the altar for the sacrifice of Isaac in Ge 22 it cannot be supposed that he used metal or wrought stone. When Jacob makes a covenant with Laban a heap of stones is thrown up "and they did eat there by the heap" (31:46). This heap is not expressly termed an altar, but if this covenant be compared with later covenants it will be seen that in these its place is taken by an altar of the lay type (SBL, chapter 2), and it is reasonable to suppose that this heap was in fact used as an altar (compare Ge 31:54). A further consideration is provided by the fact that the Arabs had a custom of using any stone as an altar for the nonce, and certainly such altars are found in the Mosaic and post- Mosaic history. We may therefore feel sure that the altars of Ge were of the general type represented by Fig. 1 and were totally unlike the altars of Fig. 2.

2. In the Mosaic Age:

Thus Moses found a custom by which the Israelite threw up rude altars of the materials most easily obtained in the field and offered sacrificial worship to God on sundry occasions. That the custom was not peculiar to the Israelites is shown by such instances as that of Balaam (Nu 23:1, etc.). Probably we may take the narrative of Jethro’s sacrifice as a fair example of the occasions on which such altars were used, for it cannot be supposed that Aaron and all the elders of Israel were openly committing an unlawful act when they ate bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God (Ex 18:12). Again, the narrative in which we see Moses building an altar for the purposes of a covenant probably exemplifies a custom that was in use for other covenants that did not fall to be narrated (Ex 24:4 ff).

3. Dangers of the Custom:

But a custom of erecting altars might easily lend itself to abuses. Thus archaeology has shown us one altar--though of a much later date--which is adorned with faces, a practice that was quite contrary to the Mosaic ideas of preserving a perfectly imageless worship. Other possible abuses were suggested by the current practices of the Canaanites or are explained by the terms of the laws.

See HIGH PLACE .

4. The Mosaic Provisions:

Accordingly Moses regulated these lay altars. Leaving the occasion of their erection and use to be determined by custom he promulgated the following laws: "An altar of earth mayest thou make unto me, and mayest sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen; in all the place where I record my name I will come unto thee and I will bless thee. And if thou make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones; for if thou lift thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither mayest thou go up by steps unto mine altar," etc. (Ex 20:24-26; so correct English Versions of the Bible). Several remarks must be made on this law.

It is a law for laymen, not priests. This is proved by the second person singular and also by the reason given for the prohibition of steps--since the priests were differently garbed. It applies "in all the place where I record my name," not, as the ordinary rendering has it, "in every place." This latter is quite unintelligible: it is usually explained as meaning places hallowed by theophanies, but there are plenty of instances in the history of lay sacrifices where no theophany can be postulated; see e.g. Ge 31:54; 1Sa 20:6,29 (EPC, 185 f). "All the place" refers to the territory of Israel for the time being. When Naaman desired to cease sacrificing to any deity save the God of Israel he was confronted by the problem of deciding how he could sacrifice to Him outside this "place." He solved it by asking for two mules’ burden of the earth of the "place" (2Ki 5:17). Lastly, as already noticed, this law excludes the possibility of giving the altars horns or causing them to conform to any given pattern, since the stone could not be wrought One other law must be noticed in this connection: De 16:21 f: `Thou shalt not plant thee an ’asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord thy God, which thou shalt make thee. Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy God hateth.’ Here again the reference is probably to the lay altars, not to the religious capital which was under the control of the priests.

III. Horned Altars of Burnt Offering. 1. The Tabernacle Altar:

In Ex 27:1-8 (compare Ex 38:1-7) a command is given to construct for the Tabernacle an altar of shittim wood covered with bronze. It was to be five cubits long by five broad and three high. The four corners were to have horns of one piece with it. A network of bronze was to reach halfway up the altar to a ledge. In some way that is defined only by reference to what was shown to Moses in the Mount the altar was to be hollow with planks, and it was to be equipped with rings and staves for facility of transport. The precise construction cannot be determined, and it is useless to speculate where the instructions are so plainly governed by what was seen by Moses in the Mount; but certain features that are important for the elucidation of the Bible texts emerge clearly. The altar is rectangular, presenting at the top a square surface with horns at the four corners. The more important material used is bronze, and the whole construction was as unlike that of the ordinary lay altar as possible. The use of this altar in the ritual of the Tabernacle falls under the heading SACRIFICE. Here we must notice that It was served by priests. Whenever we find references to the horns of an altar or to its pattern we see that the writer is speaking of an altar of this general type. Thus, a criminal seeking asylum fled to an altar of this type, as appears from the horns which are mentioned in the two historical instances and also from such expressions as coming down or going up. See Asylum.

2. The Altar of Jos 22:

We read in Jos 22:9 ff that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad built an altar. In 22:28 we find them saying, "Be hold the pattern of the altar," etc. This is decisive as to the meaning, for the lay altar had no pattern. Accordingly in its general shape this altar must have conformed to the type of the Tabernacle altar. It was probably not made of the same materials, for the word "build" is continually used in connection with it, and this word would scarcely be appropriate for working metal: nor again was it necessarily of the same size, but it was of the same pattern: and it was designed to serve as a witness that the descendants of the men who built it had a portion in the Lord. It seems to follow that the pattern of the Tabernacle altar was distinctive and unlike the heathen altars in general use in Palestine and this appears to be confirmed by modern excavations which have revealed high places with altars quite unlike those contemplated by the Pentateuch. See nodetitle.

3. The Altar till Solomon:

In the subsequent history till the erection of Solomon’s Temple attention need only be directed to the fact that a horned altar existed while the Ark was still housed in a tent. This is important for two reasons. It shows a historical period in which a horned altar existed at the religious capital side by side with a number of lay altars all over the country, and it negatives the suggestion of G. A. Smith (Jerusalem, II, 64) that the bare rock ec-Cakhra was used by Solomon as the altar, since the unhewn rock obviously could not provide a horned altar such as we find as early as 1Ki 1:50-53.

4. The Horned Altar in Use:

Note too that we read here of bringing down from the altar, and this expression implies elevation. Further in 1Ki 9:25 we hear that Solomon was in the habit of offering on the altar which he had built, and this again proves that he had built an altar and did not merely use the temple rock. (See also Watson in PEFS (January, 1910), 15 ff, in reply to Smith.)

5. The Temple of Solomon:

For the reasons just given it is certain that Solomon used an altar of the horned type, but we have no account of the construction in Kings. According to a note preserved in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew, Solomon enlarged the altar erected by David on Araunah’s threshing-floor (2Sa 24:25), but this notice is of very doubtful historical value and may be merely a glossator’s guess. According to 2Ch 4:1 the altar was made of bronze and was twenty cubits by twenty by ten. The Chronicler’s dimensions are doubted by many, but the statement of the material is confirmed by 1Ki 8:64; 2Ki 16:10-15. From the latter passage it appears that an altar of bronze had been in use till the time of Ahaz.

6. The Altar of Ahaz:

This king saw an altar in Damascus of a different pattern and had a great altar made for the temple on its model. As the text contrasts the great altar with the altar of bronze, we may refer that the altar of Ahaz was not made of bronze. Whether either or both of these altars had steps (compare Eze 43:17) or were approached by a slope as in Fig. 2 cannot be determined with certainty. It may be noted that in Isa 27:9 we read of the stones of the altar in a passage the reference of which is uncertain.

7. Ezekiel:

Ezekiel also gives a description of an altar (Eze 43:13-17), but there is nothing to show whether it is purely ideal or represents the altar of Solomon or that of Ahaz, and modern writers take different views. In the vision it stood before the house (Eze 40:47). In addition he describes an altar or table of wood (Eze 41:22). This of course could only be a table, not in any sense an altar. See Table.

8. The Post-exilic Altar:

Ezr 3:2 f tells of the setting up of the altar by Zerubbabel and his contemporaries. No information as to its shape, etc., can be extracted from this notice. We read of a defilement of the temple altar in 1 Macc 1:54. This was made of stones (Ex 20:24-26 having at this date been applied to the temple altar contrary to its original intent) and a fresh altar of whole stones was constructed (1 Macc 4:44-49). Presumably this altar had no horns.

9. Idolatrous and Unlawful Altars:

It is clear from the historical and prophetical books that in both kingdoms a number of unlawful altars were in use. The distinction which has been drawn between lay altars and horned altars helps to make these passages easy to understand. Thus when Amos in speaking of Bethel writes, "The horns of the altar shall be cut off," we see that he is not thinking of lay altars which could have no horns (Am 3:14). Again Hosea’s "Because Ephraim hath multiplied altars `to sin,’ altars have been to him `for sin’" (Ho 8:11, compare Ho 10:1-8; 12:11 (12)), is not in contradiction to Ex 20:24-26 because the prophet is not speaking of lay altars. The high places of Jeroboam (1Ki 12:28-33) were clearly unlawful and their altars were unlawful altars of the horned type. Such cases must be clearly distinguished from the lay altars of Saul and others.

10. The Horns:

The origin of the horns is unknown, though there are many theories. Fugitives caught hold of them (1Ki 1:50,51), and victims could be tied to them (Ps 118:27).

IV. Altars of Incense. Ex 30:1-10 contains the commands for the construction and use of an altar of incense. The material was shittim wood, the dimensions one cubit by one by two, and it also had horns. Its top and sides were overlaid with gold and it was surrounded by a crown or rim of gold. For facility of transport it had golden rings and staves. It stood before the veil in front of the ark.

Solomon also constructed an altar of incense (1Ki 6:20; 7:48; 1Ch 28:18), cedar replacing shittim wood. The altar of incense reappears in 1 Macc 1:21; 4:49.

V. Recent Archaeological Materials. Recently several altars have been revealed by excavations. They throw light on the Bible chiefly by showing what is forbidden. See especially HIGH PLACE.

1. A Gezer Altar:

Fig. 3 represents an altar found at Gezer built into the foundation of a wall dating about 600 BC. Mr. Macalister describes it in the following words: "It is a four-sided block of limestone, 1 ft. 3 inches high. The top and bottom are approximately 10 1/2 and 9 inches square respectively; but these are only the average dimensions of the sides, which are not regularly cut. The angles are prolonged upward for an additional 1 1/2 inches as rounded knobs--no doubt the `horns’ of the altar. The top is very slightly concave so as to hold perhaps an eighth of a pint of liquid" (PEFS (July, 1907), 196 f). The size suggests an altar of incense rather than an altar of burnt offering, but in view of the general resemblance between the Tabernacle altars of burnt offering and incense, this is a fact of minor importance. On the other hand, the shape, pattern and material are of great interest. That the altar violates in principle the law of Ex 20:25 forbidding the dressing of the stones is obvious, though that passage does not apply in terms to altars of incense, but certainly the appearance of the block does recall in a general way the altars of the other type--the horned altars. Like them it is four-sided with a square top, and like them it has knobs or horns at each corner. Possibly it was formed in general imitation of the Temple altars. Other altars in Canaanite high places exemplify by their appearance the practices prohibited by the Pentateuch. See for illustrations H. Vincent, Canaan d’apres l’exploration recente; R. Kittel, Studien zur hebraischen Archaologie und Religions-Geschichte; S. R. Driver, Modern Research as Illustrating the Bible.

2. The Taanach Altar of Incense:

Importance attaches to a terra cotta altar of incense found by Sellin at Taanach, because its height and dimensions at the base recall the altar of Ex. "It was just 3 ft. high, and in shape roughly like a truncated pyramid, the four sides at the bottom being each 18 inches long, and the whole ending at the top in a bowl a foot in diameter. .... The altar is hollow. .... Professor Sellin places the date of the altar at about 700 BC. .... An incense-altar of exactly the same shape .... but of much smaller size .... has been found quite recently at Gezer in debris of about 1000-600 BC" (Driver, Modern Research, etc., 85). These discoveries supply a grim comment on theories of those critics who maintain that incense was not used by the Hebrews before the time of Jeremiah. The form of the altar itself is as contrary to the principles of the Pentateuch law as any thing could be.

On altar furniture see Pot; Shovel; Basin; Flesh-hook; Firepan. On the site, TEMPLE, and generally, ARIEL; SACRIFICE; SANCTUARY; TABERNACLE; HIGH PLACE.

LITERATURE. R. Kittel, Studien zur hebraischen Archaologie und Religions-Geschichte, I and II; Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics; Murray, Illustrated Bible Dictionary; EB, under the word "Altar"; EPC, chapter 6. The discussions in the ordinary works of reference must be used with caution for the reason given in I above.

Harold M. Wiener

I. IN WORSHIP: TABERNACLE AND TEMPLES 1. Patriarchal Altars

2. Sacred Sites

3. Pre-Tabernacle Altars II. THE ALTAR OF BURNT OFFERING; BRAZEN ALTAR 1. Altar before the Tabernacle

2. Its History

3. Altar of Solomon’s Temple

4. Altar of Ezekiel’s Temple

5. Altar of Second Temple

6. Altar of Herod’s Temple

III. THE ALTAR OF INCENSE (GOLDEN ALTAR) 1. In the Tabernacle

2. Mode of Burning Incense

3. In Solomon’s Temple and Later

4. In Herod’s Temple

5. Symbolism of Incense Burning

B. IN WORSHIP I. In Worship: Tabernacle and Temples.

In the literature of the Bible, sacrifices are prior to altars, and altars prior to sacred buildings. Their first mention is in the case of the altar built by Noah after the Flood (Ge 8:20).

1. Patriarchal Altars:

The next is the altar built at the place of Shechem, by which Abraham formally took possession, on behalf of his descendants, of the whole land of Canaan (Ge 12:7). A second altar was built between Bethel and Ai (Ge 12:8). To this the patriarch returned on his way from Egypt (Ge 13:4). His next place of sacrifice was Hebron (Ge 13:18); and tradition still professes to show the place where his altar stood. A subsequent altar was built on the top of a mountain in the land of Moriah for the sacrifice of Isaac (Ge 22:9).

2. Sacred Sites:

Each of these four spots was the scene of some special revelation of Yahweh; possibly to the third of them (Hebron) we may attribute the memorable vision and covenant of Ge 15. These sites became, in after years, the most venerated and coveted perquisites of the nation, and fights for their possession largely determined its history. To them Isaac added an altar at Beersheba (Ge 26:25), probably a re-erection, on the same site, of an altar built by Abraham, whose home for many years was at Beersheba. Jacob built no new altars, but again and again repaired those at Shechem and Bethel. On one occasion he offered a sacrifice on one of the mountains of Gilead, but without mention of an altar (Ge 31:54). There were thus four or five spots in Canaan associated at once with the worship of Yahweh, and the name of their great ancestor, which to Hebrews did not lose their sanctity by the passage of time, namely, Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, Moriah and Beersheba.

3. Pre-Tabernacle Altars:

The earliest provision for an altar as a portion of a fixed establishment of religion is found in Ex 20:24-26, immediately after the promulgation of the Decalogue. Altars are commanded to be made of earth or of unhewn stone, yet so as to have, not steps, but only slopes for ascent to the same--the injunction implying that they stood on some elevation (see Altar, sec A, above). Before the arrival at Sinai, during the war with Amalek, Moses had built an emergency altar, to which he gave the name Yahweh-Nissi (Ex 17:15). This was probably only a memorial altar (compare the altar `Ed in Jos 22:21 ff). At Sinai took place the great crisis in Israel’s national history. It was required that the covenant about to be made with Yahweh should be ratified with sacrificial blood; but before Moses could sprinkle the Book of the Covenant and the people who covenanted (Ex 24:6,; compare He 9:19), it was necessary that an altar should be built for the sacrificial act. This was done "under the mount," where, beside the altar, were reared twelve pillars, emblematic of the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex 24:4). In connection with the tabernacle and the successive temples there were two altars--the Altar of Burnt Offering (the altar by preeminence, Eze 43:13), and the Altar of Incense. Of these it is now necessary to speak more particularly.

II. The Altar of Burnt Offering (The Brazen Altar) (mizbach ha-`olah), (mizbach ha-nechosheth).--(By "brass" throughout understand "bronze.")

1. Altar before the Tabernacle:

The altar which stood before the tabernacle was a portable box constructed of acacia wood and covered on the outside with plates of brass (Ex 27:1 ff). "Hollow with planks," is its definition (Ex 27:8). It was five cubits long, five cubits broad, and three cubits high; on the ordinary reckoning, about 7 1/2 ft. on the horizontal square, and 4 1/2 ft. in height (possibly less; see Cubit). On the "grating of network of brass" described as around and half-way up the altar (verses 4,5), see Grating. Into the corners of this grating, on two sides, rings were riveted, into which the staves were inserted by which the Ark was borne (see Staves). For its corner projections, see Horns of the Altar. The prohibition of steps in Ex 20:26 and the analogy of later altars suggest that this small altar before the tabernacle was made to stand on a base or platform, led up to by a slope of earth. The right of sanctuary is mentioned in Ex 21:14. For the utensils connected with the altar, see Pan; nodetitle; nodetitle; nodetitle; Censer. All these utensils were made of brass.

2. Its History:

The history of the altar before the tabernacle was that of the tabernacle itself, as the two were not parted during its continuance (see Tabernacle). Their abolition did not take place till Solomon’s temple was ready for use, when the great high place at Gibeon (1Ki 3:4) was dismantled, and the tabernacle and its holy vessels were brought to the new temple (1Ki 8:4). Another altar had meanwhile been raised by David before the tabernacle he had made on Zion, into which the Ark of the Covenant was moved (1Ch 15:1; 16:1). This would be a duplicate of that at Gibeon, and would share its supersession at the erection of the first temple.

3. Altar of Solomon’s Temple:


4. Altar of Ezekiel’s Temple:


5. Altar of Second Temple:

Of the altar of the second temple no measurements are given. It is told only that it was built prior to the temple, and was set upon its base (Ezr 3:3), presumably on the Cakhra stone--the ancient site.

6. Altar of Herod’s Temple:

In Herod’s temple a difficulty is found in harmonizing the accounts of the Mishna and Josephus as to the size of the altar. The latter gives it as a square of fifty cubits (BJ, V, v, 6). The key to the solution probably lies in distinguishing between the structure of the altar proper (thirty-two cubits square), and a platform of larger area (fifty cubits square = 75 ft.) on which it stood. When it is remembered that the Cakhra stone is 56 ft in length and 42 ft. in width, it is easy to see that it might form a portion of a platform built up above and around it to a level of this size. The altar, like that of Ezekiel’s plan, was built in diminishing stages; in the Mishna, one of one cubit, and three of five cubits in height, the topmost stage measuring twenty-six cubits square, or, with deduction of a cubit for the officiating priests, twenty-four cubits. Josephus, on the other hand, gives the height at fifteen cubits. The altar, as before, had four horns. Both Josephus and the Mishna state that the altar was built of unhewn stones. The ascent, thirty-two cubits long and sixteen broad, likewise of unhewn stone, was on the south side. See further, TEMPLE, HEROD’s. It is of this altar that the words were spoken, "Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Mt 5:24).

III. The Altar of Incense (Golden Altar) (mizbach ha-qeToreth), (mizbach ha-zahabh).

1. In the Tabernacle:


For other uses of the altar of incense see nodetitle, where it is shown that at the time of the offerings of special sin offerings and on the day of the annual fast its horns were sprinkled with blood. This, with the offering of incense upon it, were its only uses, as neither meal offerings might be laid upon it, nor libations of drink offerings poured thereon (Ex 30:9). The Tamiyd, or standing sacrifice for Israel, was a whole burnt offering of a lamb offered twice daily with its meal offering, accompanied with a service of incense.

2. Mode of Burning Incense:

It is probable that the censers in use at the time of the construction of this altar and after were in shape like a spoon or ladle (see Table of Shewbread), which, when filled with live coals from the great altar, were carried within the sanctuary and laid upon the altar of incense (Le 16:12). The incense-sticks, broken small, were then placed upon the coals. The narrative of the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, is thus made intelligible, the fire in their censers not having been taken from the great altar.

3. In Solomon’s Temple and Later:

The original small altar made by Moses was superseded by one made by Solomon. This was made of cedar wood, overlaid with gold (1Ki 6:20,22; 7:48; 9:25; 2Ch 4:19); hence, was called the "golden altar." This was among "all the vessels of the house of God, great and small," which Nebuchadnezzar took to Babylon (2Ch 36:18). As a consequence, when Ezekiel drew plans for a new temple, he gave it an incense altar made wholly of wood and of larger dimensions than before (Eze 41:22). It had a height of three cubits and a top of two cubits square. There was an incense altar likewise in the second temple. It was this altar, probably plated with gold, which nodetitle removed (1 Macc 1:21), and which was restored by Judas Maccabeus (1 Macc 4:49). (On critical doubts as to the existence of the golden altar in the first and second temples, compare POT, 323.)

4. In Herod’s Temple:

That the Herodian temple also had its altar of incense we know from the incident of Zacharias having a vision there of "an angel .... standing on the right side of the altar of incense" when he went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense (Lu 1:11). No representation of such an altar appears on the arch of Titus, though it is mentioned by Josephus (BJ, V, v, 5). It was probably melted down by John during the course of the siege (V, xiii, 6).

5. Symbolism of Incense Burning:

In the apocalypse of John, no temple was in the restored heaven and earth (Re 21:22), but in the earlier part of the vision was a temple (Re 14:17; 15:6) with an altar and a censer (Re 8:3). It is described as "the golden altar which was before the throne," and, with the smoke of its incense, there went up before God the prayers of the saints. This imagery is in harmony with the statement of Luke that as the priests burnt incense, "the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the hour of incense" (Lu 1:10). Both history and prophecy thus attest the abiding truth that salvation is by sacrificial blood, and is made available to men through the prayers of saints and sinners offered by a great High Priest.

W. Shaw Caldecott