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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Structure on which offerings are made to a deity. The Hebrew word for altar is mizbeah [ מִזְבֵּחַ ], from a verbal root meaning "to slaughter." Greek renders this word as thusiasterion [ θυσιαστήριον ], "a place of sacrifice." In the developed temple ritual, the same word is used for both the altar of holocausts and the altar of incense. Thus, an altar is a place where sacrifice is offered, even if it is not an event involving slaughter.
Altars could be natural objects or man-made constructs. Four materials are recorded as being used in altars: stone, earth, metal, and brick. Archaeology has provided numerous examples of altars from Palestine dating back to approximately 3000 b.c. Natural rocks were also used (Judges 6:20 ). An altar could stand alone, or it was located in the courtyard of a shrine.
Their Jerusalem temple had two altars: the altar of incense and the altar of holocausts. The altar of incense was placed inside the sanctuary in front of the curtain screening the Holy of Holies. It was made of gold-covered wood. It stood upright and measured 1 x 1 x 2 cubits. Archaeological data indicate that all four corners of the upper surface were slightly peaked. Twice a day, incense was burned on the altar.
The altar of holocausts stood in the courtyard of the temple. Like the other objects in the courtyard, the altar was made of bronze. It measured 20 x 20 x 10 cubits (2 Chronicles 4 ). Ahaz replaced this altar with one modeled on an alter he had seen in Damascus (2 Kings 16 ). He moved the old altar, using it for divination. In Ezekiel's vision the courtyard altar also was horned (Ezekiel 43:15 ).
Altars were places where the divine and human worlds interacted. Altars were places of exchange, communication, and influence. God responded actively to altar activity. The contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal involving an altar demonstrated interaction between Yahweh and Baal. Noah built an altar and offered a sacrifice to Yahweh. God smelled the aroma and found it pleasing. He responded to Noah's action by declaring that he would never again destroy all living things through a flood. In the patriarchal period, altars were markers of place, commemorating an encounter with God (Genesis 12:7 ), or physical signs of habitation. Abraham built an altar where he pitched his tent between Bethel and Ai. Presumably at that altar he "called on the name of the Lord" (Genesis 12:8 ). Interestingly, we are not told if there was a response. In the next passage, however, Abraham went to Egypt and fell into sin, lying about Sarah out of fear of Pharaoh. Perhaps there was no true communication at the altar between Bethel and Ai.
Sacrifices were the primary medium of exchange in altar interactions. The priestly code of Leviticus devotes a great deal of space to proper sacrificial procedure, and to what sacrifices are appropriate in various circumstances. Sacrifice was the essential act of external worship. Unlike the divinities of the nations surrounding ancient Israel, Yahweh did not need sacrifices to survive. The Israelites, however, needed to perform the act of sacrifice in order to survive (Exodus 30:21 ). The act of sacrifice moved the offering from the profane to the sacred, from the visible to the invisible world. By this action the worshiper sealed a contract with God. Blood, believed to contain the "life" of an animal (or a human being), was particularly important in the sacrificial ritual. It was sprinkled against the altar (Leviticus 1 ); once a year, blood was smeared on the horns of the incense altar.
The horns of the altar may have functioned as boundary markers, setting apart the sacred space that was the actual place of intersection of the divine and human spheres. In the stark and moving story of Abraham's encounter with God at Moriah, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it (Genesis 22:9 ). After Isaac was laid on the altar, but before he was sacrificed, God proclaimed his recognition that Isaac had "not [been] withheld." By placing Isaac on the altar, Abraham transferred him from the profane to the sacred.
This sacred altar and its horns, where the atoning blood was splashed, provided a place of sanctuary. The altar was a place where an unintentional murderer could gain a haven (Exodus 21:13-14 ). If the murder was premeditated, however, then the altar was clearly profaned by the murderer's presence and the individual could be taken away and killed. Joab was denied the sanctuary of the horns because he had conspired to kill Amasa and Abner. In an oracle against Israel (Amos 3:14 ), God declared that "the horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground." The message is clear: There will be no place to intercede with God, and no place to claim his sanctuary.
After the exile, the first thing to be rebuilt was the altar. Then the temple was reconstructed. The temple was ultimately secondary to the altar. In chastising the religious establishment, Jesus underlined the sacredness of the altar, making clear his understanding that the altar "makes the gift sacred" (Matthew 23:19 ). In Revelation the altar in the heavenly temple shelters martyred souls and even speaks (Revelation 16:7 ). The New Testament writer of Hebrews (13:10) implies that the ultimate altar is the cross. Here divine and human interchange is consummated. The cross becomes the sanctuary of the believer, providing protection from the penalties of sin.
Thomas W. Davis
Bibliography . R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel; M. Haran, Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel; C. L. Meyers, HBD, pp. 22-25.
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Altar'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bed/​a/altar.html. 1996.