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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
ALTAR . 1 . The original purpose of an altar was to serve as a means by which the blood of an animal offered in sacrifice might be brought into contact with, or otherwise transferred to, the deity of the worshipper. For this purpose in the earliest period a single stone sufficed. Either the blood was poured over this stone, which was regarded as the temporary abode of the deity, or the stone was anointed with part, and the rest poured out at its base. The introduction of fire to consume the flesh in whole or in part belongs to a later stage in the history of sacrifice (wh. see). But even when this stage had long been reached, necessity might compel a temporary reversion to the earlier modus operandi , as we learn from Saul’s procedure in 1 Samuel 14:33 f. From the altar of a single ‘great stone’ ( 1 Samuel 6:14 ) the transition was easy to an altar built of unhewn stones ( Exodus 20:25 , Deuteronomy 27:5 f. RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), which continued to he the normal type of Hebrew altar to the end (see 1Ma 4:41; Jos. [Note: Josephus.] BJ V. v. 6).
2 . Another type of pre-historic altar, to which much less attention has been paid, had its origin in the primitive conception of sacrifice as the food of the gods. As such it was appropriately presented on a table. Now the nearest analogy to the disc of leather spread on the ground, which was and is the table of the Semitic nomad, was the smooth face of the native rock, such as that on which Manoah spread his offering ( Judges 13:19 f., cf. Judges 6:20 f.). The well-known rock-surfaces, in Palestine and elsewhere, with their mysterious cup-marks typical specimens are illustrated PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1900, 32 ff., 249 to receive the sacrificial blood, can scarcely be other than pre-historic table-altars. The similarly marked table-stones of Syrian dolmens also belong here. A further stage in the evolution of the table altar is seen in the elaborate structures recently discovered within the West-Semitic area. In these the rock is cut away so as to leave the altar standing free, to which rock-cut steps lead up, an arrangement forbidden, from motives of decency, by the earliest legislation ( Exodus 20:26 , with which cf. Exodus 28:42 f. and parall. from a later date). The uppermost step served as a platform for the officiating priest. Some show cup-hollows for libations of blood (see illust. in Moore’s ‘Judges’ in SBOT [Note: BOT Sacred Books of Old Testament.] p. 83), while that first discovered at Petra has a depression for the altar-hearth ( PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1900, 350 ff. with sketch; see also Ariel). Its dimensions are 9 ft. by 6, with a height above the platform of 3 ft. The altars of the more important sanctuaries under the Hebrew monarchy, such as Bethel, were probably of a similar nature. A description of ‘the altar of burnt-offering’ of the Tabernacle will be given under Tabernacle; for the corresponding altars of the Temple of Solomon and its successors, and of Ezekiel’s sketch, see Temple.
3 . A third variety of primitive altar is the mound of earth ( Exodus 20:24 ), a copy in miniature of the hill-tops which were at all times favourite places of worship (see High Place).
4 . All the types of altar above described were intended for the ordinary open-air sacrificial service, details of which will be found under Sacrifice. There is no clear reference earlier than Jeremiah to the use of incense, and no reference at all to any altar of incense in the legitimate worship before the Exile, for 1 Kings 7:48 in its present form is admittedly late, and the altar of 1 Kings 6:20 must be the table of shewbread (see Temple, Shewbread).
5 . From what has already been said, it is evident that an altar was the indispensable requisite of every place of worship. It was not until the 7th cent. b.c. that Josiah succeeded in abolishing ‘the high places’ and destroying or desecrating their altars ( 2 Kings 23:5 ff.), in accordance with the fundamental demand of the Deuteronomic law-code ( Deuteronomy 12:1 ff.). In the older historical and prophetical writings, however, and even in the earliest legislation (see Exodus 20:24 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), the legitimacy of the local altars is never called in question. On the contrary, religious leaders such as Samuel and Elijah show their zeal for the worship of Jâ€³ [Note: Jahweh.] by the erection and repair of altars.
6 . As altars to which a special interest attaches may be mentioned that erected by David on the threshing floor of Araunah ( 2 Samuel 24:18 ff.), the site of which is marked by the present mosque of ‘the Dome of the Rock’; the altar erected by Ahaz after the model of one seen by him at Damascus ( 2 Kings 16:10 ff.); the sacrificial and incense altars to the host of heaven in the courts and probably even on the roof of the Temple ( 2 Kings 23:12 , Jeremiah 19:13 ); and finally, the altar to Olympian Zeus placed by Antiochus Epiphanes on the top of the altar of burnt-offering ( 1Ma 1:54 ).
7 . Reference must also be made to altars as places of refuge for certain classes of criminals, attested both by legislation ( Exodus 21:13 f.) and history ( 1Ki 1:51; 1 Kings 2:28; see more fully, Refuge [Cities of]). The origin and precise significance of the horns of the altar , of which the refugee laid hold (1Kings ll . cc .), and which played an important part in the ritual ( Exodus 29:12 , Leviticus 4:7 ff.), have not yet received a satisfactory explanation. A small limestone altar, showing the horns in the form of rounded knobs at the four corners, has just been discovered at Gezer ( PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1907, p. 196, with illust.).
A. R. S. Kennedy.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Altar'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​a/altar.html. 1909.