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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words

Altar

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Mizbêach (מִזְבֵּחַ, Strong's #4196), “altar.” This noun has cognates in Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic. In each of these languages the consonantal root is mdbh. Mizbêach occurs about 396 times in the Old Testament.

This word signifies a raised place where a sacrifice was made, as in Gen. 8:20 (its first biblical appearance): “And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” In later references, this word may refer to a table upon which incense was burned: “And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it” (Exod. 30:1). 

 From the dawn of human history, offerings were made on a raised table of stone or ground (Gen. 4:3). At first, Israel’s altars were to be made of earth—i.e., they were fashioned of material that was strictly the work of God’s hands. If the Jews were to hew stone for altars in the wilderness, they would have been compelled to use war weapons to do the work. (Notice that in Exod. 20:25 the word for “tool” is chereb, “sword.”)

At Sinai, God directed Israel to fashion altars of valuable woods and metals. This taught them that true worship required man’s best and that it was to conform exactly to God’s directives; God, not man, initiated and controlled worship. The altar that stood before the holy place (Exod. 27:1-8) and the altar of incense within the holy place (Exod. 30:1-10) had “horns.” These horns had a vital function in some offerings (Lev. 4:30; 16:18). For example, the sacrificial animal may have been bound to these horns in order to allow its blood to drain away completely (Ps. 118:27).

Mizbêach is also used of pagan altars: “But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves” (Exod. 34:13).

This noun is derived from the Hebrew verb zabach, which literally means “to slaughter for food” or “to slaughter for sacrifice.”
Zabach has cognates in Ugaritic and Arabic (dbh), Akkadian (zibu), and Phoenician (zbh). Another Old Testament noun derived from zabach is zabach (162 times), which usually refers to a sacrifice that establishes communion between God and those who eat the thing offered.

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Altar'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/vot/a/altar.html. 1940.

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