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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
Sacrifices are nearly as ancient as worship, and altars are of almost equal antiquity. Scripture speaks of altars, erected by the patriarchs, without describing their form, or the materials of which they were composed. The altar which Jacob set up at Bethel, was the stone which had served him for a pillow; Gideon sacrificed on the rock before his house.
The first altars which God commanded Moses to raise, were of earth or rough stones; and it was declared that if iron were used in constructing them they would become impure, Exodus 20:24-25 . The altar which Moses enjoined Joshua to build on Mount Ebal, was to be of unpolished stones, Deuteronomy 27:5; Joshua 8:31; and it is very probable that such were those built by Samuel, Saul, and David. The altar which Solomon erected in the temple was of brass, but filled, it is believed, with rough stones, 2 Chronicles 4:1-3 . It was twenty cubits long, twenty wide, and ten high. That built at Jerusalem, by Zerubbabel, after the return from Babylon, was of rough stones; as was that of Maccabees. Josephus says that the altar which in his time was in the temple was of rough stones, fifteen cubits high, forty long, and forty wide.
Among the Romans altars were of two kinds, the higher and the lower; the higher were intended for the celestial gods, and were called altaria, from altus; the lower were for the terrestrial and infernal gods, and were called arae. Those dedicated to the heavenly gods were raised a great height above the surface of the earth; those of the terrestrial gods were almost even with the surface; and those for the infernal deities were only holes dug in the ground called scrobiculi. Before temples were in use the altars were placed in the groves, highways, or on tops of mountains, inscribed with the names, ensigns, or characters of the respective gods to whom they belonged. The great temples at Rome generally contained three altars; the first in the sanctuary, at the foot of the statue, for incense and libations; the second before the gate of the temple, for the sacrifices of victims; and the third was a portable one for the offerings and sacred vestments or vessels to lie upon. The ancients used to swear upon the altars upon solemn occasions, such as confirming alliances, treaties of peace, &c. They were also places of refuge, and served as an asylum and sanctuary to all who fled to them, whatever their crimes were.
The principal altars among the Jews were those of incense, of burnt- offering, and the altar or table for the shew bread. The altar of incense was a small table of shittim wood covered with plates of gold. It was a cubit long, a cubit broad, and two cubits high. At the four corners were four horns. The priest, whose turn it was to officiate, burnt incense on this altar, at the time of the morning sacrifice between the sprinkling of the blood and the laying of the pieces of the victim on the altar of burnt-offering. He did the same also in the evening, between the laying of the pieces on the altar and the drink-offering. At the same time the people prayed in silence, and their prayers were offered up by the priests. The altar of burnt-offering was of shittim wood also, and carried upon the shoulders of the priests, by staves of the same wood overlaid with brass. In Moses's days it was five cubits square, and three high: but it was greatly enlarged in the days of Solomon, being twenty cubits square, and ten in height. It was covered with brass, and had a horn at each corner to which the sacrifice was tied. This altar was placed in the open air, that the smoke might not sully the inside of the tabernacle or temple. On this altar the holy fire was renewed from time to time, and kept constantly burning. Hereon, likewise, the sacrifices of lambs and bullocks were burnt, especially a lamb every morning at the third hour, or nine of the clock, and a lamb every afternoon at three, Exodus 20:24-25; Exodus 27:1-2; Exodus 27:4; Exodus 38:1 . The altar of burnt-offering had the privilege of being a sanctuary or place of refuge. The wilful murderer, indeed, sought protection there in vain; for by the express command of God he might be dragged to justice, even from the altar. The altar or table of shew bread was of shittim wood also, covered with plates of gold, and had a border round it adorned with sculpture. It was two cubits long, one wide, and one and a half in height. This table stood in the sanctum sanctorum, [holy of holies,] and upon it were placed the loaves of shew bread. After the return of the Jews from their captivity, and the building of the second temple, the form and size of the altars were somewhat changed.
Sacrifices according to the laws of Moses, could not be offered except by the priests; and at any other place than on the altar of the tabernacle or the temple. Furthermore, they were not to be offered to idols, nor with any superstitious rites. See Leviticus 17:1-7; Deuteronomy 12:15-16 . Without these precautionary measures, the true religion would hardly have been secure. If a different arrangement had been adopted, if the priests had been scattered about to various altars, without being subjected to the salutary restraint which would result from a mutual observation of each other, they would no doubt some of them have willingly consented to the worship of idols; and others, in their separate situation, would not have been in a condition to resist the wishes of the multitude, had those wishes been wrong. The necessity of sacrificing at one altar, (that of the tabernacle or temple,) is frequently and emphatically insisted on, Deuteronomy 12:13-14; and all other altars are disapproved, Leviticus 26:30 , compare Joshua 22:9-34 . Notwithstanding this, it appears that, subsequently to the time of Moses, especially in the days of the kings, altars were multiplied; but they fell under suspicions, although some of them were perhaps sacred to the worship of the true God. It is, nevertheless, true, that prophets, whose characters were above all suspicion, sacrificed, in some instances, in other places than the one designated by the laws, 1 Samuel 13:3-14; 1 Samuel 16:1-5; 1 Kings 18:21-40 .
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Altar'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​a/altar.html. 1831-2.