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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
The first altar we read of in the Bible was that erected by Noah on leaving the ark. Mention is made of altars erected by Abraham (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:4; Genesis 22:9); by Isaac (Genesis 26:25); by Jacob (Genesis 33:20; Genesis 35:1; Genesis 35:3); by Moses (Exodus 17:15). After the giving of the law, the Israelites were commanded to make an altar of earth; they were also permitted to employ stones, but no iron tool was to be applied to them. This has been generally understood as an interdiction of sculpture, in order to guard against a violation of the second commandment. Altars were frequently built on high places. Thus Solomon built an high place for Chemosh (1 Kings 11:7), and Josiah brake down and burned the high place, and stamped it small to powder (2 Kings 23:15). This practice, however, was forbidden by the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 12:13; Deuteronomy 16:5), except in particular instances, such as those of Gideon (Judges 6:26) and David (2 Samuel 24:18). It is said of Solomon 'that he loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David, his father, only he sacrificed the burnt incense on the high places' (1 Kings 3:3). Altars were sometimes built on the roofs of houses: in 2 Kings 23:12, we read of the altars that were on the top of the upper chamber of Ahaz. In the tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected, one for sacrifices, the other for incense: the table for the shew-bread is also sometimes called an altar.
1. The altar of burnt-offering belonging to the tabernacle was a hollow square, five cubits in length and breadth, and three cubits in height; it was made of Shittim-wood [SHITTIM], and overlaid with plates of brass. In the middle there was a ledge or projection, on which the priest stood while officiating; immediately below this, a brass grating was let down into the altar to support the fire, with four rings attached, through which poles were passed, when the altar was removed. As the priests were forbidden to go up by steps to the altar (Exodus 20:26), a slope of earth was probably made rising to a level with the ledge.
In Exodus 27:3, the following utensils are mentioned as belonging to the altar, all of which were to be made of brass. (1) pans or dishes to receive the ashes that fell through the grating. (2) shovels for cleaning the altar. (3) vessels for receiving the blood and sprinkling it on the altar. (4) large forks to turn the pieces of flesh or to take them off the fire (see 1 Samuel 2:13). (5) 'fire-pans;' the same word is elsewhere translated censers, Numbers 16:17; but in Exodus 25:38, 'snuff-dishes.'
2. The altar of burnt-offering in Solomon's temple was of much larger dimensions, 'twenty cubits in length and breadth, and ten in height' (2 Chronicles 4:1), and was made entirely of brass. It is said of Asa that he renewed, that is, either repaired (in which sense the word is evidently used in 2 Chronicles 24:4) or reconsecrated the altar of the Lord that was before the porch of the Lord (2 Chronicles 15:8). This altar was removed by king Ahaz (2 Kings 16:14); it was 'cleansed' by Hezekiah; and in the latter part of Manasseh's reign was rebuilt.
3. Of the altar of burnt-offering in the second temple, the canonical scriptures give us no information excepting that it was erected before the foundations of the temple were laid (Ezra 3:3; Ezra 3:6) on the same place where it had formerly been built. From the Apocrypha, however, we may infer that it was made, not of brass, but of unhewn stone.
4. The altar of burnt-offering erected by Herod is thus described by Josephus: 'Before this temple stood the altar, fifteen cubits high, and equal both in length and breadth, each of which dimensions was fifty cubits. The figure it was built in was a square, and it had corners like horns, and the passage up to it was by an insensible acclivity from the south. It was formed without any iron tool, nor did any iron tool so much as touch it at any time.' The dimensions of this altar, however, are differently stated in the Mishna. On the south side was an inclined plane, 32 cubits long and 16 cubits broad, made likewise of unhewn stones. A pipe was connected with the south-west horn, through which the blood of the victims was discharged by a subterraneous passage into the brook Kedron. Under the altar was a cavity to receive the drink-offerings, which was covered with a marble slab, and cleansed from time to time. On the north side of the altar several iron rings were fixed to fasten the victims. Lastly, a red line was drawn round the middle of the altar to distinguish between the blood that was to be sprinkled above and below it.
II. The second altar belonging to the Jewish worship was the altar of incense, called also the golden altar (Numbers 4:11). It was placed between the table of shew-bread and the golden candlestick, in the most holy place.
1. This altar in the tabernacle was made of Shittim-wood overlaid with gold plates, one cubit in length and breadth, and two cubits in height. It had horns (Leviticus 4:7) of the same materials; and round the flat surface was a border of gold, underneath which were the rings to receive 'the staves made of Shittim-wood, overlaid with gold to bear it withal' (Exodus 30:1-5).
2. The altar in Solomon's Temple was similar, but made of cedar (1 Kings 6:20; 1 Kings 7:48; 1 Chronicles 28:18) overlaid with gold.
3. The altar in the second temple was taken away by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1:21), and restored by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Maccabees 4:49). On the arch of Titus there appears no altar of incense.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Altar'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​a/altar.html.