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Background Bible Study

Ancient Altars
Ancient Manners and Customs, Daily Life, Cultures, Bible Lands

Altar of Stone Found Near the Capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel
Altar of Hewn Stone Discovered Near the Capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel

Altars are mentioned often in the Bible. Ancient altars were raised structures that people placed sacrifices on. In the ancient world the altar was almost exclusively built as a monument to remember or commemorate a divine occurrence which took place at a certain location. In ancient Israel altars were very significant, they symbolized communion with the LORD. They were a place of worship and a place to remember His covenant. The "altar' was a place of "approach", a place to call upon the name of the LORD and remember His glorious promises.
The Altar in Biblical Times
In the earliest times of the Bible altars were made of earth or stones found in a field, and no tool could be used. They could not have steps lest the nakedness of man be exposed without a covering. They served as a table to place the sacrifice upon, and also to catch the blood of the sacrificial victim. In ancient Israel there were altars made of stone, and later a bronze altar was placed in the tabernacle of Moses. When Solomon became king he built a temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, and he created elaborate altars of bronze and gold. The animals were placed on the bronze altar, as a whole or in parts, bread was also place there, and meal, incense, and even wine was also offered. The Bible describes the most sacred part of the altar, these were the four horns on the corners which symbolized God's power and might which pointed to the four corners of the earth (Exodus 27:2). God was clear that his salvation is for everyone, providing that they approach His way. When Cain brought the best of his good works on an altar he was rejected, while his sinful brother only brought a blood sacrifice, God accepted Abel's sacrifice.

The Blood Sacrifice
God said that without the shedding of blood there would be no remission of sins. The blood sacrifice was the life of the innocent victim receiving death so that the one offering could go free. The sacrificial offering was a substitutionary atonement, the innocent victim would receive the full weight of God's judgment, while the guilty person making the sacrifice would receive forgiveness and justification and atonement from God. The sacrifice literally became sin, and therefore was called a sin offering. The altar was the center of Israelite worship, and the unity of the altar was regarded as an ideal (II Chronicles 32:12). When Christ rose again his sacrifice was once and for all, and the altar and the ceremonial law was done away with, because Christ had "been offered once" (Hebrews 9:28). The Bible also says in Hebrews 13:10 that "Christ is our altar". For the church the center of worship now becomes the gathering of the saints, or believers, who have access to the Lord and can approach him at any time, because of the shed blood of Christ.

Painting of an Ancient Altar
The Altar was a Place of Approach to Remember God's Covenant

Altar in Smith's Bible Dictionary
The first altar of which we have any account is that built by Noah when he left the ark. Ge 8:20 In the early times altars were usually built in certain spots hallowed by religious associations, e.g., where God appeared. Ge 12:7; 13:18, 26:25; 35:1 Though generally erected for the offering of sacrifice, in some instances they appear to have been only memorials. Ge 12:7; Ex 17:15,16 Altars were most probably originally made of earth. The law of Moses allowed them to be made of either earth or unhewn stones. Ex 20:24,25 I. The Altar of Burnt Offering. It differed in construction at different times. (1) In the tabernacle, Ex 27:1 ff.; Exod 38:1 ff., it was comparatively small and portable. In shape it was square. It as five cubits in length, the same in breadth, and three cubits high. It was made of planks of shittim (or acacia) wood overlaid with brass. The interior was hollow. Ex 27:8 At the four corners were four projections called horns made, like the altar itself, of shittim wood overlaid with brass, Ex 27:2 and to them the victim was bound when about to be sacrificed. Ps 118:27 Round the altar, midway between the top and bottom, ran a projecting ledge, on which perhaps the priest stood when officiating.  Read Full Article

Altar in the ISBE Bible Encyclopedia
Before considering the Biblical texts attention must be drawn to the fact that these texts know of at least two kinds of altars which were so different in appearance that no contemporary could possibly confuse them. The first was an altar consisting of earth or unhewn stones. It had no fixed shape, but varied with the materials. It might consist of a rock (Jdg 13:19) or a single large stone (1 Sam 14:33-35) or again a number of stones (1 Ki 18:31 f). It could have no horns, nor it would be impossible to give the stone horns without hewing it, nor would a heap of earth lend itself to the formation of horns. It could have no regular pattern for the same reason. On the other hand we meet with a group of passages that refer to altars of quite a different type. We read of horns, of fixed measurements, of a particular pattern, of bronze as the material. To bring home the difference more rapidly illustrations of the two types are given side by side. The first figure represents a cairn altar such as was in use in some other ancient religions. The second is a conjectural restoration of Hebrew altars of burnt offering and incense of the second kind.   Read Full Article

Illustration of the Bronze Altar

Bronze Altar Illustration
Solomon created elaborate altars of bronze and gold.

Altar in Easton's Bible Dictionary
(Heb. mizbe'ah, from a word meaning "to slay"), any structure of earth (Ex. 20:24) or unwrought stone (20:25) on which sacrifices were offered. Altars were generally erected in conspicuous places (Gen. 22:9; Ezek. 6:3; 2 Kings 23:12; 16:4; 23:8; Acts 14:13). The word is used in Heb. 13:10 for the sacrifice offered upon it--the sacrifice Christ offered. Paul found among the many altars erected in Athens one bearing the inscription, "To the unknown God" (Acts 17:23), or rather "to an [i.e., some] unknown God." The reason for this inscription cannot now be accurately determined. It afforded the apostle the occasion of proclaiming the gospel to the "men of Athens." The first altar we read of is that erected by Noah (Gen. 8:20). Altars were erected by Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 13:4; 22:9), by Isaac (Gen. 26:25), by Jacob (33:20; 35:1, 3), and by Moses (Ex. 17:15, "Jehovah-nissi"). In the tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected.   Read Full Article

Altar in Fausset's Bible Dictionary
The first of which we have mention was built by Noah after leaving the ark (Genesis 8:20). The English (from the Latin) means an elevation or high place: not the site, but the erections on them which could be built or removed (1 Kings 12:7; 2 Kings 23:15). So the Greek bomos, and Hebrew bamath. But the proper Hebrew name mizbeach is "the sacrificing place;" Septuagint thusiasterion. Spots hallowed by divine revelations or appearances were originally the sites of altars (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 35:1). Mostly for sacrificing; sometimes only as a memorial, as that named by Moses Jehovah Nissi, the pledge that Jehovah would war against Amalek to all generations (Exodus 17:15-16), and that built by Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh, "not for burnt offering, nor sacrifice, but as a witness" (Joshua 22:26-27). Altars were to be made only of earth or else unhewn stone, on which no iron tool was used, and without steps up to them (Exodus 20:24-26). Steps toward the E. on the contrary are introduced in the temple yet future (Ezekiel 43:17), marking its distinctness from any past temple. No pomp or ornament was allowed; all was to be plain and simple; for it was the meeting place between God and the sinner, and therefore a place of shedding of blood without which there is no remission (Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22), a place of fellowship with God for us only through death. The mother dust of earth, or its stones in their native state as from the hand of God, were the suitable material. The art of sinful beings would mar, rather than aid, the consecration of the common meeting ground.   Read Full Article

Heart Message

The Altar

As a place of sacrifice or memorial, the altar represents the sacred encounter with the living God. When we're in a difficult situation as Jacob was when fleeing from his brother Esau in Genesis 28, he encountered God and received a promise of deliverance. He poured oil on a stone and prayed for protection devoting himself to God. In Genesis 35, upon the fulfillment of God's promise, God called Jacob to return to Bethel, this time now with flocks and herds and his wives and children and all that God had given him. Jacob was called back to that very place to remember and ponder the deliverance of God. Jacob received another encounter where God gave him a new name and a new set of promises to walk in.

The altar as a memorial -

When God split the Jordan river and Israel miraculously crossed into the promised land to fight for their inheritance, the Lord had them bring twelve stones from the middle of the river and pile them up on the other side. This was a memorial to future generations as the Lord said,

"Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal. Then he spoke to the children of Israel, saying: “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall let your children know, saying, ‘Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land’; for the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed over, that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” Joshua 4:19-24

We too can build memorials to God. In a tough time you can dedicate a place to seek God and build an altar to mark that time that you rededicated yourself, asked for mercy, sought out deliverance from an impossible situation. Or it might simply be an entry in your journal where desperate cries were lifted to God. In the years to come you can return to that place and thank God for what He has done and be refreshed with new faith to move into the next season of challenges with a new name and new promises.

The altar as a place of sacrifice -

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:1,2

As born again believers we now have two natures, our reborn spirit and our old sinful nature. Paul tells us that these two are at war within us.

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. Galatians 5:16-18

And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. Romans 7:16-20

Now that Christ has sacrificed Himself on the altar of the cross, he calls us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross daily to follow Him. (Luke 9:23) The problem of legalism arises when we are taught that a complete transformation has taken place on the day we are born again. As that sinful nature manifests we are tempted to hide it and join the costume party at church where we all pretend, rather than all confess. Scripture tells us that sanctification is a process. We are being transformed into His image from glory to glory. (2 Cor. 3:18) In other words from season to season, faith to faith and one grace after the other, we are being changed as the flesh dies on the altar and we rise into newness of life. The altar for us then, though an instrument of sacrifice, is actually an instrument of freedom. It is where we offer the portion of our old nature that God is calling to die, that we might be free to live in the new nature.

Perhaps it's an old offense that we place on the altar, where we ask for God's grace and spirit to forgive. Perhaps it's a desire for a person we are determined to marry or control, whom God has told us to let go. Perhaps it could even be a covetous desire for grandiose ministry that people might look upon us with awe for all we have accomplished! As we become a living sacrifice on the altar of God in that area, we become free and are able to serve with a childlike spirit, enjoying our daily life with Him, rather than striving to satisfy an insatiable remnant of the fallen nature, that will never say, "I'm satisfied, it is enough." The altar allows us to go free from our sin and fallen desires to mark a place of intimacy with God where he delivered us from the old to the next season of life. As those memorials begin to pile up in various places of your history, you'll look back at what seemed like a horrible sacrifice, realizing it was God willing and working for His good pleasure.

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Galatians 6:14

Painting of The Spartan General Pausanias Sacrificing to his gods before battle
The Spartan General Pausanias Sacrificing to his gods before battle - 5th Cent BC.

Altar in Naves Topical Bible

-Built by Noah
        Ge 8:2

-Built by Abraham
        Ge 12:7,8; 13:18; 22:9

-Built by Isaac
        Ge 26:25

-Built by Jacob
        Ge 33:20; 35:1-7

-Built by Moses
        Ex 17:15; 24:4

-Built by Balaam
        Nu 23:1,14,29

-Built by Joshua
        De 27:4-7; Jos 8:30-32

-Built by the Reubenites and Gadites
        Jos 22:10,34

-Built by Gideon
        Jud 6:26,27

-Built by Samuel
        1Sa 7:17

-Built by Saul
        1Sa 14:35

-Built by David
        2Sa 24:18,19

-Built by Elijah
        1Ki 18:31,32

-Mosaic commandments prescribing the construction of
        Ex 20:24-26; De 27:5-7; Jos 8:30,31

-See
        Eze 43:13

-Used in idolatrous worship
        Jud 6:25; 1Ki 12:32; 16:32; 18:26; 2Ki 16:10; 23:12,15; Isa
        27:9; 65:3; Ho 8:11; Ac 17:23

-OF BURNT OFFERINGS
    Called BRAZEN ALTAR
        Ex 39:39; 1Ki 8:64
    Called ALTAR OF GOD
        Ps 43:4
    Called ALTAR OF THE LORD
        Mal 2:13

Read Naves Article

Painting of a Group of Pagan Altars
Painting of a Group of Pagan Altars - A. Babylonian, B. Egyptian, C. Persian, D. Grecian, E. Roman
 

Bible Study Topics Related to Altar

ALTAR

GOLDEN ALTAR

ISRAEL, PROPHECIES CONCERNING

Ahaz changes the nature of the altar in the temple
        2Ki 16:10-18

JERUSALEM

-David purchases and erects an altar upon Araunah's threshing floor
        2Sa 24:16-25

SYMBOLS AND SIMILITUDES

-The torn altar
        1Ki 13:3,5

TABERNACLE

COURAGE

    Gideon, in destroying the altar of Baal
        Jud 6:25-31

PRIEST

DUTIES OF
    Had charge of the sanctuary and altar
        Nu 18:2,5,7

EZRA
    Restored the altar, and offered sacrifices
        Ezr 3:1-7

MONTH

-7. Ethanim (October)
        1Ki 8:2
    Feasts held in
        Le 23:24,27; Ne 8:13-15
    Jubilee proclaimed in
        Le 25:9
    Solomon's temple dedicated in
        1Ki 8:2
    Altar rebuilt and offerings renewed in
        Ezr 3:1,6

GAD

-3. A prophet to David
        2Sa 24:11
    Bids David leave Adullam
        1Sa 22:5
    Bears the divine message to David, offering choice between three evils, for his presumption in numbering Israel
        2Sa 24:11-14; 1Ch 21:9-13
    Bids David build an altar on the threshing floor of Ornan
        2Sa 24:18,19; 1Ch 21:18,19



JACOB

-Journeys to Shalem, where he purchase a parcel of ground from Hamor and erects an altar
        Ge 33:18-20

-Returns to Bethel, where he builds an altar, and erects and dedicates a pillar
        Ge 35:1-7
   

TYPES

-OF THE SAVIOUR
    The morning and evening sacrifice
        Joh 1:29,36
    The red heifer
        Nu 19:2-6; with Heb 9:13,14
    The Paschal lamb
        1Co 5:7
    The Bronze Altar
        Ex 27:1,2; with Heb 13:10    
     The Bronze Laver
        Ex 30:18-20; with Zec 13:1; Eph 5:26,27
    The Mercy-Seat
        Ex 25:17-22; with Heb 4:16
    The Curtain
        Ex 40:21; 2Ch 3:14; with Heb 10:20



TEMPLE

-SOLOMON'S
    The Altar of Incense, and its furniture
        1Ki 6:20; 7:48,50; 1Ch 28:17,18; 2Ch 4:19,22
    The Altar of Burnt Offering
          2Ch 15:8


GILGAL

-1. Place of the first encampment of the Israelites west of the
        Jordan River
        Jos 4:19

JESHUA


GOLD


OFFERINGS


BRASS

    
GIDEON


TOKEN


SHITTIM


URIJAH


NOAH


TABLE


ZERUBBABEL


CARMEL


JOSIAH


ETHANIM


LAVER


EBAL


ARAUNAH


ED


The Bible Mentions the Altar Often

2 Kings 16:11 - And Urijah the priest built an altar according to all that king Ahaz had sent from Damascus: so Urijah the priest made [it] against king Ahaz came from Damascus.

1 Kings 8:64 - The same day did the king hallow the middle of the court that [was] before the house of the LORD: for there he offered burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and the fat of the peace offerings: because the brasen altar that [was] before the LORD [was] too little to receive the burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and the fat of the peace offerings.

Leviticus 8:30 - And Moses took of the anointing oil, and of the blood which [was] upon the altar, and sprinkled [it] upon Aaron, [and] upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon his sons' garments with him; and sanctified Aaron, [and] his garments, and his sons, and his sons' garments with him.

Leviticus 9:7 - And Moses said unto Aaron, Go unto the altar, and offer thy sin offering, and thy burnt offering, and make an atonement for thyself, and for the people: and offer the offering of the people, and make an atonement for them; as the LORD commanded.

Ezekiel 41:22 - The altar of wood [was] three cubits high, and the length thereof two cubits; and the corners thereof, and the length thereof, and the walls thereof, [were] of wood: and he said unto me, This [is] the table that [is] before the LORD.

Leviticus 16:33 - And he shall make an atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the tabernacle of the congregation, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation.

2 Chronicles 4:1 - Moreover he made an altar of brass, twenty cubits the length thereof, and twenty cubits the breadth thereof, and ten cubits the height thereof.

1 Kings 6:22 - And the whole house he overlaid with gold, until he had finished all the house: also the whole altar that [was] by the oracle he overlaid with gold.

Exodus 29:36 - And thou shalt offer every day a bullock [for] a sin offering for atonement: and thou shalt cleanse the altar, when thou hast made an atonement for it, and thou shalt anoint it, to sanctify it.

Exodus 29:21 - And thou shalt take of the blood that [is] upon the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle [it] upon Aaron, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon the garments of his sons with him: and he shall be hallowed, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons' garments with him.

Exodus 30:18 - Thou shalt also make a laver [of] brass, and his foot [also of] brass, to wash [withal]: and thou shalt put it between the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar, and thou shalt put water therein.

Joshua 22:23 - That we have built us an altar to turn from following the LORD, or if to offer thereon burnt offering or meat offering, or if to offer peace offerings thereon, let the LORD himself require [it];

Numbers 18:17 - But the firstling of a cow, or the firstling of a sheep, or the firstling of a goat, thou shalt not redeem; they [are] holy: thou shalt sprinkle their blood upon the altar, and shalt burn their fat [for] an offering made by fire, for a sweet savour unto the LORD.

2 Chronicles 7:7 - Moreover Solomon hallowed the middle of the court that [was] before the house of the LORD: for there he offered burnt offerings, and the fat of the peace offerings, because the brasen altar which Solomon had made was not able to receive the burnt offerings, and the meat offerings, and the fat.

Ezekiel 47:1 - Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront of the house [stood toward] the east, and the waters came down from under from the right side of the house, at the south [side] of the altar.

1 Kings 12:32 - And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that [is] in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made.

Exodus 30:1 - And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: [of] shittim wood shalt thou make it.

Isaiah 56:7 - Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices [shall be] accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.

Deuteronomy 16:21 - Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the LORD thy God, which thou shalt make thee.

1 Kings 1:53 - So king Solomon sent, and they brought him down from the altar. And he came and bowed himself to king Solomon: and Solomon said unto him, Go to thine house.

Joshua 8:31 - As Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up [any] iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings.

Numbers 7:1 - And it came to pass on the day that Moses had fully set up the tabernacle, and had anointed it, and sanctified it, and all the instruments thereof, both the altar and all the vessels thereof, and had anointed them, and sanctified them;

Deuteronomy 27:6 - Thou shalt build the altar of the LORD thy God of whole stones: and thou shalt offer burnt offerings thereon unto the LORD thy God:

Exodus 38:1 - And he made the altar of burnt offering [of] shittim wood: five cubits [was] the length thereof, and five cubits the breadth thereof; [it was] foursquare; and three cubits the height thereof.

1 Kings 6:20 - And the oracle in the forepart [was] twenty cubits in length, and twenty cubits in breadth, and twenty cubits in the height thereof: and he overlaid it with pure gold; and [so] covered the altar [which was of] cedar.

Exodus 20:24 - An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.

Genesis 12:8 - And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, [having] Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD.

Exodus 20:25 - And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.

Leviticus 8:21 - And he washed the inwards and the legs in water; and Moses burnt the whole ram upon the altar: it [was] a burnt sacrifice for a sweet savour, [and] an offering made by fire unto the LORD; as the LORD commanded Moses.

Joshua 22:11 - And the children of Israel heard say, Behold, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh have built an altar over against the land of Canaan, in the borders of Jordan, at the passage of the children of Israel.


More Ancient Altar Resources

Ancient Altars - Sketches

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"The Bible is the most priceless possession of the human race." - Henry H. Halley

"This handbook is dedicated to the proposition that every Christian should be a constant and devoted reader of the Bible, and that the primary business of the church and ministry is to lead, foster, and encourage their people in the habit."

"The vigor of our spiritual life will be in exact proportion to the place held by the Bible in our life and thoughts."

"Great has been the blessing from consecutive, diligent, daily study. I look upon it as a lost day when I have not had a good time over the word of God." - George Muller

"I prayed for faith, and thought that some day faith would come down and strike me like lightning. But faith did not seem to come. One day I read in the 10th chapter of Romans, 'Now faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.' I had closed my Bible, and prayed for faith. I now opened my Bible, and began to study, and faith has been growing ever since." - D. L. Moody

-H. H. Halley "Halley's Bible Handbook" (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960) p. 4, 6


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Archaeological Study of the Bible

"A substantial proof for the accuracy of the Old Testament text has come from archaeology. Numerous discoveries have confirmed the historical accuracy of the biblical documents, even down to the obsolete names of foreign kings... Rather than a manifestation of complete ignorance of the facts of its day, the biblical record thus reflects a great knowledge by the writer of his day, as well as precision in textual transmission."

-Norman L. Geisler, William Nix "A General Introduction to the Bible" 5th Edition (Chicago: Moody Press 1983) p. 253


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