International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
ol'-ter (mizbeach, literally, "place of slaughter or sacrifice," from zabhach, which is found in both senses; bomos, (only in Acts 17:23), thusiasterion):
I. CLASSIFICATION OF HEBREW ALTARS
Importance of the Distinction
II. LAY ALTARS
2. In the Mosaic Age
3. Dangers of the Custom
4. The Mosaic Provisions
III. HORNED ALTARS OF BURNT OFFERING
1. The Tabernacle Altar
2. The Altar of Josh 22
3. The Altar till Solomon
4. The Horned Altar in Use
5. The Temple of Solomon
6. The Altar of Ahaz
8. The Post-exilic Altar
9. Idolatrous and Unlawful Altars
10. The Horns
IV. ALTARS OF INCENSE
V. RECENT ARCHAEOLOGICAL MATERIALS
1. A Gezer Altar
2. The Taanach Altar of Incense
I. Classification of Hebrew Altars.
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.
Importance of the Distinction:
Both these might be and were called altars, but it is so evident that this common designation could not have caused any eye-witness to confuse the two that in reading the Bible we must carefully examine each text in turn and see to which kind the author is referring. Endless confusion has been caused, even in our own time, by the failure to note this distinction, and the reader can hope to make sense of the Biblical laws and narratives only if he be very careful to picture to himself in every case the exact object to which his text refers. For the sake of clearness different terms will be adopted in this article to denote the two kinds of altars. The first will be termed "lay altars" since, as will be seen, the Law permitted any layman to offer certain sacrifices at an altar of earth or unhewn stone without the assistance of a priest, while the second while be styled "horned altars," owing to their possession of horns which, as already pointed out, could not exist in a lay altar that conformed with the provisions of the law.
II. Lay Altars.
In Genesis we often read of the erection of altars, e.g. Gen 8:20; 12:7; 13:4. Though no details are given we are able to infer their general character with considerable precision. In reading the accounts it is sometimes evident that we are dealing with some rough improvised structure. For example, when Abraham builds the altar for the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen 22 it cannot be supposed that he used metal or wrought stone. When Jacob makes a covenant with Laban a heap of stones is thrown up "and they did eat there by the heap" (31:46). This heap is not expressly termed an altar, but if this covenant be compared with later covenants it will be seen that in these its place is taken by an altar of the lay type (SBL, chapter 2), and it is reasonable to suppose that this heap was in fact used as an altar (compare Gen 31:54). A further consideration is provided by the fact that the Arabs had a custom of using any stone as an altar for the nonce, and certainly such altars are found in the Mosaic and post-Mosaic history. We may therefore feel sure that the altars of Gen were of the general type represented by Fig. 1 and were totally unlike the altars of Fig. 2.
2. In the Mosaic Age:
Thus Moses found a custom by which the Israelite threw up rude altars of the materials most easily obtained in the field and offered sacrificial worship to God on sundry occasions. That the custom was not peculiar to the Israelites is shown by such instances as that of Balaam (Nu 23:1, etc.). Probably we may take the narrative of Jethro's sacrifice as a fair example of the occasions on which such altars were used, for it cannot be supposed that Aaron and all the elders of Israel were openly committing an unlawful act when they ate bread with Moses' father-in-law before God (Ex 18:12). Again, the narrative in which we see Moses building an altar for the purposes of a covenant probably exemplifies a custom that was in use for other covenants that did not fall to be narrated (Ex 24:4 ff).
3. Dangers of the Custom:
But a custom of erecting altars might easily lend itself to abuses. Thus archaeology has shown us one altar--though of a much later date--which is adorned with faces, a practice that was quite contrary to the Mosaic ideas of preserving a perfectly imageless worship. Other possible abuses were suggested by the current practices of the Canaanites or are explained by the terms of the laws.
See HIGH PLACE.
4. The Mosaic Provisions:
Accordingly Moses regulated these lay altars. Leaving the occasion of their erection and use to be determined by custom he promulgated the following laws: "An altar of earth mayest thou make unto me, and mayest sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen; in all the place where I record my name I will come unto thee and I will bless thee. And if thou make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones; for if thou lift thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither mayest thou go up by steps unto mine altar," etc. (Ex 20:24-26; so correct English Versions of the Bible). Several remarks must be made on this law. It is a law for laymen, not priests. This is proved by the second person singular and also by the reason given for the prohibition of steps--since the priests were differently garbed. It applies "in all the place where I record my name," not, as the ordinary rendering has it, "in every place." This latter is quite unintelligible: it is usually explained as meaning places hallowed by theophanies, but there are plenty of instances in the history of lay sacrifices where no theophany can be postulated; see e.g. Gen 31:54; 1 Sam 20:6,29 (EPC, 185 f). "All the place" refers to the territory of Israel for the time being. When Naaman desired to cease sacrificing to any deity save the God of Israel he was confronted by the problem of deciding how he could sacrifice to Him outside this "place." He solved it by asking for two mules' burden of the earth of the "place" (2 Ki 5:17). Lastly, as already noticed, this law excludes the possibility of giving the altars horns or causing them to conform to any given pattern, since the stone could not be wrought One other law must be noticed in this connection: Dt 16:21 f: `Thou shalt not plant thee an 'asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord thy God, which thou shalt make thee. Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy God hateth.' Here again the reference is probably to the lay altars, not to the religious capital which was under the control of the priests.
III. Horned Altars of Burnt Offering.
1. The Tabernacle Altar:
In Ex 27:1-8 (compare 38:1-7) a command is given to construct for the Tabernacle an altar of shittim wood covered with bronze. It was to be five cubits long by five broad and three high. The four corners were to have horns of one piece with it. A network of bronze was to reach halfway up the altar to a ledge. In some way that is defined only by reference to what was shown to Moses in the Mount the altar was to be hollow with planks, and it was to be equipped with rings and staves for facility of transport. The precise construction cannot be determined, and it is useless to speculate where the instructions are so plainly governed by what was seen by Moses in the Mount; but certain features that are important for the elucidation of the Bible texts emerge clearly. The altar is rectangular, presenting at the top a square surface with horns at the four corners. The more important material used is bronze, and the whole construction was as unlike that of the ordinary lay altar as possible. The use of this altar in the ritual of the Tabernacle falls under the heading SACRIFICE. Here we must notice that It was served by priests. Whenever we find references to the horns of an altar or to its pattern we see that the writer is speaking of an altar of this general type. Thus, a criminal seeking asylum fled to an altar of this type, as appears from the horns which are mentioned in the two historical instances and also from such expressions as coming down or going up.
2. The Altar of Josh 22:
We read in Josh 22:9 ff that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad built an altar. In 22:28 we find them saying, "Be hold the pattern of the altar," etc. This is decisive as to the meaning, for the lay altar had no pattern. Accordingly in its general shape this altar must have conformed to the type of the Tabernacle altar. It was probably not made of the same materials, for the word "build" is continually used in connection with it, and this word would scarcely be appropriate for working metal: nor again was it necessarily of the same size, but it was of the same pattern: and it was designed to serve as a witness that the descendants of the men who built it had a portion in the Lord. It seems to follow that the pattern of the Tabernacle altar was distinctive and unlike the heathen altars in general use in Israel and this appears to be confirmed by modern excavations which have revealed high places with altars quite unlike those contemplated by the Pentateuch.
See HIGH PLACE.
3. The Altar till Solomon:
In the subsequent history till the erection of Solomon's Temple attention need only be directed to the fact that a horned altar existed while the Ark was still housed in a tent. This is important for two reasons. It shows a historical period in which a horned altar existed at the religious capital side by side with a number of lay altars all over the country, and it negatives the suggestion of G. A. Smith (Jerusalem, II, 64) that the bare rock ec-Cakhra was used by Solomon as the altar, since the unhewn rock obviously could not provide a horned altar such as we find as early as 1 Ki 1:50-53.
4. The Horned Altar in Use:
Note too that we read here of bringing down from the altar, and this expression implies elevation. Further in 1 Ki 9:25 we hear that Solomon was in the habit of offering on the altar which he had built, and this again proves that he had built an altar and did not merely use the temple rock. (See also Watson in PEFS (January, 1910), 15 ff, in reply to Smith.)
5. The Temple of Solomon:
For the reasons just given it is certain that Solomon used an altar of the horned type, but we have no account of the construction in Kings. According to a note preserved in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew, Solomon enlarged the altar erected by David on Araunah's threshing-floor (2 Sam 24:25), but this notice is of very doubtful historical value and may be merely a glossator's guess. According to 2 Ch 4:1 the altar was made of bronze and was twenty cubits by twenty by ten. The Chronicler's dimensions are doubted by many, but the statement of the material is confirmed by 1 Ki 8:64; 2 Ki 16:10-15. From the latter passage it appears that an altar of bronze had been in use till the time of Ahaz.
6. The Altar of Ahaz:
This king saw an altar in Damascus of a different pattern and had a great altar made for the temple on its model. As the text contrasts the great altar with the altar of bronze, we may refer that the altar of Ahaz was not made of bronze. Whether either or both of these altars had steps (compare Ezek 43:17) or were approached by a slope as in Fig. 2 cannot be determined with certainty. It may be noted that in Isa 27:9 we read of the stones of the altar in a passage the reference of which is uncertain.
Ezekiel also gives a description of an altar (43:13-17), but there is nothing to show whether it is purely ideal or represents the altar of Solomon or that of Ahaz, and modern writers take different views. In the vision it stood before the house (40:47). In addition he describes an altar or table of wood (41:22). This of course could only be a table, not in any sense an altar.
8. The Post-exilic Altar:
Ezr 3:2 f tells of the setting up of the altar by Zerubbabel and his contemporaries. No information as to its shape, etc., can be extracted from this notice. We read of a defilement of the temple altar in 1 Macc 1:54. This was made of stones (Ex 20:24-26 having at this date been applied to the temple altar contrary to its original intent) and a fresh altar of whole stones was constructed (1 Macc 4:44-49). Presumably this altar had no horns.
9. Idolatrous and Unlawful Altars:
It is clear from the historical and prophetical books that in both kingdoms a number of unlawful altars were in use. The distinction which has been drawn between lay altars and horned altars helps to make these passages easy to understand. Thus when Amos in speaking of Bethel writes, "The horns of the altar shall be cut off," we see that he is not thinking of lay altars which could have no horns (3:14). Again Hosea's "Because Ephraim hath multiplied altars `to sin,' altars have been to him `for sin'" (8:11, compare 10:1-8; 12:11 (12)), is not in contradiction to Ex 20:24-26 because the prophet is not speaking of lay altars. The high places of Jeroboam (1 Ki 12:28-33) were clearly unlawful and their altars were unlawful altars of the horned type. Such cases must be clearly distinguished from the lay altars of Saul and others.
10. The Horns:
The origin of the horns is unknown, though there are many theories. Fugitives caught hold of them (1 Ki 1:50,51), and victims could be tied to them (Ps 118:27).
IV. Altars of Incense.
Ex 30:1-10 contains the commands for the construction and use of an altar of incense. The material was shittim wood, the dimensions one cubit by one by two, and it also had horns. Its top and sides were overlaid with gold and it was surrounded by a crown or rim of gold. For facility of transport it had golden rings and staves. It stood before the veil in front of the ark.
Solomon also constructed an altar of incense (1 Ki 6:20; 7:48; 1 Ch 28:18), cedar replacing shittim wood. The altar of incense reappears in 1 Macc 1:21; 4:49.
V. Recent Archaeological Materials.
Recently several altars have been revealed by excavations. They throw light on the Bible chiefly by showing what is forbidden.
See especially HIGH PLACE.
1. A Gezer Altar:
Fig. 3 represents an altar found at Gezer built into the foundation of a wall dating about 600 BC. Mr. Macalister describes it in the following words: "It is a four-sided block of limestone, 1 ft. 3 inches high. The top and bottom are approximately 10 1/2 and 9 inches square respectively; but these are only the average dimensions of the sides, which are not regularly cut. The angles are prolonged upward for an additional 1 1/2 inches as rounded knobs--no doubt the `horns' of the altar. The top is very slightly concave so as to hold perhaps an eighth of a pint of liquid" (PEFS (July, 1907), 196 f). The size suggests an altar of incense rather than an altar of burnt offering, but in view of the general resemblance between the Tabernacle altars of burnt offering and incense, this is a fact of minor importance. On the other hand, the shape, pattern and material are of great interest. That the altar violates in principle the law of Ex 20:25 forbidding the dressing of the stones is obvious, though that passage does not apply in terms to altars of incense, but certainly the appearance of the block does recall in a general way the altars of the other type--the horned altars. Like them it is four-sided with a square top, and like them it has knobs or horns at each corner. Possibly it was formed in general imitation of the Temple altars.
Other altars in Canaanite high places exemplify by their appearance the practices prohibited by the Pentateuch. See for illustrations H. Vincent, Canaan d'apres l'exploration recente; R. Kittel, Studien zur hebraischen Archaologie und Religions-Geschichte; S. R. Driver, Modern Research as Illustrating the Bible.
2. The Taanach Altar of Incense:
Importance attaches to a terra cotta altar of incense found by Sellin at Taanach, because its height and dimensions at the base recall the altar of Ex. "It was just 3 ft. high, and in shape roughly like a truncated pyramid, the four sides at the bottom being each 18 inches long, and the whole ending at the top in a bowl a foot in diameter. .... The altar is hollow. .... Professor Sellin places the date of the altar at about 700 BC. .... An incense-altar of exactly the same shape .... but of much smaller size .... has been found quite recently at Gezer in debris of about 1000-600 BC" (Driver, Modern Research, etc., 85). These discoveries supply a grim comment on theories of those critics who maintain that incense was not used by the Hebrews before the time of Jeremiah. The form of the altar itself is as contrary to the principles of the Pentateuch law as any thing could be.
On altar furniture see POT; SHOVEL; BASIN; FLESH-HOOK; FIREPAN. On the site, TEMPLE, and generally, ARIEL; SACRIFICE; SANCTUARY; TABERNACLE; HIGH PLACE.
R. Kittel, Studien zur hebraischen Archaologie und Religions-Geschichte, I and II; Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics; Murray, Illustrated Bible Dictionary; EB, under the word "Altar"; EPC, chapter 6. The discussions in the ordinary works of reference must be used with caution for the reason given in I above.
Harold M. Wiener
I. IN WORSHIP: TABERNACLE AND TEMPLES
1. Patriarchal Altars
2. Sacred Sites
3. Pre-Tabernacle Altars
II. THE ALTAR OF BURNT OFFERING; BRAZEN ALTAR
1. Altar before the Tabernacle
2. Its History
3. Altar of Solomon's Temple
4. Altar of Ezekiel's Temple
5. Altar of Second Temple
6. Altar of Herod's Temple
III. THE ALTAR OF INCENSE (GOLDEN ALTAR)
1. In the Tabernacle
2. Mode of Burning Incense
3. In Solomon's Temple and Later
4. In Herod's Temple
5. Symbolism of Incense Burning
B. IN WORSHIP
I. In Worship: Tabernacle and Temples.
In the literature of the Bible, sacrifices are prior to altars, and altars prior to sacred buildings. Their first mention is in the case of the altar built by Noah after the Flood (Gen 8:20).
1. Patriarchal Altars:
The next is the altar built at the place of Shechem, by which Abraham formally took possession, on behalf of his descendants, of the whole land of Canaan (Gen 12:7). A second altar was built between Bethel and Ai (Gen 12:8). To this the patriarch returned on his way from Egypt (Gen 13:4). His next place of sacrifice was Hebron (Gen 13:18); and tradition still professes to show the place where his altar stood. A subsequent altar was built on the top of a mountain in the land of Moriah for the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:9).
2. Sacred Sites:
Each of these four spots was the scene of some special revelation of Yahweh; possibly to the third of them (Hebron) we may attribute the memorable vision and covenant of Gen 15. These sites became, in after years, the most venerated and coveted perquisites of the nation, and fights for their possession largely determined its history. To them Isaac added an altar at Beersheba (Gen 26:25), probably a re-erection, on the same site, of an altar built by Abraham, whose home for many years was at Beersheba. Jacob built no new altars, but again and again repaired those at Shechem and Bethel. On one occasion he offered a sacrifice on one of the mountains of Gilead, but without mention of an altar (Gen 31:54). There were thus four or five spots in Canaan associated at once with the worship of Yahweh, and the name of their great ancestor, which to Hebrews did not lose their sanctity by the passage of time, namely, Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, Moriah and Beersheba.
3. Pre-Tabernacle Altars:
The earliest provision for an altar as a portion of a fixed establishment of religion is found in Ex 20:24-26, immediately after the promulgation of the Decalogue. Altars are commanded to be made of earth or of unhewn stone, yet so as to have, not steps, but only slopes for ascent to the same--the injunction implying that they stood on some elevation (see ALTAR, sec A, above). Before the arrival at Sinai, during the war with Amalek, Moses had built an emergency altar, to which he gave the name Yahweh-Nissi (Ex 17:15). This was probably only a memorial altar (compare the altar `Ed in Josh 22:21 ff). At Sinai took place the great crisis in Israel's national history. It was required that the covenant about to be made with Yahweh should be ratified with sacrificial blood; but before Moses could sprinkle the Book of the Covenant and the people who covenanted (Ex 24:6,7; compare Heb 9:19), it was necessary that an altar should be built for the sacrificial act. This was done "under the mount," where, beside the altar, were reared twelve pillars, emblematic of the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex 24:4).
In connection with the tabernacle and the successive temples there were two altars--the Altar of Burnt Offering (the altar by preeminence, Ezek 43:13), and the Altar of Incense. Of these it is now necessary to speak more particularly.
II. The Altar of Burnt Offering (The Brazen Altar)
(mizbach ha-`olah), (mizbach ha-nechosheth).--(By "brass" throughout understand "bronze.")
1. Altar before the Tabernacle:
The altar which stood before the tabernacle was a portable box constructed of acacia wood and covered on the outside with plates of brass (Ex 27:1 ff). "Hollow with planks," is its definition (Ex 27:8). It was five cubits long, five cubits broad, and three cubits high; on the ordinary reckoning, about 7 1/2 ft. on the horizontal square, and 4 1/2 ft. in height (possibly less; see CUBIT). On the "grating of network of brass" described as around and half-way up the altar (verses 4,5), see GRATING. Into the corners of this grating, on two sides, rings were riveted, into which the staves were inserted by which the Ark was borne (see STAVES). For its corner projections, see HORNS OF THE ALTAR. The prohibition of steps in Ex 20:26 and the analogy of later altars suggest that this small altar before the tabernacle was made to stand on a base or platform, led up to by a slope of earth. The right of sanctuary is mentioned in Ex 21:14. For the utensils connected with the altar, see PAN; SHOVEL; BASIN; FLESH-HOOK; CENSER. All these utensils were made of brass.
2. Its History:
The history of the altar before the tabernacle was that of the tabernacle itself, as the two were not parted during its continuance (see TABERNACLE). Their abolition did not take place till Solomon's temple was ready for use, when the great high place at Gibeon (1 Ki 3:4) was dismantled, and the tabernacle and its holy vessels were brought to the new temple (1 Ki 8:4). Another altar had meanwhile been raised by David before the tabernacle he had made on Zion, into which the Ark of the Covenant was moved (1 Ch 15:1; 16:1). This would be a duplicate of that at Gibeon, and would share its supersession at the erection of the first temple.
3. Altar of Solomon's Temple:
In Solomon's temple the altar was considerably enlarged, as was to be expected from the greater size of the building before which it stood. We are indebted to the Chronicler for its exact dimensions (2 Ch 4:1). It formed a square of twenty cubits, with an elevation of ten cubits (30 x 30 x 15 ft.; or somewhat less). It is described as "an altar of brass" (2 Ch 4:1), or "brazen altar" (1 Ki 8:64; 2 Ch 7:7; compare 2 Ki 16:14), either as being, like its predecessors, encased in brass, or, as others think, made wholly of brass. It was not meant to be portable, but that the altar itself was movable is shown by the fact of Ahaz having it removed (2 Ki 16:14). Further details of its structure are not given. The altar stood in "the middle of the court that was before the house," but proved too small to receive the gifts on the day of the temple's dedication (1 Ki 8:64; 2 Ch 7:7). It remained, however, the center of Israelite worship for 2 1/2 centuries, till Ahaz removed it from the forefront of the house, and placed it on the northern side of is Damascene altar (2 Ki 16:14). This indignity was repaired by Hezekiah (compare 2 Ki 18:22), and the altar assumed its old place in the temple service till its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC.
4. Altar of Ezekiel's Temple:
The altar of Ezekiel's ideal temple was, as planned, a most elaborate structure, the cubit used for this purpose being that of "a cubit and an handbreadth" (Ezek 43:13), or the large cubit of history (see CUBIT). The paragraph describing it (Ezek 43:13-17) is very specific, though uncertainty rests on the meaning of some of the details. The altar consisted of four stages lying one above another, gradually diminishing in size till the hearth was reached upon which the fire was literal. This was a square of twelve cubits (18 ft.), from the corners of which 4 horns projected upward (Ezek 43:15). The base or lowest stage was one cubit in height, and had a border round about, half a cubit high (Ezek 43:13); the remaining stages were two, four, and four cubits high respectively (Ezek 43:14,15); the horns may have measured another cubit (thus, the Septuagint). Each stage was marked by the inlet of one cubit (Ezek 43:13,14). The basement was thus, apparently, a square of eighteen cubits or 27 ft. The word "bottom" (literally, "bosom") in Ezekiel's description is variously interpreted, some regarding it as a "drain" for carrying off the sacrificial blood, others identifying it with the "basement." On its eastern face the altar had steps looking toward the east (Ezek 43:17)--a departure from the earlier practice (for the reason of this, compare Perowne's article "Altar" in Smith, Dictionary of the Bible).
5. Altar of Second Temple:
Of the altar of the second temple no measurements are given. It is told only that it was built prior to the temple, and was set upon its base (Ezr 3:3), presumably on the Cakhra stone--the ancient site.
6. Altar of Herod's Temple:
In Herod's temple a difficulty is found in harmonizing the accounts of the Mishna and Josephus as to the size of the altar. The latter gives it as a square of fifty cubits (BJ, V, v, 6). The key to the solution probably lies in distinguishing between the structure of the altar proper (thirty-two cubits square), and a platform of larger area (fifty cubits square = 75 ft.) on which it stood. When it is remembered that the Cakhra stone is 56 ft in length and 42 ft. in width, it is easy to see that it might form a portion of a platform built up above and around it to a level of this size. The altar, like that of Ezekiel's plan, was built in diminishing stages; in the Mishna, one of one cubit, and three of five cubits in height, the topmost stage measuring twenty-six cubits square, or, with deduction of a cubit for the officiating priests, twenty-four cubits. Josephus, on the other hand, gives the height at fifteen cubits. The altar, as before, had four horns. Both Josephus and the Mishna state that the altar was built of unhewn stones. The ascent, thirty-two cubits long and sixteen broad, likewise of unhewn stone, was on the south side. See further, TEMPLE, HEROD'S. It is of this altar that the words were spoken, "Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Mt 5:24).
III. The Altar of Incense (Golden Altar)
(mizbach ha-qeToreth), (mizbach ha-zahabh).
1. In the Tabernacle:
This was a diminutive table of acacia overlaid with gold, the upper surface of which was a square of one cubit, and its height two cubits, with an elevated cornice or crown around its top (Ex 30:2 ff). Like the great altar of burnt offering, it was in the category of "most holy" things (Ex 30:10); a distinction which gave it a right to a place in the inner room of the cella or holy of holies. Hence, in 1 Ki 6:22, it is said to "belong to the oracle," and in Heb 9:4 that chamber is said to have the "altar of incense." It did not, however, actually stand there, but in the outer chamber, "before the veil" (Ex 40:26). The reason for this departure from the strict rule of temple ritual was that sweet incense was to be burnt daily upon it at the offering of every daily sacrifice, the lamps being then lit and extinguished (compare Nu 28:3 f; Ex 30:7,8), so that a cloud of smoke might fill the inner chamber at the moment when the sacrificial blood was sprinkled (see MERCY-SEAT). To have burnt this incense within the veil would have required repeated entries into the holy of holies, which entries were forbidden (Lev 16:2). The altar thus stood immediately without the veil, and the smoke of the incense burnt upon it entered the inner chamber by the openings above the veil. For the material construction which admitted of this, see HOLY PLACE.
For other uses of the altar of incense see HORNS OF THE ALTAR, where it is shown that at the time of the offerings of special sin offerings and on the day of the annual fast its horns were sprinkled with blood. This, with the offering of incense upon it, were its only uses, as neither meal offerings might be laid upon it, nor libations of drink offerings poured thereon (Ex 30:9). The Tamiyd, or standing sacrifice for Israel, was a whole burnt offering of a lamb offered twice daily with its meal offering, accompanied with a service of incense.
2. Mode of Burning Incense:
It is probable that the censers in use at the time of the construction of this altar and after were in shape like a spoon or ladle (see SHEWBREAD, TABLE OF), which, when filled with live coals from the great altar, were carried within the sanctuary and laid upon the altar of incense (Lev 16:12). The incense-sticks, broken small, were then placed upon the coals. The narrative of the deaths of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, is thus made intelligible, the fire in their censers not having been taken from the great altar.
3. In Solomon's Temple and Later:
The original small altar made by Moses was superseded by one made by Solomon. This was made of cedar wood, overlaid with gold (1 Ki 6:20,22; 7:48; 9:25; 2 Ch 4:19); hence, was called the "golden altar." This was among "all the vessels of the house of God, great and small," which Nebuchadnezzar took to Babylon (2 Ch 36:18). As a consequence, when Ezekiel drew plans for a new temple, he gave it an incense altar made wholly of wood and of larger dimensions than before (Ezek 41:22). It had a height of three cubits and a top of two cubits square. There was an incense altar likewise in the second temple. It was this altar, probably plated with gold, which Antiochus Epiphanes removed (1 Macc 1:21), and which was restored by Judas Maccabeus (1 Macc 4:49). (On critical doubts as to the existence of the golden altar in the first and second temples, compare POT, 323.)
4. In Herod's Temple:
That the Herodian temple also had its altar of incense we know from the incident of Zacharias having a vision there of "an angel .... standing on the right side of the altar of incense" when he went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense (Lk 1:11). No representation of such an altar appears on the arch of Titus, though it is mentioned by Josephus (BJ, V, v, 5). It was probably melted down by John during the course of the siege (V, xiii, 6).
5. Symbolism of Incense Burning:
In the apocalypse of John, no temple was in the restored heaven and earth (Rev 21:22), but in the earlier part of the vision was a temple (Rev 14:17; 15:6) with an altar and a censer (Rev 8:3). It is described as "the golden altar which was before the throne," and, with the smoke of its incense, there went up before God the prayers of the saints. This imagery is in harmony with the statement of Luke that as the priests burnt incense, "the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the hour of incense" (Lk 1:10). Both history and prophecy thus attest the abiding truth that salvation is by sacrificial blood, and is made available to men through the prayers of saints and sinners offered by a great High Priest.
W. Shaw Caldecott
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'ALTAR'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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