What is an altar?
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 (Genesis 8:20 ). 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 (Genesis 12:7 ). A second altar was built between Bethel and Ai (Genesis 12:8 ).
To this the patriarch returned on his way from Egypt (Genesis 13:4 ). His next place of sacrifice was Hebron (Genesis 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 (Genesis 22:9 ).
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 (Genesis 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 (Genesis 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.
Altars before the Tabernacle
The earliest provision for an altar as a portion of a fixed establishment of religion is found in Exodus 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. Before the arrival at Sinai, during the war with Amalek, Moses had built an emergency altar, to which he gave the name Yahweh-Nissi (Exodus 17:15 ). This was probably only a memorial altar (compare the altar ד , 'Ed in Joshua 22:21 ).
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 (Exodus 24:6 , Exodus 24:7 ; compare Hebrews 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 (Exodus 24:4 ).
In connection with the tabernacle and the successive temples there were two altars - the Altar of Burnt Offering (the altar by preëminence, Ezekiel 43:13 ), and the Altar of Incense. Of these it is now necessary to speak more particularly.
The Altar of Burnt Offering (the Brazen Altar)
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 (Exodus 27:1). "Hollow with planks," is its definition (Exodus 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. On the "grating of network of brass" described as around and half-way up the altar (Exodus 20:4 , Exodus 20:5 ). Into the corners of this grating, on two sides, rings were riveted, into which the staves were inserted by which the Ark was borne.
The prohibition of steps in Exodus 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 Exodus 21:14 . For the utensils connected with the altar. All these utensils were made of brass.
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 Kings 3:4 ) was dismantled, and the tabernacle and its holy vessels were brought to the new temple (1 Kings 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 Chronicles 15:1 ; 1 Chronicles 16:1 ). This would be a duplicate of that at Gibeon, and would share its supersession at the erection of the first temple.
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 Chronicles 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 Chronicles 4:1 ), or "brazen altar" (1 Kings 8:64 ; 2 Chronicles 7:7 ; compare 2 Kings 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 Kings 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 Kings 8:64 ; 2 Chronicles 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 Kings 16:14 ). This indignity was repaired by Hezekiah (compare 2 Kings 18:22 ), and the altar assumed its old place in the temple service till its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 bc.
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" (Ezekiel 43:13 ), or the large cubit of history (see CUBIT ). The paragraph describing it (Ezekiel 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 (Ezekiel 43:15 ).
The base or lowest stage was one cubit in height, and had a border round about, half a cubit high (Ezekiel 43:13 ); the remaining stages were two, four, and four cubits high respectively (Ezekiel 43:14 , Ezekiel 43:15 ); the horns may have measured another cubit (thus, the Septuagint). Each stage was marked by the inlet of one cubit (Ezekiel 43:13 , Ezekiel 43:14 ). 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 (Ezekiel 43:17 ) - a departure from the earlier practice (for the reason of this, compare Perowne's article "Altar" in Smith, Dictionary of the Bible ).
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 (Ezra 3:3 ), presumably on the Cakhra stone - the ancient site.
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 Ṣakhra 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" (Matthew 5:24 ).
The Altar of Incense (Golden Altar)
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 (Exodus 30:2 ). Like the great altar of burnt offering, it was in the category of "most holy" things (Exodus 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 Kings 6:22 , it is said to "belong to the oracle," and in Hebrews 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" ( Exodus 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 Numbers 28:3 f; Exodus 30:7 , Exodus 30:8 ), 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 (Leviticus 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 (Exodus 30:9 ). The Tāmı̄d , 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.
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 TABLE OF SHEWBREAD ), which, when filled with live coals from the great altar, were carried within the sanctuary and laid upon the altar of incense (Leviticus 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.
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 Kings 6:20 , 1 Kings 6:22 ; 1 Kings 7:48 ; 1 Kings 9:25 ; 2 Chronicles 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 Chronicles 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 (Ezekiel 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.)
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 (Luke 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).
Symbolism of Incense Burning
In the apocalypse of John, no temple was in the restored heaven and earth (Revelation 21:22 ), but in the earlier part of the vision was a temple (Revelation 14:17 ; Revelation 15:6 ) with an altar and a censer (Revelation 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" (Luke 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.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).