Ancient altars (Exodus 20)

Ancient altar from Beersheba

In the ancient world altars played a key role in the religious practices of many people groups. Any surface consecrated for the purpose of making sacred offerings would have been considered an altar. Biblical altars are of special interest in the context of these notes (features of altars to other gods were often similar – e.g. horns were common – but discussion of such elements is beyond the scope of this brief article).

The Hebrew noun mizbeah, translated “altar” is derived from the verbal root zbh (meaning “to slaughter”). God’s people frequently built altars on the site of a theophany of divine appearance (e.g. Genesis 12:7, 35:1, 7). Theologically, altars provided a meeting place between God and humanity, an intersection between heaven and Earth. They defined the spaces in which God caused Hid name to dwell and at which human beings might thereby call upon that name (Genesis 13:3-4, 26:25, Deuteronomy 12:11, 1 Kings 8:22-54).

The special sanctity of the Israelite altar is reflected in the Biblical injunction to build it of uncut stones (Exodus 20:25). This sanctity is also reflected in the fact that altars to the God of Israel were ascended via a sloping ramp rather than by a series of steps in order to prevent their defilement by the exposure of human nakedness during the priestly ascent (vers 26). Note that, although Aaron and his descendants did serve ar stepped altars (see Leviticus 9:22, Ezekiel 43:17), these priests were instructed to wear linen undergarments (see Exodus 28:42-43, Leviticus 6:10, 16:3-4, Ezekiel 44:17-18).

Constructed primarily of stone, dirt, wood or metal, ancient altars of all kinds ranged from the relatively simple to the elaborately complex. Prominent characters in the Biblical narratives, including Noah (see Genesis 8:20), Abram (Genesis 13:4), Isaac (Genesis 26:25), Jacob (Genesis 33:18-20) and Moses (Exodus 17:15), appear to have constructed simple stone altars. Complex altars were built in conjunction with more elaborate sanctuaries, whether portable (e.g. the tabernacle) or fixed (e.g. the temple).

During the Old Testament period the slaughter of animals in the Israelite context took place near, rather than on, the altar (note the exception of Genesis 22:9). Moreover, certain Israelite altars were used to offer grain, wine, oil and incense, sometimes in addition to animal sacrifices.

The tabernacle (not yet constructed at the time represented by Exodus 20) would contain an altar of bronze and another of gold. The bronze altar would be built of acacia wood, overlaid with bronze. It would stand in the courtyard, would be used specifically for burnt offerings and would have the following dimensions: 2,3 m long by 2,4 m wide by 1,4 m high (27:1-8). The altar of gold (to be built of acacia wood and overlaid with gold, see 30:1-3) would be used for offering incense within the sanctuary and would have these dimensions: approx. 0,5 m long by 0,5 m wide by 0,9 m high.

The bronze altar was to be hollow and fitted with four rings and two poles or staves, making it  lightweight and portable. Apparentlt both altars were to be fitted temporarily with earth and stone at each Israelite encampment (cf. 20:24-25).

Four horns, protruding from the four corners of the bronze altar, were to serve as the locations of which animal blood was to be applied to effect purification from sin (cf. 29:12). Similarly, priests were to place blood on the horns of the golden incense altar to purify it (Leviticus 4:7). It appears from Amos 3:14 that removal of these horns would invalidate an altar. Due to their intrinsic holiness, the horns of the altars were used to provide asylum for those who sought refuge, except in the case of international homicide (cf. Exodus 21:14, 1 Kings 1:50-51, 2:28-34).

A golden incense altar and a permanent bronze altar were also to be prominent fixtures in Solomons temple (1 Kings 6:22).


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