The horned altar (Psalm 118)

Bilderesultat for the horned altar

Illustration: The ‘horned altar’ of Beersheba 

The two most important ritual altars of Israel’s religious life were the bronze altar of sacrifice and the golden altar of incense. A conspicuous feature of their design was four “horns” rising from each of the four corners, which were to be of one piece with the altar itself rather than attached separately (Exodus 27:2, 30:2). Archaeological excavations have provided examples of this construction in an incense altar – discovered at Megiddo and a sacrificial altar from an Israelite sanctuary at Beersheba (pictured above).

The precise function of the horns remain uncertain. Since the Hebrew term for altar, mizbeah, literally means “place of ritual slaughter”, it has been suggested that the horns functioned as pegs to secure the animal about to be offered (Psalm 118:27). This seems unlikely, however, since the animal was ritually slaughtered before being placed on the altar and would require no restraint (Leviticus 1:5-9). Perhaps the horns on the altar, and especially those of the altar of incense, which was not used for sacrifice, may be explained by the broader role of the altar within temple liturgy. Priests were commanded to daub these horns with the sacrificial blood to symbolically effect purification from sin and thus to remove ritual impurity from the entire altar and sanctuary (Leviticus 4:7, 16:18).

In addition to their role in sacrificial offerings, altars served to memorialize a theophany or physical appearance of the Lord (Genesis 12:7, 35:1-7) and were intimately associated with the divine presence (Exodus 20:24). It is possible that altars were constructed so as to imitate mountains upon which sacrifices were offered and which God’s presence was associated. This would explain the law prescribing that free-standing altars in Israel be constructed of packed earth or a mound of unhewn stones (Exodus 20:24-26). The horns on the elaborate altars of the temple could suggest a more “stylized” mountain. Whatever the case, the special sanctity of the altar, and of the horns in particular, is evidenced by the asylum granted to anyone who seized them (1 Kings 1:50-51, 2:28-34).

See also Ancient altars under Exodus 20.


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