Bible Study Resource
Standing in front of an altar offering a gift to God, a person in the ancient world felt they were in direct communication with some force/being mightier than themselves. This 'being' might be pleased by what was offered and return the favour, so to speak, by granting the donor what he/she wanted. So the donor placed the gift on the altar and destroyed it (so that it could never belong to anyone else). If it was a sacrificial ritual, the climax came when the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the altar.
This desire for communication and reassurence seems to have been common all over the ancient world. At the beginning of the Trojan war in the Iliad, Achilles gives a speech that gives an insight into why ancient people offered sacrifice:
In patriarchal times, sacrifices might be offered by anyone, but once the Israelites had settled in Canaan, ministry at the altar in a recognized sanctuary became the ofﬁce of the priests. As sacriﬁcial ritual developed, so the altar became more important.
A 'high place' altar at Petra
An ancient altar in pre-Israelite Canaan might be simply a flat rock, or a rock hewn into a speciﬁc shape.
Altar at the ancient city of Megiddo
The circular altar at Megiddo was in the far right quarter of the city, in a separate temple complex
Early Israelite altars
The earliest altars mentioned in the Bible, from Patriarchal days to the early period of the monarchy, were built of stone. Exodus (20:24-26) lays it down that altars should be built either of plain clay bricks or of stones which have not been trimmed.
No steps led up to the altar so that it could not be exposed to profanity: ofﬁciating priests wore loincloths, and in stepping up onto the altar they might inadvertently have exposed their genitals. Hebrew altars could contain nothing profane, not even a ﬂight of steps.
Exodus also gives descriptions of the altar of holocausts (27:1-8; 38:1-7) and the altar of incense (30:1-5) used in the desert. The book describes them as elaborate structures of acacia-wood plated with bronze and standing two or three cubits high (4 or 5 feet). Many scholars think that such speciﬁcations probably refer to David's version of the Tabernacle, rather than the desert Tabernacle carried by the tribes fleeing from Pharaoh in Egypt.
Archaeologists excavating at Beersheba found several large, carefully shaped stones incorporated into the town walls dating back to the late eighth century BC. When the stones were reassembled, they formed a cubical altar with four tapered projections or 'horns' - see the reconstruction at right. One of the stone blocks had a snake carved onto it. The top stones were blackened, suggesting that sacrifices had been burnt there. The altar may have been dismantled at the time of King Hezekiah's religious reforms in the 8th century BC. For more on Beersheba, see BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: CITIES
There have been various theories about why the altar had projecting 'horns'. The most practical reason would be that the high corner stones provided leverage for the ropes necessary to hold down a struggling animal as it was being sacrificed. They may also have referred to the four points of the compass (see Astronomy and Astrology).
On the other hand, two areas would have been needed, one to slaughter the animal, the other to burn it. The same areas could not sensibly be used for both tasks, since the volume of blood from an animal with its throat cut would make any surface so wet that a fire would not burn.
There must have been several stages in the process:
the design of this small ceramic shrine with the stone altar
The altar in the First Temple
The altars of Solomon’s Temple apparently included the bronze altar of holocausts which stood in front of the Temple (ll Kings 16:14) and the altar of incense in the “hekhal"’ in front of the Holy of Holies (l Kings 6:20-21). The original altar of holocausts which stood 5 cubits high and was 5 cubits square, with steps leading up to it, was replaced by King Ahaz who installed a new model (ll Kings 16:10-16) which remained in use until the Exile.
The Temple altar must have been a more imposing version of the altars belonging to this period which archaeological excavations have unearthed elsewhere, notably at Arad. At Megiddo a typical lime-stone incense altar was found, shaped like a square pillar (as speciﬁed in Exodus 30:1-5), with four horns on the top corners. The blood of sacriﬁcial animals was rubbed on the horns to consecrate it or in rites of expiation. In addition, a fugitive claiming asylum would grasp the horns of the altar (1 Kings 2:28).
In other ancient religions, the altar provided a table upon which banquets were prepared for the god in the form of sacriﬁces. In form the altar was probably a platform or table on which gifts to the deity were placed, along with petitions, thanksgivings, etc. Although the Hebrew altar originated in similar beliefs, it developed a more complex signiﬁcance as the instrument through which the Covenant with God was maintained and restored. ln patriarchal days, an altar would be erected to commemorate an actual appearance of God, or within a place which was traditionally sacred to the God of the Patriarchs. Such altars, however, were essentially functional. They marked a spot where God had appeared but they had no further symbolic signiﬁcance.
The Temple was the house of God and, as such, it needed a hearth, a role which the altar fulﬁlled. This aspect is not stated explicitly but it is apparent from the way in which a ﬁre was always kept burning upon the altar (Leviticus 6:12-13; ll Maccabees 1:18-36), just as a lamp had to be kept permanently alight in the Temple (Exodus 27:20-21; Leviticus 24:2—4).
During the monarchy, the altar was puriﬁed once each year on the Day of Atonement and thus acquired an altogether exceptional holiness (Leviticus 8:15; 16:18-19).
In the Second Temple
The ideal altar, whose speciﬁcations Ezekiel gives (43:13-17), built in three tiers, may preserve the size of Solomon’s altar, but the shape of the new altar and the names of its diffrent parts seem to be of Babylonian inspiration, as is the symbolism which they imply. There is no evidence, however, that the altar built after the Restoration was modelled on Ezekiel‘s description.
The altars of holocausts and of incense in the Second Temple are more likely to have been those described in ll Chronicles 4:1 and 29:16ff, since the Chronicler may have based his account of Solomon’s Temple on the ﬁttings of the post-Exilic Temple with which he was familiar. More reliable descriptions are found in non-biblical sources of the Hellenistic period. Josephus gives one account, and another is included in the Letter of Aristeas.
Altar excavated at the ancient city of Arad
These describe the altar of holocausts as a square, 20 cubits wide and 10 cubits high, built of untrimmed stones according to the prescription of Exodus 20:25, and also in line with the Chronicler's description. There was also an altar of incense (see an example above). The altars were profaned in 164BC when Antiochus Epiphanes plundered the Temple, and they were rebuilt when the Temple was recaptured and purified by the victorious Maccabaeans (1 Maccabees 1:21; 1:59; 4:47).
Archaeology and the Bible
in Bible Times - Archaeology of The Bible