Basically, a raised structure or place on which sacrifices are offered or incense is burned in worship of the true God or of another deity. The Hebrew word miz·beʹach (altar) comes from the root verb za·vachʹ (slaughter; sacrifice) and thus basically refers to a place of slaughtering or sacrificing. (Ge 8:20; De 12:21; 16:2) Similarly, the Greek thy·si·a·steʹri·on (altar) comes from the root verb thyʹo, also meaning “slaughter; sacrifice.” (Mt 22:4; Mr 14:12) The Greek word bo·mosʹ refers to the altar of a false god.
The first mention of an altar occurs after the Flood when “Noah began to build an altar to Jehovah” and offered burnt offerings thereon. (Ge 8:20) The only offerings mentioned prior to the Flood were those of Cain and Abel, and though it is likely that they did so, it is not stated whether they used altars or not.
Abraham built an altar at Shechem (Ge 12:7), at a point between Bethel and Ai (Ge 12:8; 13:3), at Hebron (Ge 13:18), and also evidently on Mount Moriah, where he sacrificed a ram given him by God in substitution for Isaac. (Ge 22:9-13) Only in this last case is a sacrifice specifically mentioned as being offered on these altars by Abraham. However, the basic meaning of the Hebrew word indicates that offerings were likely made in each case. Isaac later built an altar at Beer-sheba (Ge 26:23, 25), and Jacob built altars at Shechem and at Bethel. (Ge 33:18, 20; 35:1, 3, 7) These altars made by the patriarchs were doubtless of the type later mentioned by God in the Law covenant, either mounds of earth or platforms consisting of natural (unhewn) stones.
Moses constructed an altar following the victory over Amalek, naming it Jehovah-nissi (Jehovah Is My Signal Pole). (Ex 17:15, 16) At the making of the Law covenant with Israel, an altar was built by Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai, and sacrifices were offered up on it. Blood from the sacrifices was sprinkled on the altar, on the book, and on the people, thereby validating and putting in force the covenant.
Tabernacle Altars. With the setting up of the tabernacle, two altars were constructed according to divine pattern. The altar of burnt offering (also called “the altar of copper” [Ex 39:39]) was made of acacia wood in the form of a hollow chest, apparently without top or bottom. It was 2.2 m (7.3 ft) square and 1.3 m (4.4 ft) high with “horns” projecting from the upper four corners. All its surfaces were overlaid with copper. A grating, or network, of copper was placed below the altar’s rim “down within,” “toward the center.” Four rings were placed at the four extremities near the grating, and these appear to be the same rings through which the two copper-sheathed acacia-wood poles were passed for carrying the altar. This might mean that a slot was cut through two sides of the altar allowing for a flat grating to be inserted, with the rings extending out on both sides. There is considerable difference of opinion among scholars on the subject, and many consider it likely that two sets of rings were involved, the second set, for insertion of the carrying poles, being attached directly to the outside of the altar. Copper equipment was made in the form of cans and shovels for the ashes, bowls for catching the blood of the animals, forks for handling the flesh, and fire holders.
This copper altar for burnt offerings was placed before the entrance of the tabernacle. (Ex 40:6, 29) While it was of relatively low height, thus not necessarily requiring a means of approach, for ease of handling the sacrifices placed within it the earth may have been raised around it or there may have been a ramp leading up to it. (Compare Le 9:22, which states that Aaron “came down” from making offerings.) Since the animal was sacrificed “at the side of the altar to the north” (Le 1:11), “the place for the fatty ashes” removed from the altar was to the E (Le 1:16), and the basin of copper for washing was located to the W (Ex 30:18), this would logically leave the S as the open side on which such a means of approach might be placed.
Altar of incense. The altar of incense (also called “the altar of gold” [Ex 39:38]) was likewise made of acacia wood, the top and sides being overlaid with gold. A border of gold ran around the top. The altar measured 44.5 cm (17.5 in.) square and 89 cm (2.9 ft) high, and also had “horns” extending out from the four top corners. Two gold rings were made for the insertion of the carrying poles made of acacia overlaid with gold, and these rings were placed underneath the gold border on opposite sides of the altar. (Ex 30:1-5; 37:25-28) A special incense was burned on this altar twice daily, in the morning and in the evening. (Ex 30:7-9, 34-38) The use of a censer, or a fire holder, is elsewhere mentioned for burning incense, and evidently such was employed also in connection with the altar of incense. (Le 16:12, 13; Heb 9:4; Re 8:5; compare 2Ch 26:16, 19.) The position of the altar of incense was within the tabernacle just before the curtain of the Most Holy so that it is spoken of as being “before the ark of the testimony.”
Sanctification and use of tabernacle altars. At the time of the installation ceremonies, both altars were anointed and sanctified. (Ex 40:9, 10) At that time, as also in subsequent sacrifices of certain sin offerings, blood of the sacrificed animal was put upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and the rest was poured out at its base. (Ex 29:12; Le 8:15; 9:8, 9) Some of the anointing oil and blood on the altar was spattered upon Aaron and his sons and their garments to sanctify them toward the conclusion of the installation ceremony. (Le 8:30) In all, seven days were required for the sanctification of the altar of burnt offering. (Ex 29:37) In other burnt offerings, communion sacrifices, and guilt offerings, the blood was sprinkled about upon the altar, while the blood of fowls sacrificed was spattered or drained at the side of the altar. (Le 1:5-17; 3:2-5; 5:7-9; 7:2) Grain offerings were made to smoke upon the altar as “a restful odor” to Jehovah. (Le 2:2-12) Remaining portions of the grain offering were eaten by the high priest and his sons alongside the altar. (Le 10:12) Annually on Atonement Day the altar was cleansed and sanctified by the high priest’s placing some of the sacrificial animals’ blood on the horns of the altar and by spattering it seven times upon the altar.
In all the animal sacrifices presented, portions of the animal were made to smoke upon the altar, and for this purpose a fire was maintained on the altar and was never allowed to go out. (Le 6:9-13) From here the fire was obtained for the burning of incense. (Nu 16:46) Only Aaron and those of his descendants who were free from defects were permitted to serve at the altar. (Le 21:21-23) The other Levites were only assistants. Any man not of the seed of Aaron drawing near was to be put to death. (Nu 16:40; 18:1-7) Korah and his assembly were destroyed for failing to recognize this divine assignment, and the copper fire holders that they had taken were made into thin metal plates and overlaid on the altar as a sign that no one not of the offspring of Aaron should draw near.
Once a year the golden altar of incense was also atoned for by the placing of sacrificial blood upon its horns. Other occasions on which it was so treated were when the sin offerings were made for members of the priesthood.
When being transported by the sons of Kohath both the altar of incense and the altar of burnt offerings were covered, the first with a blue cloth and sealskins, the second with a reddish-purple wool cloth and sealskins.
Temple Altars. Prior to the dedication of Solomon’s temple, the copper altar made in the wilderness served for Israel’s sacrificial offerings at the high place in Gibeon. (1Ki 3:4; 1Ch 16:39, 40; 21:29, 30; 2Ch 1:3-6) The copper altar thereafter made for the temple covered an area 16 times as large as the one made for the tabernacle, measuring about 8.9 m (29.2 ft) square and about 4.5 m (14.6 ft) high. (2Ch 4:1) In view of its height, some means of approach was essential. God’s law prohibited the use of steps to the altar to prevent exposure of nakedness. (Ex 20:26) Some believe that the linen drawers worn by Aaron and his sons served to obviate this command and thus made steps allowable. (Ex 28:42, 43) However, it seems likely that an inclined ramp was used to approach the top of the altar of burnt offering. Josephus (The Jewish War, V, 225 [v, 6]) indicates that such an approach was used for the temple altar later built by Herod. If the arrangement of the altar of the temple followed that of the tabernacle, the ramp was probably on the S side of the altar. “The molten sea,” where the priests washed, would thus be convenient, as it also lay toward the south. (2Ch 4:2-5, 9, 10) In other respects the altar constructed for the temple apparently was modeled after that of the tabernacle, and no detailed description of it is given.
It was located where David had earlier built his temporary altar on Mount Moriah. (2Sa 24:21, 25; 1Ch 21:26; 2Ch 8:12; 15:8) This is also traditionally held to have been the location where Abraham had attempted to offer up Isaac. (Ge 22:2) The blood of sacrificial animals was poured out at the altar’s base, and it is likely that some kind of conduit existed for carrying the blood away from the temple area. Herod’s temple is reported to have had such a conduit connected with the SW horn of the altar, and in the rock of the temple area, an opening has been found that leads to an underground channel going out to the Kidron Valley.
The altar of incense for the temple was made of cedarwood, but this seems to have been the only difference between it and that of the tabernacle. It was likewise overlaid with gold.
At the inauguration of the temple Solomon’s prayer was offered before the altar of burnt offering, and at its conclusion fire came down from the heavens and consumed the sacrifices on the altar. (2Ch 6:12, 13; 7:1-3) Despite the fact that it covered an area of over 79 sq m (850 sq ft), this copper altar proved too small for the immense quantity of sacrifices made then, and so a portion of the courtyard was sanctified for that purpose.
In the latter part of Solomon’s reign, and in the reigns of Rehoboam and Abijam, the altar of burnt offerings came into neglect so that King Asa found it necessary to renew it. (2Ch 15:8) King Uzziah was stricken with leprosy for attempting to burn incense on the golden altar of incense. (2Ch 26:16-19) King Ahaz moved the copper altar of burnt offering to one side and put a pagan altar in its place. (2Ki 16:14) His son Hezekiah, however, had the copper altar and its utensils cleansed, sanctified, and restored to service.
Postexilic Altars. The first thing built in Jerusalem by the returning exiles under Zerubbabel and High Priest Jeshua was the altar for burnt offerings. (Ezr 3:2-6) In due time a new altar of incense was also made.
The Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes carried off the golden altar of incense, and two years later (168 B.C.E.) he built an altar over the great altar of Jehovah and offered up a sacrifice to Zeus thereon. (1 Maccabees 1:20-64) Judas Maccabaeus thereafter built a new altar of unhewn stones and also restored the altar of incense.
The altar of burnt offerings of Herod’s temple was made of unhewn stones and, according to Josephus (The Jewish War, V, 225 [v, 6]), was 50 cubits square and 15 cubits high, though the Jewish Mishnah (Middot 3:1) gives smaller dimensions for it. It was to this altar, therefore, that Jesus made reference in his day. (Mt 5:23, 24; 23:18-20) The altar of incense of that temple is not described, but Luke 1:11 shows that an angel was standing to the right of it when he appeared to John’s father Zechariah.
Altar of Ezekiel’s Temple. In the visionary temple seen by Ezekiel, the altar for burnt offerings was similarly positioned before the temple (Eze 40:47), but it had a different design from that of the previous altars. The altar consisted of several sections successively indented or recessed. Its dimensions are given in measurements of the long cubit (51.8 cm; 20.4 in.). The base of the altar was one cubit thick and had a “lip” of one span (perhaps 26 cm; 10 in.) as a border around the top, thus forming a sort of gutter or channel, perhaps for receiving blood poured out. (Eze 43:13, 14) Resting on the base itself, but set in one cubit from its outer edge, was another section, and it measured two cubits (c. 104 cm; 41 in.) in height. A third section was stepped in one cubit and was four cubits (c. 207 cm; 82 in.) in height. It also had a border surrounding it of a half cubit (c. 26 cm; 10 in.), perhaps forming a second channel or a protective ledge. Finally, the altar hearth extended up yet another four cubits and was also stepped in one cubit from the preceding section; out from it extended four “horns.” Stairs from the E provided approach to the altar hearth. (Eze 43:14-17) As with the altar built in the wilderness, a seven-day period of atonement and installation was to be observed. (Eze 43:19-26) Annual atonement was to be made for the altar along with the rest of the sanctuary on the first day of Nisan. (Eze 45:18, 19) The river of healing waters seen by Ezekiel flowed eastward from the temple and passed S of the altar.
The altar of incense is not mentioned by name in the vision. However, the description of “the wooden altar” at Ezekiel 41:22, particularly the reference to it as “the table that is before Jehovah,” indicates that this corresponded to the altar of incense rather than to the table of showbread. (Compare Ex 30:6, 8; 40:5; Re 8:3.) This altar was three cubits (c. 155 cm; 61 in.) high and evidently two cubits (c. 104 cm; 41 in.) square.
Other Altars. Since the post-Flood population did not continue with Noah in pure worship, it follows that many altars for false worship were produced, and excavations in Canaan, Mesopotamia, and other sites indicate that these existed from the earliest periods. Balaam had seven altars erected successively at three different sites in his vain attempts at calling down a curse on Israel.
The Israelites were instructed to tear down all pagan altars and destroy the sacred pillars and poles customarily built alongside them. (Ex 34:13; De 7:5, 6; 12:1-3) They were never to imitate these nor offer up their children by fire as did the Canaanites. (De 12:30, 31; 16:21) Instead of a multiplicity of altars, Israel was to have just one altar for the worship of the one true God, and this would be located at the place Jehovah would choose. (De 12:2-6, 13, 14, 27; contrast this with Babylon, where there were 180 altars to the goddess Ishtar alone.) They were at first instructed to make an altar of unhewn stones following the crossing of the Jordan River (De 27:4-8), and this was built by Joshua on Mount Ebal. (Jos 8:30-32) Following the division of the conquered land, the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh built a conspicuous altar by the Jordan, which provoked a temporary crisis among the other tribes until it was determined that the altar was no sign of apostasy but only a memorial of faithfulness to Jehovah as the true God.
Other altars were constructed, but these appear to have been built for specific occasions, not for continual use, and they were usually built in connection with angelic appearances or at angelic instruction. The one at Bochim and those of Gideon and Manoah were such. (Jg 2:1-5; 6:24-32; 13:15-23) The record concerning the altar set up at Bethel by the people when considering how to prevent the disappearance of the tribe of Benjamin does not indicate whether such had divine approval or was simply a case of their ‘doing what was right in their own eyes.’ (Jg 21:4, 25) As God’s representative, Samuel offered sacrifice at Mizpah and also built an altar at Ramah. (1Sa 7:5, 9, 10, 17) This may have been due to the fact that Jehovah’s presence was no longer in evidence at the tabernacle in Shiloh, following the removal of the Ark.
Use of temporary altars. On a number of occasions temporary altars were constructed. For example, Saul offered sacrifice at Gilgal and built an altar at Aijalon. (1Sa 13:7-12; 14:33-35) In the first case he was condemned for not waiting for Samuel to do the sacrificing, but the propriety of the locations as places for sacrificing was not considered.
David instructed Jonathan to explain his absence at Saul’s table on the day of the new moon by saying that David was attending an annual family sacrifice at Bethlehem; however, since this was a subterfuge, it cannot definitely be known whether such was really celebrated. (1Sa 20:6, 28, 29) Later, as king, David built an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah (Ornan), and this was at divine command. (2Sa 24:18-25; 1Ch 21:18-26; 22:1) The statement at 1 Kings 9:25 with regard to Solomon’s ‘offering up sacrifices on the altar’ clearly refers to his causing such to be done through the authorized priesthood.
With the setting up of the temple at Jerusalem, it appears that the altar was now definitely at “the place that Jehovah your God will choose . . . and there you must come.” (De 12:5) Aside from the altar used by Elijah on Mount Carmel in the fire test with the Baal priests (1Ki 18:26-35), only apostasy now caused the setting up of other altars. Solomon himself was the first to be guilty of such apostasy, because of the influence of his foreign wives. (1Ki 11:3-8) Jeroboam of the newly formed northern kingdom endeavored to divert his subjects from going to the temple in Jerusalem by setting up altars at Bethel and Dan. (1Ki 12:28-33) A prophet then foretold that in the reign of King Josiah of Judah priests officiating at the altar in Bethel would be slaughtered and that the bones of dead men would be burned on the altar. The altar was ripped apart as a sign, and the prophecy was later completely fulfilled.
During King Ahab’s rule in Israel, pagan altars flourished. (1Ki 16:31-33) In the time of King Ahaz of Judah, there were altars “at every corner in Jerusalem,” as well as many “high places.” (2Ch 28:24, 25) Manasseh went so far as to build altars within the house of Jehovah and altars for worshiping “the army of the heavens” in the temple courtyard.
Though faithful kings periodically destroyed these idolatrous altars (2Ki 11:18; 23:12, 20; 2Ch 14:3; 30:14; 31:1; 34:4-7), prior to Jerusalem’s fall Jeremiah could still say: “Your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah; and as many altars as the streets of Jerusalem you people have placed for the shameful thing, altars to make sacrificial smoke to Baal.”
During exile and in apostolic period. During the period of the exile, the Jews who fled to Elephantine in Upper Egypt set up a temple and an altar, according to the Elephantine Papyri; and some centuries later the Jews near Leontopolis did likewise. (Jewish Antiquities, XIII, 62-68 [iii, 1]; The Jewish War, VII, 420-432 [x, 2, 3]) This latter temple and altar were built by Priest Onias in an attempt to fulfill Isaiah 19:19, 20.
In the Common Era, the apostle Paul in speaking to the Athenians referred to an altar inscribed “To an Unknown God.” (Ac 17:23) Ample historical information is available to corroborate this. Apollonius of Tyana, who visited Athens sometime after Paul, is reported to have said: “It is a much greater proof of wisdom and sobriety to speak well of all the gods, especially at Athens, where altars are set up in honour even of unknown gods.” (Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, VI, III) Geographer Pausanias in the second century C.E. reported that on the road from the Phaleron Bay harbor to the city of Athens he had observed “altars of the gods named Unknown, and of heroes.” He also spoke of “an altar of Unknown Gods” at Olympia. (Description of Greece, Attica, I, 4; Elis I, XIV, 8) A similar altar was discovered in 1909 at Pergamum in the precincts of the temple of Demeter.
Significance of Altars. In Hebrews chapters 8 and 9 the apostle Paul clearly shows that all the things related to the tabernacle and temple service were typical. (Heb 8:5; 9:23) The significance of the two altars is made evident by information in the Christian Greek Scriptures. The altar of burnt offerings represented God’s “will,” that is, his willingness to accept the perfect human sacrifice of his only-begotten Son. (Heb 10:5-10) Its location in front of the entrance to the sanctuary emphasizes the requirement of faith in that ransom sacrifice as a prerequisite for acceptance by God. (Joh 3:16-18) The insistence upon a single altar of sacrifice is in harmony with Christ’s declaration: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” as well as with the many texts declaring the unity to be manifest in the Christian faith.
It is notable that, though some individuals fled to the altar, taking hold of its horns, in hope of gaining protection, God’s law prescribed that the willful murderer was to be taken “even from being at my altar to die.” (Ex 21:14; compare 1Ki 1:50-53; 2:28-34.) The psalmist sang: “I shall wash my hands in innocency itself, and I will march around your altar, O Jehovah.”
Although Hebrews 13:10 has been used as basis for erection of literal altars by professed Christians, the context shows that the “altar” spoken of by Paul is not literal but symbolic. (Heb 13:10-16) M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia (1882, Vol. I, p. 183) says concerning the early Christians: “When the ancient apologists were reproached with having no temples, no altars, no shrines, they simply replied, ‘Shrines and altars we have not.’” Commenting on Hebrews 13:10, M. R. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament (1957, Vol. IV, p. 567) says: “It is a mistake to try to find in the Christian economy some specific object answering to altar
Expressions of divine judgment are also prophetically associated with the true altar. (Isa 6:5-12; Eze 9:2; Am 9:1) It is from “underneath the altar” that the souls of those slaughtered for witnessing for God symbolically cry out: “Until when, Sovereign Lord holy and true, are you refraining from judging and avenging our blood upon those who dwell on the earth?”
At Revelation 8:3, 4 the golden altar of incense is expressly related to the prayers of the righteous. It was customary among the Jews to pray at “the hour of offering incense.” (Lu 1:9, 10; compare Ps 141:2.) The single altar for offering incense also corresponds with the one avenue of approach outlined in the Christian Greek Scriptures.