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altar Summary and Overview

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altar in Easton's Bible Dictionary

(Heb. mizbe'ah, from a word meaning "to slay"), any structure of earth (Ex. 20:24) or unwrought stone (20:25) on which sacrifices were offered. Altars were generally erected in conspicuous places (Gen. 22:9; Ezek. 6:3; 2 Kings 23:12; 16:4; 23:8; Acts 14:13). The word is used in Heb. 13:10 for the sacrifice offered upon it--the sacrifice Christ offered. Paul found among the many altars erected in Athens one bearing the inscription, "To the unknown God" (Acts 17:23), or rather "to an [i.e., some] unknown God." The reason for this inscription cannot now be accurately determined. It afforded the apostle the occasion of proclaiming the gospel to the "men of Athens." The first altar we read of is that erected by Noah (Gen. 8:20). Altars were erected by Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 13:4; 22:9), by Isaac (Gen. 26:25), by Jacob (33:20; 35:1, 3), and by Moses (Ex. 17:15, "Jehovah-nissi"). In the tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected. (1.) The altar of burnt offering (Ex. 30:28), called also the "brasen altar" (Ex. 39:39) and "the table of the Lord" (Mal. 1:7). This altar, as erected in the tabernacle, is described in Ex. 27:1-8. It was a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and in breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It was made of shittim wood, and was overlaid with plates of brass. Its corners were ornamented with "horns" (Ex. 29:12; Lev. 4:18). In Ex. 27:3 the various utensils appertaining to the altar are enumerated. They were made of brass. (Compare 1 Sam. 2:13, 14; Lev. 16:12; Num. 16:6, 7.) In Solomon's temple the altar was of larger dimensions (2 Chr. 4:1. Compare 1 Kings 8:22, 64; 9:25), and was made wholly of brass, covering a structure of stone or earth. This altar was renewed by Asa (2 Chr. 15:8). It was removed by Ahaz (2 Kings 16:14), and "cleansed" by Hezekiah, in the latter part of whose reign it was rebuilt. It was finally broken up and carried away by the Babylonians (Jer. 52:17). After the return from captivity it was re-erected (Ezra 3:3, 6) on the same place where it had formerly stood. (Compare 1 Macc. 4:47.) When Antiochus Epiphanes pillaged Jerusalem the altar of burnt offering was taken away. Again the altar was erected by Herod, and remained in its place till the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 A.D.). The fire on the altar was not permitted to go out (Lev. 6:9). In the Mosque of Omar, immediately underneath the great dome, which occupies the site of the old temple, there is a rough projection of the natural rock, of about 60 feet in its extreme length, and 50 in its greatest breadth, and in its highest part about 4 feet above the general pavement. This rock seems to have been left intact when Solomon's temple was built. It was in all probability the site of the altar of burnt offering. Underneath this rock is a cave, which may probably have been the granary of Araunah's threshing-floor (1 Chr. 21:22). (2.) The altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-10), called also "the golden altar" (39:38; Num. 4:11), stood in the holy place "before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony." On this altar sweet spices were continually burned with fire taken from the brazen altar. The morning and the evening services were commenced by the high priest offering incense on this altar. The burning of the incense was a type of prayer (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3, 4). This altar was a small movable table, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold (Ex. 37:25, 26). It was 1 cubit in length and breadth, and 2 cubits in height. In Solomon's temple the altar was similar in size, but was made of cedar-wood (1 Kings 6:20; 7:48) overlaid with gold. In Ezek. 41:22 it is called "the altar of wood." (Compare Ex. 30:1-6.) In the temple built after the Exile the altar was restored. Antiochus Epiphanes took it away, but it was afterwards restored by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc. 1:23; 4:49). Among the trophies carried away by Titus on the destruction of Jerusalem the altar of incense is not found, nor is any mention made of it in Heb. 9. It was at this altar Zacharias ministered when an angel appeared to him (Luke 1:11). It is the only altar which appears in the heavenly temple (Isa. 6:6; Rev. 8:3,4).

altar in Smith's Bible Dictionary

The first altar of which we have any account is that built by Noah when he left the ark. #Ge 8:20| In the early times altars were usually built in certain spots hallowed by religious associations, e.g., where God appeared. #Ge 12:7; 13:18, 26:25; 35:1| Though generally erected for the offering of sacrifice, in some instances they appear to have been only memorials. #Ge 12:7; Ex 17:15,16| Altars were most probably originally made of earth. The law of Moses allowed them to be made of either earth or unhewn stones. #Ex 20:24,25| I. The Altar of Burnt Offering. It differed in construction at different times. (1) In the tabernacle, #Ex 27:1| ff.; Exod 38:1 ff., it was comparatively small and portable. In shape it was square. It as five cubits in length, the same in breadth, and three cubits high. It was made of planks of shittim (or acacia) wood overlaid with brass. The interior was hollow. #Ex 27:8| At the four corners were four projections called horns made, like the altar itself, of shittim wood overlaid with brass, #Ex 27:2| and to them the victim was bound when about to be sacrificed. #Ps 118:27| Round the altar, midway between the top and bottom, ran a projecting ledge, on which perhaps the priest stood when officiating. To the outer edge of this, again, a grating or network of brass was affixed, and reached to the bottom of the altar. At the four corners of the network were four brazen rings, into which were inserted the staves by which the altar was carried. These staves were of the same material as the altar itself. As the priests were forbidden to ascend the altar by steps, #Ex 20:26| it has been conjectured that a slope of earth led gradually up to the ledge from which they officiated. The place of the altar was at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.)" #Ex 40:29| (2) In Solomon's temple the altar was considerably larger in its dimensions. It differed too in the material of which it was made, being entirely of brass. #1Ki 8:64; 2Ch 7:7| It had no grating, and instead of a single gradual slope, the ascent to it was probably made by three successive platforms, to each of which it has been supposed that steps led. The altar erected by Herod in front of the temple was 15 cubits in height and 50 cubits in length and breadth. According to #Le 6:12,13| a perpetual fire was to be kept burning on the altar. II. The Altar of Incense, called also the golden altar to distinguish it from the altar of burnt offering which was called the brazen altar. #Ex 38:30| (a) That in the tabernacle was made of acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold. In shape it was square, being a cubit in length and breadth and two cubits in height. Like the altar of burnt offering it had horns at the four corners, which were of one piece with the rest of the altar. This altar stood in the holy place, "before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony." #Ex 30:6; 40:5| (b) The altar of Solomon's temple was similar, #1Ki 7:48; 1Ch 28:18| but was made of cedar overlaid with gold. III. Other Altars. In #Ac 17:23| reference is made to an alter to an unknown God. There were several altars in Athens with this inscription, erected during the time of a plague. Since they knew not what god was offended and required to be propitiated.

altar in Schaff's Bible Dictionary

AL'TAR . Gen 8:20. A structure appropriated exclusively to the offering of sacrifices, under the Jewish law. See Sacrifices. Though sacrifices were offered before the Flood, the word altar does not occur until the time of Noah's departure from the ark. Altars were of various forms, and at first rude in their construction, being nothing more, probably, than a square heap of stones or mound of earth. The altar on which Jacob made an offering at Bethel was the single stone which had served him for a pillow during the night. Gen 28:18. Primarily for sacrifice, they seem at times to have been built for a witness merely, to mark the spot of God's appearance or other memorable event. Gen 12:7;Ex 17:15, Ex 17:16; Josh 22:10-29. The altar which Moses was commanded to build, Ex 20:24, was to be made of earth. If made of stone, it was expressly required to be rough, the use of a tool being regarded as polluting, Ex 20:25, but this refers only to the body of the altar and that part on which the victim was laid, as is evident from the directions given for making a casing of shittim-wood and overlaying it with brass for the altar of burnt-offering. It was also to be without steps. Ex 20:26. See also Deut 27:2-6 and Josh 8:31. The law of Moses forbade the erection of altars except in the tabernacle; yet even pious Israelites disobeyed the letter of this law, for Gideon, Samuel, David, and Solomon are mentioned as setting up altars. The temple altar was an asylum; e.g. 1 Kgs 1:50. Altars were used in idol-worship; and because they were often erected on high places they acquired the name of "high places." The structures are different, as well as the apparent ornaments and uses. On representations of them are projections upward at each corner, which represent the true figure of the horns. Ex 27:2; 1 Kgs 2:28; Rev 9:13. They were probably used to confine the victim. Ps 118:27. The altars required in the Jewish worship were: (1). "The altar of burnt-offering," or the "brazen altar," in the tabernacle in the wilderness. This altar stood directly in front of the principal entrance. It was made of shittim-wood (acacia), seven feet and six inches square, and four feet and six inches high. It was hollow and overlaid with plates of brass. The horns -- of which there was one on each corner -- were of wood, and overlaid in the same way. A grate or net-work of brass was also attached to it, either to hold the fire or to support a hearth of earth. The furniture of the altar was all of brass, and consisted of, 1. a shovel to remove the ashes from the altar; 2. a pan to receive them; 3. basins for receiving the blood of the victims and removing it; 4. hooks for turning the sacrifice; 5. fire-pans, or perhaps censers, for carrying coals from the fire or for burning incense. At each corner was a brass ring, and there were also two staves or rods overlaid with brass, which passed through these rings, and served for carrying Altar of Burnt-Offering in the Tabernacle. the altar from place to place. The altar is described in Ex 27. The "compass" referred to, v. 1 Chr 6:5, was a ledge running all around the altar about midway from the ground -- affording a convenient place for the priest to stand while offering sacrifice -- supported by a brass net-like grating. The fire used on this altar was kindled miraculously and was perpetually maintained. It was also a place of constant sacrifice. In the first temple, which in its general plan was constructed after the pattern of the tabernacle in the wilderness, the altar of burnt-offering stood in the same relative position as in the tabernacle. It was much larger, however, being thirty feet square and fifteen feet high, its particular plan being appointed Altar of Burnt-Offering; in the Temple. (From Surenhusius's Mishna.) expressly by divine authority. It was made entirely of bronze plates, which covered a structure of earth or stone. 2 Chr 4:1. In the second temple it occupied the same position, though it was still larger and more beautiful than in the first. An inclined plane led in each case up to the altar, since express command forbade the Jews using steps. Ex 20:26. (2). The "altar of incense," or the "golden altar," stood within the holy place and near to the inmost veil. Ex 30:1-6. It was made of the same wood with the brazen altar, and was eighteen inches square and three feet high. The top, as well as the sides and horns, was overlaid with pure gold, and it was finished around the upper surface Altar of Incense. with a crown or border of gold. Just below this border four golden rings were attached to each side of the altar, one near each corner. The staves or rods for bearing the altar passed through these rings, and were made of the same wood with the altar itself, and richly overlaid with the same precious metal. Upon this altar incense was burned every morning and every evening (see Incense), so that it was literally perpetual. Ex 30:8. The "altar of incense" in Solomon's temple was made of cedar overlaid with gold. Neither burnt-sacrifice, nor meat-offering, nor drink-offering, was permitted upon this altar, nor was it ever stained with blood, except once annually, when the priest made atonement. Lev 16:18, Acts 1:19. ALTAR TO THE [AN] UNKNOWN GOD, referred to by Paul. Acts 17:23. There were in Athens several altars with this inscription, which were erected during a plague, the Athenians believing they had unconsciously offended some divinity, but not knowing whom.

altar in Fausset's Bible Dictionary

The first of which we have mention was built by Noah after leaving the ark (Genesis 8:20). The English (from the Latin) means an elevation or high place: not the site, but the erections on them which could be built or removed (1 Kings 12:7; 2 Kings 23:15). So the Greek bomos, and Hebrew bamath. But the proper Hebrew name mizbeach is "the sacrificing place;" Septuagint thusiasterion. Spots hallowed by divine revelations or appearances were originally the sites of altars (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 35:1). Mostly for sacrificing; sometimes only as a memorial, as that named by Moses Jehovah Nissi, the pledge that Jehovah would war against Amalek to all generations (Exodus 17:15-16), and that built by Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh, "not for burnt offering, nor sacrifice, but as a witness" (Joshua 22:26-27). Altars were to be made only of earth or else unhewn stone, on which no iron tool was used, and without steps up to them (Exodus 20:24-26). Steps toward the E. on the contrary are introduced in the temple yet future (Ezekiel 43:17), marking its distinctness from any past temple. No pomp or ornament was allowed; all was to be plain and simple; for it was the meeting place between God and the sinner, and therefore a place of shedding of blood without which there is no remission (Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22), a place of fellowship with God for us only through death. The mother dust of earth, or its stones in their native state as from the hand of God, were the suitable material. The art of sinful beings would mar, rather than aid, the consecration of the common meeting ground. The earth made for man's nourishment, but now the witness of his sin and drinker in of his forfeited life, was the most suitable (see Fairbairn, Typology). The altar was at "the door of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation" (Exodus 40:29). In the tabernacle the altar of burnt offering was made of shittim (acacia) boards overlaid with brass, terming a square of five cubits, or eight feet. three cubits high or five feet, the hollow within being probably filled with earth or stones. A ledge (Hebrew karkob) projected on the side for the priest to stand on, to which a slope of earth gradually led up on the S. side, and outside the ledge was a network of brass. At the grainers were four horn shaped projections. to which the victim was bound (Psalm 118:27), and which were touched with blood in consecrating priests (Exodus 29:12), and in the sin offering (Leviticus 4:7). The horn symbolizes might. The culmination's of the altar, being hornlike, imply the mighty salvation and security which Jehovah engages to the believing worshippers approaching Him in His own appointed way. Hence it was the asylum or place of refuge (1 Kings 1:50; Exodus 21:14). So the Antitype, Christ (Isaiah 27:5; Isaiah 25:4). To grasp the altar horns in faith was to lay hold of Jehovah's strength. In Solomon's temple the altar square was entirely of brass, and was 20 cubits, or from 30 to 35 feet, and the height 10 cubits. In Malachi 1:7; Malachi 1:12, it is called "the table of the Lord." In Herod's temple the altar was 50 cubits long, and 50 broad, and 15 high; a pipe from the S.W. grainer conveyed away the blood to the brook Kedron. Except in emergencies (as Judges 6:24; 1 Samuel 7:9-10; 2 Samuel 24:18; 2 Samuel 24:25; 1 Kings 8:64; 1 Kings 18:31-32) only the one altar was sanctioned (Leviticus 17:8-9; Deuteronomy 12:13-14), to mark the unity and ubiquity of God, as contrasted with the many altars of the manifold idols and local deities of pagandom. Every true Israelite, wherever he might be, realized his share in the common daily sacrifices at the one altar in Zion, whence Jehovah ruled to the ends of the earth. Christ is the antitype, the one altar or meeting place between God and man, the one only atonement for sinners, the one sacrifice, and the one priest (Acts 4:12; Hebrews 13:10). Christ's Godhead, on which He offered His manhood, "sanctifieth the gift" (Matthew 23:19), and prevents the sacrifice being consumed by God's fiery judicial wrath against man's sin. To those Judaizers who object that Christians have no altar or sacrificial meats, Paul says, "we have" (the emphasis in Greek is on have; there is no we) emphatically, but it is a spiritual altar and sacrifice. So Hebrews 4:14-15; Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 9:1; Hebrews 10:1; Hebrews 10:19-21. The interpretation which makes "altar" the Lord's table is opposed to the scope of the Epistle to the Heb., which contrasts the outward sanctuary with the unseen spiritual sanctuary. Romanisers fall under the condemnation of Hosea 8:11. The Epistle to the Hebrew reasons, servile adherents to visible altar meats are excluded from our Christian spiritual altar and meats: "For He, the true Altar, from whom we derive spiritual meats, realized the sin offering type" (of which none of the meat was eaten, but all was burnt: Leviticus 6:30) "by suffering without the gate: teaching that we must go forth after Him from the Jewish high priest's camp of legal ceremonialism and meats, which stood only until the gospel times of reformation" (Hebrews 9:10-11). The temple and holy city were the Jewish people's camp in their solemn feasts. The brass utensils for the altar (Exodus 27:3) were pans, to receive the ashes and fat; shovels, for removing the ashes; basins, for the blood; flesh hooks, with three prongs, to take flesh out of the cauldron (1 Samuel 2:13-14); firepans, or censers, for taking coals off the altar, or for burning incense (Leviticus 16:12; Numbers 16:6-7; Exodus 25:38); the same Hebrew maktoth means snuff dishes, as "tongs" means snuffers for the candlesticks. Asa "renewed" the altar, i.e. reconsecrated it, after it had been polluted by idolatries (2 Chronicles 20:8). (See AHAZ (see) removed it to the N. side of the new altar which Urijah the priest had made after the pattern which Ahaz had seen at Damascus (2 Kings 16:14). Hezekiah had it "cleansed" (2 Chronicles 29:12-18) of all the uncleanness brought into it in Ahaz' reign. Manasseh, on his repentance, repaired it (2 Chronicles 33:16). Rabbis pretended it stood on the spot where man was created. In Zerubbabel's temple the altar was built before the temple foundations were laid (Ezra 3:2). After its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes, Judas Maccabaeus built a new altar of unhewn stones. A perpetual fire kept on it symbolized the perpetuity of Jehovah's religion; for, sacrifice being the center of the Old Testament worship, to extinguish it would have been to extinguish the religion. The perpetual fire of the Persian religion was different, for this was not sacrificial, but a symbol of God, or of the notion that, fire was a primary element. The original fire of the tabernacle "came out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat" (Leviticus 9:24). The rabbis say, It couched upon the altar like a lion, bright as the sun, the flame solid and pure, consuming things wet and dry alike, without smoke. The divine fire on the altar; the shekinah cloud, representing the divine habitation with them, which was given to the king and the high priest with the oil of unction; the spirit of prophecy; the Urim and Thummim whereby the high priest miraculously learned God's will; and the ark of the covenant, whence God gave His answers in a clear voice, were the five things of the old temple wanting in the second temple. Heated stones (Hebrew) were laid upon the altar, by which the incense was kindled (Isaiah 6:6). The golden altar of incense (distinguished from the brazen altar of burnt offering), of acacia wood (in Solomon's temple cedar) underneath, two cubits high, one square. Once a year, on the great day of atonement, the high priest sprinkled upon its horns the blood of the sin offering (Exodus 30:6-10; Leviticus 16:18-19). Morning and evening incense was burnt on it with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering. It had a border round the top, and two golden rings at the sides for the staves to bear it with. It was "before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat;" between the candlestick and the shewbread table. In Hebrews 9:4, KJV, "censer," not "altar of incense," is right; for the latter was in the outer not the inner holy place. The inner, or holiest, place "had the golden censer" belonging to its yearly atonement service, not kept in it. The altar of incense also was close by the second veil, directly before the ark (1 Kings 6:22), "by (Hebrew belonging to) the oracle," i.e. holiest place. Jesus' death rent the veil, and has brought the antitypes to the candlestick, shewbread table, and altar of incense into the heavenly, holiest place. This altar alone appears there, namely, that of prayer and praise. Christ is the heavenly attar as well as the only intercession, through the incense of whose merits our prayers are accepted. "The souls under the altar" (Revelation 6:9) are shut up unto Him in joyful expectancy, until He come to raise the sleeping bodies (Revelation 8:3-4). (See NADAB and (See ABIHU (see) were smitten for burning "strange fire" (i.e. fire not taken from the altar of burnt offering), thereby breaking the He between the incense altar and the sacrificial burnt offering altar. The incense daily offered symbolized prayer (Psalm 141:2; Luke 1:10). As the incense on the altar within drew its kindling from the fire of the sacrificial altar without, so believing prayer of the heart within, continually ascending to God, rests on one's having first once for all become sharer in the benefit of Christ's outward sacrificial atonement. Therefore the inner altar was ornate and golden, the outer altar bore marks of humiliation and death. Nowhere is an altar in the sacrificial sense in the Christian church recognized in the New Testament The words "we have an altar" (Hebrews 13:10; note that it is not altars, such as apostate churches erect in their worship), so far from sanctioning a Christian altar on earth, oppose the idea; for Christ Himself is our altar of which we spiritually eat, and of which they who Judaize, by serving the tabernacle and resting on meats and ordinances, "have no right to eat." Our sacrifices are spiritual, not the dead letter; compare Hebrews 13:9; Hebrews 13:15-16. The "altar to an unknown God" mentioned by Paul (Acts 17:22) was erected in time of a plague at Athens, when they knew not what god to worship for removing it. Epimenides caused black, and white sheep to be let loose from the Areopagus, and wherever they lay down to be offered to the appropriate deity. Diogenes Laertius, Pausanias, and Philostratus, pagan writers, confirm the accuracy of Scripture by mentioning several altars at Athens to the unknown or unnamed deity. "Superstitious" is too severe a word for the Greek; Paul's object was to conciliate, and he tells the Athenians: Ye are "rather religious," or "more given to religion" than is common, "rather given to veneration." In Ezekiel 43:15 "altar" is lit. harel, "mount of God," denoting the high security which it will afford to restored Israel; a high place indeed, but the high place of God, not of idols.