what is an altar in the Bible

What is an altar in the Bible: Purposes and Importance

Many Christians usually ask the question, what is an altar? An altar can be seen as a structure upon which offerings are made for religious purposes. It is usually a raised platform with a flat surface. There are over four hundred references to altars in the Bible.

Many Christians usually ask the question, what is an altar? The Bible clearly illustrates what is an altar and its purposes. An altar can be seen as a structure upon which offerings are made for religious purposes. It is usually a raised platform with a flat surface. There are over four hundred references to altars in the Bible.

The word altar is first used in Genesis 8:20 when Noah built an altar to the Lord after leaving the ark. However, the idea was present as early as Genesis 4:3–4 when Cain and Abel brought their sacrifices to the Lord. They most likely presented their offerings on some type of altar, even though the word altar is not used in that passage.



The Hebrew word for altar is mizbeah, from a verbal root meaning “to slaughter.” Greek renders this word as thusiasterion [qusiasthvrion], “a place of sacrifice.” In the developed temple ritual, the same word is used for both the altar of holocausts and the altar of incense. Thus, an altar is a place where sacrifice is offered, even if it is not an event involving slaughter.

Altars could be natural objects or man-made constructs. Four materials are recorded as being used in altars: stone, earth, metal, and brick. Archaeology has provided numerous examples of altars from Palestine dating back to approximately 3000 B.C. Natural rocks were also used (Judg 6:20). An altar could stand alone, or it was located in the courtyard of a shrine.

What is an Altar in Worship?

Let us examine critically the meaning of an altar for worship. We shall look at the meaning of an altar in two ways, namely: spiritual meaning, and representations.

Spiritual Meaning of Altar

Altars signify a representative of the Lord and burnt-offerings the worship of Him, it is evident in the Prophets, as also in Moses when it is said of Levi, to whom the priesthood belonged: “They shall teach Jacob Thy judgments, and Israel Thy law; they shall put incense in Thy nostrils, and whole burnt-offering upon Thine altar” (Deut. 33:10), meaning all worship; for “to teach Jacob judgments, and Israel the law” denotes internal worship; and “to put incense in Thy nostrils, And whole burnt-offering on Thine altar” denotes corresponding external worship.

In Isaiah: “In that day shall a man look unto his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel; and he shall not look to the altars, the work of his hand” (Isaiah 17:7, 8), where “looking to the altars,” plainly signifies representative worship in general, which was to be abolished.

In David: “Let them bring me unto the mountain of Thy holiness, and to Thy tabernacles. And I will go unto the altar of God, unto God the gladness of my joy” (Ps. 43:3, 4), where “altar” manifestly denotes the Lord. Thus the building of an altar in the Ancient and the Jewish Church was for a representative of the Lord.

As the worship of the Lord was performed principally by burnt offerings and sacrifices, and thus these things signified principally representative worship, it is evident that the altar itself signifies this representative worship itself.

As the altar represented the Lord in respect to Divine good, it was very holy of holies, and sanctified everything that touched it; (Exod. 29:37); and therefore the fire upon the altar was perpetually burning, and was never put out (Lev. 6:13), and from that fire was taken the fire for the incense, and from no other source (Lev. 10:1-6); for by the fire of the altar was signified the Divine good of the Lord’s Divine love.

Representations of Altar

A place of encounter – The Lord met Jacob in a crisis and the next day he built an altar at that place (Genesis 28).

A place of forgiveness – The brazen altar of the tabernacle sacrifice was offered as an advance testimony that there would be a once-for-all sacrifice in God’s Son.

A place of worship – The most common altar built by people to acknowledge their praise to God was the altar of incense, the holy place where priests would offer worship to the Lord on behalf of the people and themselves.

A place of covenant – An altar was built where the covenant was made between the Lord and Abraham, and the land was sealed as a timeless promise to Abraham and his offspring (Genesis 15).

A place of intercession – The prophet Joel called for intercession by leaders on behalf of the people and their devastated economy.

God has a place of “altering” for us – There is a place of “altering” and a price of altering. Altars have a price–God intends that something is “altered” in us when we come to altars. To receive the promise means we make way for the transformation.

Importance Of Altars in Worship

An altar is a place where sacrifice is offered, even if it is not an event involving slaughter. Altars could be natural objects or man-made constructs. Four materials are recorded as being used in altars: stone, earth, metal, and brick. Jerusalem temple had two altars: the altar of incense and the altar of holocausts.

The altar of incense was placed inside the sanctuary in front of the curtain screening the Holy of Holies. It was made of gold-covered wood. It stood upright and measured 1 x 1 x 2 cubits. Archaeological data indicate that all four corners of the upper surface were slightly peaked. Twice a day, incense was burned on the altar.

The altar of holocausts stood in the courtyard of the temple. Like the other objects in the courtyard, the altar was made of bronze. It measured 20 x 20 x 10 cubits (2 Chron. 4). Ahaz replaced this altar with one modeled on an altar he had seen in Damascus (2 Kings 16).

A Place of interaction between Divine and Human

Altars were places of exchange, communication, and influence. God responded actively to altar activity. The contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal involving an altar demonstrated the interaction between Yahweh and Baal.

Noah built an altar and offered a sacrifice to Yahweh. God smelled the aroma and found it pleasing. He responded to Noah’s action by declaring that he would never again destroy all living things through a flood.

In the patriarchal period, altars were markers of place, commemorating an encounter with God (Gen 12:7), or physical signs of habitation. Abraham built an altar where he pitched his tent between Bethel and Ai. Presumably at that altar he “called on the name of the Lord” (Gen 12:8).

A Medium of Sacrifice and Exchange

Sacrifices were the primary medium of exchange in altar interactions. The priestly code of Leviticus devotes a great deal of space to the proper sacrificial procedure, and to what sacrifices are appropriate in various circumstances.

Sacrifice was the essential act of external worship. Unlike the divinities of the nation surrounding ancient Israel, Yahweh did not need sacrifices to survive. The Israelites, however, needed to perform the act of sacrifice to survive (Exod 30:21). The act of sacrifice moved the offering from the profane to the sacred, from the visible to the invisible world.

By this action, the worshiper sealed a contract with God. Blood, believed to contain the “life” of an animal (or a human being), was particularly important in the sacrificial ritual. It was sprinkled against the altar (Lev 1); once a year, blood was smeared on the horns of the incense altar.

The intersection of divine and human

The horns of the altar may have functioned as boundary markers, setting apart the sacred space that was the actual place of intersection of the divine and human spheres. In the stark and moving story of Abraham’s encounter with God at Moriah, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it (Gen 22:9).

After Isaac was laid on the altar, but before he was sacrificed, God proclaimed his recognition that Isaac had “not [been] withheld.” By placing Isaac on the altar, Abraham transferred him from the profane to the sacred.

A Place of Atonement

This sacred altar and its horns, where the atoning blood was splashed, provided a place of sanctuary. The altar was a place where an unintentional murderer could gain a haven (Exod 21:13-14). If the murder was premeditated, however, then the altar was profaned by the murderer’s presence and the individual could be taken away and killed.

Joab was denied the sanctuary of the horns because he had conspired to kill Amasa and Abner. In an oracle against Israel (Am 3:14), God declared that “the horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground.” The message is clear: There will be no place to intercede with God and no place to claim his sanctuary.

A Shelter for the Redeemed

After the exile, the first thing to be rebuilt was the altar. Then the temple was reconstructed. The temple was ultimately secondary to the altar. In chastising the religious establishment, Jesus underlined the sacredness of the altar, making clear his understanding that the altar “makes the gift sacred” (Matt 23:19).

In Revelation, the altar in the heavenly temple shelters martyred souls and even speaks (Rev 16:7). The New Testament writer of Hebrews (13:10) implies that the ultimate altar is the cross. Here divine and human interchange are consummated. The cross becomes the sanctuary of the believer, protecting from the penalties of sin.

Purpose Of the Family Altar

To worship God together and learn more of His ways

What could be a better purpose? Children should learn to worship God in their early years that they might have respect for Him in the later years. They need to learn how to regard Him and to realize that He is the Creator, Holy, and to be honored in all that we say and do.

To honor God’s Word, develop respect for it, and live by it

James says, “But be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving your selves” (James 1:22). Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Home is a good place to practice the exhortation, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).

These days when we have put the Bible out of our schools, we need to put it back in our homes and teach our children from it.

To establish the family in the faith, personal convictions, and doctrine

Children and young people need convictions to stand up against their peers. They must understand their faith and know something of good Bible doctrine so they know what they believe and why. The home makes a good Bible school where the children can be grounded as they face the humanistic, evolutionary philosophy of [our modern society].

To pray over the family

To pray over family problems and needs, burdens the children may have, and that they may have confidence in the God that answers prayer in the everyday things of life. All the members of the family have personal needs. It would be good if they could learn to share them openly and take them before the Lord together.

There are school needs, boy and girlfriend problems, problems with playmates, character problems such as timidity and fears of all kinds, questions about amusements, finances. Teenagers have deep needs and hate to express them for fear of being misunderstood or embarrassed. Their problems are big problems to them and must be considered.

Mom and Dad have needs of all kinds. Financial needs, Dad’s work needs, the car, moving, and all kinds of things can be prayed through with God. All the family needs to know they can have confidence in Him and that He will hear and answer prayer.

To intercede for others

To pray and intercede for others such as the pastor, missionaries, sick folk, unsaved loved ones, the neighbors, fellow believers in need, the church, our president, the shut-ins, those who are on trial or going through persecutions. Children who can learn to pray openly at home will have no problem praying publicly in the church’s weekly prayer meetings as they grow.

Purpose Of Sacrifice in the altar

Sacrifice is the offering of food, objects, or the lives of animals to a higher purpose, in particular divine beings, as an act of propitiation or worship. The Old Testament tells the story of the Israelite nation-its forefathers, failings, and fickle faithfulness.

As the people of God, Israel was bound by the covenant they made with God: “‘all the words which the Lord has said we will do'”(Exodus 24:3). Yet one cannot help but wonder as to the barbaric nature of the covenant the Lord made with His people.

Why would God proscribe the blood of sacrifices, the deaths of innocent animals, and such meticulous rituals? Let us examine some of the purposes of sacrifice as they will help us better understand the majestic God we serve.

Sacrifice was viewed as a gift

There were many kinds of sacrifices that the ancient Hebrews offered (animal, fruit, grain, wine, incense) but what was important was that the offering was made with the knowledge that the repentant offerer was returning to God was already His. A verbal confession of specific sins often accompanied the offering (Leviticus 5:5, 6, 13 – a very interesting precursor to the Christian rite of confession).

Sacrifice was viewed as a form of communion

The sacrifice was never meant to be substitutionary (again, a contrast with pagan practices). The portion of the sacrifice that was burned was thought to be consumed by God, and the remainder was often eaten by the offerer and the priest. This aspect of sacrifice is also present in the Christian understanding of the Eucharist.

Sacrifice provides expiation

Sacrifice is not meant to appease God (propitiation) but rather to create a change in the offerer (expiation). For the Jews, offering a sacrifice was an act of self-denial and an aspect of purification. This expiatory view of sacrifice is a commonality between Judaism and Orthodox Christianity. Both are different from the Western propitiatory view.

God required sacrifice for the Israelites to show the penalty of sin

Under the Old Covenant, a guilty Israelite could offer up an animal sacrifice through the proper channels to be relieved of the guilt of that sin. Although this was not a full remission of sin (Heb 10:1-3), it is the primary purpose of God’s requirement of sacrifice.

Sacrifice also points the way to Jesus

The Hebrew writer said about the Old Covenant, “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission”(Heb 9:22). Just as those sinful Hebrews stood condemned before God and needed the shedding of sacrificial blood, so those outside Christ do today. However, today, instead of the blood of ignorant animals, we have the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29).

Conclusion

An altar always represented a place of consecration. Before God gave His Law to Moses, men made altars wherever they were out of whatever material was available. An altar was often built to commemorate an encounter with God that had a profound impact upon someone.

Abram (Genesis 12:7), Isaac (Genesis 26:24–25), Jacob (Genesis 35:3), David (1 Chronicle 21:26), and Gideon (Judges 6:24) all built altars and worshiped after having a unique encounter with God. An altar usually represented a person’s desire to consecrate himself fully to the Lord. God had worked in a person’s life in such a way that the person desired to create something tangible to memorialize it.

During times of Israel’s rebellion and idolatry, the Lord’s altars fell into disrepair. The prophet Elijah, confronting the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, “repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down” (1 Kings 18:30).

Elijah’s restoration of the altar was significant, given the rampant paganism of his day. Also, even though he was living in a divided kingdom, the prophet symbolized the unity of God’s people in his construction: “Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, ‘Your name shall be Israel.’

With the stones, he built an altar in the name of the Lord” (1 Kings 18:31–32). It was on this rebuilt altar that God rained down fire and put the Baal-worshipers to shame (verses 38–39).

Bibliography

Davies, J. G. “Altar.” In The Encyclopedia of Christianity, edited by Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, 42-43. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999.

Easton, Matthew George. “Entry for Altar”. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. 1998.

Elwell, Walter A. “Entry for ‘Altar'”. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 1997.

Hayford, Jack. A Time of Altars. Churchmedia: Jack Hayford Ministries. 2016.

Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. “Entry for ‘ALTAR'”. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.

Swedenborg, E. “Altars.” Bible Meanings.info: I.J. Thompson, Feb 2002.

Troester, Al. “Family Altar (Bible Time).” Wholesome Words: Christian Home and Family, 2016.

Wilson, Marvin R. Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1989.

Harper, Douglas. “sacrifice”. Online Etymology Dictionary. Stager, Lawrence; Samuel. R. Wolff. “Child sacrifice in Carthage: religious rite or population control?” Journal of Biblical Archeological Review. January: 1984, 31–46.

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