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Altars: why?

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:

Come, let us ask some seer, or priest, or maybe a reader of dreams - who may tell us why Phoebus Apollo is so angry: whether he sees fault in us for some vow or sacrifice neglected. Perhaps in return for the smoke of lambs and sacrificial goats, he will save us from the pestilence.

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

A 'high place' altar at Petra

Canaanite altars

An ancient altar in pre-Israelite Canaan might be simply a flat rock, or a rock hewn into a specific shape. 

  • At Gezer, the altar had hollows in its surface leading down into a cave where the bones of sacrificial animals were found. 

  • In the 13th century BC Canaanite temple at Hazor, an altar was found made of an enormous rectangular block, with a basin hollowed out on one of its surfaces. 

  • In many Canaanite sanctuaries dating from 3000 BC to the 14th-13th centuries BC, altars built of large stones and earthen mortar were found standing against the back wall. 

  • The high place or 'bamah' had altars made of great stones such as the one at Megiddo

Altar at the ancient city of Megiddo

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

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. 

Stone altar at Menoah

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. 

The Horned Altar 

Beersheba, a reconstruction of the horned altar. 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.  A Philistine altar, unusual in that it had two rather than four 'horns'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 selection and preparation of the animal

  • prayers of supplication or thanksgiving to the deity

  • the killing of the animal

  • the burning of pieces of the animal

  • distribution of meat after the ceremony

small ceramic altar

Compare the design of this small ceramic shrine with the stone altar above. 
It may have been a household shrine used for private worship, or a funeral artifact.

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. 

Incense altar found at Megiddo 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

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).

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible



Ancient Religion in Bible Times  - Archaeology of The Bible
Animal Sacrifice, Private and Public Worship; Bible  Study Resource

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