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Altar (in Scripture)

Usage in Old and New Testaments

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Altar (in SCRIPTURE). —The English word altar, if the commonly accepted etymology be adopted alta ara—does not describe as well as its Hebrew and Greek equivalents, Hebrew: MZBCH mizbeah (from zabhah, to sacrifice) and thusiasterion (from thuo, to immolate), the purpose of the thing it stands for.

I. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT.—As soon as men conceived the idea of offering sacrifices to the Deity, they felt the need of places specially designed for this end. These primeval specimens of altars were necessarily most simple, very likely consisting of a heap of stones or earth, suitable for the fire and the victims. Some of the megalithic monuments left by prehistoric man seem to have been erected for this purpose. Probably of this simple description were the altars which Cain and Abel used to offer up their sacrifices, though Scripture does not mention in connection with their names any such monuments; such also were the altars built up by Noe after the flood (Gen., viii, 20); by Abraham in Sichem (Gen., 7), Bethel (Gen., xii, 8; xiii, 4), Mambre (Gen., 18), and at the place where he had been about to sacrifice his son (Gen., xxii, 9); by Isaac and Jacob at Bersabee (Gen., xxvi, 25; xlvi, 1), and by the latter in Galaad (Gen., xxxi, 54). The same may be said of the altar erected in the desert of Sinai before the golden calf (Ex., xxxii, 5). During the period of the Judges and of the Kings, the Israelites, owing to their propensity to idolatrous worship, raised up altars to Baal and Astaroth, even to Moloch and Chamos. No temple enclosed these altars or those erected to the one true God by the patriarchs; they were raised up in the open air, and preferably on the tops of the hills, whence their name, “high places”. The Chanaanites’ high places were commonly located near large and shady trees, or in the woods, in the midst of which a consecrated precinct was marked out, affording good opportunities for the sacred debaucheries accompanying the Astarothworship which were so often alluded to by the Prophets.

1. ALTAR OF HOLOCAUST.—Modern critics affirm that there existed in Israel different legitimate places of worship before the time of Josias, an assertion, however, which is not to be examined here as only regulations concerning the altar come under consideration at present. The earliest ordinance on the subject is found in Ex., xx, 24-26 as follows: “You shall make an altar of earth unto me, and you shall offer upon it your holocausts and peace offerings, your sheep and oxen, in every place where the memory of my name shall be: I will come to thee, and will bless thee. And if thou make an altar of stone unto me, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones; for if thou lift up a tool upon it, it shall be defiled. Thou shalt not go up by steps unto my altar, lest thy nakedness be discovered.” These regulations fairly correspond to the practice hitherto commonly followed, as may be concluded from the scanty indications furnished by the histories of the patriarchs. The Deuteronomic Law, while enforcing the injunction of local unity of worship, repeats, on the occasion of the altar erected on Mount Hebal, these primitive rules: “Thou shalt build … an altar of stones … not fashioned nor polished” (Deut., xxvii, 5, 6; cf. Jos., viii, 30, 31). The description given in the places cited, as well as that of the altar erected near the Jordan by the Rubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasses (Jos., xxii), which was “the pattern of the altar of Yahweh”, suggests that the altars there referred to were large constructions (Jos., xxii, 10). It may well be supposed that they were built upon a mound and reached by a slope or even by steps. The motive, indeed, for the rule of Ex., xx, 26, had disappeared since the priests had been provided with breeches (Ex., xxviii, 42). There are reasons to suppose that the altars erected at Silo and the other places of worship before the translation of the Ark to Jerusalem, though probably of smaller dimensions, were of the same general description. These were fixed altars, the splendor of which was to be surpassed in the memory of Israel by that of the altar erected by Solomon in front of the Temple. Before describing it, and sketching its history, it is proper to gather the different references found in the Bible to the portable altar used during the wanderings of the Hebrews through the wilderness.

Altar of Holocaust of the Tabernacle.—According to the prescriptions of Ex., xxvii, 1-8, xxxviii, 1-7, this altar of holocaust, constructed of setim wood (a kind of acacia), foursquare in form, measured five cubits square and three in height; it was covered with plates of brass. At its four upper corners were four “horns”, likewise overlaid with brass, which probably served to hold the flesh of the victims heaped upon the altar. In the case of sin-offerings, the priest put some of the blood of the victim upon these horns; they were also a place of refuge, as is to be inferred from Ex., xxi, 14. A grate of brass, after the manner of a net, extended to the middle of the altar, and under it a hearth. At the four corners of the net rings had been cast; and through these rings ran two bars of setim wood covered with brass, to carry the altar. This indeed was not solid, but empty and hollow on the inside. Such expressions as “to come down from the altar” (Lev., ix, 22) lead us to suppose that this altar which was placed at the door of the tabernacle (Lev., iv, 18) was usually set upon a hillock and reached by a slope. Some believe also that the abovedescribed altar, which was merely a framework, had to be filled with earth or stones, in compliance with the regulations of Ex., xx, 24, and in order to prevent it from being injured by the flames of the sacrifices. The altar served not only for the holocausts, but also for all the other sacrifices in which a part of the victim was burnt. Fire was unceasingly kept in the hearth for the sacrifices. When this altar was built up, before serving for Divine worship, it was solemnly consecrated by an unction with holy oil and by daily anointings and aspersions with the blood of the sin-offerings for seven days. For twelve days this was followed by daily sacrifices offered by the princes of each tribe; thenceforth all bloody sacrifices were offered on this altar. Some independent critics, remarking that this altar is mentioned in the sacerdotal code only (cf. Pentateuch), and arguing from the anomalies presented by the idea of the construction in wood of a fireplace upon which a strong fire continually burned, regard this former altar of holocaust, not as the pattern, but as a projection back to early times and on a smaller scale, of the altar of Jerusalem.

Altar of Holocaust of the Temple of Solomon.—This is commonly known under the name of “brazen altar”. It was located in the Temple court, to the east of the Temple proper. In form it resembled the altar of the tabernacle, but its dimensions were much larger: twenty cubits in length, twenty cubits in breadth, and ten cubits in height (II Par., iv, 1). Ez., xliii, 17 suggests that it was erected upon a base enclosing, according to certain traditions, the rock Sakkara which still can be seen in the Haram esh-Sherif. The whole structure, base and altar proper, was entirely filled up with rocks and earth. A slope, which Talmudic traditions suppose to have been broken three times by several steps, led to the top of the base, which was a few feet wider than the altar proper, in order that the priest might easily go around the latter. This altar, built up by Solomon (III K., viii, 64), was the object of a new consecration during Asa’s reign (II Par., xv, 8),-which makes us think that some restoration had taken place. Achaz removed it towards the north, and in its place erected another, similar to that which he had seen in Damascus (IV K., xvi, 10-15). A restoration of the former order of things very likely occurred under Ezechias, although the sacred text does not mention it explicitly. Again polluted by Ezechias‘ son Manasses, it was later on repaired and dedicated again to Yahweh by the same prince (IV K., xxi, 4, 5; II Par., xxxiii, 4, 5, 16). The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army (587) was of course fatal to both the Temple and the altar, and to both may be applied the sigh of the author of the Lamentations: “The stones of the sanctuary are scattered in the tops of every street”.

(c) Altar of Holocaust of the Second and Third Temples.—The Exile cured the Jews’ propensity to idolatry; those who came back from Babylon with Zorobabel took it to heart to rebuild the altar as soon as possible, in order that they might start over again the public worship of Yahweh. We read the account of the reconstruction in I Esd., iii, 2-6. This new altar was of the same form and dimensions as the former, and was probably likewise built with unhewn stones. Some twenty years later, the new Temple, completed amidst difficulties and opposition, stood behind the altar. But the Divine service was poor, as we can infer from the scanty documents of that epoch. Those indeed were hard times for Israel. Nehemias—if, to unravel the intricate chronology of the Books of Esdras, we admit that Nehemias preceded Esdras to Jerusalem—spared no efforts to reestablish the Temple worship; but the resources of the sanctuary were scarce, and after his return to Persia, the priests fled, every man to his own country to find a living; the sacrifices, not provided for, were abandoned, and the altar alone remained, a solitary witness to the misery of the times (II Esd., xiii, 10). Better days shone again with the coming of Esdras (I Esd., viii, 35), but the Persians were costly protectors. The Jews had a sorrowful experience of this, especially when the Persian general Bagoses imposed for seven years a heavy tax upon every sacrifice (Josephus, Ant., XI, vii, 1). The reign of Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) signalized itself by new profanations: “On the fifteenth day of the month Casleu, in the hundred and forty-fifth year [of the Grecian era], king Antiochus set up the abominable idol of desolation upon the altar of God” (I Mach., i, 57; iv, 38). How the tyranny of this prince roused the zeal and courage of the Machabees and their followers, and how, through a long and hard struggle, they succeeded in shaking the yoke of the Seleucides cannot be narrated here. Suffice it to say that Judas Machabeus, after having routed Antiochus’ army, “considered about the altar of holocausts that had been profaned, what he should do with it. And a good counsel came into their minds to pull it down: lest it should be a reproach to them, because the Gentiles had defiled it; so they threw it down. And they laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place… Then they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar according to the former… and on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month… in the hundred and forty-eighth year, they offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of holocausts which they had made” (I Mach., iv, 44-53). The anniversary of this new dedication was thenceforward celebrated by a feast, added to the liturgical calendar. The altar in question remained until the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple by the Romans. Josephus and the Talmud disagree as to the dimensions of the base. Instead of being overlaid with plates of brass, like the brazen altar of Solomon‘s Temple, it was covered on the outside with a solid plastering which might be easily replaced. By the horn of the southwest corner there was an outlet for the blood of the victims, and a hollow to receive libations. Such was the altar at the time of Jesus Christ (Matt., v, 23, 24; xxiii, 18); involved in the curse that hung over the Temple since the Savior’s last days, it was wrecked with the Temple (A.D. 70) by Titus’s army, never to be built up again.

(d) Altar of Incense..—In the above description not a word has been said of the incense offerings that were part of the Yahweh worship. There is indeed, on the subject of these offerings and the Temple furniture connected with them, a noteworthy divergence between the hitherto common opinion and that of the modern biblical critics. The latter consider the introduction of incense into the Yahweh worship as an innovation of relatively recent date (Jer., vi, 20); they remark that, with the exception of a few passages, the origin of which it is easy to determine, the biblical writers speak only of one altar, and that incense in the Law is supposed to be offered in censers, of which each priest possesses one (Lev., xvi, 12, 18-20; x; Num., xvi, 17; iii, 4-10). They argue, besides, from the adventitious character, the late date, and the priestly origin, of the so-called Mosaic texts referring to the altar of incense, as well as from the vacillating statements concerning it in the latest sources of Jewish history; and they conclude that neither in the tabernacle nor in the first Temple did there exist an altar of incense. We shall presently give the indications which the opinion heretofore considered as common makes use of in the description of this piece of tabernacle and Temple furniture. The first altar of incense constructed in the wilderness was foursquare, measuring a cubit in length, as much in breadth, and two cubits in height. Made of setim wood, overlaid with the purest gold (hence the name “golden altar”), it was encircled by a crown of the same material; it had likewise a golden brim, and, like unto the altar of holocaust, four horns and four rings of gold; through the latter two bars of setim wood, overlaid with gold, served to carry the altar (Ex., xxx, 4). When it had to be moved, it was covered with a purple veil and a ramskin. Consecrated, like the altar of holocaust, by an unction of holy oil, this altar served every morning and evening for the incense offering (Ex., xxx, 7-8) and in certain ceremonies for the sin-offerings. Every year during the great Feast of Atonement it was solemnly purified (Lev., xvi, 14-19). In the Temple of Solomon, the altar of incense was made, in shape and dimensions, similar to that of the tabernacle. The material alone differed; instead of setim wood, cedar wood was used in its construction. According to a document attributed to Jeremias, and quoted in II Mach., ii, 5, the prophet, forewarned from on high of the wreck of the Temple, would have hidden this altar in a hollow cave on Mount Nebo. Possibly, too, it was taken away in the spoils gathered by the Babylonian army that ransacked Jerusalem (IV K., xxv, 13-17). The fact is, the second Temple was furnished, like the former, with an altar of incense, destroyed about 168 B.C., by Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), who broke it to take off the gold plating that covered it. Judas Machabeus had a new one made and dedicated at the same time as the altar of holocaust. It is by this altar that the scene described in Luke, i, 8-21, took place. Josephus considered it as one of the three masterpieces contained in the Temple; it was probably carried off by the Romans, though no mention of it is made by the Jewish historian among the pieces of the Temple furniture carried off by Titus.

H. ALTAR IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.—The word altar is in the New Testament frequently applied either to the altar of holocaust or to the altar of incense. St. Paul, from the part of the sacrifice which the ministers of the altar received, draws an argument to prove that in like manner the ministers of the Gospel should live by the Gospel (I Cor., ix, 13-14). In another place, from the participation in the victim offered at the altar, he argues that in the same way as those who eat of the sacrifice are partakers of the altar, so also they that share in the flesh of the pagan victims are partakers of the devils to whom they are offered; hence he concludes that to partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils would be blasphemy (I Cor., x, 21). In conclusion, a few words about the altar mentioned in the Apocalypse. Its form resembled that of the altar of incense; like the latter, it was a “golden altar” set up before the throne of God (viii, 3), and adorned with four horns at the angles (ix, 13). By the fire burning upon it stood an angel holding a golden censer, “and there was given to him much incense”, a figure of the prayers of the Saints (viii, 3). Under the altar were the “souls of them that were slain for the word of God” (Apoc., vi, 9); they had evidently taken the place of the blood of the victims, which, in the Old Law, was poured at the foot of the altar, and fulfilled the same office of praise and atonement.


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