Bridgeway Bible Dictionary 
From the time of Noah there are biblical records of people who erected altars, usually to commemorate special religious experiences that people had with God. Some stories record the offering of sacrifices on these altars ( Genesis 8:20; Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 22:9; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 33:20; Genesis 35:3; Exodus 17:15).
Even after the establishment of the tabernacle with its specially appointed bronze altar of sacrifice, Israelites at times erected altars to commemorate important events ( Deuteronomy 27:5; Joshua 8:30-31; Joshua 22:10; Judges 6:24-26; 2 Samuel 24:18-25; 1 Kings 18:30). But these altars were not to be permanent or lavish. They were to consist simply of a mound of earth or a heap of loose stones, depending upon which material was available in the region. The altars were not to be so high that they required steps, in order to avoid any immodesty which might occur if a priest lifted up his robes while climbing the steps ( Exodus 20:24-26).
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 ( Psalms 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 ( Psalms 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.
Holman Bible Dictionary 
Old Testament The Hebrew word for altar that is used most frequently in the Old Testament is formed from the verb for slaughter and means literally, “slaughter place.” Altars were used primarily as places of sacrifice, especially animal sacrifice.
While animals were a common sacrifice in the Old Testament, altars were also used to sacrifice grain, fruit, wine, and incense. The grain and fruit sacrifices were offered as a tithe of the harvest or as representative first fruits of the harvest. They were presented in baskets to the priest who set the basket before the altar ( Deuteronomy 26:2-4 ). Wine was offered along with animal and bread sacrifices. Incense was burned on altars to purify after slaughterings and to please God with sweet fragrance.
“Altar” is distinct from “temple.” Whereas temple implies a building or roofed structure, altar implies an open structure. Altar and temple were often adjacent, though not all altars had a temple adjacent. The reference to Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac ( Genesis 22:1 ) may indicate that the animal to be sacrificed was placed on the altar alive, but bound, and slaughtered on the altar. Such may have been the earliest practice. By the time of the Levitical laws, the animal was slaughtered in front of the altar, dismembered, and only the fatty portions to be burned were placed on the altar (for example, Leviticus 1:2-9 ).
In the Old Testament, altars are distinguished by the material used in their construction. The simplest altars, and perhaps oldest, were the earthen altars ( Exodus 20:24 ). This type altar was made of either mud-brick or a raised roughly shaped mound of dirt. Mud-brick was a common building material in Mesopotamia, so mud-brick altars would have appeared most likely in Mesopotamia. An earthen altar would not have been very practical for permanently settled people, for the rainy season each year would damage or destroy the altar. This type altar might be more indicative of a nomadic people who move regularly and are less concerned with the need for a permanent altar. It might also reflect the Mesopotamian ancestry of the Hebrews, since the mud-brick was the typical building material there.
The stone altar is the most commonly mentioned altar in biblical records and the most frequently found in excavations from Palestine. A single large stone could serve as an altar ( Judges 6:19-23; Judges 13:19-20; 1 Samuel 14:31-35 ). Similarly, unhewn stones could be carefully stacked to form an altar ( Exodus 20:25 , 1 Kings 18:30-35 ). Such stone altars were probably the most common form of altar prior to the building of the Solomonic Temple. A number of examples of stone altars have been excavated in Palestine. The sanctuary at Arad, belonging to the period of the Divided Monarchy (900 B.C. to 600 B.C.) had such a stone altar. The Hebrew stone altars were not to have steps ( Exodus 20:25-26 ), probably in part to distinguish them from Canaanite altars which did have steps. A striking circular Canaanite altar dating from 2500 B.C. to 1800 B.C. was excavated at Megiddo. It was 25 feet in diameter and 45 1/2 feet high. Four steps led up to the top of the altar. Apparently in later times, the requirement forbidding steps on Hebrew altars was not enforced, for in Ezekiel's vision of the restored Temple, the altar has three levels and many steps.
Other stone altars have been escavated in Palestine. One from Beersheba, belonging also to the period of the Divided Monarchy, was of large hewn stones and had, when reassembled, horns on the four corners ( Exodus 27:2; 1 Kings 1:50 ). Apparently the Exodus restrictions concerning unhewn stones, like those concerning steps, were not consistently followed throughout the Old Testament period.
The third type altar mentioned in the Old Testament is the bronze altar. The central altar in the court of Solomon's temple was a bronze altar. Its dimensions are given as 20 cubits by 20 cubits by 10 cubits high (about 30 feet square and 15 feet high) [ 2 Chronicles 4:1 ]. Yet is unclear whether the entire altar was made of bronze, or if it had a bronze overlay on a stone altar. It is also possible that the bronze portion was a grate set on top of the otherwise stone altar ( Exodus 27:4 ). This altar is regularly known as the altar of burnt offering . The earlier tabernacle had a similar altar made of acacia (or shittim, KJV) wood overlaid with bronze ( Exodus 27:1-2 ). The tabernacle altar was smaller, only 5 cubits square and 3 cubits high. The location of the altar of burnt offering of the tabernacle and Solomon's Temple is not given specifically. It is located “at” or “before” the door of the Tent of Meeting, which is also the place sacrificial animals are slaughtered. Generally reconstructions of the tabernacle and Temple locate the altar in the center of the courtyard, but the text seems to favor a location near the entrance of the tabernacle/Temple structure. The rationale was probably to locate the altar as close as possible to the focal point of God's presence, near the ark itself.
Ezekiel's vision of the restored Temple had the altar of burnt offering located in the center of the courtyard. Although the dimensions are not fully given in the text, it seems that this altar was approximately 18 cubits square and 12 cubits high ( Ezekiel 43:13-17 ). Ezekiel's altar had three superimposed levels, each slightly smaller than the preceding, and had steps from the east leading up to the top.
Both the altar of the tabernacle and that of Ezekiel are described as having horns. It is likely that the altar of burnt offering in Solomon's Temple also had horns. The stone altar found at Beersheba has such horns preserved. Apparently grasping the horns of the altar was a way of seeking sanctuary or protection when one was charged with a serious offense ( 1 Kings 1:50-51; 1 Kings 2:28-34; compare Exodus 21:12-14 ). More importantly, the horns of the altar were the place where blood from a sacrificial animal was applied for atonement from sin (for example, Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 4:7 ). Jeremiah graphically described the people's sin as being so severe that they were engraved on the horns of the altar ( Jeremiah 17:1 ). During certain festivals a sacred procession led into the Temple and up to the horns of the altar ( Psalm 118:27 ). Probably this procession carried the chosen animal sacrifice to atone for the people's sin and ended at the place of sacrifice.
During the reign of Ahaz, the bronze altar or altar of burnt offering in Solomon's Temple was displaced by an altar that Ahaz had built on a Syrian model ( 2 Kings 16:10-16 ). This altar was apparently larger than the bronze altar of Solomon and was placed in the central position in the courtyard to be the main altar of sacrifice.
No biblical description exists for the altar of burnt offering from the Second Temple. However, such an altar was constructed even before the Temple was rebuilt ( Ezra 3:2 ). Josephus described the altar in the rebuilt Temple of Herod. He wrote that the altar was fifty cubits square and fifteen cubits high with a ramp leading to the top. This altar would have been much larger than the earlier ones.
A fourth type of altar mentioned in the Bible is the gold altar or altar of incense . It was located in the inner room of the sanctuary, just outside the holy of holies ( 1 Kings 7:48-50 ). The incense altar is described in Exodus as constructed of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, with dimensions one cubit square and two cubits high ( Exodus 30:1-6 ). Like the altar of burnt offering, the altar of incense had horns on the four corners. As its name implies, incense was burned on this altar. The incense served as a means of purification after slaughtering animals, a costly sacrifice, and also as a sweet smelling offering that would be pleasing to God.
Another Hebrew word for altar that is used infrequently in the Old Testament means literally, “high place” (Hebrew, bamah ). Such “high places” were probably raised platforms at which sacrifices and other rites took place. The “high place” may have been itself a kind of altar, though this is not certain. The circular Canaanite altar mentioned above may be an example of a “high place,” an elevated place of sacrifice and worship.
New Testament The Greek word used for altar literally translates “place of sacrifice.” New Testament references to altars concern proper worship ( Matthew 5:23-24 ) and hypocrisy in worship ( Matthew 23:18-20 ). The altar of incense described in the Old Testament ( Exodus 30:1-6 ) is mentioned in Luke ( Luke 1:11 ). Several New Testament references to altars refer back to Old Testament altar events ( Romans 11:3; James 2:21 ). In Revelation, John described a golden altar ( Revelation 9:13 ) that, like the Old Testament bronze altar, had horns.
While direct references to altar and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ are few in the New Testament ( Romans 13:10 ), the message that Jesus Christ is the ultimate sacrifice who puts us right with God is the theme of the New Testament.
Theological Significance Altars in the Bible were places of sacrifice. Beyond that function, altars also were places of God's presence. The patriarchal narratives regularly record the building of an altar at the site of a theophany, a place where God had appeared to an individual ( Genesis 12:7; Genesis 26:24-25 ). It was quite natural to build an altar and commemorate the appearance of God with a sacrifice. If God had once appeared at a site, that would be a good location for Him to appear again. Thus sacrifices would be offered there with the feeling that God was present and would accept the offering. With the building of the Solomonic Temple, the presence of God was associated especially with the ark of the covenant. The altar of burnt offering then came to signify more of a sense of reconciliation or mediation. The worshiper brought a sacrifice to the altar where it was burned and thereby given to God. The acceptance of the offerings by the priest symbolized God's acceptance, manifest in blessings ( Exodus 20:24 ) and covenant renewal.
Joel F. Drinkard, Jr.
Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament 
In the NT, as in the Septuagint, the usual term for ‘altar’ is θυσιαστήριον-a word otherwise confined to Philo, Josephus, and ecclesiastical writers-while βωμός, as contrasted with a Jewish place of sacrifice, is a heathen altar. The most striking example of the antithesis is found in 1 Maccabees 1:54-59. Antiochus Epiphanes erected a small altar to Jupiter-‘the abomination of desolation’ ( 1 Maccabees 1:54)-upon the θυσιαστήριον of the temple, and ‘on the twenty-fifth day of the month they sacrificed upon the idol-altar (βωμός) which was upon the altar of God (θυσιαστήριον).’ The NT contains only a single distinct reference to a pagan altar-the βωμός which St. Paul observed in Athena bearing the inscription Ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ ( Acts 17:23).
1. The altar on which sacrifices were presented to God was indispensable to OT religion. Alike in the simple cultus of patriarchal times and the elaborate ritual of fully developed Judaism, its position was central. The altar was the place of meeting between God and man, and the ritual of blood-the supposed seat of life-was the essence of the offering. Whatever details might be added, the rite of sprinkling or dashing the blood against the altar, or allowing it to flow on the ground at its base, could never be omitted. The Levitical cultus was continued in Jerusalem till the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in a.d. 70, and the attitude and practice of the early Jewish-Christian Church in reference to it form an interesting and difficult problem. It has been generally assumed that, when our Lord instituted the New Covenant in His own blood ( Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20), He implicitly abrogated the Levitical law, and that, when His sacrifice was completed, the disciples must at once have perceived that it made every altar obsolete. But there is not wanting evidence that enlightenment came slowly; that the practice of the Jewish-Christian Church was not altered suddenly, but gradually and with not a little misgiving. Hort observes that ‘respecting the continued adherence to Jewish observances, nothing is said which implies either its presence or its absence’ ( Judaistic Christianity , 42). But there are many clear indications that the first Christians remained Jews-McGiffert ( Apostol. Age , 65) even suggests that they were ‘more devout and earnest Jews than they had ever been’-continuing to worship God at the altar in the Temple like all their countrymen. ‘They had no desire to be renegades, nor was it possible to regard them as such. Even if they did not maintain and observe the whole cultus, yet this did not endanger their allegiance.… The Christians did not lay themselves open to the charge of violating the law’ (Weizsäcker, Apostol. Age , i. 46), They went up to the Temple at the hour of prayer ( Acts 3:1), which was the hour of sacrifice; they took upon themselves vows, and offered sacrifices for release ( Acts 21:20-21); and even St. Paul, the champion of spiritual freedom, brought sacrifices (προσφοράς) to lay on the altar in the Holy City ( Acts 24:17). The inference that the New Covenant left no place for any altar or Mosaic sacrifice is first explicitly drawn by the writer of Hebrews (see Temple).
2. Apart from a passing allusion to the altars which were thrown down in Elijah’s time ( Romans 11:3), St. Paul makes two uses of the θυσιαστήριον in the Temple. (1) In vindicating the right of ministers of the gospel to live at the charge of the Christian community, he instances the well-known Levitical practice: ‘those who wait upon the altar have their portion with (συμμερίζονται) the altar’ ( 1 Corinthians 9:13), part of the offering being burnt in the altar fire, and part reserved for the priests, to whom the law gives the privilege ‘altaris esse socios in dividenda victima’ (Beza). Schmiedel ( in loc. ) thinks that the reference may be to priests who serve ‘am Tempel der Heiden wie der Juden,’ but probably for St. Paul the only θυσιαστήριον was the altar on which sacrifice was offered to the God of Israel. (2) In arguing against the possibility of partaking of the Eucharist and joining in idolatrous festivals, St. Paul appeals to the ethical significance of sacrifice, regarded not as an atonement but as a sacred meal between God and man. The altar being His table and the sacrifice His feast, the hospitality of table-communion is the pledge of friendship between Him and His worshippers. All who join in the sacrifice are partakers with the altar (κοινωνοὶ τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου), one might almost say commensals with God. ‘According to antique ideas, those who eat and drink together are by the very act tied to one another by a bond of friendship and mutual obligation’ (W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem .2, 247). How revolting it is, then, to pass from the altar of God or, by parity of reasoning, from the τρὰπεζα τοῦ Κυρίου, to the orgies of pagan gods, the τρὰπεζα δαιμονίων.
3. The writer of Hebrews refers to the old Jewish altar and to a new Christian one. (1) Reasoning somewhat in the manner of Philo, he notes the emergence of a mysterious priest from a tribe which has given none of its sons to minister at the altar, and on this circumstance bases an ingenious argument for the imperfection of the Levitical priesthood, and so of the whole Mosaic system ( Hebrews 7:13). (2) Against those Christians who occupy themselves with (sacrificial) meats the writer says: ‘We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle’ ( Hebrews 13:10). Few sentences have given rise to so much misunderstanding, ‘Ἔχομεν can only denote Christians, and what is said of them must be allegorically intended, for they have no τῇ σκηνῇ λατρεύοντες, and no θυσιαστήριον in the proper sense of the word’ (von Soden). The point which the writer seeks to make is that in connexion with the great Christian sacrifice there is nothing corresponding to the feasts of ordinary Jewish (or of heathen) sacrifices. Its τύπος is the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement, no part of which was eaten by priest or worshipper, the mind alone receiving the benefit of the offering. So we Christians serve an altar from which we obtain a purely spiritual advantage. Whether the writer actually visualized the Cross of Christ as the altar at which all His followers minister, like λειτουργοί in the Tabernacle,-as many have supposed-is doubtful. Figurative language must not be unduly pressed,
The writer of Rev., whose heaven is a replica of the earthly Temple and its solemn ritual, sees underneath the altar the souls of martyrs-the blood poured out as an oblation (cf. Philippians 2:17, 2 Timothy 4:6) representing the life or ψυχή-and hears them crying, like the blood of Abel, for vengeance ( Revelation 6:9-10; cf. En. 22.5). In Revelation 8:3 and Revelation 9:13 the θυσιαστήριον is not the altar of burnt-offering but that of incense (see Incense). In Revelation 14:18 the prophet sees an angel come out from the altar, the spirit or genius of fire, an Iranian conception; and in Revelation 16:7 he personifies the altar itself and makes it proclaim the truth and justice of God.
Literature.-I. Benzinger, Heb. Arch. , Freiburg, 1894, p. 378f.; W. Nowack, Heb. Arch. , Freiburg, 1894, ii. 17f.; A. Edersheim, The Temple, its Ministry and Services , London, 1874; Schürer, History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] , ii. i. 207f.; W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem .2, London, 1894; J. Wellhausen, Reste arab. Heidenthums , Berlin, 1887, p. 101f.; A. C. McGiffert, Apostol. Age , Edinb. 1897, p. 36f.; C. v. Weizsäcker, Apostol. Age , 2 vols., London, 1894-95, i. 43ff.
Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible 
ALTAR . 1 . The original purpose of an altar was to serve as a means by which the blood of an animal offered in sacrifice might be brought into contact with, or otherwise transferred to, the deity of the worshipper. For this purpose in the earliest period a single stone sufficed. Either the blood was poured over this stone, which was regarded as the temporary abode of the deity, or the stone was anointed with part, and the rest poured out at its base. The introduction of fire to consume the flesh in whole or in part belongs to a later stage in the history of sacrifice (wh. see). But even when this stage had long been reached, necessity might compel a temporary reversion to the earlier modus operandi , as we learn from Saul’s procedure in 1 Samuel 14:33 f. From the altar of a single ‘great stone’ ( 1 Samuel 6:14 ) the transition was easy to an altar built of unhewn stones ( Exodus 20:25 , Deuteronomy 27:5 f. RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), which continued to he the normal type of Hebrew altar to the end (see 1Ma 4:41; Jos. [Note: Josephus.] BJ V. v. 6).
2 . Another type of pre-historic altar, to which much less attention has been paid, had its origin in the primitive conception of sacrifice as the food of the gods. As such it was appropriately presented on a table. Now the nearest analogy to the disc of leather spread on the ground, which was and is the table of the Semitic nomad, was the smooth face of the native rock, such as that on which Manoah spread his offering ( Judges 13:19 f., cf. Judges 6:20 f.). The well-known rock-surfaces, in Palestine and elsewhere, with their mysterious cup-marks typical specimens are illustrated PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1900, 32 ff., 249 to receive the sacrificial blood, can scarcely be other than pre-historic table-altars. The similarly marked table-stones of Syrian dolmens also belong here. A further stage in the evolution of the table altar is seen in the elaborate structures recently discovered within the West-Semitic area. In these the rock is cut away so as to leave the altar standing free, to which rock-cut steps lead up, an arrangement forbidden, from motives of decency, by the earliest legislation ( Exodus 20:26 , with which cf. Exodus 28:42 f. and parall. from a later date). The uppermost step served as a platform for the officiating priest. Some show cup-hollows for libations of blood (see illust. in Moore’s ‘Judges’ in SBOT [Note: BOT Sacred Books of Old Testament.] p. 83), while that first discovered at Petra has a depression for the altar-hearth ( PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1900, 350 ff. with sketch; see also Ariel). Its dimensions are 9 ft. by 6, with a height above the platform of 3 ft. The altars of the more important sanctuaries under the Hebrew monarchy, such as Bethel, were probably of a similar nature. A description of ‘the altar of burnt-offering’ of the Tabernacle will be given under Tabernacle; for the corresponding altars of the Temple of Solomon and its successors, and of Ezekiel’s sketch, see Temple.
3 . A third variety of primitive altar is the mound of earth ( Exodus 20:24 ), a copy in miniature of the hill-tops which were at all times favourite places of worship (see High Place).
4 . All the types of altar above described were intended for the ordinary open-air sacrificial service, details of which will be found under Sacrifice. There is no clear reference earlier than Jeremiah to the use of incense, and no reference at all to any altar of incense in the legitimate worship before the Exile, for 1 Kings 7:48 in its present form is admittedly late, and the altar of 1 Kings 6:20 must be the table of shewbread (see Temple, Shewbread).
5 . From what has already been said, it is evident that an altar was the indispensable requisite of every place of worship. It was not until the 7th cent. b.c. that Josiah succeeded in abolishing ‘the high places’ and destroying or desecrating their altars ( 2 Kings 23:5 ff.), in accordance with the fundamental demand of the Deuteronomic law-code ( Deuteronomy 12:1 ff.). In the older historical and prophetical writings, however, and even in the earliest legislation (see Exodus 20:24 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), the legitimacy of the local altars is never called in question. On the contrary, religious leaders such as Samuel and Elijah show their zeal for the worship of Jâ€³ [Note: Jahweh.] by the erection and repair of altars.
6 . As altars to which a special interest attaches may be mentioned that erected by David on the threshing floor of Araunah ( 2 Samuel 24:18 ff.), the site of which is marked by the present mosque of ‘the Dome of the Rock’; the altar erected by Ahaz after the model of one seen by him at Damascus ( 2 Kings 16:10 ff.); the sacrificial and incense altars to the host of heaven in the courts and probably even on the roof of the Temple ( 2 Kings 23:12 , Jeremiah 19:13 ); and finally, the altar to Olympian Zeus placed by Antiochus Epiphanes on the top of the altar of burnt-offering ( 1Ma 1:54 ).
7 . Reference must also be made to altars as places of refuge for certain classes of criminals, attested both by legislation ( Exodus 21:13 f.) and history ( 1Ki 1:51; 1 Kings 2:28; see more fully, Refuge [Cities of]). The origin and precise significance of the horns of the altar , of which the refugee laid hold (1Kings ll . cc .), and which played an important part in the ritual ( Exodus 29:12 , Leviticus 4:7 ff.), have not yet received a satisfactory explanation. A small limestone altar, showing the horns in the form of rounded knobs at the four corners, has just been discovered at Gezer ( PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1907, p. 196, with illust.).
A. R. S. Kennedy.
Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary 
Sacrifices are nearly as ancient as worship, and altars are of almost equal antiquity. Scripture speaks of altars, erected by the patriarchs, without describing their form, or the materials of which they were composed. The altar which Jacob set up at Bethel, was the stone which had served him for a pillow; Gideon sacrificed on the rock before his house.
The first altars which God commanded Moses to raise, were of earth or rough stones; and it was declared that if iron were used in constructing them they would become impure, Exodus 20:24-25 . The altar which Moses enjoined Joshua to build on Mount Ebal, was to be of unpolished stones, Deuteronomy 27:5; Joshua 8:31; and it is very probable that such were those built by Samuel, Saul, and David. The altar which Solomon erected in the temple was of brass, but filled, it is believed, with rough stones, 2 Chronicles 4:1-3 . It was twenty cubits long, twenty wide, and ten high. That built at Jerusalem, by Zerubbabel, after the return from Babylon, was of rough stones; as was that of Maccabees. Josephus says that the altar which in his time was in the temple was of rough stones, fifteen cubits high, forty long, and forty wide.
Among the Romans altars were of two kinds, the higher and the lower; the higher were intended for the celestial gods, and were called altaria, from altus; the lower were for the terrestrial and infernal gods, and were called arae. Those dedicated to the heavenly gods were raised a great height above the surface of the earth; those of the terrestrial gods were almost even with the surface; and those for the infernal deities were only holes dug in the ground called scrobiculi. Before temples were in use the altars were placed in the groves, highways, or on tops of mountains, inscribed with the names, ensigns, or characters of the respective gods to whom they belonged. The great temples at Rome generally contained three altars; the first in the sanctuary, at the foot of the statue, for incense and libations; the second before the gate of the temple, for the sacrifices of victims; and the third was a portable one for the offerings and sacred vestments or vessels to lie upon. The ancients used to swear upon the altars upon solemn occasions, such as confirming alliances, treaties of peace, &c. They were also places of refuge, and served as an asylum and sanctuary to all who fled to them, whatever their crimes were.
The principal altars among the Jews were those of incense, of burnt- offering, and the altar or table for the shew bread. The altar of incense was a small table of shittim wood covered with plates of gold. It was a cubit long, a cubit broad, and two cubits high. At the four corners were four horns. The priest, whose turn it was to officiate, burnt incense on this altar, at the time of the morning sacrifice between the sprinkling of the blood and the laying of the pieces of the victim on the altar of burnt-offering. He did the same also in the evening, between the laying of the pieces on the altar and the drink-offering. At the same time the people prayed in silence, and their prayers were offered up by the priests. The altar of burnt-offering was of shittim wood also, and carried upon the shoulders of the priests, by staves of the same wood overlaid with brass. In Moses's days it was five cubits square, and three high: but it was greatly enlarged in the days of Solomon, being twenty cubits square, and ten in height. It was covered with brass, and had a horn at each corner to which the sacrifice was tied. This altar was placed in the open air, that the smoke might not sully the inside of the tabernacle or temple. On this altar the holy fire was renewed from time to time, and kept constantly burning. Hereon, likewise, the sacrifices of lambs and bullocks were burnt, especially a lamb every morning at the third hour, or nine of the clock, and a lamb every afternoon at three, Exodus 20:24-25; Exodus 27:1-2; Exodus 27:4; Exodus 38:1 . The altar of burnt-offering had the privilege of being a sanctuary or place of refuge. The wilful murderer, indeed, sought protection there in vain; for by the express command of God he might be dragged to justice, even from the altar. The altar or table of shew bread was of shittim wood also, covered with plates of gold, and had a border round it adorned with sculpture. It was two cubits long, one wide, and one and a half in height. This table stood in the sanctum sanctorum, [holy of holies,] and upon it were placed the loaves of shew bread. After the return of the Jews from their captivity, and the building of the second temple, the form and size of the altars were somewhat changed.
Sacrifices according to the laws of Moses, could not be offered except by the priests; and at any other place than on the altar of the tabernacle or the temple. Furthermore, they were not to be offered to idols, nor with any superstitious rites. See Leviticus 17:1-7; Deuteronomy 12:15-16 . Without these precautionary measures, the true religion would hardly have been secure. If a different arrangement had been adopted, if the priests had been scattered about to various altars, without being subjected to the salutary restraint which would result from a mutual observation of each other, they would no doubt some of them have willingly consented to the worship of idols; and others, in their separate situation, would not have been in a condition to resist the wishes of the multitude, had those wishes been wrong. The necessity of sacrificing at one altar, (that of the tabernacle or temple,) is frequently and emphatically insisted on, Deuteronomy 12:13-14; and all other altars are disapproved, Leviticus 26:30 , compare Joshua 22:9-34 . Notwithstanding this, it appears that, subsequently to the time of Moses, especially in the days of the kings, altars were multiplied; but they fell under suspicions, although some of them were perhaps sacred to the worship of the true God. It is, nevertheless, true, that prophets, whose characters were above all suspicion, sacrificed, in some instances, in other places than the one designated by the laws, 1 Samuel 13:3-14; 1 Samuel 16:1-5; 1 Kings 18:21-40 .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology 
Structure on which offerings are made to a deity. The Hebrew word for altar is mizbeah [מִזְבֵּחַ], from a verbal root meaning "to slaughter." Greek renders this word as thusiasterion [Θυσιαστήριον], "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 ( Judges 6:20 ). An altar could stand alone, or it was located in the courtyard of a shrine.
Their 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 Chronicles 4 ). Ahaz replaced this altar with one modeled on an alter he had seen in Damascus ( 2 Kings 16 ). He moved the old altar, using it for divination. In Ezekiel's vision the courtyard altar also was horned ( Ezekiel 43:15 ).
Altars were places where the divine and human worlds interacted. 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 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 ( Genesis 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" ( Genesis 12:8 ). Interestingly, we are not told if there was a response. In the next passage, however, Abraham went to Egypt and fell into sin, lying about Sarah out of fear of Pharaoh. Perhaps there was no true communication at the altar between Bethel and Ai.
Sacrifices were the primary medium of exchange in altar interactions. The priestly code of Leviticus devotes a great deal of space to 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 nations surrounding ancient Israel, Yahweh did not need sacrifices to survive. The Israelites, however, needed to perform the act of sacrifice in order to survive ( Exodus 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 ( Leviticus 1 ); once a year, blood was smeared on the horns of the incense altar.
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 ( Genesis 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.
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 ( Exodus 21:13-14 ). If the murder was premeditated, however, then the altar was clearly 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 ( Amos 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.
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" ( Matthew 23:19 ). In Revelation the altar in the heavenly temple shelters martyred souls and even speaks ( Revelation 16:7 ). The New Testament writer of Hebrews (13:10) implies that the ultimate altar is the cross. Here divine and human interchange is consummated. The cross becomes the sanctuary of the believer, providing protection from the penalties of sin.
Thomas W. Davis
People's Dictionary of the Bible 
Altar. Noah built an altar when he left the ark. Genesis 8:20. In the early times altars were usually built in certain spots hallowed by religious associations, E.G., where God appeared. Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 35:1. Though generally erected for the offering of sacrifice, in some instances they appear to have been only memorials. Genesis 12:7; Exodus 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. Exodus 20:24-25. I. The altar of burnt offering. It differed in construction at different times. In the tabernacle, Exodus 27:1 ff; Exodus 38:1 ff., it was comparatively small and portable. In shape it was square. It was 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. Exodus 27:8. At the four corners were four projections called horns, made, like the altar itself, of shittim wood overlaid with brass, Exodus 27:2, and to them the victim was bound when about to be sacrificed. Psalms 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 materials as the altar itself. As the priests were forbidden to ascend the altar by steps, Exodus 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." Exodus 40:29. 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. 1 Kings 8:64; 2 Chronicles 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 16 cubits in height and 50 cubits in length and breadth. According to Leviticus 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. Exodus 38:30. That in the tabernacle was made of acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold. In shape it was square, being a cubit fn 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." Exodus 30:6; Exodus 40:5. The altar of Solomon's temple was similar, 1 Kings 7:48; 1 Chronicles 28:18, but was made of cedar overlaid with gold. In Acts 17:23 reference is made to an altar 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. In the New Testament the word altar does not occur in connection with Christian worship. Altar, sacrifice, priest, and temple, being typical of Christ and the Christian dispensation, have passed away. Their work was done when the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once was made. For, by one offering, he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. Hebrews 10:9-10; Hebrews 10:14.
Smith's Bible Dictionary 
Altar. The first altar of which we have any account is that built by Noah when he left the ark. Genesis 8:20. In the early times, altars were usually built in certain spots hallowed by religious associations, for example, where God appeared. Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 35:1. Though generally erected for the offering of sacrifice, in some instances, they appear to have been only memorials. Genesis 12:7; Exodus 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. Exodus 20:24-25.
I. The Altar of Burnt Offering. It differed in construction at different times.
(1) In the Tabernacle, Exodus 27:1 ff.; Exodus 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. Exodus 27:8. At the four corners were four projections called horns made, like the altar itself, of shittim wood overlaid with brass, Exodus 27:2, and to them the victim was bound when about to be sacrificed. Psalms 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, Exodus 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). Exodus 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. 1 Kings 8:64; 2 Chronicles 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 Leviticus 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. Exodus 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." Exodus 30:6; Exodus 40:5.
(b) The altar of Solomon's Temple was similar, 1 Kings 7:48; 1 Chronicles 28:18, but was made of cedar overlaid with gold.
III. Other Altars. In Acts 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.
Wilson's Dictionary of Bible Types 
EarthenExo20:24 (c) This altar may represent the Cross of Calvary on which Jesus as the Lamb of GOD died for those who break the holy law of GOD. Immediately after giving the Ten Commandments, the Lord requested that this altar be built at once. He knew that His laws would be broken, He knew that men would need a sacrifice for their sins; He therefore planned that this altar should be built at once so that men could have a way of forgiveness and salvation immediately. It is called an altar of earth because it belongs strictly to this earth. GOD makes no provision for forgiveness and salvation after death. No sacrifice of any kind is available to the lost sinner after he dies. There is no altar in hell.
Stone Exodus 20:25 (c) This altar is to be made of stone to indicate that it is permanent, substantial, solid and cannot be tampered with by man. No tool was to be used in the making of it. Stones are made by GOD. It is a picture of Calvary which was GOD's institution. He planned it, He designed that JESUS was to die there. It must not be tampered with by man. Its blessings are eternal. Calvary came from the heart of GOD through the ages of eternity.
Brazen Exodus 27:1-2 (c) This may be taken as a type of the cross of Calvary, where the Lamb of GOD was offered as a sacrifice for original sin, and a sacrifice for sins committed, and also as a sacrifice for our own wicked selves. Christ must die for our character, as well as our conduct. On that altar, the animal represented the Saviour who died both for us and for our sins. He died for what we are as burnt offering. He died for our deeds as the trespass offering.
Golden Exodus 30:1-3 (c) This altar represents the Cross of CHRIST where the beautiful and perfect life of CHRIST was offered up to GOD as a sweet perfume and fragrant incense. The life of CHRIST which was perfect was offered to GOD instead of our lives which are so imperfect. It is typical also of the consecrated life of the believer from which there ascends to GOD as a sweet odor the sacrifices of our lips in thanksgiving, worship and praise.
Idol1Ki18:26 (c) Here we may think of a false altar which is a type of the religious plans and schemes of men wherein they hope to appease the god of their imagination, and to obtain his favor even though what they are doing is not Scriptural.
False2Ki16:10 (c) Here and elsewhere we find altars built ostensibly for the worship of GOD, but really for the worship of idols. These false altars are symbolical for the world's religious schemes and plans under the name of Christianity. Worldly men devise worldly plans for the worship of those who live in their sins, and yet seek a religious outlet for their feelings. Every false religion has an "altar" of this kind.
Deserted Psalm 84:3 (c) Here is brought before us clearly that GOD's people had forsaken both the worship and the service of the Lord to such an extent that the fires had gone out, the altar was cold, and no priest was near. The birds felt so much at home around these altars that they built their nests where the priests should have been serving, and the fires should have been burning.
Christian Matthew 5:23 (b) This probably teaches us that there is a place of worship called "the altar" to which the believer goes for worship, praise and prayer. It may be in the church building or in the home. When we come to this hallowed place, we are to come with a heart that is open and free from bitterness, free from spite, and free from grudges. We are to be a forgiving people if we expect forgiveness from Heaven.
Unknown Acts 17:23 (a) This altar is probably typical of the false faiths by which people go through the motions of seeking and worshipping GOD, though their words and actions indicate clearly that they do not know Him, nor His character, nor His ways.
Hebrews 13:10 (a) The word here probably represents the Lord's table, and all the holy associations which accompany the Gospel of CHRIST.
Revelation 8:3 (c) From this we learn that in some mysterious way there is such an altar in Heaven. At that altar the fragrant incense of the prayers and the worship of Christians ascends to GOD and permeates Heaven.
American Tract Society Bible Dictionary 
A table-like structure, on which sacrifices and incense were offered, built of various materials, usually of stone, but sometimes of brass, etc. It is evident that sacrifices were offered long before the flood; but the first mention of an altar in Scripture is when Noah left the ark. Mention is made of altars reared by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. The latter was commanded to build an altar of earth, Exodus 20:24 . If stone was employed, it must be rough and unhewn, probably lest the practice of sculpture should lead them to violate the second commandment. It was not to be furnished with steps, Deuteronomy 27:2-6 .
The altars in the Jewish tabernacle, and in the temple at Jerusalem, were the following: 1. The altar of burnt offerings. 2. The altar of incense. 3. The table of showbread, for which see Bread .
1. THE Altar Of Burnt-Offerings was a kind of coffer of shittim- wood covered with brass plates, about seven feet six inches square, and four feet six inches in height. At the four corners were four horns, or elevations. It was portable, and had rings and staves for bearing in, Exodus 27:1-28:43 . It was placed in the court before the tabernacle, towards the east. The furniture of the altar was of brass, and consisted of a pan, to receive the ashes that fell through the grating; shovels; basins, to contain the blood with which the altar was sprinkled; and forks, to turn and remove the pieces of flesh upon the coals. The fire was a perpetual one, kindled miraculously, and carefully cherished. Upon this altar the lamb of the daily morning and evening sacrifice was offered, and the other stated and voluntary blood-sacrifices and meat and drink-offerings. To this also certain fugitives were allowed to flee and find protection. The altar in Solomon's temple was larger, being about thirty feet square and fifteen feet high, 2 Chronicles 4:1 . It is said to have been covered with thick plates of brass and filled with stones, with an ascent on the east side. It is often called "the brazen altar."
2. THE Altar Of Incense was a small table of shittim-wood, covered with plates of gold; it was eighteen inches square, and three feet high, Exodus 30:1-38 37:25 , etc. At the four corners were four horns, and all around its top was a little border or crown. On each side were two rings, into which staves might be inserted for the purpose of carrying it. It stood in the Holy place; not in the Holy of Holies, but before it, between the golden candlestick and the table of showbread, and the priests burned incense upon it every morning and evening. So Zacharias, Luke 1:9,11 . See Temple .
3. Altar At Athens inscribed "to the unknown God," Acts 17:23 . It is certain. Both from Paul's assertion and the testimony of Greek writers, that altars to an unknown or gods existed at Athens. But the attempt to ascertain definitely whom the Athenians worshipped under this appellation must ever remain fruitless for want of sufficient data. The inscription afforded to Paul a happy occasion of proclaiming the gospel; and those who embraced it found it indeed that the Being whom they had thus ignorantly worshipped was the one only living and true God.
Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words 
probably the neuter of the adjective thusiasterios, is derived from thusiazo, "to sacrifice." Accordingly it denotes an "altar" for the sacrifice of victims, though it was also used for the "altar" of incense, e.g., Luke 1:11 . In the NT this word is reserved for the "altar" of the true God, Matthew 5:23,24; 23:18-20,35; Luke 11:51; 1—Corinthians 9:13; 10:18 , in contrast to bomos, No. 2, below. In the Sept. thusiasterion is mostly, but not entirely, used for the divienely appointed altar; it is used for idol "altars," e.g., in Judges 2:2; 6:25; 2—Kings 16:10 .
properly, "an elevated place," always denotes either a pagan "altar" or an "altar" reared without Divine appointment. In the NT the only place where this is found is Acts 17:23 , as this is the only mention of such. Three times in the Sept., but only in the Apocrypha, bomos is used for the Divine altar. In Joshua 22 the Sept. translators have carefully observed the distinction, using bomos for the altar which the two and a half tribes erected, Joshua 22:10,11,16,19,23,26,34 , no Divine injunction being given for this; in Joshua 22:19,28,29 , where the altar ordained of God is mentioned, thusiasterion is used.
Easton's Bible Dictionary 
This altar was a small movable table, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold ( Exodus 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 Ezekiel 41:22 it is called "the altar of wood." (Compare Exodus 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 Maccabees 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 Hebrews 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 ( Isaiah 6:6; Revelation 8:3,4 ).
Copyright Statement These dictionary topics are from M.G. Easton M.A., DD Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain.
Bibliography Information Easton, Matthew George. Entry for 'Altar'. Easton's Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/ebd/a/altar.html. 1897.
Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words 
Mizbêach— ( מִזְבֵּחַ , Strong'S #4196), “altar.” This noun has cognates in Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic. In each of these languages the consonantal root is mdbh . M izbêach occurs about 396 times in the Old Testament.
This word signifies a raised place where a sacrifice was made, as in Gen. 8:20 (its first biblical appearance): “And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” In later references, this word may refer to a table upon which incense was burned: “And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it” (Exod. 30:1).—
—From the dawn of human history, offerings were made on a raised table of stone or ground (Gen. 4:3). At first, Israel’s altars were to be made of earth—i.e., they were fashioned of material that was strictly the work of God’s hands. If the Jews were to hew stone for altars in the wilderness, they would have been compelled to use war weapons to do the work. (Notice that in Exod. 20:25 the word for “tool” is chereb , “sword.”) At Sinai, God directed Israel to fashion altars of valuable woods and metals. This taught them that true worship required man’s best and that it was to conform exactly to God’s directives; God, not man, initiated and controlled worship. The altar that stood before the holy place (Exod. 27:1-8) and the altar of incense within the holy place (Exod. 30:1-10) had “horns.” These horns had a vital function in some offerings (Lev. 4:30; 16:18). For example, the sacrificial animal may have been bound to these horns in order to allow its blood to drain away completely (Ps. 118:27).
Mizbêach is also used of pagan altars: “But ye shall destroy their altars , break their images, and cut down their groves” (Exod. 34:13). This noun is derived from the Hebrew verb zabach , which literally means “to slaughter for food” or “to slaughter for sacrifice.” Zabach has cognates in Ugaritic and Arabic ( dbh ), Akkadian ( zibu ), and Phoenician ( zbh ). Another Old Testament noun derived from zabach is zabach (162 times), which usually refers to a sacrifice that establishes communion between God and those who eat the thing offered.
Hawker's Poor Man's Concordance And Dictionary 
In the old church in the wilderness, there were three altars erected. One, called the altar of incense; another, the altar of burnt offerings; and the third, the altar, or table of shew-bread. These material altars were all typical of Christ. And so jealous was the Lord concerning the altar, on which all offerings were to be made, that the whole of the materials of which it was formed were to be of earth only; or, if of stone, it was not to be hewn stone. And wherefore were matters conducted with such caution? Surely it was to shew, that in all offerings the Lord was to be offered only what was his own. "If thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.." ( Exodus 20:24-26) For, as every altar represented Christ, it was lessening Christ's dignity and the infinite value of his sacrifice, to presume to mingle any thing with this. Now then, as Christ is our New Testament altar, let us see to it, that we bring nothing to offer upon this altar of our own. Let Jesus be all and in all; both the Sacrifice and the Sacrificer, the High Priest, the Offering, and the Altar. We have (saith Paul) an altar whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle. ( Hebrews 13:10) I cannot forbear remarking, that seeing the holy jealousy of the Lord, as noted in these things, how very wrong must it be, not to say profane, to call the communion table the altar, and to talk of companions to the altar, in the books so called, as if such things could be companions to Christ. Surely it doth manifest great ignorance in divine things.
King James Dictionary 
AL'TAR, n. L. altare, probably from the same root as altus, high.
1. A mount a table or elevated place, on which sacrifices where anciently offered to some deity. Altars were originally made of turf, afterwards of stone, wood or horn some were round, others square, others triangular. They differed also in height, but all faced the east. The principal altars of the Jews were, the altar of incense, of burnt-offerings, and of shewbread all of shittim wood, and covered with gold or brass. 2. In modern churches, the communion table and, figuratively, a church a place of worship. 3. In scripture, Christ is called the altar of Christians, he being the atoning sacrifice for sin.
We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat, who serve tabernacles. Hebrews 13 .
Charles Buck Theological Dictionary 
A kind of table or raised place whereon the ancient sacrifices were offered. 2. The table, in Christian churches, where the Lord's supper is administered. Altars are, doubtless, of great antiquity; some suppose they were as early as Adam; but there is no mention made of them till after the flood, when Noah built one, and offered burnt offerings on it. The Jews had two altars in and about their temple; 1. The altar of burnt offerings; 2. The altar of incense; some also call the table for shew bread an altar, but improperly, Exodus 20:24-25 . 1 Kings 18:30 . Exodus 25:27; Exodus 25:30 : Hebrews 9:1-28 :
Webster's Dictionary 
(1): (n.) In the Christian church, a construction of stone, wood, or other material for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist; the communion table.
(2): (n.) A raised structure (as a square or oblong erection of stone or wood) on which sacrifices are offered or incense burned to a deity.
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature 
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 
ôl´ter ( מזבּח , mizbēaḥ , literally, "place of slaughter or sacrifice," from זבח , zābhaḥ , which is found in both senses; βωμός , bōmós , (only in Acts 17:23 ), (θυσιαστήριον , thusiastḗrion ):
I. Classification of Hebrew Altars
Importance of the Distinction
II. Lay Altars
2. In the Mosaic Age
3. Dangers of the Custom
4. The Mosaic Provisions
III. Horned Altars of Burnt Offering
1. The Tabernacle Altar
2. The Altar of Josh 22
3. The Altar till Solomon
4. The Horned Altar in Use
5. The Temple of Solomon
6. The Altar of Ahaz
8. The Post-exilic Altar
10. The Horns
IV. Altars of Incense
V. Recent Archaeological Materials
1. A G ezer Altar
2. The Taanach Altar of Incense
I. Classification of Hebrew Altars
Before considering the Biblical texts attention must be drawn to the fact that these texts know of at least two kinds of altars which were so different in appearance that no contemporary could possibly confuse them. The first was an altar consisting of earth or unhewn stones. It had no fixed shape, but varied with the materials. It might consist of a rock ( Judges 13:19 ) or a single large stone ( 1 Samuel 14:33-35 ) or again a number of stones ( 1 Kings 18:31 f). It could have no horns, nor it would be impossible to give the stone horns without hewing it, nor would a heap of earth lend itself to the formation of horns. It could have no regular pattern for the same reason. On the other hand we meet with a group of passages that refer to altars of quite a different type. We read of horns, of fixed measurements, of a particular pattern, of bronze as the material. To bring home the difference more rapidly illustrations of the two types are given side by side. The first figure represents a cairn altar such as was in use in some other ancient religions. The second is a conjectural restoration of Hebrew altars of burnt offering and incense of the second kind.
Importance of the Distinction
Both these might be and were called altars, but it is so evident that this common designation could not have caused any eye-witness to confuse the two that in reading the Bible we must carefully examine each text in turn and see to which kind the author is referring. Endless confusion has been caused, even in our own time, by the failure to note this distinction, and the reader can hope to make sense of the Biblical laws and narratives only if he be very careful to picture to himself in every case the exact object to which his text refers. For the sake of clearness different terms will be adopted in this article to denote the two kinds of altars. The first will be termed "lay altars" since, as will be seen, the Law permitted any layman to offer certain sacrifices at an altar of earth or unhewn stone without the assistance of a priest, while the second while be styled "horned altars," owing to their possession of horns which, as already pointed out, could not exist in a lay altar that conformed with the provisions of the law.
II. Lay Altars
In Genesis we often read of the erection of altars, e.g. Genesis 8:20; Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:4 . Though no details are given we are able to infer their general character with considerable precision. In reading the accounts it is sometimes evident that we are dealing with some rough improvised structure. For example, when Abraham builds the altar for the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen 22 it cannot be supposed that he used metal or wrought stone. When Jacob makes a covenant with Laban a heap of stones is thrown up "and they did eat there by the heap" ( Genesis 31:46 ). This heap is not expressly termed an altar, but if this covenant be compared with later covenants it will be seen that in these its place is taken by an altar of the lay type ( SBL , chapter 2), and it is reasonable to suppose that this heap was in fact used as an altar (compare Genesis 31:54 ). A further consideration is provided by the fact that the Arabs had a custom of using any stone as an altar for the nonce, and certainly such altars are found in the Mosaic and post-Mosaic history. We may therefore feel sure that the altars of Gen were of the general type represented by Fig. 1 and were totally unlike the altars of Fig. 2.
2. In the Mosaic Age
Thus Moses found a custom by which the Israelite threw up rude altars of the materials most easily obtained in the field and offered sacrificial worship to God on sundry occasions. That the custom was not peculiar to the Israelites is shown by such instances as that of Balaam ( Numbers 23:1 , etc.). Probably we may take the narrative of Jethro's sacrifice as a fair example of the occasions on which such altars were used, for it cannot be supposed that Aaron and all the elders of Israel were openly committing an unlawful act when they ate bread with Moses' father-in-law before God ( Exodus 18:12 ). Again, the narrative in which we see Moses building an altar for the purposes of a covenant probably exemplifies a custom that was in use for other covenants that did not fall to be narrated ( Exodus 24:4 ).
3. Dangers of the Custom
But a custom of erecting altars might easily lend itself to abuses. Thus archaeology has shown us one altar - though of a much later date - which is adorned with faces, a practice that was quite contrary to the Mosaic ideas of preserving a perfectly imageless worship. Other possible abuses were suggested by the current practices of the Canaanites or are explained by the terms of the laws. See High Place .
4. The Mosaic Provisions
Accordingly Moses regulated these lay altars. Leaving the occasion of their erection and use to be determined by custom he promulgated the following laws: "An altar of earth mayest thou make unto me, and mayest sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen; in all the place where I record my name I will come unto thee and I will bless thee. And if thou make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones; for if thou lift thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither mayest thou go up by steps unto mine altar," etc. ( Exodus 20:24-26; so correct English Versions of the Bible). Several remarks must be made on this law. It is a law for laymen, not priests. This is proved by the second person singular and also by the reason given for the prohibition of steps - since the priests were differently garbed. It applies "in all the place where I record my name," not, as the ordinary rendering has it, "in every place." This latter is quite unintelligible: it is usually explained as meaning places hallowed by theophanies, but there are plenty of instances in the history of lay sacrifices where no theophany can be postulated; see e.g. Genesis 31:54; 1 Samuel 20:6 , 1 Samuel 20:29 ( EPC , 185 f). "All the place" refers to the territory of Israel for the time being. When Naaman desired to cease sacrificing to any deity save the God of Israel he was confronted by the problem of deciding how he could sacrifice to Him outside this "place." He solved it by asking for two mules' burden of the earth of the "place" ( 2 Kings 5:17 ). Lastly, as already noticed, this law excludes the possibility of giving the altars horns or causing them to conform to any given pattern, since the stone could not be wrought One other law must be noticed in this connection: Deuteronomy 16:21 f: 'Thou shalt not plant thee an 'ăshērāh of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord thy God, which thou shalt make thee. Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy God hateth.' Here again the reference is probably to the lay altars, not to the religious capital which was under the control of the priests.
III. Horned Altars of Burnt Offering
1. The Tabernacle Altar
In Exodus 27:1-8 (compare Exodus 38:1-7 ) a command is given to construct for the Tabernacle an altar of shittim wood covered with bronze. It was to be five cubits long by five broad and three high. The four corners were to have horns of one piece with it. A network of bronze was to reach halfway up the altar to a ledge. In some way that is defined only by reference to what was shown to Moses in the Mount the altar was to be hollow with planks, and it was to be equipped with rings and staves for facility of transport. The precise construction cannot be determined, and it is useless to speculate where the instructions are so plainly governed by what was seen by Moses in the Mount; but certain features that are important for the elucidation of the Bible texts emerge clearly. The altar is rectangular, presenting at the top a square surface with horns at the four corners. The more important material used is bronze, and the whole construction was as unlike that of the ordinary lay altar as possible. The use of this altar in the ritual of the Tabernacle falls under the heading Sacrifice . Here we must notice that It was served by priests. Whenever we find references to the horns of an altar or to its pattern we see that the writer is speaking of an altar of this general type. Thus, a criminal seeking asylum fled to an altar of this type, as appears from the horns which are mentioned in the two historical instances and also from such expressions as coming down or going up. See Asylum .
2. The Altar of Josh 22
We read in Joshua 22:9 that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad built an altar. In Joshua 22:28 we find them saying, "Behold the pattern of the altar," etc. This is decisive as to the meaning, for the lay altar had no pattern. Accordingly in its general shape this altar must have conformed to the type of the Tabernacle altar. It was probably not made of the same materials, for the word "build" is continually used in connection with it, and this word would scarcely be appropriate for working metal: nor again was it necessarily of the same size, but it was of the same pattern: and it was designed to serve as a witness that the descendants of the men who built it had a portion in the Lord. It seems to follow that the pattern of the Tabernacle altar was distinctive and unlike the heathen altars in general use in Palestine and this appears to be confirmed by modern excavations which have revealed high places with altars quite unlike those contemplated by the Pentateuch. See High Place .
3. The Altar till Solomon
In the subsequent history till the erection of Solomon's Temple attention need only be directed to the fact that a horned altar existed while the Ark was still housed in a tent. This is important for two reasons. It shows a historical period in which a horned altar existed at the religious capital side by side with a number of lay altars all over the country, and it negatives the suggestion of G. A. Smith ( Jerusalem , II, 64) that the bare rock ec-Cakhra was used by Solomon as the altar, since the unhewn rock obviously could not provide a horned altar such as we find as early as 1 Kings 1:50-53 .
4. The Horned Altar in Use
Note too that we read here of bringing down from the altar, and this expression implies elevation. Further in 1 Kings 9:25 we hear that Solomon was in the habit of offering on the altar which he had built, and this again proves that he had built an altar and did not merely use the temple rock. (See also Watson in PEFS (January, 1910), 15ff, in reply to Smith.)
5. The Temple of Solomon
For the reasons just given it is certain that Solomon used an altar of the horned type, but we have no account of the construction in Kings. According to a note preserved in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew, Solomon enlarged the altar erected by David on Araunah's threshing-floor ( 2 Samuel 24:25 ), but this notice is of very doubtful historical value and may be merely a glossator's guess. According to 2 Chronicles 4:1 the altar was made of bronze and was twenty cubits by twenty by ten. The Chronicler's dimensions are doubted by many, but the statement of the material is confirmed by 1 Kings 8:64; 2 Kings 16:10-15 . From the latter passage it appears that an altar of bronze had been in use till the time of Ahaz.
6. The Altar of Ahaz
This king saw an altar in Damascus of a different pattern and had a great altar made for the temple on its model. As the text contrasts the great altar with the altar of bronze, we may refer that the altar of Ahaz was not made of bronze. Whether either or both of these altars had steps (compare Ezekiel 43:17 ) or were approached by a slope as in Fig. 2 cannot be determined with certainty. It may be noted that in Isaiah 27:9 we read of the stones of the altar in a passage the reference of which is uncertain.
Ezekiel also gives a description of an altar ( Ezekiel 43:13-17 ), but there is nothing to show whether it is purely ideal or represents the altar of Solomon or that of Ahaz, and modern writers take different views. In the vision it stood before the house ( Ezekiel 40:47 ). In addition he describes an altar or table of wood ( Ezekiel 41:22 ). This of course could only be a table, not in any sense an altar. See Table .
8. The Post-Exilic Altar
Ezra 3:2 f tells of the setting up of the altar by Zerubbabel and his contemporaries. No information as to its shape, etc., can be extracted from this notice. We read of a defilement of the temple altar in 1 Macc 1:54. This was made of stones ( Exodus 20:24-26 having at this date been applied to the temple altar contrary to its original intent) and a fresh altar of whole stones was constructed (1 Macc 4:44-49). Presumably this altar had no horns.
9. Idolatrous and Unlawful Altars
It is clear from the historical and prophetical books that in both kingdoms a number of unlawful altars were in use. The distinction which has been drawn between lay altars and horned altars helps to make these passages easy to understand. Thus when Amos in speaking of Bethel writes, "The horns of the altar shall be cut off," we see that he is not thinking of lay altars which could have no horns ( Amos 3:14 ). Again Hosea's "Because Ephraim hath multiplied altars 'to sin,' altars have been to him 'for sin'" ( Hosea 8:11 , compare Hosea 10:1-8; Hosea 12:11 (12)), is not in contradiction to Exodus 20:24-26 because the prophet is not speaking of lay altars. The high places of Jeroboam ( 1 Kings 12:28-33 ) were clearly unlawful and their altars were unlawful altars of the horned type. Such cases must be clearly distinguished from the lay altars of Saul and others.
10. The Horns
The origin of the horns is unknown, though there are many theories. Fugitives caught hold of them ( 1 Kings 1:50 , 1 Kings 1:51 ), and victims could be tied to them ( Psalm 118:27 ).
IV. Altars of Incense
Exodus 30:1-10 contains the commands for the construction and use of an altar of incense. The material was shittim wood, the dimensions one cubit by one by two, and it also had horns. Its top and sides were overlaid with gold and it was surrounded by a crown or rim of gold. For facility of transport it had golden rings and staves. It stood before the veil in front of the ark.
Solomon also constructed an altar of incense ( 1 Kings 6:20; 1 Kings 7:48; 1 Chronicles 28:18 ), cedar replacing shittim wood. The altar of incense reappears in 1 Macc 1:21; 4:49.
V. Recent Archaeological Materials
Recently several altars have been revealed by excavations. They throw light on the Bible chiefly by showing what is forbidden. See especially High Place .
1. A G ezer Altar
Fig. 3 represents an altar found at Gezer built into the foundation of a wall dating about 600 bc. Mr. Macalister describes it in the following words: "It is a four-sided block of limestone, 1 ft. 3 inches high. The top and bottom are approximately 10 1/2 and 9 inches square respectively; but these are only the average dimensions of the sides, which are not regularly cut. The angles are prolonged upward for an additional 1 1/2 inches as rounded knobs - no doubt the 'horns' of the altar. The top is very slightly concave so as to hold perhaps an eighth of a pint of liquid" ( PEFS (July, 1907), 196 f). The size suggests an altar of incense rather than an altar of burnt offering, but in view of the general resemblance between the Tabernacle altars of burnt offering and incense, this is a fact of minor importance. On the other hand, the shape, pattern and material are of great interest. That the altar violates in principle the law of Exodus 20:25 forbidding the dressing of the stones is obvious, though that passage does not apply in terms to altars of incense, but certainly the appearance of the block does recall in a general way the altars of the other type - the horned altars. Like them it is four-sided with a square top, and like them it has knobs or horns at each corner. Possibly it was formed in general imitation of the Temple altars.
Other altars in Canaanite high places exemplify by their appearance the practices prohibited by the Pentateuch. See for illustrations H. Vincent, Canaan d'apr è s l'exploration r é cente ; R. Kittel, Studien zur hebraischen Archaologie und Religions-Geschichte ; S. R. Driver, Modern Research as Illustrating the Bible .
2. The Taanach Altar of Incense
Importance attaches to a terra cotta altar of incense found by Sellin at Taanach, because its height and dimensions at the base recall the altar of Ex. "It was just 3 ft. high, and in shape roughly like a truncated pyramid, the four sides at the bottom being each 18 inches long, and the whole ending at the top in a bowl a foot in diameter.... The altar is hollow.... Professor Sellin places the date of the altar at about 700 bc.... An incense-altar of exactly the same shape ... but of much smaller size ... has been found quite recently at Gezer in débris of about 1000-600 bc" (Driver, Modern Research , etc., 85). These discoveries supply a grim comment on theories of those critics who maintain that incense was not used by the Hebrews before the time of Jeremiah. The form of the altar itself is as contrary to the principles of the Pentateuch law as any thing could be.
R. Kittel, Studien zur hebraischen Archaologie und Religions-Geschichte , I and II; Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics ; Murray, Illustrated Bible Dictionary ; EB , under the word "Altar"; EPC , chapter 6. The discussions in the ordinary works of reference must be used with caution for the reason given in I above.
B. In Worship
I. In Worship: Tabernacle and Temples
1. Patriarchal Altars
2. Sacred Sites
3. Pre-Tabernacle Altars
II. The Altar of Burnt Offering (Brazen Altar)
1. Altar Before the Tabernacle
2. Its History
3. Altar of Solomon's Temple
4. Altar of Ezekiel's Temple
5. Altar of Second Temple
6. Altar of Herod's Temple
III. The Altar of Incense (Golden Altar)
1. In the Tabernacle
2. Mode of Burning Incense
3. In Solomon's Temple and Later
4. In Herod's Temple
5. Symbolism of Incense Burning
B. In Worship
I. In Worship: Tabernacle and Temples
In the literature of the Bible, sacrifices are prior to altars, and altars prior to sacred buildings. Their first mention is in the case of the altar built by Noah after the Flood ( Genesis 8:20 ).
1. Patriarchal Altars
The next is the altar built at the place of Shechem, by which Abraham formally took possession, on behalf of his descendants, of the whole land of Canaan ( Genesis 12:7 ). A second altar was built between Bethel and Ai ( Genesis 12:8 ). To this the patriarch returned on his way from Egypt ( Genesis 13:4 ). His next place of sacrifice was Hebron ( Genesis 13:18 ); and tradition still professes to show the place where his altar stood. A subsequent altar was built on the top of a mountain in the land of Moriah for the sacrifice of Isaac ( Genesis 22:9 ).
2. Sacred Sites
Each of these four spots was the scene of some special revelation of Yahweh; possibly to the third of them (Hebron) we may attribute the memorable vision and covenant of Gen 15. These sites became, in after years, the most venerated and coveted perquisites of the nation, and fights for their possession largely determined its history. To them Isaac added an altar at Beersheba ( Genesis 26:25 ), probably a re-erection, on the same site, of an altar built by Abraham, whose home for many years was at Beersheba. Jacob built no new altars, but again and again repaired those at Shechem and Bethel. On one occasion he offered a sacrifice on one of the mountains of Gilead, but without mention of an altar ( Genesis 31:54 ). There were thus four or five spots in Canaan associated at once with the worship of Yahweh, and the name of their great ancestor, which to Hebrews did not lose their sanctity by the passage of time, namely, Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, Moriah and Beersheba.
3. Pre-Tabernacle Altars
The earliest provision for an altar as a portion of a fixed establishment of religion is found in Exodus 20:24-26 , immediately after the promulgation of the Decalogue. Altars are commanded to be made of earth or of unhewn stone, yet so as to have, not steps, but only slopes for ascent to the same - the injunction implying that they stood on some elevation (see Altar , A, above). Before the arrival at Sinai, during the war with Amalek, Moses had built an emergency altar, to which he gave the name Yahweh-Nissi ( Exodus 17:15 ). This was probably only a memorial altar (compare the altar ד , 'Ed in Joshua 22:21 ). At Sinai took place the great crisis in Israel's national history. It was required that the covenant about to be made with Yahweh should be ratified with sacrificial blood; but before Moses could sprinkle the Book of the Covenant and the people who covenanted ( Exodus 24:6 , Exodus 24:7; compare Hebrews 9:19 ), it was necessary that an altar should be built for the sacrificial act. This was done "under the mount," where, beside the altar, were reared twelve pillars, emblematic of the twelve tribes of Israel ( Exodus 24:4 ).
In connection with the tabernacle and the successive temples there were two altars - the Altar of Burnt Offering ( the altar by preëminence, Ezekiel 43:13 ), and the Altar of Incense. Of these it is now necessary to speak more particularly.
II. The Altar of Burnt Offering (the Brazen Altar)
(מזבּח העולה , mizbaḥ hā - ‛ōlāh ), (מזבּח הנּחשׁת , mizbaḥ ha - neḥōsheth ). - (By "brass" throughout understand "bronze.")
1. Altar Before the Tabernacle
The altar which stood before the tabernacle was a portable box constructed of acacia wood and covered on the outside with plates of brass ( Exodus 27:1 ). "Hollow with planks," is its definition ( Exodus 27:8 ). It was five cubits long, five cubits broad, and three cubits high; on the ordinary reckoning, about 7 1/2 ft. on the horizontal square, and 4 1/2 ft. in height (possibly less; see Cubit ). On the "grating of network of brass" described as around and half-way up the altar ( Exodus 20:4 , Exodus 20:5 ), see Grating . Into the corners of this grating, on two sides, rings were riveted, into which the staves were inserted by which the Ark was borne (see Staves ). For its corner projections, see Horns Of The Altar . The prohibition of steps in Exodus 20:26 and the analogy of later altars suggest that this small altar before the tabernacle was made to stand on a base or platform, led up to by a slope of earth. The right of sanctuary is mentioned in Exodus 21:14 . For the utensils connected with the altar, see Pan; Shovel; Basins; Flesh-Hook; Censer . All these utensils were made of brass.
2. Its History
The history of the altar before the tabernacle was that of the tabernacle itself, as the two were not parted during its continuance (see Tabernacle ). Their abolition did not take place till Solomon's temple was ready for use, when the great high place at Gibeon ( 1 Kings 3:4 ) was dismantled, and the tabernacle and its holy vessels were brought to the new temple ( 1 Kings 8:4 ). Another altar had meanwhile been raised by David before the tabernacle he had made on Zion, into which the Ark of the Covenant was moved ( 1 Chronicles 15:1; 1 Chronicles 16:1 ). This would be a duplicate of that at Gibeon, and would share its supersession at the erection of the first temple.
3. Altar of Solomon's Temple
In Solomon's temple the altar was considerably enlarged, as was to be expected from the greater size of the building before which it stood. We are indebted to the Chronicler for its exact dimensions ( 2 Chronicles 4:1 ). It formed a square of twenty cubits, with an elevation of ten cubits (30 x 30 x 15 ft.; or somewhat less). It is described as "an altar of brass" ( 2 Chronicles 4:1 ), or "brazen altar" ( 1 Kings 8:64; 2 Chronicles 7:7; compare 2 Kings 16:14 ), either as being, like its predecessors, encased in brass, or, as others think, made wholly of brass. It was not meant to be portable, but that the altar itself was movable is shown by the fact of Ahaz having it removed ( 2 Kings 16:14 ). Further details of its structure are not given. The altar stood in "the middle of the court that was before the house," but proved too small to receive the gifts on the day of the temple's dedication ( 1 Kings 8:64; 2 Chronicles 7:7 ). It remained, however, the center of Israelite worship for 2 1/2 centuries, till Ahaz removed it from the forefront of the house, and placed it on the northern side of is Damascene altar ( 2 Kings 16:14 ). This indignity was repaired by Hezekiah (compare 2 Kings 18:22 ), and the altar assumed its old place in the temple service till its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 bc.
4. Altar of Ezekiel's Temple
The altar of Ezekiel's ideal temple was, as planned, a most elaborate structure, the cubit used for this purpose being that of "a cubit and an handbreadth" ( Ezekiel 43:13 ), or the large cubit of history (see Cubit ). The paragraph describing it ( Ezekiel 43:13-17 ) is very specific, though uncertainty rests on the meaning of some of the details. The altar consisted of four stages lying one above another, gradually diminishing in size till the hearth was reached upon which the fire was literal. This was a square of twelve cubits (18 ft.), from the corners of which 4 horns projected upward ( Ezekiel 43:15 ). The base or lowest stage was one cubit in height, and had a border round about, half a cubit high ( Ezekiel 43:13 ); the remaining stages were two, four, and four cubits high respectively ( Ezekiel 43:14 , Ezekiel 43:15 ); the horns may have measured another cubit (thus, the Septuagint). Each stage was marked by the inlet of one cubit ( Ezekiel 43:13 , Ezekiel 43:14 ). The basement was thus, apparently, a square of eighteen cubits or 27 ft. The word "bottom" (literally, "bosom") in Ezekiel's description is variously interpreted, some regarding it as a "drain" for carrying off the sacrificial blood, others identifying it with the "basement." On its eastern face the altar had steps looking toward the east ( Ezekiel 43:17 ) - a departure from the earlier practice (for the reason of this, compare Perowne's article "Altar" in Smith, Dictionary of the Bible ).
5. Altar of Second Temple
Of the altar of the second temple no measurements are given. It is told only that it was built prior to the temple, and was set upon its base ( Ezra 3:3 ), presumably on the Cakhra stone - the ancient site.
6. Altar of Herod's Temple
In Herod's temple a difficulty is found in harmonizing the accounts of the Mishna and Josephus as to the size of the altar. The latter gives it as a square of fifty cubits ( BJ , V, v, 6). The key to the solution probably lies in distinguishing between the structure of the altar proper (thirty-two cubits square), and a platform of larger area (fifty cubits square = 75 ft.) on which it stood. When it is remembered that the Ṣakhra stone is 56 ft in length and 42 ft. in width, it is easy to see that it might form a portion of a platform built up above and around it to a level of this size. The altar, like that of Ezekiel's plan, was built in diminishing stages; in the Mishna, one of one cubit, and three of five cubits in height, the topmost stage measuring twenty-six cubits square, or, with deduction of a cubit for the officiating priests, twenty-four cubits. Josephus, on the other hand, gives the height at fifteen cubits. The altar, as before, had four horns. Both Josephus and the Mishna state that the altar was built of unhewn stones. The ascent, thirty-two cubits long and sixteen broad, likewise of unhewn stone, was on the south side. See further, Temple , Herod 'S. It is of this altar that the words were spoken, "Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" ( Matthew 5:24 ).
III. The Altar of Incense (Golden Altar)
(מזבּח הקּטרת , mizbaḥ ha - ḳeṭōreth ), (מזבּח הזּהב , mizbaḥ ha - zāhābh ).
1. In the Tabernacle
This was a diminutive table of acacia overlaid with gold, the upper surface of which was a square of one cubit, and its height two cubits, with an elevated cornice or crown around its top ( Exodus 30:2 ). Like the great altar of burnt offering, it was in the category of "most holy" things ( Exodus 30:10 ); a distinction which gave it a right to a place in the inner room of the cella or holy of holies. Hence, in 1 Kings 6:22 , it is said to "belong to the oracle," and in Hebrews 9:4 that chamber is said to have the "altar of incense." It did not, however, actually stand there, but in the outer chamber, "before the veil" ( Exodus 40:26 ). The reason for this departure from the strict rule of temple ritual was that sweet incense was to be burnt daily upon it at the offering of every daily sacrifice, the lamps being then lit and extinguished (compare Numbers 28:3 f; Exodus 30:7 , Exodus 30:8 ), so that a cloud of smoke might fill the inner chamber at the moment when the sacrificial blood was sprinkled (see Mercy-Seat ). To have burnt this incense within the veil would have required repeated entries into the holy of holies, which entries were forbidden ( Leviticus 16:2 ). The altar thus stood immediately without the veil, and the smoke of the incense burnt upon it entered the inner chamber by the openings above the veil. For the material construction which admitted of this, see Holy Place .
For other uses of the altar of incense see Horns Of The Altar , where it is shown that at the time of the offerings of special sin offerings and on the day of the annual fast its horns were sprinkled with blood. This, with the offering of incense upon it, were its only uses, as neither meal offerings might be laid upon it, nor libations of drink offerings poured thereon ( Exodus 30:9 ). The Tāmı̄d , or standing sacrifice for Israel, was a whole burnt offering of a lamb offered twice daily with its meal offering, accompanied with a service of incense.
2. Mode of Burning Incense
It is probable that the censers in use at the time of the construction of this altar and after were in shape like a spoon or ladle (see Table Of Shewbread ), which, when filled with live coals from the great altar, were carried within the sanctuary and laid upon the altar of incense ( Leviticus 16:12 ). The incense-sticks, broken small, were then placed upon the coals. The narrative of the deaths of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, is thus made intelligible, the fire in their censers not having been taken from the great altar.
3. In Solomon's Temple and Later
The original small altar made by Moses was superseded by one made by Solomon. This was made of cedar wood, overlaid with gold ( 1 Kings 6:20 , 1 Kings 6:22; 1 Kings 7:48; 1 Kings 9:25; 2 Chronicles 4:19 ); hence, was called the "golden altar." This was among "all the vessels of the house of God, great and small," which Nebuchadnezzar took to Babylon ( 2 Chronicles 36:18 ). As a consequence, when Ezekiel drew plans for a new temple, he gave it an incense altar made wholly of wood and of larger dimensions than before ( Ezekiel 41:22 ). It had a height of three cubits and a top of two cubits square. There was an incense altar likewise in the second temple. It was this altar, probably plated with gold, which Antiochus Epiphanes removed (1 Macc 1:21), and which was restored by Judas Maccabeus (1 Macc 4:49). (On critical doubts as to the existence of the golden altar in the first and second temples, compare POT , 323.)
4. In Herod's Temple
That the Herodian temple also had its altar of incense we know from the incident of Zacharias having a vision there of "an angel ... standing on the right side of the altar of incense" when he went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense ( Luke 1:11 ). No representation of such an altar appears on the arch of Titus, though it is mentioned by Josephus ( BJ , V, v, 5). It was probably melted down by John during the course of the siege (V, xiii, 6).
5. Symbolism of Incense Burning
In the apocalypse of John, no temple was in the restored heaven and earth ( Revelation 21:22 ), but in the earlier part of the vision was a temple ( Revelation 14:17; Revelation 15:6 ) with an altar and a censer ( Revelation 8:3 ). It is described as "the golden altar which was before the throne," and, with the smoke of its incense, there went up before God the prayers of the saints. This imagery is in harmony with the statement of Luke that as the priests burnt incense, "the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the hour of incense" ( Luke 1:10 ). Both history and prophecy thus attest the abiding truth that salvation is by sacrificial blood, and is made available to men through the prayers of saints and sinners offered by a great High Priest.
Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature 
The first altar we read of in the Bible was that erected by Noah on leaving the ark. Mention is made of altars erected by Abraham ( Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:4; Genesis 22:9); by Isaac ( Genesis 26:25); by Jacob ( Genesis 33:20; Genesis 35:1; Genesis 35:3); by Moses ( Exodus 17:15). After the giving of the law, the Israelites were commanded to make an altar of earth; they were also permitted to employ stones, but no iron tool was to be applied to them. This has been generally understood as an interdiction of sculpture, in order to guard against a violation of the second commandment. Altars were frequently built on high places. Thus Solomon built an high place for Chemosh ( 1 Kings 11:7), and Josiah brake down and burned the high place, and stamped it small to powder ( 2 Kings 23:15). This practice, however, was forbidden by the Mosaic law ( Deuteronomy 12:13; Deuteronomy 16:5), except in particular instances, such as those of Gideon ( Judges 6:26) and David ( 2 Samuel 24:18). It is said of Solomon 'that he loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David, his father, only he sacrificed the burnt incense on the high places' ( 1 Kings 3:3). Altars were sometimes built on the roofs of houses: in 2 Kings 23:12, we read of the altars that were on the top of the upper chamber of Ahaz. In the tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected, one for sacrifices, the other for incense: the table for the shew-bread is also sometimes called an altar.
1. The altar of burnt-offering belonging to the tabernacle was a hollow square, five cubits in length and breadth, and three cubits in height; it was made of Shittim-wood [SHITTIM], and overlaid with plates of brass. In the middle there was a ledge or projection, on which the priest stood while officiating; immediately below this, a brass grating was let down into the altar to support the fire, with four rings attached, through which poles were passed, when the altar was removed. As the priests were forbidden to go up by steps to the altar ( Exodus 20:26), a slope of earth was probably made rising to a level with the ledge.
In Exodus 27:3, the following utensils are mentioned as belonging to the altar, all of which were to be made of brass. (1) pans or dishes to receive the ashes that fell through the grating. (2) shovels for cleaning the altar. (3) vessels for receiving the blood and sprinkling it on the altar. (4) large forks to turn the pieces of flesh or to take them off the fire (see 1 Samuel 2:13). (5) 'fire-pans;' the same word is elsewhere translated censers, Numbers 16:17; but in Exodus 25:38, 'snuff-dishes.'
2. The altar of burnt-offering in Solomon's temple was of much larger dimensions, 'twenty cubits in length and breadth, and ten in height' ( 2 Chronicles 4:1), and was made entirely of brass. It is said of Asa that he renewed, that is, either repaired (in which sense the word is evidently used in 2 Chronicles 24:4) or reconsecrated the altar of the Lord that was before the porch of the Lord ( 2 Chronicles 15:8). This altar was removed by king Ahaz ( 2 Kings 16:14); it was 'cleansed' by Hezekiah; and in the latter part of Manasseh's reign was rebuilt.
3. Of the altar of burnt-offering in the second temple, the canonical scriptures give us no information excepting that it was erected before the foundations of the temple were laid ( Ezra 3:3; Ezra 3:6) on the same place where it had formerly been built. From the Apocrypha, however, we may infer that it was made, not of brass, but of unhewn stone.
4. The altar of burnt-offering erected by Herod is thus described by Josephus: 'Before this temple stood the altar, fifteen cubits high, and equal both in length and breadth, each of which dimensions was fifty cubits. The figure it was built in was a square, and it had corners like horns, and the passage up to it was by an insensible acclivity from the south. It was formed without any iron tool, nor did any iron tool so much as touch it at any time.' The dimensions of this altar, however, are differently stated in the Mishna. On the south side was an inclined plane, 32 cubits long and 16 cubits broad, made likewise of unhewn stones. A pipe was connected with the south-west horn, through which the blood of the victims was discharged by a subterraneous passage into the brook Kedron. Under the altar was a cavity to receive the drink-offerings, which was covered with a marble slab, and cleansed from time to time. On the north side of the altar several iron rings were fixed to fasten the victims. Lastly, a red line was drawn round the middle of the altar to distinguish between the blood that was to be sprinkled above and below it.
II. The second altar belonging to the Jewish worship was the altar of incense, called also the golden altar ( Numbers 4:11). It was placed between the table of shew-bread and the golden candlestick, in the most holy place.
1. This altar in the tabernacle was made of Shittim-wood overlaid with gold plates, one cubit in length and breadth, and two cubits in height. It had horns ( Leviticus 4:7) of the same materials; and round the flat surface was a border of gold, underneath which were the rings to receive 'the staves made of Shittim-wood, overlaid with gold to bear it withal' ( Exodus 30:1-5).
2. The altar in Solomon's Temple was similar, but made of cedar ( 1 Kings 6:20; 1 Kings 7:48; 1 Chronicles 28:18) overlaid with gold.
3. The altar in the second temple was taken away by Antiochus Epiphanes ( 1 Maccabees 1:21), and restored by Judas Maccabaeus ( 1 Maccabees 4:49). On the arch of Titus there appears no altar of incense.
- Altar from Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
- Altar from Fausset's Bible Dictionary
- Altar from Holman Bible Dictionary
- Altar from Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
- Altar from Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
- Altar from Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
- Altar from Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
- Altar from People's Dictionary of the Bible
- Altar from Smith's Bible Dictionary
- Altar from Wilson's Dictionary of Bible Types
- Altar from American Tract Society Bible Dictionary
- Altar from Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words
- Altar from Easton's Bible Dictionary
- Altar from Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words
- Altar from Hawker's Poor Man's Concordance And Dictionary
- Altar from King James Dictionary
- Altar from Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
- Altar from Webster's Dictionary
- Altar from Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
- Altar from International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
- Altar from Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature