Hebrew: “mizbe'ah,” “mizbeach” (prononced: miz-bay'-akh), meaning “an altar” from a word meaning “to slay;” Greek: “thusiasterion,” (pronounced: thoo-see-as-tay'-ree-on) meaning a place of sacrifice, i.e., an altar
Biblical altars were generally structures of earth (Exodus 20:24) or of stones that had not been hewn (20:25). Sacrifices were offered on them. Altars were generally erected in conspicuous places (Genesis 22:9; Ezek. 6:3; 2 Kings 23:12; 16:4; 23:8; Acts 14:13).
The word altar is used in Hebrews 13:10 for the sacrifice offered upon it—the sacrifice Christ offered.
Paul found among the many altars erected in Athens one bearing the inscription, “To the unknown God” (Acts 17:23), or rather “to an [i.e., some] unknown God.” The reason for this inscription cannot now be accurately determined. However, it offered the apostle the opportunity to proclaim the gospel to the “men of Athens.”
THE FIRST BLOOD SACRIFICES are mentioned in connection with Adam and Eve (God’s shedding of animal blood to make coverings for them) and their son Abel’s offerings (Genesis 3-4).
THE FIRST ALTAR specifically mentioned in the Bible is the one erected by Noah (Genesis 8:20), although we assume that Adam and the pre-Flood patriarchs also used altars for their sacrifices. Altars were erected by Abraham (Genesis 12:7; 13:4; 22:9), by Isaac (Genesis 26:25), by Jacob (33:20; 35:1, 3), and by Moses (Exodus 17:15, “Jehovah-nissi”).
TWO TABERNACLE AND TEMPLE ALTARS—In the tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected.
THE ALTAR OF BURNT OFFERING (Exodus 30:28), called also the “brazen altar” (Exodus 39:39) and “the table of the Lord” (Mal. 1:7)
DESCRIPTION—This altar, as erected in the tabernacle, is described in Exodus 27:1-8. It was a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and in breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It was made of shittim wood, and was overlaid with plates of brass. Its corners were ornamented with “horns” (Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 4:18).
UTENSILS—In Exodus 27:3 the various utensils used at the altar are listed. They were made of brass. (Compare 1 Samuel 2:13-14; Leviticus 16:12; Numbers 16:6-7.)
- ash pans
- basons, basins
TEMPLE ALTAR—In Solomon’s Temple (the first Temple) the altar was larger (2 Chronicles 4:1. Compare 1 Kings 8:22, 64; 9:25), and was made completely of brass, covering a structure of stone or earth.
RESTORATIONS—This altar was renewed by Asa (2 Chronicles 15:8). It was removed by Ahaz (2 Kings 16:14), and “cleansed” by Hezekiah, in the latter part of whose reign it was rebuilt. It was finally broken up and carried away by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 52:17).
After the return from captivity it was re-erected (Ezra 3:3, 6) on the same place where it had formerly stood.
When Rome’s Antiochus Epiphanes pillaged Jerusalem the altar of burnt offering was taken away.
Again the altar was erected by Herod, and remained in its place till the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 A.D.).
FIRE—The fire on the altar was not permitted to go out (Leviticus 6:9).
ALTAR OF BURNT OFFERING’S LOCATION TODAY—In the Mosque of Omar, immediately underneath the great dome, which occupies the site of the old temple, there is a rough projection of the natural rock, of about 60 feet in its extreme length, and 50 in its greatest breadth, and in its highest part about 4 feet above the general pavement. This rock seems to have been left intact when Solomon’s temple was built. Some believe this is the site of the altar of burnt offering. Underneath this rock is a cave, which may could have been the granary of Araunah’s threshing-floor (1 Chronicles 21:22).
THE ALTAR OF INCENSE (Exodus 30:1-10), called also “the golden altar” (39:38; Numbers 4:11), stood in the holy place “before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony.”