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).
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 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”).
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).
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.
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).
INCENSE—On this altar sweet spices were continually burned with fire taken from the brass altar. The morning and the evening services were begun by the high priest offering incense on this altar. The burning of the incense was a type of prayer (Psalm 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4).
In the temple built after the Exile the altar was restored. Antiochus Epiphanes took it away, but it was later restored by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc. 1:23; 4:49—Apocrypha). 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.