Burnt-offering, Altar of
Burnt-Offering, Altar Of.
It does not appear that any peculiar form of altar had been delivered to the true worshippers of God down to the period of the giving of the law; and, as far as can be gathered from the records of the patriarchal religion, the simplest structures seem to have been deemed sufficient. But at the institution of the tabernacle worship specific instructions were given for the erection of the altar, or of the two altars, that of burnt-offering and that of incense. It was the former of these, however, that was emphatically called the altar, as it was on it that all sacrifices of blood were presented, while the other was simply placed as a stand or table within the tabernacle for the officiating priest to use in connection with the pot of incense. With regard to this altar, prior to any instructions concerning the erection of the tabernacle, and immediately after the delivery of the ten commandments from Sinai, the following specific directions were given: "An altar of earth shalt thou make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt-offerings," etc.; "And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not make it of hewn stone; for if thou lift up thy tool upon it thou hast polluted it; neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon" (Ex 20:24-26). There is here an evident repudiation of all pomp and ornament in connection with this altar of burnt-offering-the preferable material to be used in it being earth, or, if stone, yet stone unhewn, and consequently not graven by art or man's device. The reason of this cannot be sought in any general dislike to the costly and ornamental in divine worship, for in the structure of the tabernacle itself, and still more, afterward, in the erection of the temple, both the richest materials and the most skillful artificers were employed. It is rather to be sought in the general purport and design of the altar, which was such as to consist best with the simplest form; and materials of the plainest description; for it was peculiarly the monument and remembrancer of man's sin — the special meeting-place between God and his creatures, as sinful; on which account it must be perpetually receiving the blood of slain victims, since the way to fellowship with God for guilty beings could only be found through an avenue of death (Fairbairn, Typology, 2, 286).
In the directions afterward given (Ex 27:1-8) for the construction of the altar that was to be placed in the outer court of the tabernacle, it may seem strange that no explicit mention is made either of earth or of stone. It was to be made of shittim or acacia wood, overlaid with brass; to be in form a square of five cubits, in height three cubits, and with projecting points or "horns" at each of the four corners. It was to be made "hollow with boards," and Jewish writers have held that this hollow space between the boards was to be filled with earth or stones when the altar was fixed in a particular place; so that the original direction applied also to it, and the boards might be regarded as having their chief use in holding the earth or stones together, and supporting the fire-place, with the fuel and the sacrifice. Having an elevation of no more than 41 or 5 feet, no steps could be required for the officiating priest; a mere ledge or projecting border on the side would be quite sufficient, with a gentle incline toward it, formed of earth or stones. This seems really to have been provided by the original construction of the altar according to the now commonly received interpretation of Ex 27:4-5, where it is said, "And thou shalt make for it [the altar] a grate of net-work of brass; and upon the net shalt thou make four brazen rings in the four corners thereof; and thou shalt put it under the compass [כִּרכֹּב, karkob', circuit or border, as the word seems to mean] of the altar beneath, that the net may be even to the midst of the altar;" that is, as Von Meyer has explained (Bibeldeutungen, p. 201), there was a sort of terrace or projecting board half way up the altar and compassing it about, on which the priests might stand, or articles connected with the sacrifice might be laid; and this was to be supported by a grating of brass underneath, of net-like construction, as exhibited in the preceding cut. SEE GRATE. This pattern probably approaches, nearer than any other that has been presented, to the altar originally formed to accompany the tabernacle. The older and still very prevalent idea of its structure differs chiefly with regard to the network of brass, which it regards as the grating for the fire, and as furnished with four rings, that it might be sunk down within the boards and at some distance from them; as exhibited, for example, in the annexed cut, which is essentially the representation of Witsius (Miscell. Sacra, 1, 333), often reproduced with little variation. The chief objection to this form is that it places the net- work of brass near the top and within the boards, instead of making it, as the description seems to require, from the ground upward to the middle, and consequently outside — a support, in short, for the projecting karkob, or margin, not for the fire and the sacrifice. The articles connected with the fire are not minutely described, but are included in the enumeration given at ver. 3: "And thou shalt make his pans to receive his ashes, and his shovels, and his basins, and his flesh-hooks, and his fire-pans; all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass." The probability is that there was no grating upon the top, but' simply the pans for fire and ashes resting upon stones or earth within the 'boards; and thus these might easily be scraped or removed for cleaning, as occasion required. SEE PAN.
In the arrangements made for adapting the instruments of worship to the larger proportions of the temple, the altar of burnt-offering necessarily partook of the general character of the change. It became now a square of 20 cubits instead of 5, and was raised to the height of 10 cubits; it was made also entirely of brass, but in other respects it was probably much the same. The altar attached to the temple of Herod, we learn from Josephus, again greatly exceeded in dimensions that of the temple of Solomon. "Before the temple," says he (War, 5, 5, 6), "stood the altar, 15 cubits high, and equal in length and breadth, being each way 50 cubits. It was built in the figure of a square, and it had corners like horns (literally, jutting up into horn-shaped corners- κερατοειδεῖς προανέχων γωνίας), and the passage up to it was by an insensible acclivity." This was, no doubt, with the view of meeting the requirement in Ex 20:26; and in like manner, for the purpose of complying with the instruction to avoid any hewn work, it was, we are told, "formed without any iron tool, nor was it ever so much as touched by such iron tool." In this latter statement the Mishna agrees, with Josephus; but it differs materially as to the dimensions, making the base only a square of 32 cubits, and the top of 26, so that it is impossible to pronounce with certainty upon the exact measurement. But there can be little doubt it was considerably larger than Solomon's, as it was a leading part of Herod's ambition, in his costly reparation of the temple, to make all his external proportions superior to that which had preceded. It also had, we are informed, what must in some form have belonged to the altar of the first temple, a pipe connected with the south- west horn, for conveying away the blood of the sacrifices. This discharged itself by a subterranean passage into the brook Kedron [Marcus, De sacerdot. Hebraeor. quibusd. c. altaris suffit. functionibus (Jena, 1700); Schlichter, De suffitu sacro Hebraeorum (Halle, 1754); Elijah ben-Hirsch, מִאֲמִר עִל מַדּוֹת הִמַּזבֵּחִ (Freft. a. M. 1714); Gartmann, De Hebraeorum altari suffitus (Wittenb. 1699-1700)]. SEE ALTAR.