Q: #255. Why did they build altars in the Old Testament?
By: Steve Shirley
A: Altars were built by many of God's people (see: Q: #256) for a number of reasons. The primary reason, of course, was for animal sacrifices. In fact, the Hebrew word for "altar" is "misbeach," which is generally translated as "to slaughter" (Gr: "thusiasterion" = "a place of sacrifice"). However, altars were also made for such things as: worship (Gen 8:20), to commemorate an encounter with God (Judg 6:22-24)(Gen 12:7), a memorial (Ex 17:14-15)(Josh 22:26-27,34), to make a covenant (Ex 24:1-8), to find refuge (1 Kin 1:50-51)(1 Kin 2:28)(Ex 21:13-14).
The first altars were made by individuals, with Noah's being the first (Gen 8:20). Nearly every prominent person after him in the Old Testament made an altar at some point. God gave rules for how an altar was to be made. It was to be made from earth (Ex 20:24) or rocks (Deut 27:5-6)(Josh 8:31)(sometimes a single rock: Judg 6:20-21, Judg 13:19) which were uncut (no tool used to shape them) (Ex 20:25)(Deut 27:5)(Josh 8:31). They were not to be made of brick (Isa 65:3). (Most believe this was primarily to prevent the altar from becoming an idol and to prevent pride over workmanship.) The altar was to have no steps leading to it (Ex 20:25-26). There were to be no trees around it (Deut 16:21).
Individual altars were eventually replaced by two separate altars, first at the Tabernacle and then at the Temple. The first, larger one was called "The Brasen Altar" or "Altar Of Burnt Offerings." It was located outdoors in the courtyard outside of the "Holy Place" or "Tent Of Meeting." This was where the sacrifices were burned. At the Tabernacle, this altar was made of wood, overlaid with bronze (Ex 27:1-2)(Ex 38:1-2,29-30). At the Temple, this altar was made of stone or earth, overlaid with bronze (2 Chr 4:1)(1 Kin 8:64)(2 Chr 7:7). (Likely different because the altar at the Tabernacle had to be moved while the altar at the Temple was permanent.) A perpetual fire was to be kept going on this altar (Lev 6:9,13).
The second, smaller altar, called "The Altar Of Incense" or "Golden Altar" was located in the "Holy Place" or "Tent Of Meeting" just in front of the vail that lead to the place where the Ark Of The Covenant was kept (the "Holy Of Holies") (Ex 30:6)(Ex 40:5). At this altar, incense was burned daily (with coals taken from the "Brasen Altar") in the morning and the evening (Ex 30:7-8). This incense had to be made a certain way (Ex 30:34-38), and no other incense was permitted (Ex 30:9)(Lev 10:1-2). In both the Tabernacle and Temple, this altar was made of wood overlaid with pure gold (Ex 30:1-3)(Ex 37:25-26)(1 Kin 6:20-22)(1 Kin 7:48)(2 Chr 4:19).
On the four corners of both "The Brasen Altar" and "The Altar Of Incense" were 4 horns (Ex 27:2)(Ex 38:2)(Ex 30:2-3)(Ps 118:27)(often symbolic of power in the Bible). This was the most sacred part of the altar.
No Christian altars are found in the New Testament because they were no longer needed. As with most of the Old Testament, the symbolic meaning of the altars and everything associated with them pointed forward to Jesus. Jesus is now our living "altar" (Heb 13:10).
*** Note: Pagans also made altars to their "gods," (idols) and God ordered His people to destroy them (Ex 23:24)(Ex 34:13)(Deut 12:1-3)(Judg 6:25).