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The Hebrew Scriptures provide examples of altars erected by noteworthy biblical personalities. The Law of Moses provided for a national altar where the people of Israel were to offer their burnt offerings through the Aaronic priests but it did not preclude the construction of altars serving as memorials or in unusual circumstances altars for a burnt offering on divine command.

Before the Mosaic covenant Noah built an altar on quitting the ark (Genesis 8:20); Abraham erected several, viz. at Shechem (Genesis 12:7), Bethel (Genesis 12:8), Hebron (Genesis 13:18), and on a special occasion in "the land of Moriah" (Genesis 22:9). Isaac at Beersheba (Genesis 26:25) and Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 35:7) did likewise. Moses erected an altar at Rephidim (Exodus 17:15), and another, accompanying twelve pillars, at Horeb (Exodus 24:4). Presumably the function of these altars was animal sacrifice in the course of worship.

With the institution of the Law of Moses and the Levitical priesthood the ancient Israelites were to offer their burnt offerings by means of the national altar before the central sanctuary through the Levitical priests (Deuteronomy 12:5-14). This legislation did not preclude Joshua from later building an altar of uncut stones on Mt. Ebal, which in this instance met the strictures of the Law of Moses, in a national dedicatory ceremony (Joshua 8:30-31) in accordance with the injunction of Moses (Deuteronomy 27:6). 

The general understanding of the people was that there was to be only a single altar for sacrifice in Israel (Joshua 22:29). This issue was put to the test when the tribes who settled east of the Jordan built a large altar by the Jordan River (Joshua 22:10-29).  The west bank tribes, who believed it was for animal sacrifice contrary to the Law of Moses and its specified national altar, openly challenged the altar and questioned the motives of its builders. The builders intent was totally different for they simply created a monument as a symbolic reminder. In this instance the nation allowed the large altar, called Witness, as a memorial, but not as a place for animal sacrifice. A historical monument is not an idol although it could be converted to idolatry. There were other monuments of this type in Israel's history.

  • Gideon constructed a memorial altar, called Yahweh is Peace, at Ophrah (Judges 6:24) following supernatural consumption of his hastily prepared offering before an angel (Judges 6:17-24). He then built a second altar at Ophrah and made burnt offering on it by divine command (Judges 6:25-28). 

  • Samuel constructed an altar, presumably a memorial for symbolic purposes relating to his office as a judge, outside his home in Ramah (I Samuel 7:17). 

  • David by divine command  erected an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (II Samuel 24:18, 25).

  • Elijah, also, complains of the destruction of the altars of the Lord, understood as memorials, as an act of sacrilege (I Kings 19:10, 14). He had, but a little before, rebuilt by his own hand, the altar of the Lord on Mt. Carmel with twelve uncut stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel (I Kings 18:30-32). See bama.

    Page last edited: 02/02/06 05:44 PM

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