We have recently published two articles: Dispelling spiritual darkness, which is about prayer altars and A spiritual priesthood about how wrong it is when we, as believers, call ourselves priests. These studies prompted a few questions: how do we reconcile the building of altars and sacrificing by people who are not from the Levitical line?
We may need to challenge our understanding about altars and the premise that only priests were allowed to offer sacrifices. In this study, we will do that. We will first define what the word altar means in the context of scripture. We will also search out the instructions regarding the building of an altar and investigate who built altars and why.
Let’s first define what is meant by altar in scripture. The Vine’s complete Expository of the Old and New Testament words define it as a raised table of stone or ground.
From the dawn of human history, offerings were made on a raised table of stone or ground (Gen. 4:3). At first, Israel’s altars were to be made of earth—i.e., they were fashioned of material that was strictly the work of God’s hands.2
In Malachi 1:7, an altar is referred to as the table of YHVH.
7 “You are presenting defiled food upon My altar. But you say, ‘How have we defiled You?’ In that you say, ‘The table of YHVH is to be despised.’
The Dictionary of Biblical Languages defines altar as follows:
4640 מִזְבֵּחַ (miz·bēaḥ): n.masc.; ≡ Str 4196; TWOT 525b—LN 6.114 altar, i.e., any construction of various designs, for the placing of gifts or sacrifices in a ritual to deity (Ge 8:20; Ex 38:1)3
We shall look at altars from a pre-Levitical priesthood context first. This is before specific instructions were given regarding the building of altars and sacrifices. The first sacrifice was the animal that died in order to provide a covering for Adam and Eve. YHVH must have instructed them for we read about Cain and Abel bringing sacrifices to YHVH. How else could they have known to do it and how to do it?
Pre-Levitical priesthood altars
Cain and Abel
In Gen 4:3-4 we read of Cain and Abel bringing offerings to YHVH.
3 So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to YHVH of the fruit of the ground. 4 Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And YHVH had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.
We also read here that YHVH had no regard for Cain or his offering. In Hebrews 11:4 these are referred to as sacrifices. So, we assume they built an altar and offered on it.
Of Noah it is written that he built an altar and sacrificed on it. Not only did Noah know how to build an altar, he also knew to sacrifice clean animals on it. Above is a photo4 which is claimed to be the altar of Noah. We went to Turkey and saw the remains of the ark, but didn’t know where to look for the altar so we didn’t see it. You can read more about this at the link provided below or our article and photo’s.
20 Then Noah built an altar to YHVH, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
The altars of Abraham
Abraham built altars. In Gen 12:7 and 8, we read of two altars built by Abraham. The first one was built after YHVH appeared to Abraham at Elon Moreh. Elon Moreh is a beautiful place and from there you can see to the Mediterranean sea. The second was built close to Bethel and there he called on YHVH’s name. There is no mention of sacrifices on either.
7 YHVH appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to YHVH who had appeared to him. 8 Then he proceeded from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to YHVH and called upon the name of YHVH.
In Genesis 13:4, we read of Abraham returning to this altar, after returning from Egypt, again calling on YHVH’s name.
4 to the place of the altar which he had made there formerly; and there Abram called on the name of YHVH.
18 Then Abram moved his tent and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and there he built an altar to YHVH.
There is again no mention of sacrifices in either of these references, but it does not exclude the possibility. Then in Genesis 22:1, we read about YHVH’s instruction to Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering to YHVH.
9 Then they came to the place of which Elohim had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
We know that YHVH provided an animal to be sacrificed in Isaac’s place.
The altar of Isaac
Later in Isaac’s life, he also built an altar, but there is no mention of a sacrifice.
25 So he built an altar there and called upon the name of YHVH, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well.
We only read about this one altar Isaac built.
Jacob built an altar at Shechem.
20 Then he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.
On another occasion, YHVH instructed Jacob to build an altar to Him. Jacob told his household to put away their foreign gods and purify themselves.
1 Then Elohim said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and live there, and make an altar there to Elohim, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your garments; 3 and let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to Elohim, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.”
7 He built an altar there, and called the place El-bethel, because there Elohim had revealed Himself to him when he fled from his brother.
The altars Moses built
We also read about Moses building an altar at Rephidim after the victory over Amalek.
15 Moses built an altar and named it YHVH is My Banner;
We don’t find any references to sacrifices brought here.
He also built an altar at Horeb (Ex 24:4). This altar was built after YHVH gave the ten commandments and other instructions. Moses first recounted the instructions to the people. They affirmed that they would obey. He then wrote it down, built an altar, sacrificed on it, sprinkled the blood on the people and read the instructions to the people. The people affirmed again that they would obey. He then went up to receive the tablets of stone.
4 Moses wrote down all the words of YHVH. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.
It is interesting to note that the first instructions we find on building an altar is just before this, after the ten commandments were given. It was actually the first of the ordinances given and Moses was the first to build an altar after these instructions were given. Before these instructions were given, we can assume that everybody could build an altar to worship YHVH if they wanted to.
The first instructions for an altar
YHVH gave the instructions to Moses to give to the people.
22 Then YHVH said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven. 23 ‘You shall not make other gods besides Me; gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves. 24 ‘You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you. 25 ‘If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it. 26 ‘And you shall not go up by steps to My altar, so that your nakedness will not be exposed on it.’
At first, Israel’s altars were to be made of earth—i.e., they were fashioned of material that was strictly the work of God’s hands. If the Jews were to hew stone for altars in the wilderness, they would have been compelled to use war weapons to do the work. (Notice that in Exod. 20:25 the word for “tool” is chereb, “sword.”) 2
These instructions imply a plurality of altars for it reads “in every place where I cause My name to be remembered” These instructions were given to “the sons of Israel.” To me, this implies that the people were allowed to build altars if they do it unto YHVH and according to these instructions.
After this, Moses went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone and the other instructions. The first instructions given, were for the building of the tabernacle. The golden calf incident had not taken place yet. So, people who state the tabernacle and priesthood were instituted as a result of this incident have it wrong. YHVH had a priesthood in mind from the beginning. At the golden calf incident, the Levites proved themselves faithful and the firstborn were replaced by the Levites.
So, as part of these instructions for the tabernacle, we find the instructions for the brazen altar and the altar for incense. The tabernacle would become the center of worship for the people. From Exodus 27 through to the end of Deuteronomy, we find detailed instructions regarding the conduct of worship on these two altars.
One of these instructions prohibit sacrifices to be made anywhere but at the tabernacle.
1 Then YHVH spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to Aaron and to his sons and to all the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘This is what YHVH has commanded, saying, 3 “Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, 4 and has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to present it as an offering to YHVH before the tabernacle of YHVH, bloodguiltiness is to be reckoned to that man. He has shed blood and that man shall be cut off from among his people. 5 “The reason is so that the sons of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they were sacrificing in the open field, that they may bring them in to YHVH, at the doorway of the tent of meeting to the priest, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to YHVH. 6 “The priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of YHVH at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and offer up the fat in smoke as a soothing aroma to YHVH. 7 “They shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations.” ’ 8 “Then you shall say to them, ‘Any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, 9 and does not bring it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to offer it to YHVH, that man also shall be cut off from his people.
We should look at this in context. These instructions were given while they were in the wilderness. We know from scripture that idols were worshiped by Israelites during the 40 years in the wilderness (Amos 5:25-26). This prohibition would make it difficult to sacrifice to other idols, for every sacrifice was to be brought to the tabernacle. This instructions is later broadened in Deuteronomy 12. We shall look into in in more detail later.
The Bible Knowledge Commentary explains it as follows:
The prohibition is directed against the killing of animals without offering them to the Lord. When this legislation was enacted in the wilderness of Sinai, not only did the Israelites have a staple diet of manna, but also domesticated female animals were probably considered too valuable for their milk and dairy products to be eaten with any regularity as food. Thus the word sacrifices is probably meant in the broad sense of any slaughter of a cow, a lamb, or a goat, thus ruling out nonsacrificial slaughter entirely until they settled in the land of Canaan where the logistic difficulties of being spread throughout the land required a modification of this regulation (Deut. 12:20–28).
While still in the desert, those who desired to eat the meat of domesticated animals first had to offer them as fellowship offerings (Lev. 17:5; cf. 7:11–34). This not only assured that the needs of the priests were met but also prevented the possibility of offering sacrifices to the goat idols (perhaps a reference to a form of idolatrous goat worship which was practiced in the eastern delta of Lower Egypt; cf. Harrison, Leviticus, p. 180). If an animal could be slaughtered only in the sanctuary, then a person guilty of offering a pagan sacrifice could not excuse himself by claiming he was only killing it for food. The penalty for violating this prohibition was to be cut off from his people5
After they came into the land, we see that altars were again being built in various places where YHVH caused His name to be remembered. We will now look at these references.
Altars after the Levitical priesthood was instituted
We find a reference to Balaam building altars and sacrificing on it when he went to “curse” Israel for Balak. We read about it in Num 23:1, 14 and 29. Every time Balaam instructed Balak to build 7 altars and offer sacrifices on it. Interesting that Balak, who was an unbeliever built these altars and made the sacrifices. However, YHVH used it for His purpose to bless Israel.
The next altar we read about is Joshua’s altar on Mount Ebal. This altar was built on instruction of YHVH. This altar has been found. You can read more about it at the provided link.
30 Then Joshua built an altar to YHVH, the Elohim of Israel, in Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the servant of YHVH had commanded the sons of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of uncut stones on which no man had wielded an iron tool; and they offered burnt offerings on it to YHVH, and sacrificed peace offerings.
1 Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying, “Keep all the commandments which I command you today. 2 “So it shall be on the day when you cross the Jordan to the land which YHVH your Elohim gives you, that you shall set up for yourself large stones and coat them with lime 3 and write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over, so that you may enter the land which YHVH your Elohim gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as YHVH, the Elohim of your fathers, promised you. 4 “So it shall be when you cross the Jordan, you shall set up on Mount Ebal, these stones, as I am commanding you today, and you shall coat them with lime. 5 “Moreover, you shall build there an altar to YHVH your Elohim, an altar of stones; you shall not wield an iron tool on them. 6 “You shall build the altar of YHVH your Elohim of uncut stones, and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to YHVH your Elohim; 7 and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and eat there, and rejoice before YHVH your Elohim.
YHVH instructed Joshua through Moses to build this altar and sacrifice on it. The bones of approximately 1000 young, clean animals were found. Other dedicated items were also found. All this indicates that the altar was in use for a while, yet not permanently.
After this, the tabernacle was set up at Shiloh. This became the central place of worship for Israel. However, an altar was built by the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh across the Jordan, where they settled.
The trans-Jordan altar
10 When they came to the region of the Jordan which is in the land of Canaan, the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an altar there by the Jordan, a large altar in appearance.
The rest of Israel was upset about this, they were ready to make war with them. They then sent out a deligation lead by Phinehas the priest and ten elders, one from each tribe (Jos 22:13-14). It was seen as an act of rebellion against YHVH.
16 “Thus says the whole congregation of YHVH, ‘What is this unfaithful act which you have committed against the Elohim of Israel, turning away from following YHVH this day, by building yourselves an altar, to rebel against YHVH this day?
19 ‘If, however, the land of your possession is unclean, then cross into the land of the possession of YHVH, where the YHVH’s tabernacle stands, and take possession among us. Only do not rebel against YHVH, or rebel against us by building an altar for yourselves, besides the altar of YHVH our Elohim.
They explained to them why they built this altar and made it very clear that it was not for sacrifice, but as a witness.
26 “Therefore we said, ‘Let us build an altar, not for burnt offering or for sacrifice; 27 rather it shall be a witness between us and you and between our generations after us, that we are to perform the service of YHVH before Him with our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices and with our peace offerings, so that your sons will not say to our sons in time to come, “You have no portion in YHVH.” ’ 28 “Therefore we said, ‘It shall also come about if they say this to us or to our generations in time to come, then we shall say, “See the copy of the altar of YHVH which our fathers made, not for burnt offering or for sacrifice; rather it is a witness between us and you.” ’ 29 “Far be it from us that we should rebel against YHVH and turn away from following YHVH this day, by building an altar for burnt offering, for grain offering or for sacrifice, besides the altar of YHVH our Elohim which is before His tabernacle.”
This explanation was accepted by Phinehas and the elders, we read that it pleased them.
34 The sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad called the altar Witness; “For,” they said, “it is a witness between us that YHVH is Elohim.”
The new Living translation translates it as follows: “It is a witness between us and them that YHVH is our Elohim, too.” 6
I am assuming that this altar was built in accordance with the instructions given in Exodus 20:24. The purpose of this altar was not for sacrifice, but as a witness for their children, but also for the rest of Israel.
The next altars we will look at were all close in proximity. We have included a map to show you where the places were. Keep in mind that the tabernacle remained in Shiloh during this time.
We will first look at the altar built by Gideon.
The angel of YHVH appeared to Gideon calling him to deliver his people from Midian. After this encounter Gideon built an altar to YHVH. He did not sacrifice on it.
24 Then Gideon built an altar there to YHVH and named it YHVH is Peace. To this day it is still in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
On the same night YHVH called on Gideon to destroy the altar of Baal and built an altar for YHVH on top of it and to offer sacrifices on it.
25 Now on the same night YHVH said to him, “Take your father’s bull and a second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it; 26 and build an altar to YHVH your Elohim on the top of this stronghold in an orderly manner, and take a second bull and offer a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you shall cut down.”
This second altar was commanded by YHVH and Gideon was to bring a sacrifice on it. We know how YHVH used Gideon mightily to deliver Israel from Midean.
The angel of YHVH came to Manoach’s wife to tell her about the son they will have. This took place in Zorah, close to Beth Shemesh.
16 The angel of YHVH said to Manoah, “Though you detain me, I will not eat your food, but if you prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to YHVH.” For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of YHVH.
19 So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering and offered it on the rock to YHVH, and He performed wonders while Manoah and his wife looked on. 20 For it came about when the flame went up from the altar toward heaven, that the angel of YHVH ascended in the flame of the altar. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell on their faces to the ground.
Manoah did not built an altar. On instruction of the angel of YHVH, he prepared a young goat with a grain offering on a rock and the offer was consumed. By definition, anything an offer is brought on, is an altar or the table of YHVH.
The altar in Bethel
The next altar was built by the people of Israel after the civil war against Benjamin. This war followed the strange story of the concubine that was murdered by men of the tribe of Benjamin. She was subsequently cut up by her husband and sent in pieces to Israel. Israel decided to make war against Benjamin to purge the evil from their midst. Israel defeated Benjamin, built an altar and sacrificed to YHVH. Before their victory we read that they fasted, prayed and brought sacrifices to YHVH at Bethel. It is also mentioned that Phinehas, the son of Eleazar ministered to them.
26 Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel and wept; thus they remained there before YHVH and fasted that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before YHVH. 27 The sons of Israel inquired of YHVH (for the ark of the covenant of Elohim was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, Aaron’s son, stood before it to minister in those days), saying, “Shall I yet again go out to battle against the sons of my brother Benjamin, or shall I cease?” And YHVH said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand.”
Some commentators reckon that the tabernacle was at Bethel at the time. This could be true, however, why would the people built an altar in close proximity to it? We read just a couple of verses further on that they went to Bethel and built an altar there and offered sacrifices on it. We also read in 1 Sam 4:3 that the ark of the covenant was still in Shilo at the time of the war with the Philistines (1 Sam 4:3). The ark was captured by the Philistines during this war. Though not impossible, I don’t see them moving the tabernacle backwards and forwards between Shilo and Bethel.
This may have been a place of worship that was regularly used.
2 So the people came to Bethel and sat there before Elohim until evening, and lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. 3 They said, “Why, O YHVH, Elohim of Israel, has this come about in Israel, so that one tribe should be missing today in Israel?” 4 It came about the next day that the people arose early and built an altar there and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.
In those days, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
25 In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
This is not necessarily a negative statement. It is more a declaration of the situation in the land and the lack of leadership. We have written an article about the topic before.
The next altar we read about is in the book of Samuel.
Samuel was a prophet and he is considered the last judge of Israel. We read about Samuel making sacrifices at Mizpah. This was a popular gathering place close to Bethel and could be the same place referred to in the previous section or it could be another place of worship. This is also where Laban, after overtaking Jacob, made a covenant and heaped stones together as a sign between them.
1 Samuel 7:7–9
7 Now when the Philistines heard that the sons of Israel had gathered to Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the sons of Israel heard it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8 Then the sons of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry to YHVH our Elohim for us, that He may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” 9 Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it for a whole burnt offering to YHVH; and Samuel cried to YHVH for Israel and YHVH answered him.
Samuel called on the name of YHVH for Israel when they were surrounded by their enemies. He brought sacrifices. There is no mention that he built an altar. This is similar to the first reference in the previous section. This might have been a regular place of assembly with an existing altar.
We read in 1 Sam 7:17 that Samuel built an altar to YHVH in Ramah where he resided.
1 Samuel 7:17
17 Then his return was to Ramah, for his house was there, and there he judged Israel; and he built there an altar to YHVH.
Samuel was a Levite, we can trace his genealogy to prove that. His father Elkanah was a Levite who resided in Ephramite territory and Samuel was raised in the tabernacle by Eli from an early age. Samuel was known to be a man of prayer.
1 Samuel 12:23
23 “As for me, I will certainly not sin against YHVH by ending my prayers for you. And I will continue to teach you what is good and right.
This is confirmed in Jeremiah:
1 Then YHVH said to me, “Even though Moses and Samuel were to stand before Me, My heart would not be with this people; send them away from My presence and let them go!
Samuel also anointed the first king of Israel. Although Israel had a king now, Samuel would continue to pray for them from this altar in Ramah.
Saul was the first king of Israel. He was chosen by YHVH and anointed by Samuel. Saul lost his kingship because he brought sacrifices to YHVH after he was instructed to wait for Samuel to do it. This was part of his initial instructions when he was anointed as king.
1 Samuel 10:8
8 “And you shall go down before me to Gilgal; and behold, I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and sacrifice peace offerings. You shall wait seven days until I come to you and show you what you should do.”
We read of the tabernacle at Shiloh in 1 Sam 14:3. Some time after this it was moved to Nob, for we read of David going to Nob, fleeing from Saul, and there he ate of the consecrated (1 Sam 21:1). Gilgal was the first place the tabernacle was placed after Israel entered the land. It seems that Gilgal continued to be a place of worship. Saul’s kingdom was renewed at Gilgal a year after he was chosen as king in Mizpah.
1 Samuel 11:15
15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before YHVH in Gilgal. There they also offered sacrifices of peace offerings before YHVH; and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.
Later, we read about Saul’s disobedience by making sacrifices at Gilgal.
1 Samuel 13:8–10
8 Now he waited seven days, according to the appointed time set by Samuel, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him. 9 So Saul said, “Bring to me the burnt offering and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and to greet him.
We can interpret this in two ways. The first way is to see it as disobedience to the initial instructions given him by YHVH through Samuel. We don’t know if he did the sacrifice on the seventh day of thereafter, the point is he should have waited for Samuel as he was instructed to. It almost seems as if this initial instruction was a test to Saul. The second interpretation is based on the assumption that the tabernacle was at Gilgal at the time. If this was so, Saul actually assumed the role of priest when he brought sacrifices. We know that this is absolutely not allowed. When king Uzziah offered incense in the temple, he became leprous for assuming the role of priest. Either way Saul was disobedient.
1 Samuel 13:13–14
13 Samuel said to Saul, “You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of YHVH your Elohim, which He commanded you, for now YHVH would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 “But now your kingdom shall not endure. YHVH has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and YHVH has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what YHVH commanded you.”
Later, we read of Saul building an altar. This took place at Mismash. The men were hungry after a day of fasting and fighting against the Philistines. They took from the spoils and slaughtered where they were and were eating the meat with blood. Saul stopped them and asked for a great stone to be rolled to him and he told the people to bring their animals to the stone to slaughter and drain the blood before eating. Afterwards Saul built an altar to YHVH.
1 Samuel 14:35
35 And Saul built an altar to YHVH; it was the first altar that he built to YHVH.
King David’s altar
After David counted the people, YHVH gave him an option regarding punishment. He chose to fall into YHVH’s hands. The Israelites were hit by a plague. As the destroying angel moved towards Jerusalem, YHVH made it possible for David to see him and YHVH told him to build an altar.
2 Samuel 24:25
25 David built there an altar to YHVH and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. Thus YHVH was moved by prayer for the land, and the plague was held back from Israel.
This took place on the threshing floor of Ornan, the place where the temple would later be built (1 Chron 21:18-27).
When David saw that the plague was stopped, he again offered sacrifice there. In the text we read the following.
1 Chronicles 21:28–30
28 At that time, when David saw that YHVH had answered him on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, he offered sacrifice there. 29 For the tabernacle of YHVH, which Moses had made in the wilderness, and the altar of burnt offering were in the high place at Gibeon at that time. 30 But David could not go before it to inquire of Elohim, for he was terrified by the sword of the angel of YHVH.
The tabernacle was at Gibeon at the time (1 Chron 16:39). However, David declared this altar to be the altar of burnt offering for Israel. He started making plans to build a house for YHVH there.
1 Chronicles 22:1
1 Then David said, “This is the house of YHVH Elohim, and this is the altar of burnt offering for Israel.”
We know from scripture that he was stopped by YHVH and told that his son Solomon would build this house because David had too much blood on his hands. David however, made preparations for it.
We read in the book of Kings that the people were still sacrificing on the high places. These places were possibly the places at Mizpah, Bethel and Gilgal. There might have been other places as well. Solomon went to Gibeon, to sacrifice there.
1 Kings 3:2–4
2 The people were still sacrificing on the high places, because there was no house built for the name of YHVH until those days. 3 Now Solomon loved YHVH, walking in the statutes of his father David, except he sacrificed and burned incense on the high places. 4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place; Solomon offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.
Gibeon is the place where the tabernacle stood for a time.
2 Chronicles 1:3–6
3 Then Solomon and all the assembly with him went to the high place which was at Gibeon, for Elohim’s tent of meeting was there, which Moses the servant of YHVH had made in the wilderness. 4 However, David had brought up the ark of Elohim from Kiriath-jearim to the place he had prepared for it, for he had pitched a tent for it in Jerusalem. 5 Now the bronze altar, which Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, had made, was there before the tabernacle of YHVH, and Solomon and the assembly sought it out. 6 Solomon went up there before YHVH to the bronze altar which was at the tent of meeting, and offered a thousand burnt offerings on it.
After this, Solomon built a house for YHVH according to the plans YHVH gave to David. He made an altar for the temple which was overlaid with gold.
This house for YHVH,or the temple as we know it fulfilled what David said:
1 Chronicles 23:25–26
25 For David said, “YHVH Elohim of Israel has given rest to His people, and He dwells in Jerusalem forever. 26 “Also, the Levites will no longer need to carry the tabernacle and all its utensils for its service.”
The temple became the central place of worship for Israel. This is the fulfillment of what is written in Deuteronomy 12.
5 “But you shall seek YHVH at the place which YHVH your Elohim will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come. 6 “There you shall bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the contribution of your hand, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. 7 “There also you and your households shall eat before YHVH your Elohim, and rejoice in all your undertakings in which YHVH your Elohim has blessed you. 8 “You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes; 9 for you have not as yet come to the resting place and the inheritance which YHVH your Elohim is giving you. 10 “When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, 11 then it shall come about that the place in which YHVH your Elohim will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to YHVH. 12 “And you shall rejoice before YHVH your Elohim, you and your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. 13 “Be careful that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every cultic place you see, 14 but in the place which YHVH chooses in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you. 15 “However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your gates, whatever you desire, according to the blessing of YHVH your Elohim which He has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and the deer. 16 “Only you shall not eat the blood; you are to pour it out on the ground like water. 17 “You are not allowed to eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or new wine or oil, or the firstborn of your herd or flock, or any of your votive offerings which you vow, or your freewill offerings, or the contribution of your hand. 18 “But you shall eat them before YHVH your Elohim in the place which YHVH your Elohim will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before YHVH your Elohim in all your undertakings.
YHVH has given Israel rest from their enemies and Solomon built the temple. The temple became the central place of worship for a time. It was intended to remain that way, but because of Solomon’s sin, his kingdom was divided between Jeroboam and Rehoboam. This division created change for Jeroboam built two altars, one in Dan and another in Bethel. He made two golden calves and told the people this was YHVH who lead them out of Egypt. You know the rest of the story. Jeroboam’s unfaithfulness continued from one generation to the next. This eventually resulted in exile for both Israel and Judah. During this time before the exile there were a few righteous kings who restored worship to YHVH, but for the most part, it was a downward spiral.
It is obvious that no altars were built by righteous believers after the temple was built and worship centralized. The only exception is the altar Elijah repaired on mount Carmel.
Ahab was king at the time and Baal and other idols were worshiped everywhere.
1 Kings 18:30–32
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” So all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of YHVH which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of YHVH had come, saying, “Israel shall be your name.” 32 So with the stones he built an altar in the name of YHVH, and he made a trench around the altar, large enough to hold two measures of seed.
We do not know who built this altar originally, but Elijah repaired it and used it to show YHVH is Elohim in Israel.
1 Kings 18:36–39
36 At the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O YHVH, the Elohim of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are Elohim in Israel and that I am Your servant and I have done all these things at Your word. 37 “Answer me, O YHVH, answer me, that this people may know that You, O YHVH, are Elohim, and that You have turned their heart back again.” 38 Then the fire of YHVH fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “YHVH, He is Elohim; YHVH, He is Elohim.”
It seems from this passage that Elijah did this on instruction of YHVH. YHVH sent fire down to consume the offering and the altar.
We do not read of any other altars that were built for YHVH. Many pagan altars were built, sometimes even in the temple of YHVH.
We also find a prophecy regarding a future altar in Egypt.
The altar in Egypt
19 In that day there will be an altar to YHVH in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to YHVH near its border. 20 It will become a sign and a witness to YHVH of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they will cry to YHVH because of oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Champion, and He will deliver them.
The temple of Yahu
We find a possible fulfillment of this prophecy in what is referred to the temple of Yahu in Elephantine, Egypt. The Elephantine papyri attest to this temple of YHVH .
The Elephantine papyri is a collection of Aramaic texts from the fifth century BC that demonstrates the existence of a Jewish military colony with a temple to Yahu on the island of Elephantine.7
The papyri also record the presence of a Jewish temple on the Egyptian island, where the Jews practiced animal sacrifice. The existence of such a temple goes against the Deuteronomistic reforms of Josiah in the seventh century. It may also be behind the prophecy in Isaiah 19 about an “altar” and a “pillar” being erected to the “Lord of Hosts” in the land of Egypt (Ahmed, “The Jewish Colony at Elephantine”). The temple at Elephantine is generally referred to as an egorah—an Akkadian loan-word for an open-air shrine. In one instance it is called an “altar house” (Porten, “Elephantine and the Bible”). There are also occasional instances of the phrase “house of Yahu,” which is the common biblical name for the temple in Jerusalem.
The papyri suggest that the temple may have been built as early as the seventh century BC when the Neo-Assyrian Empire controlled Judah. The temple priests at Elephantine performed animal and cereal sacrifices (Rosenberg, “The Jewish Temple at Elephantine”). 7
The papyri date to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
There is also prove that there was correspondence between these temple officials and the temple in Jerusalem.
The Jews sent petitions to the Persian authorities and wrote to the leaders in Jerusalem for support, demonstrating that there was contact between them.7
This temple was probably built by Jews who went to Egypt at the time of the Babylonian exile. We read about this in Jeremiah 41-43. Jeremiah enquired of YHVH and told them that it was not YHVH’s will for them to go to Egypt. However, they went and took Jeremiah with them. There is prove from this papyri that the people later assimilated with the Egyptians and they worshiped other gods along with their worship of YHVH.
During this time period there existed three altars where sacrifices were made to YHVH by priests. The restored altar in Jerusalem, which was restored by Joshua and Zerrubabel, this Elephantine altar and the altar in Samaria on mount Gerizim. The altars in Jerusalem and mount Gerizim was a point of contention in the time of Y’shua. This was clear from the conversation Y’shua had with the Samaritan woman.
20 “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Y’shua said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 “Elohim is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Messiah); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.”
All three of these temples were destroyed. The Passover sacrifice still takes place every year on mount Gerizim. If you want to learn more about the Samaritans, you can read the article Who are the Samaritans
We also know from prophecy in the book of Ezekiel that there will be a future temple where sacrifices will be brought to YHVH.
What have we learned from this study? We have learned from the previous article about the spiritual priesthood, that we are not to call ourselves priests. YHVH has made a covenant with the tribe of Levi to be priests forever. The question is: how do we reconcile this with so many people we read about in scripture building altars and bringing sacrifices to YHVH? This seems to be a mystery until we look at the detail.
We have learned that not all altars were built for sacrifice and many of the altars we read about were commanded by YHVH. We need not really look at the pre-Levitical priesthood altars as there were no written prohibitions against building altars or bringing sacrifices. Looking at YHVH’s response to it, I would say He was pleased with it.
Then YHVH gave specific instructions on how the people of Israel were to build altars. Just after giving this instruction, He gave the instructions for the tabernacle with the brazen and incense altars. There were strict prohibitions against sacrificing anywhere but the tabernacle during the forty years in the wilderness.
When they entered the land YHVH instructs Joshua to build an altar. The tabernacle was also in use at the time and stood at Gilgal. After this it was relocated to Shilo. Then we read about the altar of testimony built by the tribes who settled across the Jordan. The leadership was pleased with this when they found out it was built to be a witness not for sacrifices.
After this, there was a turbulent period in history, the period of the judges. Altars were built by various people for different reasons. Sometimes on instruction of YHVH. There seem to have been a number of high places that were used for sacrifice: Gilgal, Bethel, and Mizpah. Either that, or the tabernacle was moved around frequently. That would have solved our problem, but we don’t have clear scriptural proof.
According to scripture, the tabernacle remained at Shilo for some time and was moved to Gibeon during Saul’s reign. David established a place of worship in Jerusalem at the threshing floor of Ornan. This is the location later used to build the temple. After the building of the temple, worship was centralized at the temple and we don’t read of any other altars to YHVH except for the altar Elijah restored. This was commanded by YHVH.
It seems that the temple fulfilled what was written in Deuteronomy 12 and it therefor became mandated.
All sacrifices, tithes and offerings were to be taken to the temple in Jerusalem, the place where YHVH chose to put His name. There will be a future temple and sacrifices will again be brought by the Levitical priesthood in Jerusalem.
Can we build an altar? We wouldn’t. One reason would be that unhewn stones would be difficult to come by. We will err on the side of caution and stick to a spiritual prayer altar, sacrificing the fruit of our lips. We will endeavor to worship YHVH in spirit and in truth. When Y’shua comes He will teach us all things.
1. All quoted passages are from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995. We have substituted YHVH for LORD and Y’shua for Jesus
2. Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W., Jr. (1996). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Vol. 1, p. 3). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.
3. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
5. Lindsey, F. D. (1985). Leviticus. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 199). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
6. Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Jos 22:34). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
7. Bledsoe, S. (2016). Elephantine Papyri. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
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