Review of Ryken, Lenald, James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III, eds., “Altar.”

Ryken, Lenald, James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III, eds., “Altar.”  In Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 20-21.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. [Israel/Furnishings]

The most visible sign of one’s devotion in the Bible is the worship and the building of and visiting altars.  This brief but informative article first discusses Old Testament altars and the movement toward one single altar in one place.  The plural of the term is usually found in reference to pagan influences and accompanied by references to destruction.  The “altar of the Lord” was a focal point of “life lived in covenant allegiance.”  Biblical altars convey a number of meanings.  The central one is as a place of blood sacrifice.  The Hebrew word for altar (mizbeah), comes from the word for slaughter (za bah).  Yet they have others uses such as offering incense, and this article considers the table whereon the shewbread sat as an altar and the shewbread an offering.  One always went “up” to the altar, therefore they directed the eyes upward and “thrusts the acts of worship upward toward the threshold of heaven.”  The offerer moves from east to west , “as if to reenter the gates of Eden.”  The first altar mentioned in the Old Testament was the one Noah built after the flood waters receded, but the first offering mentioned were those of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:3-4).  “From that point on, the eating of meat and the forming of covenants are nearly always associated with altars.”  “Before the centralization there were many altars.  With the destruction of the temple and the loss of the altar of sacrifice a great part of Israelite worship was made impossible.”  Altars were monuments in the time of Abraham and Joshua.  They were places of refuge where fugitives could cling to the horns of the altar and gain asylum. (Ex. 21:14)  They are sometimes referred to as the “table for a deity.”  (Ezekiel 41:22; Mal. 1:7)

In the New Testament the altar is a scene of a very different sort of sacrifice.  Martyrs are frequently associated with them.  There is a tendency in the New Testament “to merge all the images of sacrifice into one in Jesus” so the altar itself becomes a symbol of Christ.

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