Understanding The Altar of God in The Old Testament

Ezekiel 43:27 (ESV) … “And when they have completed these days, then from the eighth day onward the priests shall offer on the altar your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, and I will accept you, declares the Lord God.”

The Lord continued to speak to Ezekiel and gave him regulations for sacrificing on the altar. Two purposes for the altar were specified: (1) it was to be used for offering whole burnt offerings, and (2) it was to be used for “sprinkling blood” (v. 18). Burnt offerings included all the five offerings in Lev 1–7. “Sprinkling blood” is literally “throwing blood” (Heb. text) and was associated with priestly ordination (Exod 29:16, 20), burnt offerings (Lev 1:5, 11; 9:12), and peace offerings (Lev 3:2, 8; 9:18).

Jewish interpreters believe the command for the prophet to give the “bull” to the priests (v. 19) was a prophetic sign that Ezekiel will be one of the priests to officiate in the messianic temple. But the best interpretation is that of Zimmerli, who views this section as similar to the charge given to Moses to see that worship procedures were carried out correctly (Exod 25:1ff.). Ezekiel was only officiating as an administrator in the vision that should not necessarily be taken as a prophetic promise that he will be a priest in the millennial temple.

The altar was a symbol of the consequences of sin. The wages of sin produced the death of the sacrificial animal (Rom 6:23). The altar also presented the grace and love of God, who provided a means to atone for unintentional sins (43:19). Blood was sprinkled on the horns of the altar (v. 20). These projections on the four corners of the hearth were considered the most holy and sacred part of the altar (Exod 29:12) and a place of mercy and refuge (1 Kgs 1:50; 2:28). Excellent examples of altars have come to light in recent archaeological excavations. A small horned altar was found at Megiddo that may have been an incense altar. The most magnificent example of a horned sacrificial altar was found in the fifth season at Beersheba. This was the first time that the remnant of a horned sacrificial altar was discovered. This large dressed stone altar was approximately one and a half meters high and one and a half meters on each side. On each corner of the hearth were horns that were part of the cornerstones of the top. The author was a participant in the excavations in the Negev at Beer Sheba where the altar was discovered. It is on display at the museum of Beer Sheba, which houses the artifacts from the seven years of excavation at the site.

The horns of the altar that Ezekiel saw were sprinkled with blood to purify the altar and make atonement for it (v. 20). Also a bull was offered as a sin offering and burned outside the inner court but inside the temple complex (v. 21). On the second day of the dedication of the altar a male goat was offered outside the inner court and the altar purified as in v. 20. Then a bull and a ram were offered as a whole burnt offering mixed with salt (vv. 23–24). The use of salt with an offering has specific overtones and association with the idea of covenant (Num 18:19; 2 Chr 13:5). Salt was used as part of sacrificial communal meals and was a sign of purification and preservation. This procedure was repeated for seven days, meaning until seven days had ended rather than for an additional seven days.84 The seven days for these ceremonies were for the atonement, cleansing, and dedication of the altar (v. 26).

The theological significance of the altar and sacrifices is an important concept in Ezekiel. McConville considers this section on the altar to be the central section (“midpoint”) or peak of chaps. 40–48. He observes an “inward movement” in the chapters to this point and the beginning from here of an “outward movement” as regulations are given for the temple (44:5), then measurements of the land belonging to the temple (chap. 45). He also observes a “change of idiom” in 43:13–27 so that rather than describing what Ezekiel saw it describes the altar and its regulations as the very words of God.

At least seven theological concepts are associated with the altar and the sacrifices. First, the altar sometimes was regarded as the “table” of Yahweh (Ezek 44:16; Mal 1:7, 12). It was where the sacrifice was transformed by fire into smoke that rose to heaven and to God. Because it was burned, it became an irrevocable gift.

Second, since the temple was regarded as the “house” of God, a house normally had a hearth, which was a repository of fire. The altar was considered to be the “hearth” of God (Ezek 43:15–16). The fire of God was on the altar, and priests were admonished to keep the fire pure (see Lev 10:1–7). Fire is a symbol in Scripture for God’s presence (Exod 19:18), power (Exod 9:24), wrath (2 Kgs 1:9–12), approval (Lev 9:24), guidance (Exod 13:21–22), protection (Zech 2:5), purity (Isa 6:5–7), deliverance (2 Kgs 2:11), God’s word (Jer 5:14), the Messiah (Mal 3:2), the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3), judgment (Matt 25:41), the return of Christ (2 Thess 1:8), and the end of the present age (2 Pet 3:10–12).

Third, the altar was a sign of God’s presence among his people (43:27). It was commemorative of a theophany (Gen 12:7; 26:24–25). Such manifestations of God were often accompanied by fire (Exod 19:18; Judg 13:16–22).

Fourth, the altar was associated with the idea of holiness, purity, and mercy, especially the horns of the altar (43:15, 20; 1 Kgs 1:50–51; 2:28). The sprinkling of blood on the horns of the altar was a rite of purification (43:18–21).

Fifth, the altar was an instrument of mediation (40:47; 43:19). Offerings were translated from the physical world by burning and given to God as they rose to heaven in smoke. By keeping the commandments, the offerings, sacrifices, and feast days, the covenant promises were maintained (Lev 1:1–7:38).

Sixth, sacrifices were considered a gift to God (Ps 50:1–2; Ezek 43:27). A domesticated animal that was needed for food and work was given to God. The sacrifice was burned for two reasons: (1) burning made the gift irrevocable, and (2) it translated it to the invisible world where God lived. Thus the sacrifice was a means of communication with God and was considered a form of prayer (Ps 141:2).

Seventh, sacrifice was for expiation of sins committed unknowingly and unintentionally (43:25–27; Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:3–4, 15, 18; Num 15:22–31).