Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
ALTARS

THE altar is an essential element in a sanctuary; and in the stories about the Patriarchs, the phrase 'setting up an altar' means, in effect, founding a sanctuary ( Gn 12: 7, 8; 13: 18; 26: 25; 33: 20). From the beginning, the priest's office consisted in the ministry of the altar, and as time went on, his work became more and more restricted to this ministry; sacrifice, the principal rite in public worship, means the offering of a gift upon an altar. Before passing, then, from the study of the priesthood to the study of sacrifice and ritual, we must say something about altars.

The Hebrew word for an altar is mizbeaḥ, from a verbal root meaning 'to slaughter', and therefore 'to slaughter with a view to sacrifice'. The word took on a broader meaning when the ritual became more developed: in the Temple, victims other than birds were killed at some distance from the altar and then placed upon it; vegetable offerings were also placed on the altar; and the same word was used for the altar of incense. An altar, then, was a place where men offered sacrifices, whatever their nature.


1. Pre-Israelite altars in Palestine

In Palestine, sacrifice was offered on various types of altars: the altar might be just the natural surface of the rock, or a rock which had been hewn into a certain shape, or a piece of rock jutting up on ks own; and there were, of course, man-made altars.

Excavations in Palestine have revealed many rocky surfaces which have been artificially hollowed out. It would be an exaggeration to say that everyone had some connection with worship. The majority of them could have served a profane purpose: for example, those which stand near a well or a cistern or a spring may have been used as watering-troughs for animals, and the largest of them may have been used to do the laundry; those which are near a press are obviously connected with the making of wine or of oil. And when they are found near tombs, they are to be explained by funeral rites, but not necessarily by sacrifices: the dead could be hungry and thirsty.1

There are, however, examples in which other evidence proves that some of these hollowed rocks were used in connection with sacrifice. We shall

____________________
1
Cf. p. 60.

-406-

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