Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The verb זבח (zabah) means to slaughter, and since "all eating of flesh among the ancient Hebrews was sacrificial" (says BDB Theological Dictionary), it's also the verb for to sacrifice in a ritualistic sense. This verb is obviously very important in the Bible: the crucifixion (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ constitutes the very core of the gospel, and it ties directly into the Passover sacrifice (Matthew 26:26-28, also see Hebrews 13:10).
In our article on the Greek word πιστις (pistis), meaning "faith" we observe that ancient Hebrew traditions appear to have regarded the human mind as a self-similar reiteration of the biosphere it's part of (hence Noah and the animals in the ark and Peter's vision of the great sheet full of animals; Acts 10:12). This in turn means that Israel's dietary and sacrificial laws primarily discus human cognitive psychology: the daily preparation of people's food was a continual reminder of how people's minds worked, and was intended in the same way as the Last Supper rite, to literally "bring to mind" the greater things they represented (Matthew 26:27-28, 1 Corinthians 11:24). When these rites are executed merely out of religious piety, they are wholly worthless and rather ridiculous (1 Samuel 15:22, Isaiah 1:11, Psalm 51:16-17). But when executed with the doors of the mind wide open, they are the mind's most nutritious sustenance.
We'll have a long look at our verb זבח (zabah) below, including its two derivatives:
- The masculine noun זבח (zebah), meaning a sacrifice (the act of sacrificing, or the creature sacrificed).
- The masculine noun מזבח (mizbeah), literally meaning "place of slaughter". This is the word for altar.
Altars and sacrifice in the Bible
The act of sacrificing animals is very common in the Bible as well as in classical cultures at large, but it's often overlooked how profound a concept sacrifice really is. Sacrifice has two main functions, and these reflect almost perfectly the greatest command and the second one that is equal to the first (Matthew 22:36-40):
(1) Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul and mind
When humans were hunter-gatherers, survival depended largely on the clan's ability to stick together, to have clan members diversify and specialize, and thus form a sort of super-organism. The quintessential human ability to use language actually developed from a universal proto-language called syntax (discussed in Genesis 11:1) not as a tool to convey data, but as a tool to forge and strengthen bonds — meaning that small-talk is language's main function; laughter and music probably stem from similar considerations, see our article on the verb צחק (sahaq).
Formal religion too appears to have arisen mainly as a tool to keep the clan together; a shared devotion to an entity which was not only imagined to protect the group from an outside perspective but which also strengthened bonds between clan members from within. In effect, a clan's deity was the clan; its spirit was the clan's spirit, its culture and its life.
The acquisition and preparation of food was obviously a main occupation of the clan, and sharing this food with the clan members effectively was equal to sharing this food with the deity. Cultural evolution may have forged formal and complicated rites, but the idea remained the same. (1 Corinthians 9:13, 10:18-22).
(2) You shall love your neighbor as yourself
Equally important to forging a clan's internal bond is its collective understanding of the general operating principles of creation, and its local role on the grander stage — or in other words: that a clan understands that its internal integrity is as important and of the same essence as its external integrity. A clan's internal symbiosis is as important as the harmony of creation at large: the whole of creation is a super-clan and the local clan fits the super-clan the way one person fits the local clan.
There's nothing wrong with a good theory, but buzz-words like "competition" and "survival of the fittest" are not the main driving principles of the biosphere. If they were, we would have had a winner by now. This winner creature would have eaten all the others and hence ended bio-diversity, while at the same time find a way to halt the hallowed mutations to prevent diversity from emerging again — it's a self-contradicting scenario.
Instead, the biosphere is endowed with all sorts of mechanisms that promote and preserve diversity at all costs. If one particular creature becomes too populous, its food will automatically run out, multiple predator populations will increase, and even viruses and such will slay with greater efficiency too much cloning or near-cloning (that's what caused the famous 19th century famine in Ireland).
Sacrificial rituals are secondarily designed to express and instill gratitude and acknowledgement towards the sacrifice. The sacrifice sustains the sacrificer, and the sacrificer in turn becomes a sacrifice. This sounds like a lot of wasting, but that's only because that's what the word sacrifice has come to mean to us. The word sacrifice comes from the same Latin root as does the word sacred. Sacrificing something doesn't mean to do away with it, but to sanctify it; to utilize it into the great circle of life. Sacrifice means sanctify and has the same effect as love. The biosphere is an ongoing cycle of servitude; death is not the enemy but a worthless and unapplied and unshared life is (Matthew 10:39).
It's tempting to project human feelings of individuality upon the biosphere, but our human feelings may be delusional rather than natural. Like a tree that is eager to give up its fruits for the benefit of its customers as much as its own, so is a large herd of animals or school of fish designed to give up some of its members. The herd-mind consists of all the minds of all the animals together, and is much more dominant than one individual mind. That may seem unfair, but our own human mind is in fact the mini-minds of all our cells combined, like a choir of a trillion voices. Our separate cells die and are replaced every few months, and none of them objects as long as the total continues.
To almost every human individual, the wish to matter to others is far stronger than the wish to overwhelm them. Asking someone for help benefits both; you don't have to go it alone and the other feels valuable. This basic driver of social evolution is based on the primary operating principle of life on the collective biosphere scale, and even explains the death and resurrection of the Christ.
The verb זבח (zabah) both means to slaughter and to sacrifice; it's the same thing. It's done to:
- Sustain the sacrificer physically: The fattened calf for Saul (1 Samuel 28:24); sheep and oxen for Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 18:2); sheep for shepherds (Ezekiel 24:3).
- Sustain the local society of the sacrificers: Jacob's covenantal meal with Laban and the others (Genesis 31:54); the loot of Ai (Joshua 8:31); thousands of oxen and sheep at the dedication of the temple, which came down to a huge social banquet (1 Kings 8:63).
- Sustain a globally harmonious society by clearing away obstructions: Mighty men and princes of the earth (Ezekiel 39:17-19, 1 Corinthians 15:24); religious figures who don't serve YHWH but some other agenda (1 Kings 13:2, 2 Kings 23:20).
Our verb comes with two important derivatives:
The masculine noun זבח (zebah), describes (1) the action of the verb: the act of sacrificing; a sacrifice, and (2) what is sacrificed; the sacrificial victim or substance. In the Bible sacrifices are mostly offered to the Living God (Genesis 46:1, Exodus 10:25), but on occasion sacrifices to other gods are mentioned (Exodus 34:15, Deuteronomy 32:38). These are deemed זבחי מתים (zehaby motim), sacrifices to deaths (Psalm 106:28).
There are various kinds of sacrifices mentioned in the Bible, but it should be noted that the Hebrews may not have shared our enthusiasm to categorize; some of the following probably overlap somewhat. Also: it's not always clear how the distinctions between the kinds of sacrifices work, especially when different kinds of sacrifices are made simultaneously (Exodus 24:4, Leviticus 7:13, Amos 4:4):
- The covenantal sacrifice; a sacrifice which accompanied or in which was manifested the cutting of a covenant (between men: Genesis 31:54; men with God: Psalm 50:5).
- The Passover sacrifice (Exodus 12:27, 23:18, 34:25).
- The annual sacrifice (1 Samuel 1:21, 2:19, 20:6).
- The sacrifice of thanksgiving; the thank offering (Leviticus 7:12, Psalm 107:22).
- The peace offering (Leviticus 3:1, 1 Samuel 10:8, Proverbs 7:14).
Several times, the Lord himself declares that he will make enemy nations into sacrifices to himself. Since all sacrifices were eaten (save of course for the parts that were burned, such as the fat, or otherwise disposed of, such as the blood), the diners at these international sacrifices were to be vultures and other carnivorous scavengers (Isaiah 34:6, Jeremiah 46:10, Ezekiel 39:17-19, Zephaniah 1:7-8).
The masculine noun מזבח (mizbeah) literally means "place of זבח (zebah)," which we usually translate with the word altar. Our word altar comes from the Latin altus, meaning high; the word altar literally means "high place," probably since ancient cultures usually constructed their altars on high places (Leviticus 26:30, Numbers 22:41, 1 Samuel 9:12).
But where our English word altar brings to mind a convenient operating table — with a scary guy doing bloody things in front of gullible and superstitious people — the Hebrew word describes the place where a social bonding and a nearing to God takes place.
And again, this social bonding comes from the strength of being successfully integrated in the ways of creation, which means that the society operates naturally and thus according to the will of the Creator. And that means that the descriptions and regulations concerning Biblical altars are massively important and highly relevant, especially to the church today.
The World-Wide Altar
Right after dictating the Ten Commandments, the Lord stipulated that Israel should not make gods from silver or gold, but rather an altar of earth (Exodus 20:24). This is commonly explained as being a heap of dirt upon which to deposit a dead animal, but no, it probably means that Israel was charged with turning all of humanity into an altar — מזבח אדמה (mizbeah adamah) — all of humanity into a streamlined chain of support up to the level where a select elite exists in close communion with the Lord of Life himself (Revelation 14:1, 21:24).
This sizzling elite produces the fragrant aroma the Lord may expect from a sacrifice (2 Corinthians 2:14-16, Ephesians 5:2, Philippians 4:18, also see Revelation 5:8, and especially Hebrews 13:10), yet it should be stressed that human evolution will not literally end in flames. The image of the altar serves merely as a metaphor for reality, and the Biblical authors used it merely because everybody was familiar with the concept of the altar. Hijacking familiar imagery from adjacent cultures to explain the Word of the Lord is a very common device and utilized all over the Bible (Psalm 78:2, or see our articles on the name Leviathan and Dike).
What is real is that the sizzling sacrifice is what binds the divinity and humanity together and what keeps humanity together; Jesus Christ was the first one up there (Colossians 1:17), but his physical sacrificial Body is presently made up of an untold number of human beings alive today on planet earth.
The world-wide altar is also reflected in the Tower of Babel, with its "head in the heavens" (Genesis 11:4), and is spoken of in Daniel 8:8, where the horn of Greece is broken into four horns, like the altar had (Exodus 27:2), and which pointed towards the four winds of heaven (this image represents both the partition of Alexander's empire by the Diadochi and the concept of the world-wide altar, made obvious by remarks such as those of Daniel 8:12).
Local altars were to be built (בנה, bana) from stones (אבן, 'eben), but these stones were to be used as found and not in any way chiseled or otherwise manipulated (Exodus 20:25). It has been suggested that this stipulation was designed to avoid the making of graven images, but the intent of this rule may go substantially beyond that.
There's nothing wrong with masonry (Jesus was probably a mason, after Joseph, who was a τεκτων, tekton, hands-on worker or craftsman; which explains Jesus' lavish metaphoric use of masonic imagery) and there's nothing wrong with manipulating bits of God's creation into our own (like cultivating lands), yet the altar — any altar — was to be made from elements that were organized to man's design but not altered to man's design. Obviously, this idea of utilizing something the way God made it returns in the core definitions of the Christ and the Body of Christ. The Roman (antichristian) counter-idea is to manipulate citizens into whatever design the emperor comes up with.
The second rule regarding the stone altar is a bit harder to comprehend, also because traditionally it has been interpreted to mean a prohibition to dangle one's privates in sight of the altar: "You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that not uncovered may be your nakedness on it" (Exodus 20:26).
Potency, and the altar of weakness
Contrary to the convictions of some, there's nothing intrinsically reprehensible about a man's genitalia, and the feelings of shame we moderns feel in that regard were hatched and cultivated in present times and are certainly not Biblical. It's true that a man's privates were considered private, but that's because they were associated with his most intimate definitions; his heart, so to speak (hence the circumcision of both the penis and the heart; Deuteronomy 10:16).
In fact, a man's privates are obviously associated with both the act of giving joy to the wife, and the subsequent passing on of life. Both these things are highly dominant themes in Biblical theology (remember that the Lord is our Husband; Isaiah 54:5, Hosea 2:16) and it's a bit of a miracle that not more sexually laden images were incorporated in the Bible (they were, actually, but translators in their "humility" usually volunteer to smooth them out).
Moreover, why would one's privates be more visible when one walks up massive stone stairs towards a prudishly inclined altar? The altar isn't going to see things better from an elevated position, is it? If the invisibility of a priest's privates from the perspective of an altar were truly the Lord's concern, why didn't he ordered the priests to wear pants or elaborate on the priestly aprons he prescribed later (Exodus 28:42-43)? All these considerations lead to the obvious conclusion that Exodus 20:26 is not about priestly privates at all.
In the phrase "You shall not go up by steps" twice the verb עלה ('ala), meaning to go up or ascend is used (this verb occurs once more in our verse, namely as the last word "on it"), and that verb also quite often denotes a burnt offering. The word for step, מעלה (ma'ala; literally "place of rising") may also denote thoughts that "come up" into someone's mind (Ezekiel 11:5). The word for "to be uncovered" is גלה (gala), which rarely (if ever) means uncovering one's private zones but much rather an uncovering of one's ears or eyes, in order to hear or see. But this verb essentially denotes a removal of whatever is in the way. The word for nakedness is ערה ('ara), which much rather means exposure or a becoming clear (see Romans 8:19-25) and is even used to describe the promised "outpour" of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 32:15). This verb ערה ('ara) is even closely similar to the common word for city: עיר ('ir; and see Matthew 5:14).
Here at Abarim Publications we're guessing that these stipulations concerning the altar had nothing to do with a priest's shameful body parts or the clothes he wore to hide them, but rather with the warning that not by human effort the altar is built, or the ultimate sacrifice offered, or the final city established (or the similar tower of Babel completed, which was made from man-made bricks or "works"), but rather by the grace of the Lord of Life (1 Samuel 2:9, Zechariah 4:6, Ephesians 2:5).
(Another, wonderfully enticing theory, proposes that both the Ark of the Covenant and the altar(s) had technological or even radio-active components, which might damage the male's toolbox if not shielded. Though certainly worth investigating, this theory unfortunately evades the scope of our present article. See our article on the name Menorah for more on this.)
The Holy and the Holy of Holies
In the tabernacle were two altars, a small, gilded one for burning incense, which was placed at the veil between the Holy and the Holy of Holies (Exodus 30:1-10, Luke 1:11, Hebrews 9:4) and a larger one for the burnt offerings, which was placed near the door of the Holy (Exodus 38:1-7, 40:6). King Solomon's temple likewise had two altars: an inner, gilded one (1 Kings 6:20-22), and a large outer one made of bronze (1 Kings 8:64), which was replaced by Ahaz who had acquired the designs of a snazzy upgrade from Damascus (2 Kings 16:10-16). Ezekiel, likewise saw two altars: an inner one (41:22) and an outer one (43:13-17).
Note that Ezekiel's outer altar is equipped with puzzling מעלת facing קדים, which either means "steps towards the east" or else "inklings about antiquity" (43:17). And the temple of Herod too had an outer altar, for between it and the temple Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, was murdered just prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD (Matthew 23:35, see for a discussion on this man our article on the name Zacharias).
It has been said that the temple of Solomon was basically a depository for the Ark of the Covenant, but that may not be entirely true; it may in fact be entirely false. The Ark was housed in the Holy of Holies, whereas the temple's altar was in the Holy.
Yet, even though the gilded altar was placed in the Holy, the altar itself was Holy of Holies (קדש קדשים, qodesh qodeshim; Exodus 29:37, 30:29, 40:10). The Ten Commandments may have been kept in the Ark, but the Words of the Law were written on the stones of the altar (Deuteronomy 27:8).
Altars, altars everywhere
The Deuteronomic code predicted centralized worship and a central altar upon which all of Israel would offer (Deuteronomy 12:5-28), but the (probably preceding) Covenantal Code allowed a plethora of altars (Exodus 20:24-26), and hence altars were built all over the place:
By Noah after leaving the Ark (Genesis 8:20), by Abraham at Shechem (Genesis 12:7), Bethel (Genesis 12:8), Hebron (Genesis 13:18) and on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:9), by Isaac at Beersheba (Genesis 26:25), by Jacob at Shechem (Genesis 33:20) and at Bethel (Genesis 35:7), by Moses at Rephidim (Exodus 17:15) and Horeb (Exodus 24:4), by Balak and Balaam at Bamoth-baal (Numbers 23:1), Pisgah in Zophim (Numbers 23:14) and Peor (Numbers 23:29), by Joshua on Mount Ebal (Joshua 8:30), by Gideon at Ophrah (Judges 6:24), by "the people" at Bethel (Judges 21:4), by Samuel at Ramah (1 Samuel 7:17), by Saul at Michmash (1 Samuel 14:35), by David on the threshing floor of Araunah (2 Samuel 24:25).
Solomon used an altar at Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4) and obviously built the templar altar in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6:20). Jeroboam used an altar at Bethel, near statues of calves he had made (1 Kings 12:32), but this complex was demolished by Josiah (2 Kings 23:15). Ahab built an altar for Baal in Samaria (1 Kings 16:32). Kings Ahaz and Manasseh and others made various altars in various places, which were all demolished by king Josiah (2 Kings 23:12). The removal of unlawful altars was a continuous occupation of righteous rulers (Exodus 34:13, Deuteronomy 12:3, Judges 2:2, 2 Kings 11:18).
After challenging Baal priests to a prayer-duel, Elijah repaired an existing altar to YHWH on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:30). Isaiah predicted that Egypt and Assyria would become Yahwistic, and that in Egypt there would be built an altar to YHWH, who in turn would send Egypt a Savior (Isaiah 19:19). After the return from exile, Jeshua, Zerubbabel and others built the altar for the God of Israel in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:2).
Altars with names
Three altars were named:
- Jacob called his altar at Shechem: El-Elohe-Israel.
- Moses called his altar at Rephidim: YHWH-nesi.
- Gideon called his altar at Ophrah: YHWH-shalom.
The horns and the heart
The altar played an unspecified role in the judicial system of early Israel (Exodus 21:14, 1 Kings 8:31, Matthew 5:23). Perpetrators who managed to reach the altar and grab its horns appear to have been eligible for special considerations, but it's not clear how that would have worked (or why). Perhaps by doing so, a perpetrator would indicate that he committed his crime as a kind of sacrifice for the greater good (see Psalm 118:27). This worked fine for Adonijah but not so for Joab (1 Kings 1:50, 2:28).
The altars of the tabernacle were equipped with four horns on their every corner. These horns were of one piece with the rest of the altar (Exodus 27:2) and gilded (Exodus 30:3) or bronzed (Exodus 38:2) and appear to have functioned as receptacles for some of the blood of the sacrificial victims (Exodus 29:12), and had to do with annual atonement (Exodus 30:10, Leviticus 4:7). Jeremiah reveals that a person's sins are engraved upon the tablet of his heart, and on the horns of his altar (Jeremiah 17:1).
The temple is obviously a stylized representation of a living human being (with the Law written on one's heart: Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:15; and our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit: 1 Corinthians 6:19) and the altar and laver complex seem to represent aspects of metabolism.
In other words: one's sins are kept in the same place as where they are atoned for, and the loss of this faculty leads to a gradual but certain death (Amos 3:14).