Which Altar Was the Right One in Ancient Israelite Religion?

What do Iron Age altars reveal about Biblical sacrifices and worship?


Four-horned altars, such as this reconstructed one from Beersheba, have been found throughout Iron Age Israel, but is it the orthodox one according to the Biblical text? What do Iron Age altars tell us about Biblical sacrifices and worship in ancient Israelite religion? Photo: Tamarah/Wikimedia Commons.

The Bible contains many detailed sections regarding worship and the proper ways in which to conduct worship. These pronouncements go beyond instructions on how to worship both in spirit and in content, but also how to design the physical space for worship. In ancient Israelite religion, what kind of altar was used to make Biblical sacrifices?

Archaeological excavations throughout Israel have uncovered two types of altars for Biblical sacrifices in the Iron Age: the four-horned altar and the simple earthen altar. The four-horned altars are made of carved stones with a flat top and a pointed “horn” at each of the corners. The earthen altars are comprised of uncut stones and packed earth. Which one was the “correct” altar in ancient Israelite religion? Archaeologist Casey Sharp explores the evidence in his Archaeological Views column “Alternate Altars” in the November/December 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Remnants of the four-horned altar have been found in excavations conducted at Iron Age temples and religious spaces at Tel Dan, Gezer, Shiloh, Shechem, Dothan, Kedesh and Megiddo in northern Israel. Four-horned altars were also found in Philistia around the seventh century C.E., the period following the Assyrian conquest and destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. These intriguing structures for Biblical sacrifices seem to find parallels in the Books of Kings and Chronicles as well as in Exodus 27:1–8.

Excavations at Iron Age sites located in the southern kingdom of Judah, however, have revealed a different picture of ritual sacrifice and worship in ancient Israelite religion. In the Iron Age temple at Arad in the Negev and in a sacred area at Tel Motza outside of Jerusalem, archaeologists discovered earthen altars. This type of altar is attested in Exodus 20:24–26 and Deuteronomy 27:1–8.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

What do we make of these altars? What do they reveal about ancient Israelite religion?


Casey Sharp

“[The] descriptions [of four-horned altars and earthen altars] in the Bible do match the archaeological remains,” says Sharp.

“The altars uncovered in this archaeological context reveal religious differences between the northern and southern kingdoms in Israel (and Philistia). They also show us a point of tension between the sources of the Bible and their respective visions for ancient Israelite religious practices.”

How the material remains from the ground match the descriptions in the Biblical texts is at the heart of Biblical archaeology. The existence of Iron Age altars, however, seems to conflict with the Bible’s mandate that centralized worship and sacrifice take place only at the Jerusalem Temple (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:2–27).

“We should remember [though] that the Bible’s laws present the ideal practices of ancient Israelite religion,” says Sharp. “Actual practice may have been very different.”

Learn more about the use of altars for Biblical sacrifices and worship in Iron Age Israel and what they reveal about ancient Israelite religion by reading Casey Sharp’s full Archaeological Views column “Alternate Altars” in the November/December 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read the full Archaeological Views column “Alternate Altars” by Casey Sharp in the November/December 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 9, 2015.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

High Places, Altars and the Bamah

Did the Northern Kingdom of Israel Practice Customary Ancient Israelite Religion?

Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Israel

Where Did the Philistines Come From?
Horned altar from Tell es-Safi hints at the origins of the Philistines

Ashkelon Excavations Find New Evidence of Philistine Religion
But purpose of “horned” altar remains a mystery


Further reading in the BAS Library:

Aren M. Maeir, “Prize Find: Horned Altar from Tell es-Safi Hints at Philistine Origins,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012.

“Philistine Cult Stands,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2011.

Bryan Bibb, “What’s a Pleasing Sacrifice?” Bible Review, October 2004.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


8 Responses

  1. Lilyan Snow says:

    Although the Hebrew scriptures were not written as diaries, they still represent changes in time as well as place. Read descriptions of hurried building of altars for at-the-moment sacrifices (e. g. Genesis 22:9, Abraham building the altar to sacrifice Isaac). Not a word about dressing stones or sculpting horns. There is also the command to use earth or natural, not hewn, stones (Ex. 24-25) to build an altar, and the place is that of a people on the move. The horned altar—requiring time, skill, tools, and a developed pattern to produce—is an object of stability and developed ritual. It fits into inquiries about how the Hebrew people developed, not preconceptions about God’s requirements for a monolithic practice.

  2. Ed Morse says:

    “It would seem that any faith that involved travel to a distant place for all religious activities would lose most of its adherents.”

    And yet it didn’t. You have to remember, that first, this applied to adult males, although I’m sure others went, and that it only applied to three holidays, Passover (seven days, after planting), Shavuos (one day, after the first harvest) and Sukkos (eight days, after the last harvest). Israel is not that large a country. All other religious activities centered around the home and community.

    The things that one would think would lose adherents are the Shmittah, letting the land lie fallow for a whole year every seven, and the remitting of debts. But apparently, they didn’t either.

  3. Theodore says:

    Perhaps it is a mistake to imagine a homogeneity of beliefs, either by geography or by time. There are several instances in the O.T. where the chosen people vacillated between Yahweh and one of the local El- gods. It would not be much of a stretch to think of them playing it safe and having two altars, each being appropriate for the task at hand. Alternately, the folks of one village could be adherents of one pantheon and have the correct altar for those gods while in the next village Yahweh ruled.

  4. Jose Sanchez says:

    Did the kingdom remain faithful to God? Or did they offer sacrifice to the gods of the nations?

  5. D. Turner says:

    “And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.”—Exodus 20:22
    Are these cut stone altars the places where sacrifices were offered to pagan gods?

  6. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    I agree, James. It would like the Catholic Church requiring everyone to travel to Vatican City. Perhaps Islam’s idea of the pilgrimage to Mecca is closer to what was expected in Judaism.

  7. Jim Oppenheimer says:

    It always seemed strange to me that a people spread over a wide area, with little time or resources for travel would adopt a custom that insisted they had to do their religious activities in one central town. It would seem that any faith that involved travel to a distant place for all religious activities would lose most of its adherents. Common sense would suggest that either the central cult would find a way to bring the faith to the distant folk, or it would lose their contributions, which is certainly not a good business model.

  8. Kurt says:

    Horns of Altars. The horns of both the incense altar and the altar of sacrifice at the tabernacle were hornlike projections extending outward from the four corners. They were overlaid with the same material as the altar, either copper or gold. (Ex 27:2; 37:25, 26) The altars at Solomon’s temple were probably patterned after those of the tabernacle.—1Ki 6:20, 22.

    It was on the horns of the altar of sacrifice that Moses put some of the blood of the bull of the sin offering at the installation service to “purify the altar from sin.” (Le 8:14, 15) According to Jehovah’s direction, the priest was to put the blood of certain sacrifices on the horns of either one altar or the other, depending on the sacrifice offered.—Le 4:7, 18, 25, 30, 34; 16:18.

    Jehovah said that the sins of Judah were engraved “on the horns of their altars” (Jer 17:1), making the altars unclean and their sacrifices unacceptable; and in Amos 3:14 Jehovah states his purpose to desecrate the altars for calf worship at Bethel by the cutting off of their horns.

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