The Altar-Then and Now

Kimball J. Taylor, Raymond Alberta Stake

Celestial Room


I look into the faces of Ryan and Emma [1} and they light the entirety of the sealing room as they kneel at the altar of the temple. As I recite the words of the sealing ordinance, uniting them for time and for all eternity, I wonder: do they wholly understand how holy this moment is? Do they realize that the covenants made at this altar hold the key to their exaltation? This ordinance will change their lives forever; just as countless lives for millennia have been changed by coming to an altar. We are counseled to “stand in holy places,'[2} but in this most holy of places, we don’t stand at all. We kneel.

Every sacrifice offered at every altar from the time of Adam until the death of Christ symbolized Him. Now, today, after His Atonement and Resurrection, we still come to the altar to offer something even greater: a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And through that small gift to God, He gives the greatest of all gifts to us.

The Ancient Altar

When Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, they were commanded to offer animal sacrifice upon an altar in similitude of the coming atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. After the Flood, Noah rebuilt the altar first built by Adam[3}and made covenants with God. According to Jewish tradition, the summit of Mount Moriah is where the Creation of the earth began, and the site where Abraham subsequently built an altar to sacrifice his son Isaac. Then came Moses and the tabernacle, then Jerusalem and the building of altars anew on Mount Moriah. It is the ancient site of the first [Solomon’s] temple and the second temple which was present at the time of Jesus. Today it is referred to as The Temple Mount. Two[4]major types of altars were found within the tabernacle of Moses and the temple complex later, which continued through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The destruction of the temple, and thus the altar, in AD 70 by the Romans meant that the normative elements of temple worship were lost. Sacrifice was eventually replaced by traditional Jewish practices, with an emphasis on scripture study, prayer, and giving tzedakah.[5]

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve

What did these ancient altars look like? From Adam to Moses, altars were usually built upon the tops of mountains, often at a place where a theophany [the appearance of God to man] had occurred. The altar was to be constructed of raised earth or unhewn stone. At times, the altar was encased by wood which was often covered with brass or gold.

The purpose of ancient altars

What were these ancient altars for? Many things. For one, they were a place of protection.

Perhaps one of Ryan or Emma’s forbearers had been pursued by an enemy and found that refuge by making his way to the top of a mountain and grasping one of the horns of the altar, thus making him “home free.” Fittingly, these horns were referred to as “the horn of salvation,”[6] another name for Jesus Christ. Clinging to Him is the ultimate source of safety for all of us.

For another, they were a place of sacrifice. The horns were a refuge because they had been consecrated by sacrifice. “At the four corners were four horns: on these, the loftiest points of the altar, the blood of the sin offerings was put, that the atonement be brought nearer to God.”[7] Anciently, the measure of one’s devotion to God was manifest by one’s willingness to build an altar and offer sacrifice.[8] Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac upon the altar on Mount Moriah [9] is the ultimate example of complete and total consecration to the Lord. And later, burnt offerings were offered at the altar in the courtyard of the ancient temples and were a sign of complete repentance, sorrow for sins, a change of heart, and submitting one’s soul completely to God.

Abraham and Isaac
Abraham and Isaac

Ancient altars were also a means of connection to God. Our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob built altars where God had spoken to them. From Moses to Christ, Jewish tradition viewed the altar as “the spiritual junction between Heaven and Earth.” [10] The altar is “the table of the Lord.”[11] The altar was the center of temple worship, a place of prayer, covenant, sacrifice, and the presence of God.[12] Offerings at those temple altars varied according to circumstance, and “when the three offerings were offered together, the sin always preceded the burnt, and the burnt the peace offerings. Thus the order of the symbolizing sacrifices was the order of atonement, sanctification, and fellowship with the Lord.”[13] Man’s progression through life as portrayed in the temple can easily be compared. The significance of the officiator laying his hands upon the sacrifice to transfer the sins and identity of the people to the animal is symbolic of the sacrifice offered by Jesus himself, who took upon Himself our sins and identity in atoning for us. The blood shed at the altar sealed the covenants made.

The altar of incense was in the Holy Place just outside the Holy of Holies. Its smoke was symbolic of the prayers of the righteous ascending to heaven. The sacrifices made upon these altars were an expression of gratitude and were accompanied by sincere prayer and commitment to the Lord and were symbols of the Atonement.

Kirtland Temple
Kirtland Temple

Lessons can be drawn from ancient temple practices

We can draw lessons from these ancient practices that apply today. One is the need for consecration. The temple is the center of our worship today, and the altar is the center of that center.

Another is that the altar is with us wherever we are if we take the time to build it. After the destruction of the temple, some rabbis compared the home to the temple and suggested that one’s table replace the altar.[14] Thus, eating together with family or guests took on a form of sacrifice. Study and prayer at the table were synonymous with temple worship. Ryan and Emma would do well to make their home as sanctified and holy as the temple, with the table being like the altar: a place where they offer their hearts to God and to each other as they join in meals, scripture study, and form bonds of family unity and harmony.

A final lesson is the need for willing sacrifice. “Everyone who achieves exaltation must successfully pass through an Abrahamic test.”[15]This was confirmed by Joseph Smith, who, in speaking to the Twelve Apostles in Nauvoo, said: “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God. . .God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the celestial kingdom of God.”[16]


1 Not their real names.

2 Doctrine and Covenants 87:8

3 Kenneth A. Matthews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26[2002],391. The altar has always been a place of prayer, covenant, sacrifice, and the presence of God.

4 Bruce H. Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, [1992] 40. Some would include the table of shewbread as an altar, as well as the ark of the covenant, upon which the high priest would sprinkle blood on the Day of Atonement.

6 Psalms 18:2

5 Wikipedia: Tzedakah or edaqah (Hebrew: צדקה‎ [ts(e)daˈka]) is a Hebrew word meaning “righteousness”, but commonly used to signify charity.[1]

6 Psalms 18:2

7 Bible Dictionary, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

8 Leland Ryken and others, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery [1998], 20.

9 Wikipedia – “Foundation Stone.”

10 “Foundation Stone.”

11 Malachi 1:7

12 Andrew C. Skinner, Temple Worship-20 Truths That Will Bless Your Life, [2007] 184.

13 LDS Bible Dictionary, “altar”.

14 “While the temple stood, the altar would atone for man, but now that the temple is not standing, a man’s table atones for him” (see Berakhot 55a; Chagigah 27a, Menachot 97a).

15 Larry E. Dahl, “The Abrahamic Test” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson [2005], 83-99.

16 Joseph Smith, as reported by John Taylor in Journal of Discourses, 24:197.