Abraham’s Altars

By Norman E. Fultz

It has been said of Abraham that one could trace his paths by the altars he built. And another writer stated, “It is often said of Abraham and the patriarchs that they built altars to the Lord; it is never said they built houses for themselves.”

The altar, from a word meaning “place of slaughter,” in the period of the patriarchy was the center of family worship, being the place of sacrifice and devotion to God. While the altar built by Noah after the flood (Gen. 8:20) is the first recorded reference to an altar, it cannot be doubted that some type of an altar was surely involved in the sacrifices of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:3-4). That the expression “calling on the name of the Lord” has reference to worship at the altar seems apparent from Genesis 13:4 which tells of Abram’s returning from Egypt to Bethel “to the place of the altar which he had made there at first. And there, Abraham called on the name of the Lord.” This considered, when in the days of Enos it is said, “then began men to call on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26), may we not safely infer that reference is made to an altar and its sacrifices, not just to a verbal invocation. Even in the New Testament to “call upon the name of the Lord” signifies complying with his directions as to worship and obedience (Rom. 10:13; Acts 9:4; 22:16). So also, Abraham at Beersheba is said to have “called on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God” (Gen. 21:33); and in view of his previous practice of altar building, it is reasonable to assume that it implies that also at Beersheba an altar was built and sacrifice offered.

Let’s look at Abraham’s altars. We are all familiar with the Abraham’s commission from God (Gen. 12:1-3). Stephen recounts it thusly: “Men and brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, `Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell” (Acts 7:2-4). When Abram arrived in Canaan at Sichem, after the Lord again appeared to him saying, “To your descendants I will give this land”; and of Abraham it is related, “And there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him” (Gen. 12:7). Then upon moving south to near Bethel he again “built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 12:8). After his sojourn in Egypt, necessitated by the famine in Canaan, he came back to the altar site near Bethel, “And there Abram called on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 13:4). Further, when he and Lot had separated and Abram moved to the region of Hebron, he “built an altar there to the Lord” (Gen. 13:18). And asnoted above, he apparently later built one near Beersheba. Yet one other time is it recorded that Abraham built an altar. While he was still in the land of the Philistines, God tested him, telling him to go to Moriah and offer Isaac for a burnt offering. Upon their arrival, “Abraham built an altar there” (Gen. 22:9).

That Abraham was a man of great faith there is no doubt. Scripture so attests (Heb. 11:8-10, 17; Rom. 4). But that he made serious mistakes is also shown by Scripture, especially in two incidents involving Sarah. The first incident was with Pharaoh while in Egypt (Gen. 12); and the next, about twenty years later, an identical situation with Abimelech when they were dwelling in Gerar in the region of Kadesh and Shur-Beersheba (Gen. 20).

When we go back and look at Abraham’s journey and his altar building following significant events in his life, we become impressed with two times when no reference is made to his having built an altar after a major change in conditions. When he went to Egypt, nothing is said of his building an altar there; and that is the first time he prevaricated regarding Sarah. When he went to Gerar in the region of Kadesh and Shur, nothing is said of his building an altar. And he again he practiced deception when Abimelech, king of Gerar “sent and took Sarah” (Gen. 20:2). It was only after this incident and one involving a well of water which Abimelech’s servants had taken from Abraham’s herdsmen that the record tells us that “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there called on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God” (Gen. 21:33). After the encounter with Pharaoh, Abraham was expelled from Egypt. They “sent him away, with his wife and all that he had” (Gen. 12:20). He returned to the place of his altar between Bethel and Ai (Gen. 13:3-4). It was after his successfully making a treaty with Abimelech that in Beersheba he “called on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God” (21:33).

Is it without significance that the two incidents that besmear the otherwise unblemished character of Abraham occurred in places where he had built no altar? And is there a lesson in this for us?

When are we likely to be the most vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one? When are we most likely to fall before the fiery darts of the wicked? Is it not when we have left or failed to build an altar or to offer upon it? Oh, I don’t mean literally, but figuratively. When we have left the altar of reading the Word. When we have left the altar of prayer. When we have left the altar of consistently assembling with the saints where we can encourage one another and provoke one another unto love and good works? Oh yes, there have been some instances in which some have been found in great sin while never having absented themselves from the assemblies. But what about their private devotions of reading and prayer? Had they left them?

Yes, we can trace Abraham’s steps by the altars he built. And we can also find him in trouble when he was far removed from his altars. Let us take heed.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 6, p. 14
March 17, 1994