Read an Excerpt
Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
By Jack A. Beck
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 John A. Beck
All right reserved.
In a landscape that was peppered with pagan altars, the Lord was very particular about how his altars were constructed and used. The first divinely approved altars were fashioned from the soil itself or undressed fieldstones (Ex. 20:24–26; Deut. 27:5–6). But in time the Lord directed Israel to construct larger and more ornate altars associated with the tabernacle and temple. These square altars had a wooden frame overlaid with metal (Ex. 27:1–8; 30:1–5; 1 Kings 8:64; 2 Chron. 4:1). They also had horns, projections from each of the four upper corners, which may have been designed to hold up a grate that separated the fire proper from the sacrifice (Ex. 29:12). The exact function of the horns remains something of a mystery, but Amos tells us that an altar whose horns were removed could no longer be used (Amos 3:14). The largest and most stunning altar mentioned in the Old Testament is the one anticipated by Ezekiel. He writes of an altar composed of three tiers, rising more than twenty feet from its foundation (Ezek. 43:13–17). From this description we detect a trajectory in the divine plan for altar construction— from the simple rock or earthen mound altar to a future altar that rests within the throne room of the Lord, an altar we glimpse briefly through the eyes of Isaiah and John (Isa. 6:6; Rev. 8:3; 9:13; 16:7).
Altars functioned in a variety of ways. Noah, Abraham, and Moses built altars both as worship tools and as memorials marking enduring covenants that God had made with them (Gen. 8:20–22; 12:6–7; Ex. 24:1–4). While these particular memorial altars were used for sacrifice, other memorial altars were not. As Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh concluded their time with Joshua on the west side of the Jordan River, their trip home to their families on the east side of the river precipitated a concern. Fearing that their connection to God's promises might be compromised, they built an imposing altar by the Jordan as a symbol of their connection to the tribes west of the Jordan and to the promises that God had given to all Israel (Josh. 22:10–29). Kings in Bible times also founded altars in their capital cities to champion a particular deity and link that deity to their nation. In that spirit, Solomon established the great altar at the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6:20). The smoke rising from this altar reminded Israel of their special status as God's people as they made sacrifices praising God for his blessings or seeking assurance of their forgiveness.
The biblical authors work to shape our understanding and perceptions by mentioning altars more than four hundred times. In these cases, the altar is a place to express one's faith in the Lord, to develop one's faith, and to proclaim that faith. Consider the following examples. Throughout the book of Genesis, we read that Abraham and his family built memorial altars in one place after the next in locations along the Ridge Route, the well-worn path that became the main north-sound road through the interior of the Promised Land (Gen. 12:7–8; 13:18; 26:25; 33:20; 35:7). These altars were typically established in connection with a theophany that reviewed covenant promises personally given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Subsequently, as members of Abraham's family traveled north and south through the land seeking pasture for their animals, they came upon these memorial altars, which provided an opportunity for education, worship, and recommitment to God's plan for them.
The covenant made with Abraham's descendants via Moses was also marked by the construction of altars. Moses built an altar at the foot of Mount Horeb (Ex. 24:4) where the Law was given, and Joshua built a complimentary altar when Israel reached the Promised Land. That altar was built on Mount Ebal in connection with the covenant renewal ceremonies held there (Josh. 8:30–31).
The Lord not only spoke about altars dedicated to him, but also about how Israel was to react to altars established to honor false gods. His language is clear and uncompromising. The Israelites were to prove their full commitment to the Lord by destroying all the pagan altars in the Promised Land (Ex. 34:13; Deut. 7:5; 12:3). The most glaring failure to do so during the days of the judges is illustrated in the life of Gideon's father who had actually built an altar in devotion to Baal (Judg. 6:25). The darkest days in Israel's history are marked not just by a failure to destroy pagan altars but by a commitment to build them. When Solomon's kingdom split, King Jeroboam I established rival altars associated with the calf worship sites at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:28–33). King Ahab took matters a step further by championing Baal as his national deity and building an altar to Baal in his capital city (1 Kings 16:32). And when King Ahaz of Judah made a treaty with Assyria, he showed where his allegiance lay by replacing the great altar at the temple with an altar that resembled one he had seen in Damascus (2 Kings 16:10–15).
These darker days of the divided kingdom were punctuated by times of reformation. Elijah used an altar on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:30) to put Baal in his place, while Hezekiah and Josiah removed the altars to foreign gods as they led God's people to recommit themselves to the Lord (2 Kings 18:22; 23:20). But in the end, the rebuilding of altars to foreign gods under the likes of Manasseh (2 Kings 21:3) and others spelled exile for the nation of Israel. Yet when they returned with hearts dedicated to the Lord's promises, the first thing they did was rebuild the altar in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:3).
The New Testament authors mention altars less frequently than the Old Testament authors. In most instances when an altar is mentioned, it is the great altar in Jerusalem that is in view. But one instance in the book of Acts stands out. As Paul walked the streets of Athens, he was surrounded by the pagan idols and altars that filled that city's streets. It was one of those pagan altars, the one dedicated "to an unknown god," that opened the door for Paul to preach the gospel there (Acts 17:23).
The arrow was well known throughout Bible times and was as likely to be found in the hands of a common shepherd (Gen. 48:22) as in the hands of the king's son (1 Sam. 20:20–38). In general the arrow of the ancient world resembled the arrow of today, with a head, shaft, and fetching. The fetching at the rear of the shaft was typically composed from the feathers of an eagle or vulture. Its purpose was to stabilize the flight path of the arrow when fired. A wooden or reed shaft approximately thirty inches in length separated the fetching from the pointed head—the part of the arrow that went through the most design changes in its flight through history. Arrowheads were first made of flint then bronze and then iron. Their shape and composition were continually addressed in a bid to improve their aerodynamic profile and thus their contribution to the velocity, range, and accuracy of the weapon. In some instances arrowheads had a hole bored through them so that tufts of wool might be loaded and ignited to create flaming arrows that could be fired into an enemy compound.
The Bible knows of at least three uses for the arrow. Esau picked up his bow and arrow to hunt the wild game that was his father's favorite food (Gen. 27:3). Aside from hunting, an arrow might be used when seeking an omen from the gods. When the campaigning king of Babylon came to a crossroads, he called for arrows in order to learn which way he should turn. Ezekiel says this king "cast lots with arrows" as part of the ritual that led him to select Jerusalem as his military target (Ezek. 21:21). But most commonly we find the arrow being used when people are at war. As a weapon, the arrow distinguished itself by delivering a sudden and unexpected blow from a distance of over 225 yards, well outside the range of other weapons.
The arrow thus became a symbol of dominance in the ancient world. That is likely why Elisha included arrows in the enacted message for Jehoash king of Israel. Elisha instructed this king to shoot an arrow out a window and then to bang the collection of arrows in his hand on the ground. In both instances, Elisha linked the actions of the king to the military success or failure he would find in his fight against Aram (2 Kings 13:15–19). In that light, the inability to fire an arrow was a sign of impotence. When King Hezekiah of Judah expressed his concern over the impending approach of the strong Assyrian army, Isaiah assured him that the Assyrian king would not so much as shoot an arrow in Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:32; Isa. 37:33).
The arrow also flies onto the pages of our Bible in a variety of metaphors. The poet of Psalm 127 likens the blessing of having sons to the advantage owned by the soldier whose quiver is packed full of arrows (Ps. 127:4–5). Given the similarities between lightning and an arrow, it is no surprise that the arrow is also used as a metaphor for this meteorological phenomenon (2 Sam. 22:15; Pss. 18:14; 144:6). Both make their appearance suddenly and unexpectedly. Both dart across the sky at incredible speed. And both arrive on the scene with lethal power.
Arrows are also likened to words, which have the power to build up or tear down. When the latter is the case, the words that fly through the air are like destructive arrows that ambush the innocent (Ps. 64:3–4) and ruin reputations with false testimony (Prov. 25:18). Furthermore, arrows represent the calculated harm the wicked bring to our lives through their actions: "For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart" (Ps. 11:2). And we may add to that list the sinister desires of the Evil One who is more than willing to send flaming arrows in our direction. Paul offers the comforting reminder that our defense is the shield of faith with which we can "extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one" (Eph. 6:16).
Divine judgment is also linked to the arrow. Moses made it clear that no one was to touch Mount Sinai when the Lord appeared there to give the Law. Those who violated this command were to be executed without being physically touched. The arrow is specifically mentioned as one tool for rendering divine judgment in this instance (Ex. 19:13). In subsequent passages of Scripture, the arrow continues as a metaphor for divine judgment. When the inspired poets of the Bible felt the press of God's judgment, they often described their experiences in terms of being pierced by divine arrows (Ps. 38:2) or poisoned by arrows of the Almighty (Job 6:4). It is no surprise then that the arrow also is used as a metaphor for famine, plague, and other misfortune God would direct against Israel when they betrayed him (Deut. 32:23–26).
But in the end, it is not God's judgment but his protection that most comforts our hearts. Given the speed, range, and accuracy of the arrow, it was truly a weapon that induced fear. Only when we appreciate the terrible dread associated with the arrow will we appreciate what it means to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, not fearing "the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day" (Ps. 91:5).
The Promised Land enjoyed not only the attention of the Lord but also the attention of the empires that came to power on the stage of ancient history. Its strategic location at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe beckoned to those empires with the twin promises of military supremacy and untold wealth. Assyria was among the nations that answered the call.
The heartland of ancient Assyria straddles the upper course of the Tigris River in northern Iraq. In time the sleepy agricultural villages of this region became the powerful empire of Assyria whose reach extended across the Fertile Crescent from the Persian Gulf to Egypt and the Nile. During the middle of the ninth century BC, Shalmaneser V pushed west, drawn by the timber, minerals, and trade benefits associated with the eastern Mediterranean. But it was not until the middle of the eighth century that hit-and-run campaigns designed to collect tribute were replaced by extensive military campaigns bent on conquest and occupation of those lands.
Tiglath-Pileser III (Pul), Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, and Sennacherib were among the Assyrian kings whose empire-building dreams brought them into contact with God's people and the Promised Land. The Assyrian kings' dreams to expand Assyrian control brought the kings of Israel and Judah to a crossroads of their own. They could either declare their allegiance to Assyria and pay tribute or save their money and face military conquest. Kings Menahem and Pekah illustrate the choice and consequences. When Tiglath-Pileser III came calling, Menahem dug deep into the royal treasury, temporarily purchasing Israel's freedom with tons of silver (2 Kings 15:19). Years later Pekah withheld tribute, faced conquest, and ended up losing nearly all of his land holdings and many of his citizens (15:29). When Hoshea, the last king of the northern kingdom, followed the same rebellious path, Shalmaneser V began a three-year siege of Samaria, the capital city of Hoshea. The capital fell, and the remaining subjects of the kingdom were exiled (17:1–6).
Excerpted from Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Jack A. Beck Copyright © 2011 by John A. Beck. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.