A Place of Deliverance:
Altars in the Hebrew Bible and Book of Mormon

Altars have always played an important role in religious practice and belief. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) the verb from which the noun altar derives (“to sacrifice”) demonstrates the primary function of altars as places for offering sacrifice. Altars also served as places of asylum. In ancient Israel a person accused of committing a serious offense could flee to an altar to avoid immediate death. The Old Testament refers to this tradition in the so-called Covenant Code of Exodus:

He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death. And if a man lie not in wait,1 but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee. But if a man come pre sumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die. (Exodus 21:12–14)

Later variants of this statute make clear that the places of refuge were cities appointed for that purpose (compare Deuteronomy 19:1–7; Numbers 35:9–28; Joshua 20). In a city of refuge an accused person could find housing, food, and employment—none of which could be had at the altar. The original place of asylum, however, was the altar of God. The Exodus passage quoted above supports this view, as do the accounts in 1 Kings 1:50–51 and 2:28, which relate that Solomon’s enemies Adonijah and Joab fled to the tabernacle and “caught hold on the horns of the altar” in hopes of deliverance, albeit with different results.

This information proves significant for an understanding of altars in Nephite society, which as an heir to the customs of ancient Israel reflected many of the traditions preserved in the Hebrew Bible. One of the four references to altars in the Book of Mormon establishes a direct correlation between that record and the Old Testament. Alma 15:17 notes that after Alma established the church at Sidom, the people “began to humble themselves before God,2 and began to assemble themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually, that they might be delivered from Satan, and from death, and from destruction.” This verse invokes Israelite custom by identifying the altar as a location of deliverance, a subtlety that provides further evidence that the Book of Mormon clearly reflects the traditions of antiquity.

By David Bokovoy

Notes

1. The key for interpreting this casuistic law is the phrase lie not in wait, meaning that the accused committed the crime unintentionally.

2. The words before God are equivalent to the Hebrew phrase lipne YHWH and suggest a temple context as the original Sitz im Leben, or “setting in life.”