There are many kinds of prayers. Some are short like a blessing on the food. Some are formulaic like the words used in an ordinance. Some are formal like a public invocation. Some are deeply personal like the cloistered pleading of a needy soul. None, however, is more significant as a means of approaching our Heavenly Father than a sincere prayer offered over an altar of sacrifice.
Surely, you must be thinking, I can’t be serious. Altars of sacrifice are thousands of years out of date. They may have been important in Old Testament times, but not today. Besides, Christianity is clear about the practice of sacrifice being replaced by baptism and the Sacrament (or the Eucharist).
And so it has been. But let us be clear on at least one point. The practice of animal sacrifice is only a part of the Law of Sacrifice, and this law was never intended to be superseded. With the exception of a few isolated Israelite enclaves (such as the Ethiopian Fallashas) animal sacrifice was indeed abandoned. But the religious truths it stood for were never changed. Joseph Smith’s statement that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto salvation.” Sacrifice needs very much to be a part of our contemporary worship - and prayer should be a part of that sacrifice, just like it was anciently.
I am not suggesting that we find a place in our backyards and start placing stones together into a pile. This would obviously be inappropriate and unnecessary. There are enough symbolic altars around for us to use. Some of these altars exist in temples, churches, and other meeting houses around the world. They can even exist in our homes. All that is needed is a willingness to give all that we have to God. Of course this is not a trivial thing, and a somnolent muttering of syllables is hardly the spirit intended. Because at the heart of the Law of Sacrifice – at the heart of giving all we have to God – is the giving up of our sins. A prayer before an altar of sacrifice is a plea for forgiveness. It has been this way from the beginning.
Anciently prayer was intimately associated with sacrifice. In fact the first references to prayer in the Bible involve altars. In Genesis 12:8 we read that when Abram (Abraham) came to a mountain near Bethel and pitched his tent that “he builded an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord.” An earlier reference to prayer (in Genesis 4:26) appears to stand alone (without an altar) until we read the same, yet expanded, narrative in the Book of Moses (Chapter 5:5-8) where Adam is commanded to offer the firstlings of his flocks for an offering unto the Lord. After many days an angel appears to Adam and commands him that he must also “repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore.” In fact an earlier verse in Chapter 4 (verses 3-4, also in the Book of Moses) also shows the relationship of prayer to altars.
Later Solomon is recorded to have offered prayer before an altar with outstretched hands “And it was so, that when Solomon had made an end of praying all this prayer and supplication unto the Lord, he arose from before the altar of the Lord, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread up to heaven” (I kings 8:54).
In the Book of Mormon account of the missionary efforts of the sons of Mosiah, it is recorded that many were brought to a “knowledge of the truth; yea, by the power of their words many were brought before the altar of God, to call on his name and confess their sins before him.” (Alma 17:4). And other examples exist throughout the standard works.
One of the important clues in these verses to the significance of these prayers is the use of the verb “to call”. These are not just prayers that are spoken. These are prayers that call upon God. Two-way communication is expected. A prayer before a sacrificial altar is intended to be a revelatory experience.
Hugh Nibley has pointed out that this sacrificial prayer was tied very early not just to revelation but also to divine instruction and the performing of ordinances. He translates a passage from Clement showing that “Adam finding he needed help, solicited divine assistance with prayers and sacrifice… That was the beginning of the ordinances of God.”
Some of this is evident in the remarkable story of Peter’s testimony in Matthew (Chapter 16). You may recall the remarkable passage where Peter testifies that Jesus is the Christ. This is followed by the famous reference that is interpreted so differently by Catholics, Protestants and Mormons: “thou art Peter and upon this rock will I build my church.” The Catholic tradition understands that Peter (Petros, meaning rock or stone) is the rock upon which the church will be founded. To other Christian faiths - including Mormons - the 2nd rock is in reference to revelation. And the words of Christ to Peter represent a double-entendre: Peter and the rock (petros) of revelation.
I do not disagree with this interpretation but I think it is missing something important - something centered on prayer, altars and sacrifice. Consider the setting: it is in the mountainous area near Caesarea Philippi. And consider the double entendre: Peter and the rock. One does not need much of an imagination to see a reference to temple worship here. Mountains are often used either as symbols of temples or as physical places where temples are located. Stones, of course, are what altars were made of.
I find it hard to believe that these elements are combined in this passage by accident, especially considering how things end. This stone upon which Christ’s church is to be built will prevail against the “gates of hell.” As Hugh Nibley pointed out several years ago, the “it” in the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it” is (in Greek) a partitive genitive. For Nibley this means that the gates of hell shall not prevail against those who are already there. The traditional interpretation, on the other hand, is a more difficult translation: the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church.
I believe that a more penetrating understanding of this reference (and one involving a more trenchant double meaning) is that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the altar of the temple. This interpretation (as well as Nibley’s) makes Peter’s revelatory experience a temple experience. It is intimately tied to the Law of Sacrifice.
Further evidence for this altar can be found in the following chapter (Mathew 17). It is here that Christ is again on the mountain with Peter, James and John. After Christ has been transfigured, and when Peter realizes the heavenly messengers that have been there, the leading apostle suggests that three tabernacles be built: one for Christ, one for Moses and one for Elias. Now the word “tabernacle” (the Greek skene) is easily overlooked. In the Old Testament it is often used for any kind of tent or dwelling. In the Matthew account it is different, especially given the sanctity of the setting and the messengers involved. Perhaps the clearest indication of what is intended is to refer to the Book of Hebrews (in the 8th and 9th chapters). Here the word “tabernacle” clearly refers to sacrifice and ordinances. Verse 2 (Chapter 8) reference is made to a “minister of a sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices…” in verse 3 (Chapter 9) we learn that the tabernacle “which is called the Holiest of all” is after the second veil in the temple where the golden censer and the Ark of the Covenant were kept.
Of course there is no proof of a physical altar of stones here but I think the evidence suggests that there was one. I do think, however, that at least one thing is quite clear in all of this: the Law of Sacrifice was intended to be a central part of an enduring Christianity, not a forgotten relict of its Jewish past.
Now this is a very different interpretation of what altars and sacrifice mean than the one accepted by the scholarly community. This view of animal sacrifice is that it evolved in prehistoric times among human hunting bands as a way of appeasing the arbitrary anger of the gods. Blood dripped on altar stones becomes a symbol of mankind’s reaction to his own inherent violence, not a symbol of repentance and redemption. To James Carroll (noted author of Constantine’s Sword) sacrifice is an evolutionary epiphenomenon that allowed primitive humans to deal with death. It “is the invention that aims to make sense of, and to restrict, violence.”
Such a view is naïve and far too simplistic. Carroll should know better. Claiming the deepest rituals of religion to be mere atavisms performed by primitive simpletons is a mockery at best. Placing animal flesh on an altar was, to earlier times, an act of giving one’s most valued possessions to God.
Nor was this sense lost in the early Christian church. Of course baptism and the sacrament came to replace animal sacrifice but this was not the end of making an offering of self to God - certainly an essential aspect of sacrifice. Stone altars were placed at the center of churches where, instead of partaking of animal flesh, worshippers partook of a token piece of bread instead. All the key elements of ancient expiatory sacrifice are still in place: a humble kneeling approach to God, a calling on His name, an offering of all one has (including the forsaking of one’s sins), a sacred meal that recognizes the supreme sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
All of this was never meant to be lost. But our ignorance of what it signifies has been a loss of tragic proportions to those truly seeking transformative truths. Certainly God, our Father, hears our simple prayers. But ultimately there is only one way back to His presence, and it is through the sacrifice of His Son. And it is worth remembering that there is a different kind of prayer that is meant to remember and acknowledge this all-important fact. It is a prayer of sacrifice.
Joseph Smith’s statement on sacrifice is in Lectures on Faith (6th lecture). It is not certain which sections of this formerly canonized work were written by the prophet himself, but all of the lectures were approved by him. For Nibley’s account of early Christian sacrificial prayers see The Early Christian Prayer Circle; in, Mormonism and Early Christianity (Volume 4 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley). Nibley’s insights on the “the Gates of Hell” are in Baptism for the dead in Ancient Times (also in his Collected Works, Volume 4). Two sources dealing with the modern interpretation of animal sacrifice (which are misguided in my mind) are Walter Burkert’s Homo Necans, the Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, and James Carroll’s recent Jerusalem, Jerusalem.