Zev Radovan

Iron incense shovels found near an altar at Tel Dan were probably used during religious rituals. Dating to the eighth century B.C.E., these three are the oldest incense shovels ever found. The handles had loops at the end so that the shovels (in Hebrew called mahtah [1 Kings 7:50]) could be hung from the wall.

The reference to “the pots, the shovels and the basins … which Hiram made for King Solomon … of burnished bronze” (1 Kings 7:45) is indirect evidence that an altar stood in the courtyard outside the Temple. Specific descriptions of a large sacrificial altar located in the courtyard can only be inferred from the text of 1Kings 8:64 and 2 Chronicles 4:1. Ezekiel 43:17, which mentions access to the altar by steps (ma>alot), and Exodus 28:42–43, which mentions that priests were required to wear britches to cover their nakedness when they approached the altar, suggest that stairs led up to the courtyard’s altar.

The altars envisioned by these priestly sources were clearly different from the one ordained by Exodus 20:19–23. The prohibition of steps in Exodus 20:23 led the rabbis to prescribe a ramp (kevesh) for the sacrificial altar, and this was in fact the practice in the Second Temple. But there is no evidence in the Hebrew Bible of such a ramp in the pre-Exilic Temple.