Where did the worship of the True and Living God by man first begin. As Genesis 3:8 suggests, man may have worshipped God during those "garden walk" experiences; however, the first visible remnants of worship are collected around the "altars of the Patriarchs". There are ten in all, beginning with Abel's in Genesis 4:3-5 and continuing through to Jacob's second altar at Bethel found in Genesis 35:6-14. Internal to all the altars, is a beautiful study of the four altar's of Abraham, Bethel being a special place of worship for Abraham and possibly later for his grandson Jacob. Abraham's fourth altar, on Mount Moriah, stands out above the rest as an OT pinnacle casting its shadow across John 19 and Hebrews 11.
As these altars of the Patriarchs are studied in detail, some common elements germane to the worship of God begin to connect as themes from altar to altar. The Bible student will notice the presence and voice of God; man calling unto God; and God and man in fellowship. The altar evolved to be the "meeting place" with God and fallen man, now cast from the glory of the Garden of Eden. Taking up the study of the "meeting places" with God and man in the OT, we can trace a progression from the altars of the Patriarchs, to the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and the Temple of the Nation of Israel. These "places of meeting" all bore a common name - "the house of God" (Gen. 28:16-22); the place where God's presence was experienced and reverenced.
The altars of Genesis present for us a model of the character of worship God expects to receive and the fellowship He longs to have with His creatures. Our observation of the activities surrounding these altars may assist us in the offering of "spiritual sacrifices" well pleasing unto the same Lord God of heaven and earth within the "house of God" today. We find seven specific things true of these OT altars. 1) It is a place where God's presence, glory and voice is known. 2) It is a place where worship ascends back unto God. 3) It is a place where God's plan of redemption is portrayed. 4) It is a place where man finds God's forgiveness and acceptance. 5) It is a place where man submits in full obedience to God. 6) It is a place where man's faith in God's Word is tested. 7) It is a place where God's promises to man are confirmed. Oh that these things would characterize the "meeting places" of the NT churches of today.
As one would stop to pause at these patriarchal altars, there are some lessons we can learn. Abel's altar would remind us that there is a Divinely prescribed manner of approach to God. It is not by man's own design or the works of his flesh. It must speak of the work of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, by whose blood we gain entrance before a Holy God. Noah's altar, after the flood, would remind us that we only offer to God that which is "clean". It is worshippers with "clean hands" and "pure hearts" that can ascend His holy hill of worship (Psm. 24:3-4). The altars of Abraham will shows us that we worship a God who desires to be active in the affairs of our lives. He is directing our paths, redirecting and forgiving our selfish choices, instructing us in His ways and leading us into His blessings and promises, all the while testing our obedience to Him, and Him alone.
Are we men of the altar? The "men of the altar" in Genesis were men who knew the touch of God's hand in their life. After spending time around the altar of God, they were never the same. These patriarchs were 1) men of faith; their names are recorded in Hebrews 11 as such. They are 2) men of God; God Himself actual incorporated their names into His holy name as He explained His identity to Moses in Exod. 3:6; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were 3) men of action; Abel is mentioned three times in the NT as the first martyr for God. Noah was used to preserve the entire human race under the wrath of God by building the earth's first ship. Abraham received the unconditional promises of God, passing one of the toughest tests of faith ever given to a human being, and became the father of the nation of Israel. God only knows what is possible through those today who will come to the altar of God and give themselves first as worshippers.
Jacob, like his grandfather Abraham, had a streak of independence, which could get in the way of accomplishing God's will God's way. His grandfather had gone through the "formality of worship" as he called upon the Lord at Bethel, but his heart was filled with self, as his steps soon betrayed, fleeing to Egypt during a famine, rather than trusting God. God brought a humbled Abraham back to Bethel, the point at which he first strayed from God's will, and there he found God's forgiveness. Of the four altars Abraham built, Bethel was the only altar where Abraham did not hear the voice of God. It is sin that hinders our communications with God and causes us to have "ears that do not hear". Now Jacob is fleeing from home due to some independent actions of self, and in Gen. 28:11 comes upon a "certain place". He uses the "stones of that place" for a shelter for the evening sleep. God "meets with him" in this place through a vision and he calls the place "the house of God". Jacob then takes these same discarded stones and erects an altar of memorial unto the Lord, and pouring out oil (unto God we believe) over the stones. When we come to verse 19 of the text, it is then that we find out this place is none other than Bethel, and the stones of Jacob's altar are likely the stones left by his grandfather who worshipped God in this very same place. Jacob, unlike his grandfather, knew the very presence of the Lord at Bethel, and heard the promises of the voice of God.