How to Desecrate a High Place
“High places” are mentioned often in the Bible. They were places where religious practices took place, although not necessarily in a temple. Although some were located on physically elevated places, others were located in places like gates (e.g. 2 Kings 23:4). Brian Taylor has argued that high places all had three things in common:
- A priesthood – personnel to care of the cult and oversee the events that took place there.
- Cultic activity – the typical activity other than the generic “worship” was the burning of a food offering, in which the worshiper 1) burned part to the god, and 2) ate part himself.
- Cultic items -three items seem to have been essential features: 1) asherim – representations of the goddess Asherah, seemingly made of wood; 2) an altar (mizbeaḥ) – typically built of field stones, for sacrifices; 3) standing stones (maṣṣebot) – somewhat abstract representations of deity
There were times in Israel’s history when a good king wished to suppress or stop the use of high places. How could this be done? There are several references to high places being destroyed, with the altars pulled down and the cult items smashed; but what would prevent the priests from returning at a later date to rebuild?
King Jehu found a way. Baal was being worshiped at Samaria in his day. “So they demolished the pillar of Baal, and demolished the house of Baal, and made it a latrine to this day” (2 Kings 10:27). Archaeologists were thrilled recently to find a high place in the gate at Lachish which had been desecrated in just this way. A shrine had been built in the last chamber of the six-chambered gate at Lachish.
This chamber featured two small horned altars at the back of the shrine, in the “holy of holies.”
Archaeologists quickly noted that the horns had been chipped off of the two altars, desecrating them. They were surprised as they kept digging, though, to find that a toilet had been deposited in the holy of holies as well.
Soil samples taken from this area were tested for indicators that the toilet had actually been used, but none were found. It appears that the desecration was symbolic, but also effective. The shrine was never rebuilt. Archaeologists have dated the destruction of the high place to the reign of King Hezekiah. The Bible states that similar reforms were carried out by Josiah, about 75 years later (2 Kings 23:4-11).
For further reading, see:
Brian Taylor, “BAMOT in Josianic Reforms: A Heuristic Approach for the Signification of the Term Bama,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 60/3 (2017): 457-78.
Saar Ganor, and Igor Kreimerman, “An Eighth-Century B.C.E. Gate Shrine at Tel Lachish, Israel,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 381 (May, 2019): 211-236.