High Places in Ancient Israel

There are numerous references in the Hebrew Bible to religious centers known as “high places” (Heb. bamah, or plural bamot). Many English speakers assume this refers to elevated ground, a hill or summit of some kind, and in some cases this was surely true. However, Ahaz king of Judah “sacrificed and burned incense on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree” (2 Kgs 16:4). If “high place” means “hill,” why is this verse so redundant? And it gets more interesting. Ezekiel speaks of high places being built “in every square” and “at the beginning of every street” (Ezek 16:24-25), and Josiah destroyed “the high places of the gates which were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city” (2 Kgs 23:8). It is well known that although ancient cities were often built on hills, their gates were not located at the summit. So what was a “high place”?
Brian Taylor has made a compelling case (see here) that an ancient “high place” was a religious installation that was characterized by three things: 1) religious personnel, i.e. priests or their equivalent who cared for the site and oversaw its activities; 2) cultic activities, which might include things such as burnt offerings (1 Kgs 3:4), prayer (Isa 15:2), a cultic meal (1 Sam 9:19), child sacrifice (Jer 7:31), and possibly cultic prostitution (Ezek 16:16); and 3) some sort of physical installation or apparatus, such as altars and asherim (2 Kgs 23:15) and standing stones (2 Kgs 17:9-11). It is possible that in some cases an actual structure was present, a “house,” and at other times the setting, such as a gate chamber, provided similar shelter. More often, though, they seem to have been open-air shrines.
Numerous places that appear to fit these criteria have been discovered by archaeologists. The following examples all date to the Iron Age, which is the time of the kings of Israel and Judah.
Bethsaida. The city gate at ancient Bethsaida (et-Tell) was marked by a cultic installation that included a basalt basin and a basalt orthostat carved with a bovine figurine with a sword. Both of these were placed on a raised platform next to the gate. It is also worth noting that standing stones, another kind of religious artifact, were discovered on either side of the gate. One is visible at the left in this photo.

High place at the gate of Bethsaida (et-Tell), with carved orthostat, basin, and standing stone; photo by A.D. Riddle.

Dan. The city gate at Tel Dan included several religious installations. The one shown here, which was located right outside the main city gate, was relatively simple. It consisted of five large standing stones that stood against the city wall.

Set of five standing stones at the high place in that gate at Tel Dan; photo by Kris Udd.

Bull site in the hills of Samaria. This site was discovered on a relatively isolated ridge in the hills of north-eastern Samaria. At the summit of the Dharaht et-Tawileh ridge are the remains of an enclosure, a large standing stone, and a stone altar.

Location of the high place on the Dharaht et-Tawileh ridge in Samaria; photo by Nathan Ritmeyer.

The chance discovery of a small bronze bull figurine provided additional evidence that this was an ancient high place. This figurine (below) is now on display in the Israel Museum. It is commonly believed that calf or bull figurines like this were associated with the worship of the Canaanite deity Baal.

Bronze bull figurine from the high place on the Dharaht et-Tawileh ridge; photo by Kris Udd.

Lachish. A high place was discovered inside one of the gate chambers at Lachish. The main city gate consisted of six gate chambers, three on the north and three on the south. The high place was located in the south-eastern chamber.

Location of the high place in one of the southern gate chambers at Lachish; photo by Kris Udd.

This view shows the small room at the back of the chamber that was used as a high place. A small incense altar was built into the interior wall.

High place at the back of the gate chamber at Lachish; photo by Kris Udd.

This close-up of the incense altar shows that its horns were broken off in antiquity. Archaeologists attribute this to the reforms that took place during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah. When this chamber was excavated, it was also discovered that a large toilet seat had been placed there in antiquity. Although there was no sign it had ever been used, it would have symbolically desecrated the high place, and in fact the place was subsequently abandoned.

Incense altar in the high place at Lachish, with horns broken off; photo by Kris Udd.

It is clear, then, that the term “high place” did not refer to a place that was geographically elevated, but to a place that had religious importance. It might be compared to a “high priest,” who was the most important of the priests (or held the “highest” position), or to a “high day” (John 19:31), when a festival coincided with a seventh-day sabbath.

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