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(1) "High place" is the normal translation of bamah, a word that means simply "elevation" (Jer 26:18; Ezek 36:2, etc.; compare the use in Job 9:8 of the waves of the sea. For the plural as a proper noun see BAMOTH). In the King James Version of Ezek 16:24,25,31,39, "high places" is the translation of ramah (the Revised Version (British and American) "lofty places"), a common word (see RAMAH) of exactly the same meaning, indistinguishable from bamah in 16:16. In three of these verses of Ezek (16:24,31,39) ramah is paralleled by gabh, which again has precisely the same sense ("eminent place" in the King James Version, the English Revised Version), and the "vaulted place" of the American Standard Revised Version (English Revised Version margin) is in disregard of Hebrew parallelism. In particular, the high places are places of worship, specifically of idolatrous worship. So the title was transferred from the elevation to the sanctuary on the elevation (1 Ki 11:7; 14:23; compare the burning of the "high place" in 2 Ki 23:15), and so came to be used of any idolatrous shrine, whether constructed on an elevation or not (note how in 2 Ki 16:4; 2 Ch 28:4 the "high places" are distinguished from the "hills"). So the "high places" in the cities (2 Ki 17:9; 2 Ch 21:11 (Septuagint)) could have stood anywhere, while in Ezek 16:16 a portable structure seems to be in point. (2) The use of elevations for purposes of worship is so widespread as to be almost universal, and rests, probably, on motives so primitive as to evade formal analysis. If any reason is to be assigned, the best seems to be that to dwellers in hilly country the heaven appears to rest on the ridges and the sun to go forth from them--but such reasons are certainly insufficient to explain everything. Certain it is that Israel, no less than her neighbors, found special sanctity in the hills. Not only was' Sinai the "Mount of God," but a long list can be drawn up of peaks that have a special relation to Yahweh (see MOUNT, MOUNTAIN; and for the New Testament, compare Mk 9:2; Heb 12:18-24, etc.). And the choice of a hilltop for the Temple was based on considerations other than convenience and visibility. (But bamah is not used of the Temple Mount.)
Archaeological research, particularly at Petra and Gezer, aided by the Old Testament notices, enables us to reconstruct these sanctuaries with tolerable fullness. The cult was not limited to the summit of the hill but took place also on the slopes, and the objects of the cult might be scattered over a considerable area. The most sacred objects were the upright stone pillars (matstsebhah), which seem to have been indispensable. (Probably the simplest "high places" were only a single upright stone.) They were regarded as the habitation of the deity, but, none the less, were usually many in number (a fact that in no way need implicate a plurality of deities). At one time they were the only altars, and even at a later period, when the altar proper was used, libations were sometimes poured on the pillars directly. The altars were of various shapes, according to their purpose (incense, whole burnt offerings, etc.), but were always accompanied by one or more pillars. Saucer-shaped depressions, into which sacrifices could be poured, are a remnant of very primitive rites (to this day in Samaria the paschal lamb is cooked in a pit). The trees of the high place, especially the "terebinths" (oaks?), were sacred, and their number could be supplemented or their absence supplied by an artificial tree or pole ('asherah, the "grove" of the King James Version). (Of course the original meaning of the pillar and asherah was not always known to the worshipper.) An amusing feature of the discoveries is that these objects were often of minute size, so that the gods could be gratified at a minimum of expense to the worshipper. Images (ephods?; the teraphim were household objects, normally) are certain, but in Israel no remnants exist (the little Bes and Astarte figures were not idols used in worship). Other necessary features of a high place of the larger size were ample provision of water for lustral purposes, kitchens where the sacrifices could be cooked (normally by boiling), and tables for the sacrificial feasts. Normally, also, the service went on in the open air, but slight shelters were provided frequently for some of the objects. If a regular priest was attached to the high place (not always the case), his dwelling must have been a feature, unless he lived in some nearby village. Huts for those practicing incubation (sleeping in the sanctuary to obtain revelations through dreams) seem not to have been uncommon. But formal temples were very rare and "houses of the high places" in 1 Ki 12:31; 13:32; 2 Ki 17:29,32; 23:19 may refer only to the slighter structures just mentioned (see the comm.). In any case, however, the boundaries of the sanctuary were marked out, generally by a low stone wall, and ablutions and removal of the sandals were necessary before the worshipper could enter.
For the ritual, of course, there was no uniform rule. The gods of the different localities were different, and in Israel a more or less thorough rededication of the high places to Yahweh had taken place. So the service might be anything from the orderly worship of Yahweh under so thoroughly an accredited leader as Samuel (1 Sam 9:11-24) to the wildest orgiastic rites. That the worship at many high places was intensely licentious is certain (but it must be emphasized against the statements of many writers that there is no evidence for a specific phallic cult, and that the explorations have revealed no unmistakable phallic emblems). The gruesome cemetery for newly born infants at Gezer is only one of the proofs of the prevalence of child-sacrifice, and the evidence for human sacrifice in other forms is unfortunately only too clear.
See GEZER, and illustration on p. 1224.
(1) The opposition to the high places had many motives. When used for the worship of other gods their objectionable character is obvious, but even the worship of Yahweh in the high places was intermixed with heathen practices (Hos 4:14, etc.). In Am 5:21-24, etc., sacrifice in the high places is denounced because it is regarded as a substitute for righteousness in exactly the same way that sacrifice in the Temple is denounced in Jer 7:21-24. Or, sacrifice in the high places may be denounced under the best of conditions, because in violation of the law of the one sanctuary (2 Ch 33:17, etc.).
(2) In 1 Samuel, sacrifice outside of Jerusalem is treated as an entirely normal thing, and Samuel presides in one such case (1 Sam 9:11-24). In 1 Ki the practice of using high places is treated as legitimate before the construction of the Temple (1 Ki 3:2-4), but after that it is condemned unequivocally. The primal sin of Northern Israel was the establishment of high places (1 Ki 12:31-33; 13:2,33 f), and their continuance was a chief cause of the evils that came to pass (2 Ki 17:10 f), while worship in them was a characteristic of the mongrel throng that repopulated Samaria (2 Ki 17:32). So Judah sinned in building high places (1 Ki 14:23), but the editor of Kings notes with obvious regret that even the pious kings (Asa, 1 Ki 15:14; Jehoshaphat, 22:43; Jehoash, 2 Ki 12:3; Amaziah, 14:4; Azariah, 15:4; Jotham, 15:35) did not put them away; i.e. the editor of Kings has about the point of view of Dt 12:8-11, according to which sacrifice was not to be restricted to Jerusalem until the country should be at peace, but afterward the restriction should be absolute. The practice had been of such long standing that Hezekiah's destruction of the high places (2 Ki 18:4) could be cited by Rabshakeh as an act of apostasy from Yahweh (2 Ki 18:22; 2 Ch 32:12; Isa 36:7). Under Manasseh they were rebuilt, in connection with other idolatrous practices (2 Ki 21:3-9). This act determined the final punishment of the nation (21:10-15), and the root-and-branch reformation of Josiah (2 Ki 23) came too late. The attitude of the editor of Chronicles is still more condemnatory. He explains the sacrifice at Gibeon as justified by the presence of the Tabernacle (1 Ch 16:39; 21:29; 2 Ch 1:3,13), states that God-fearing northerners avoided the high places (2 Ch 11:16; compare 1 Ki 19:10,14), and (against Kings) credits Asa (2 Ch 14:3,5) and Jehoshaphat (2 Ch 17:6) with their removal. (This last notice is also in contradiction with 2 Ch 20:33, but 16:17a is probably meant to refer to the Northern Kingdom, despite 16:17b.) On the other hand, the construction of high places is added to the sins of Jehoram (2 Ch 21:11) and of Ahaz (2 Ch 28:4,5).
(3) Among the prophets, Elijah felt the destruction of the many altars of God as a terrible grief (1 Ki 19:10,14). Amos and Hosea each mention the high places by name only once (Am 7:9; Hos 10:8), but both prophets have only denunciation for the sacrificial practices of the Northern Kingdom. That, however, these sacrifices were offered in the wrong place is not said. Isa has nothing to say about the high places, except in 36:7, while Mic 1:5 equates the sins of Jerusalem with those of the high places (if the text is right), but promises the exaltation of Jerusalem (4:1 f). In the references in Jer 7:31; 19:5; 32:35; Ezek 6:3,1; 16:16; 20:29; 43:7, idolatry or abominable practices are in point (so probably in Jer 17:3, while Jer 48:35 and Isa 16:12 refer to non-Israelites).
(4) The interpretation of the above data and their historical import depend on the critical position taken as to the general history of Israel's religion.
See ISRAEL, RELIGION OF; CRITICISM; DEUTERONOMY, etc.
See, especially, IDOLATRY, and also ALTAR; ASHERAH, etc. For the archaeological literature, see PALESTINE.
Burton Scott Easton
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'high place'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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