The Bible often mentions the open-air Canaanite 'high places' (bamah) which survived well into the Iron Age. An aura of mystery still surrounds. These 'high places', built mostly on a hill or mountain, were an intrinsic part of the fertility cult of the Canaanites, and lingered on for hundreds of years among the Israelites.
Both before the Israelite entry into Canaan and after it, the people of the Bible were farmers, familiar with Canaanite beliefs about weather and the cycle of the seasons. In spite of repeated denunciations by Hebrew prophets, native Canaanite customs were combined with Israelite ways in the practice of popular religion. An altar to Yahweh would be erected beside a hallowed stele (matzebah) and sacred tree or wooden pillar (asherah).
The Israelites came to ascribe magic powers to the venerated high places and adopted many practices connected with them, including the funeral rites of the Canaanites.
The “high place“ was a country sanctuary, not a temple. They were not elaborate centres of worship like the Israelite sanctuary at Shiloh or the Temple at Jerusalem. Marked by a tree or a group of trees, they were appropriate for seasonal offerings and sacriﬁces in the countryside, and perhaps for ceremonies connected with clan or tribal memories of revered ancestors. Solomon built a 'high place' on a mountain, and they also existed near certain towns, in valleys and in ravines: 'he sacriﬁced . . . on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree' (II Kings I6:4). Whether or not they were on an actual height, the “high place” was in the form of a mound, either a natural outcropping of rock or a man-made cairn or pile of stones.
Sometimes the high place contained 'hammanim' or incense altars (see right), used during worship. They were used in Philistine or Canaanite worship, not Israelite - the Israelites were forbidden to use them, and incense was not used in Israelite worship until the time of the Exile.
The essential features of a typical high place or 'bamah' are listed in I Kings 14:23: 'For they also built for themselves high places, and pillars, and Asherim on every high hill and under every green-tree.'
To the Israelites, certain places were holy ground because God had manifested His Presence there in some way. The shrine of Bethel, for example, had been sanctiﬁed by God’s appearance to Abraham and Jacob. Jeroboam established a 'beth-bamôth' there, literally, a 'temple of the high places', with altars and other cultic objects.
Apparently 'high places' were not condemned at ﬁrst in Israelite religion. Samuel (1Samuel 9:12 ff) and Solomon (1 Kings 3:3-4) sacriﬁced on a 'high place' (beth-bamôth) and the sanctuaries continued to be visited up to the end of the monarchy and the reform of Josiah (II Kings 23).
However, with the growing push for Jerusalem to become the center of worship, high places were condemned without exception and 'bamoth' became synonymous with pagan sanctuaries and practices. The chroniclers of the books of Kings, zealous for a religious revival, repeat over and over at the beginning of the reign of different kings of Israel and Judah, with the exception of the reformers, Hezekiah (527-698 BC) and Josiah (636-609 BC), 'and he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God . . . and he sacriﬁced and burned incense on the high places . . .'
The Old Testament never describes the Canaanite and Phoenician cults introduced into Israel. They are roundly condemned, but it was assumed that they were well-known. The details of the cults and their ceremonies can be reconstructed from archaeological ﬁndings in Phoenicia and Phoenician settlements in Carthage, Cyprus, Sardinia, Spain and Southern France.
How is it that comparatively little evidence for genuine 'high places' has been found in excavations of Israelite towns, compared to the repeated complaints of the Old Testament against numerous high places and 'idolatrous' places of worship? The answer may be suggested by the latest evidence of archaeology. Beth-bamoth, cairns and matzeboth date back for a millenium before the Israelite conquest. Outstanding examples of 'high places' of the 3rd and 2nd millenium BC are as follows:
Pre-Israelite: One of the oldest Canaanite high places known in the days preceding the Patriarchal period is the Megiddo cairn. It was reconstructed some time in the Early Bronze Period (about 2500 BC) and remained in use until the 19th century BC. Later, it became a kind of fossil, for another temple was constructed right next to it, following a quite different concept architecturally and therefore, most likely, religiously.
Megiddo 'high place' or bamah
The builders of the new temple constructed walls around the older bamah and it may be that in this way they expressed their veneration for the by then ancient place of worship. It is more likely that they conducted certain cultic ceremonies there, perhaps those connected with ancestor worship.
The 13th century BC funerary shrine at Hazor was built at the foot of the Hyksos fortiﬁcation in the Late Bronze period, and was probably destroyed during the Israelite conquest of the city. It contains a series of mazeboth, most of them plain; one shows, in relief, hands upraised as if in adoration, and above them the symbol of the moon. Not far from the row of stele was found the statue of a sitting person holding a cup in his hand. A number of cult objects have been found with these: a statue of a lion, a mask, and others. The bamah in Nahariyah (518) which stands beside a small shrine dating from the l8th century BC is about 6 metres in diametre. The large monolithic altar (below) at Tsor‘ah, Samson’s home town, was apparently connected with a high place.
Large monolithic altar at Tsor‘ah, Samson’s home town
Sit-shamsi: Many scholars are inclined to regard the small 12th century BC model of the Sit-shamsi (below) found in Susa as a typical fully equipped bamah, with two altars at the sides of the model; the ﬁgures of a priest and a worshipper of the shrine’s divinity engaged in a puriﬁcatory act; two stele to their right; various cultic objects; troughs for dry offerings and libations and tree trunks, possibly asherahs. Other scholars see in it a model of the acropolis of Susa and believe the object in the centre to be a ziggurat, and the low structure on the left a model of a bamah or altar.
Sit-shamsi found in Susa
Clay models of sacred enclosures in Cyprus may represent their high places. One (see below) is an enclosure at Vounos (2200 BC).
Enclosure at Vounos (2200 BC)
The High Place of Gibeon: Both I Kings (3:3-5) and II Chronicles (1:3 ff) record the sacriﬁce which Solomon made at the “great high place of Gibeon”. The site is believed to be the village of Nebi-Samuel, the highest ridge visible west of the road leading to Jerusalem from the plain. There is an ancient tradition that Samuel was buried there, which may explain the name of the place.
Simple Structures: The evidence retrieved from these sanctuaries, which were all 'Great High Places' suggests the explanation for the comparatively few remains discovered in Israelite towns. The High Places were relatively simple structures and they were in most cases some distance away from the towns. They were established, thundered the prophets, 'Upon every high hill and under every green tree'. There was very little involved that would outlast the centuries once they were ﬁnally suppressed and abandoned.
The same lack of evidence makes it difficult to come to any exact conclusions about the type of worship held in the shrines. Such simple installations could be adapted to many different rites. What evidence does exist - potsherds and ashes - tends to emphasize their use as funerary shrines.
Better evidence for the ceremonies of the high place may have been preserved in the Passover celebration of the Samaritans at Nablus. There, the shrine is a rectangular enclosure of rough stones, trenches and hearths, quite simply ﬁxed in the ground, very much like the Israelite sanctuaries that have been discovered. This may be a relic of the rites practised at the ancient high places.
The Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome. Eventually, the ancient 'high places' evolved into a much more elaborate form of architecture.
Study Resource for Archaeology