High Place

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Holman Bible Dictionary [1]

Heathen Worship at the High Place The average high place would have an altar ( 2 Kings 21:3;  2 Chronicles 14:3 ), a carved wooden pole that depicted the female goddess of fertility (Asherah), a stone pillar symbolizing the male deity ( 2 Kings 3:2 ), other idols ( 2 Kings 17:29;  2 Chronicles 33:19 ), and some type of building ( 1 Kings 12:31;  1 Kings 13:32;  1 Kings 16:32-33 ). At these places of worship the people sacrificed animals (at some high places children were sacrificed according to  Jeremiah 7:31 ), burned incense to their gods, prayed, ate sacrificial meals, and were involved with male or female cultic prostitutes ( 2 Kings 17:8-12;  2 Kings 21:3-7;  Hosea 4:11-14 ). Although most high places were part of the worship of Baal, the Ammonite god Molech and the Moabite god Chemosh were also worshiped at similar high places ( 1 Kings 11:5-8;  2 Kings 23:10 ). Scripture speaks negatively about these heathen places of worship; still they played a central role in the lives of most of the people who lived in Palestine before the land was defeated by Joshua. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of high places at Megiddo, Gezer, and numerous other sites.

God's Hatred of the High Places When the Israelites came into the land of Canaan, they were ordered to destroy the high places of the people who lived in the land ( Exodus 23:24;  Exodus 34:13;  Numbers 33:52;  Deuteronomy 7:5;  Deuteronomy 12:3 ) lest the Israelites be tempted to worship the Canaanite false gods and accept their immoral behavior. The Israelites were to worship God at the tabernacle at Shiloh ( Joshua 18:1;  1 Samuel 1:3 ).

An exception to this practice existed in the years between the destruction of Shiloh by the Philistines and the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon. During this short period Samuel worshiped inside a city (possibly Ramah) at a high place dedicated to the worship of the God of Israel ( 1 Samuel 9:12-25 ), and a group of prophets of God worshiped at the “hill of God” ( 1 Samuel 10:5 , probably Gibeah or Gibeon). David and Solomon worshiped the God of Israel at the high place at Gibeon where the tabernacle and the altar of burnt offering were located (1Chronicles 16:1-4, 1 Chronicles 16:37-40;  1 Chronicles 21:29; 2Chronicles 1:3-4, 2 Chronicles 1:13 ).

False Worship at High Places in Judah After the Temple was constructed, the people were to worship God at this place which He had chosen ( Deuteronomy 12:1-14 ), but Solomon built high places for the gods of his foreign wives and even worshiped there himself ( 1 Kings 11:1-8 ). Because of the seriousness of this sin, God divided the nation by removing ten tribes from the kingdom of his son Rehoboam (1Kings 11:9-13, 1 Kings 11:29-38 ). Following this, each new king that ruled in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and in the Northern Kingdom of Israel was evaluated in the books of Kings and Chronicles according to what they did with the high places where false gods were worshiped. In Judah, Asa is called a good king because he removed the Asherah, idols, and sacred prostitutes but, unfortunately, he did not destroy the high places ( 1 Kings 15:9-14;  2 Chronicles 15:17; initially he may have destroyed them according to  2 Chronicles 14:2-5 ). Jehoshaphat was a man of God who followed the ways of David by seeking after God, but he followed a pattern similar to Asa of initially removing the high places ( 2 Chronicles 17:1-9 ) but not totally eliminating them from Judah ( 1 Kings 22:43;  2 Chronicles 20:33 ). This policy may have made it easier for his son Jehoram to build new high places which caused the people of Judah to worship other gods ( 2 Chronicles 21:11 ). The Judean kings Amaziah ( 2 Kings 14:3-4 ), Uzziah ( 2 Kings 15:3-4 ), Jotham ( 2 Kings 15:34-35 ), Ahaz ( 2 Kings 16:3-4 ), and Manasseh ( 2 Kings 21:2-7 ) allowed the people of Judah to continue worshiping at their high places. Although several are called good kings, their obedience was incomplete. Only Hezekiah ( 2 Kings 18:3-4 ) and Josiah ( 2 Kings 23:4-15 ) had the courage to destroy the high places in the land of Judah. Only these two kings brought major revivals to the land of Judah.

False Worship at High Places in Israel When Jeroboam created the new kingdom of Israel after the death of Solomon, he put two golden calves at high places at Dan and Bethel ( 1 Kings 12:28-32 ). An unnamed man of God came to Bethel and pronounced God's curse on this high place ( 1 Kings 13:1-3 ), but the following kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel followed in the ways of Jeroboam and did not remove the high places where the false gods were worshiped. This involved following the cultural and religious practices of the nations surrounding Israel rather than keeping the covenant stipulation of having no other gods ( Exodus 20:3-6;  Deuteronomy 5:7-10 ). Because Israel built high places in all their towns and set up sacred pillars and Asherah under the trees on their hills, God sent the Assyrians to destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel ( 2 Kings 17:8-22 ).

The Israelite prophets also condemned the high places of Moab ( Isaiah 15:2;  Isaiah 16:12 ), Judah ( Jeremiah 7:30-31;  Jeremiah 17:1-3;  Jeremiah 19:3-5;  Jeremiah 32:35 ), and Israel ( Ezekiel 6:3 ,Ezekiel 6:3, 6:6;  Ezekiel 20:29-31;  Hosea 10:8 ,  Amos 7:9 ) because they were places of sin where false gods were worshiped. See Asherah; False Gods; Golden Calves; Prostitution .

Gary V. Smith

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words [2]

Bâmâh ( בּוּם , Strong'S #1116), “high place.” This noun occurs in other Semitic languages, meaning the “back” of an animal or of a man (Ugaritic), the incline or “back” of a mountain (Akkadian), and the “block” (of stone) or grave of a saint (Arabic). Bâmâh is used about 100 times in biblical Hebrew, and the first occurrence is in Lev. 26:30: “And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.” Most of the uses are in the Books of Kings and Chronicles, with the sense of “cultic high place.” The word is rarely used in the Pentateuch or in the poetic or prophetic literature.

Bâmâh with the sense of “back” is still to be found in the Hebrew Old Testament: “So your enemies shall cringe before you, and you shall tread upon their high places” (Deut. 33:29, NASB). Compare this with the NEB “Your enemies come crying to you, and you shall trample their bodies [ bâmâh ] underfoot.”

The Bible’s metaphorical use of the “backs” of the clouds and the waves of the sea gives problems to translators: “I will ascend above the heights [ bâmâh ] of the clouds; I will be like the most High” (Isa. 14:14), and "[He] alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves [literally, “high places”] of the sea” (Job 9:8). A similar problem is found in Ps. 18:33 (cf. 2 Sam. 22:34; Hab. 3:19): “He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet, and setteth me upon my high places.” In these passages, bâmâh must be understood idiomatically, meaning “authority.”

The word is used metaphorically to portray the Lord as providing for His people: “He made him ride on the high places of the earth, that he might eat the increase of the fields; and he made him to suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” (Deut. 32:13; cf. Isa. 58:14). The idiom, “to ride upon the high places of the earth,” is a Hebraic way of expressing God’s protection of His people. It expresses the exalted nature of Israel, whose God is the Lord. Not every literal bâmâh was a cultic high place; the word may simply refer to a geographical unit; cf. “Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the [temple] as the high places of the forest” (cf. Amos 4:13; Mic. 3:12). The Canaanites served their gods on these hills, where pagan priests presented the sacrifices to the gods: Israel imitated this practice (1 Kings 3:2), even when they sacrificed to the Lord. The surrounding nations had high places dedicated to Chemosh (1 Kings 11:7)Baal (Jer. 19:5), and other deities. On the “high place,” a temple was built and dedicated to a god: "[Jeroboam] made a house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi” (1 Kings 12:31). Cultic symbols were added as decoration; thus, the sacred pillars ( ‘asherah ) and sacred trees or poles ( matstsebah ) were associated with a temple: “For they also built them high places, and [sacred stones], and groves, on every high hill [ gib’ah ], and under every green tree” (1 Kings 14:23; cf. 2 Kings 16:4). Before the temple was built, Solomon worshiped the Lord at the great bâmâh of Gideon (1 Kings 3:4). This was permissible until the temple was constructed; however, history demonstrates that Israel soon adopted these “high places” for pagan customs. The bâmâh was found in the cities of Samaria (2 Kings 23:19)in the cities of Judah (2 Chron. 21:11), and even in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:13). The bâmâh was a place of cult prostitution: "[They] pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek: and a man and his father will go in unto the same maid, to profane my holy name: And they lay themselves down upon clothes laid to pledge by every altar, and they drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god” (Amos 2:7-8).

The Septuagint gives the following translations: hupselos (“high; lofty; elevated”), bama (a transliteration of the Hebrew), bomos (“altar”), stele (“pillar”) and hupsos (“height; high place”).

Morrish Bible Dictionary [3]

The word commonly used for the high place is bamah, signifying what is high or elevated (cf.  Ezekiel 20:29 ), and then the hills on which altars were erected. There were such places in Canaan before the Israelites entered it, which they were told to destroy.  Numbers 33:52 . If the Israelites had such, God would destroy them and cut down their images.  Leviticus 26:80 .

In the above passages the high places are connected with idolatry; but it would appear that before the temple was built, altars for the worship of God had been erected elsewhere than at the tabernacle. With Samuel at Zuph, there was 'a sacrifice of the people' in the 'high place' (God having forsaken the tabernacle at Shiloh, this disorder resulted). It was evidently on elevated ground, for they went up to it and came down.  1 Samuel 9:12-25 . At the beginning of the reign of Solomon the people sacrificed in high places because the temple was not yet built. This was failure, for we read that "Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father: only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places."   1 Kings 3:2-4 . The tabernacle was there (Gibeon),  1 Chronicles 16:39;  2 Chronicles 1:3 , so that it appeared to be the right place to go to, and it was where God appeared to Solomon in the night; yet it was 'the great high place.' The reason of this implied disapproval is doubtless because the ark was not there, the symbol of God's presence, which was the true place of worship. At the close of Solomon'slife he sinned greatly in building a high place for the gods of all his strange wives.  1 Kings 11:7,8 . On the division of the kingdom, Jeroboam set up his idols and "ordained him priests for the high places, and for the devils, and for the calves which he had made."  2 Chronicles 11:15 . With these two examples it is not surprising that in the whole land there were many high places. Hezekiah and Josiah zealously destroyed the high places, which included the buildings thereon and the idols connected therewith. The word bamah is used apparently for any idolatrous erection, for we once read of high places in a valley.  Jeremiah 7:31 .

The term 'high places' has another application under the Hebrew word ramah, which also signifies 'exalted;' for Israel is charged with making a high place in every street, and at every head of the way, which doubtless refers to some shrine or symbol of idolatry connected with abominable practices.  Ezekiel 16:24,25,31,39 . They courted the favour of the heathen by adopting their idolatrous worship and customs.

Easton's Bible Dictionary [4]

 1 Kings 13:32 2 Kings 17:29 Genesis 8:20 Exodus 34:13 Deuteronomy 7:5 12:2,3 Deuteronomy 12:11-14 Leviticus 17:3,4 Deuteronomy 12 16:21 2 Kings 14:4 2 Kings 15:17

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [5]

1. General

(1) "High place" is the normal translation of בּמה , bāmāh , a word that means simply "elevation" (  Jeremiah 26:18;  Ezekiel 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  Ezekiel 16:24 ,  Ezekiel 16:25 ,  Ezekiel 16:31 ,  Ezekiel 16:39 , "high places" is the translation of רמה , rāmāh (the Revised Version (British and American) "lofty places"), a common word (see Ramah ) of exactly the same meaning, indistinguishable from bamah in  Ezekiel 16:16 . In three of these verses of Ezek ( Ezekiel 16:24 ,  Ezekiel 16:31 ,  Ezekiel 16:39 ) ramah is paralleled by גּב , 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 Kings 11:7;  1 Kings 14:23; compare the burning of the "high place" in  2 Kings 23:15 ), and so came to be used of any idolatrous shrine, whether constructed on an elevation or not (note how in  2 Kings 16:4;  2 Chronicles 28:4 the "high places" are distinguished from the "hills"). So the "high places" in the cities (  2 Kings 17:9;  2 Chronicles 21:11 (Septuagint)) could have stood anywhere, while in   Ezekiel 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  Mark 9:2;  Hebrews 12:18-24 , etc.). And the choice of a hilltop for the Temple was based on considerations other than convenience and visibility. (But bāmāh is not used of the Temple Mount.)

2. Description

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 ( maccēbhāh ), 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 ( 'ăshērāh , 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 terāphı̄m were household objects, normally) are certain, but in Palestine 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 Kings 12:31;  1 Kings 13:32;  2 Kings 17:29 ,  2 Kings 17:32;  2 Kings 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 Palestine 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 Samuel 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.

3. History

(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 ( Hosea 4:14 , etc.). In  Amos 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  Jeremiah 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 Chronicles 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 Samuel 9:11-24 ). In 1 Ki the practice of using high places is treated as legitimate before the construction of the Temple ( 1 Kings 3:2-4 ), but after that it is condemned unequivocally. The primal sin of Northern Israel was the establishment of high places ( 1 Kings 12:31-33;  1 Kings 13:2 ,  1 Kings 13:33 f), and their continuance was a chief cause of the evils that came to pass (  2 Kings 17:10 f), while worship in them was a characteristic of the mongrel throng that repopulated Samaria (  2 Kings 17:32 ). So Judah sinned in building high places ( 1 Kings 14:23 ), but the editor of Kings notes with obvious regret that even the pious kings (Asa,  1 Kings 15:14; Jehoshaphat,  1 Kings 22:43; Jehoash,  2 Kings 12:3; Amaziah,  2 Kings 14:4;Azariah,  2 Chronicles 15:4; Jotham,  2 Kings 15:35 ) did not put them away; i.e. the editor of Kings has about the point of view of  Deuteronomy 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 Kings 18:4 ) could be cited by Rabshakeh as an act of apostasy from Yahweh ( 2 Kings 18:22;  2 Chronicles 32:12;  Isaiah 36:7 ). Under Manasseh they were rebuilt, in connection with other idolatrous practices ( 2 Kings 21:3-9 ). This act determined the final punishment of the nation ( 2 Kings 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 Chronicles 16:39;  1 Chronicles 21:29;  2 Chronicles 1:3 ,  2 Chronicles 1:13 ), states that God-fearing northerners avoided the high places ( 2 Chronicles 11:16; compare  1 Kings 19:10 ,  1 Kings 19:14 ), and (against Kings) credits Asa ( 2 Chronicles 14:3 ,  2 Chronicles 14:5 ) and Jehoshaphat ( 2 Chronicles 17:6 ) with their removal. (This last notice is also in contradiction with  2 Chronicles 20:33 , but  1 Chronicles 16:17 is probably meant to refer to the Northern Kingdom, despite  1 Chronicles 16:17 .) On the other hand, the construction of high places is added to the sins of Jehoram ( 2 Chronicles 21:11 ) and of Ahaz ( 2 Chronicles 28:4 ,  2 Chronicles 28:5 ).

(3) Among the prophets, Elijah felt the destruction of the many altars of God as a terrible grief ( 1 Kings 19:10 ,  1 Kings 19:14 ). Amos and Hosea each mention the high places by name only once ( Amos 7:9;  Hosea 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   Isaiah 36:7 , while  Micah 1:5 equates the sins of Jerusalem with those of the high places (if the text is right), but promises the exaltation of Jerusalem (  Micah 4:1 f). In the references in   Jeremiah 7:31;  Jeremiah 19:5;  Jeremiah 32:35;  Ezekiel 6:3 ,  Ezekiel 6:1;  Ezekiel 16:16;  Ezekiel 20:29;  Ezekiel 43:7 , idolatry or abominable practices are in point (so probably in  Jeremiah 17:3 , while  Jeremiah 48:35 and   Isaiah 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 Religion Of Israel; Criticism; Deuteronomy , etc.


See, especially, Idolatry , and also Altars; Asherah , etc. For the archaeological literature, see Palestine .

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [6]

Bibliography Information McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'High Place'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/h/high-place.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.