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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

High Place, Sanctuary

HIGH PLACE, SANCTUARY . The term ‘sanctuary’ is used by modern students of Semitic religion in two senses, a wider and a narrower. On the one hand, it may denote, as the etymology suggests, any ‘holy place,’ the sacredness of which is derived from its association with the presence of a deity. In the narrower sense ‘sanctuary’ is used of every recognized place of worship, provided with an altar and other apparatus of the cult, the special designation of which in OT is bâmâh , EV [Note: English Version.] ‘ high place .’ In this latter sense ‘sanctuary’ and ‘high place’ are used synonymously in the older prophetic literature, as in Amos 7:9 ‘the high places of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste.’

1. In the wider sense of ‘sanctuary,’ as above defined, any arbitrarily chosen spot may become a holy place, if tradition associates it with a theophany, or visible manifestation of a Divine being. Such, indeed, was the origin of the most famous of the world’s sanctuaries (see 2 Samuel 24:16 ff.). On the other hand, certain objects of nature springs and rivers, trees, rocks and, in particular, mountains have been regarded with special reverence by many primitive peoples as ‘the homes or haunts of the gods.’ Thus the belief in the peculiar sacredness of springs and wells of ‘living water’ is one that has survived to our own day, even among advanced races. It was to this belief that the ancient sanctuary of Beersheba (which see) owed its origin. A similar belief in sacred trees as the abode of superhuman spirits or numina has been scarcely less tenacious. The holy places which figure so conspicuously in the stories of the patriarchs are in many cases tree-sanctuaries of immemorial antiquity, such as ‘the terebinth of Moreh,’ at Shechem, under which Abram is said to have built his first altar in Canaan ( Genesis 12:6 f.; cf. Genesis 13:18 ).

More sympathetic to the modern mind is the choice of mountains and hills as holy places. On mountain-tops, men, from remote ages, have felt themselves nearer to the Divine beings with whom they sought to hold converse (cf. Psalms 121:1 ). From OT the names of Horeb (or Sinai), the ‘mountain of God’ ( Exodus 3:1 ), of Ebal and Gerizim, of Carmel and Tabor ( Hosea 5:1 ), at once suggest themselves as sanctuaries where the Hebrews worshipped their God.

2. From these natural sanctuaries, which are by no means peculiar to the Hebrews or even to the Semitic family, we may now pass to a fuller discussion of the local sanctuaries or ‘high places,’ which were the recognized places of worship in Israel until near the close of the seventh century b.c. Whatever may be the precise etymological significance of the term bâmâh (plur. bâmôth ), there can be no doubt that ‘high place’ is a sufficiently accurate rendering. Repeatedly in OT the worshippers are said to ‘go up’ to, and to ‘come down’ from, the high places. The normal situation of a high place relative to the city whose sanctuary it was is very clearly brought out in the account of the meeting of Samuel and Saul at Ramah ( 1 Samuel 9:13-25 ). It is important, however, to note that a local sanctuary, even when it bore the name bâmâh , might be, and presumably of ten was, within the city, and was not necessarily situated on a height. Thus Jeremiah speaks of ‘high places’ ( bâmôth ) in the valley of Topheth at Jerusalem (7:31, 19:5 RV [Note: Revised Version.]; cf. Ezekiel 6:3 ), and the high place, as we must call it, of the city of Gezer, presently to be described, lay in the depression between the two hills on which the city was built.

With few exceptions the high places of OT are much older, as places of worship, than the Hebrew conquest. Of this the Hebrews in later times were well aware, as is shown by the endeavour on the part of the popular tradition to claim their own patriarchs as the founders of the more famous sanctuaries. Prominent among these was the ‘king’s sanctuary’ (Amos 7:13 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) at Bethel, with its companion sanctuary at Dan; scarcely less important were those of Gilgal and Beersheba, and ‘the great high place’ at Gibeon ( 1 Kings 3:4 ). In the period of the Judges the chief sanctuary in Ephraim was that consecrated by the presence of the ark at Shiloh ( Judges 21:19 , 1 Samuel 1:3 etc.), which was succeeded by the sanctuary at Nob ( 1 Samuel 21:1 ). But while these and others attracted worshippers from near and far at the time of the great festivals, it may safely be assumed that every village throughout the land had, like Ramah, its local bâmâh .

3. In taking over from the Canaanites the high places at which they worshipped Baal and Astarte, the Hebrews made little or no change in their appearance and appointments. Our knowledge of the latter gleaned from OT has of late years been considerably extended by excavations and discoveries in Palestine. By these, indeed, the history of some of the ‘holy places’ of Canaan has been carried back to the later Stone Age. Thus the excavations at Gezer, Taanach, and elsewhere have laid hare a series of rock surfaces fitted with cup-marks , which surely can have been intended only for the reception of sacrificial blood. The sanctuary of the Gezer cave-dwellers measures 90 by 80 feet, and ‘the whole surface is covered with cup-marks and hollows ranging from a few inches to 5 or 6 feet in diameter.’ From one part of this primitive altar a similar arrangement was found at Taanach a shoot or channel had been constructed in the rock for the purpose of conveying part of the blood to a cave beneath the rock, in which was found a large quantity of the bones of pigs ( PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1903, 317 ff.; 1904, 112f.; Vincent, Canaan d’après l’exploration récente , 1907, 92 ff.). This cave was evidently regarded as the abode of chthonic or earth deities.

The excavations at Gezer have also furnished us with by far the most complete example of a high place of the Semitic invaders who took possession of the country about the middle of the third millennium b.c., and whose descendants, variously named Canaanites and Amorites, were in turn partly displaced by, partly incorporated with, the Hebrews. The high place of Gezer consists of a level platform about 33 yards in length, lying north and south across the middle of the tell . Its most characteristic feature is a row of standing stones, the pillars or mazzçbâhs of OT, of which eight are still in situ . They range in height from 5 ft. 5 in. to 10 ft. 6 in., and are all ‘unhewn blocks, simply set on end, supported at the base by smaller stones.’ The second and smallest of the series is regarded by Mr. Macalister as the oldest and most sacred, inasmuch as its top has become smooth and polished by repeated anointings with blood or oil, perhaps even by the kisses of the worshippers (cf. 1 Kings 19:18 , Hosea 13:2 ).

It is impossible within present limits to describe fully this important discovery, or to discuss the many problems which it raises (see, for details, PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1903, 23 ff.; Macalister, Bible Sidelights from the Mound of Gezer , 54 ff.; Vincent, op. cit. 109 ff., all with plans and illustrations). It must, however, be added that ‘all round the feet of the columns and over the whole area of the high place the earth was discovered to be a regular cemetery, in which the skeletons of young infants, never more than a week old, were deposited in jars’ evidence of the sacrifice of the firstborn (Macalister, op. cit. 73 f.). Similar ancient high places, but on a smaller scale, have been found at Tell es-Safi (perhaps the ancient Gath), and in the north of Palestine, by the Austrian and German explorers, of whose discoveries an excellent summary is given by Father Vincent in his recently published work above cited.

Several examples of another type of high place have been discovered on a rocky summit overlooking Petra; the most complete is that described in Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] iv. 396. Still another type of Semitic sanctuary with temple, presenting many features of interest, is minutely described and illustrated by Flinders Petrie in his Researches in Sinai , 1906, chs. vi. vii. x.

4. Combining the materials furnished by these recent discoveries with the OT data, we find that the first essential of a Hebrew high place was the altar . This might consist merely of a heap of earth or unhewn stones, as commanded by Exodus 20:25; or, as shown by surviving examples (see Altar, § 2 ), it might be hewn out of the solid rock and approached by steps. Against this more elaborate type the legislation of Exodus 20:25 f. was intended as a protest. Equally indispensable to the proper equipment of a high place (cf. Deuteronomy 12:3 , Hosea 10:1 RV [Note: Revised Version.] etc.) were the stone pillars or mazzçbâhs , the symbols of the deity (see Pillar), and the wooden tree-stumps or poles , known as ashçrâhs (which see). To these must be added a laver or other apparatus for the ceremonial ablutions of the worshippers. If the sanctuary possessed an image of the deity, such as the golden bulls at Dan and Bethel, or other sacred object an ark, an ephod, or the like a building of some sort was required to shelter and protect it. Such was Micah’s ‘house of gods’ ( Judges 17:5 ), and the ‘houses of high places’ of 1 Kings 12:31 RV [Note: Revised Version.] . The ark was housed at Shiloh in a temple ( 1 Samuel 1:9; 1 Samuel 3:3 ), and a similar building is presupposed at Nob ( 1 Samuel 21:5; 1 Samuel 21:9 ). Every sanctuary of importance presumably had a dining-hall ( 1 Samuel 9:22 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘guest-chamber’), where the worshippers joined in the sacrificial feast (cf. 1 Samuel 1:4 ff.).

5. At these local sanctuaries, and at these alone, the early Hebrews worshipped J″ [Note: Jahweh.] their God. The new sanctuary established by David at the threshing-floor of Araunah, where afterwards the Temple of Solomon was erected, was at first but another added to the list of Hebrew high places. At these, from Dan to Beersheba, sacrifices were offered by individuals, by the family ( 1 Samuel 1:3 ), and by the clan ( 1 Samuel 20:6 ); there men ate and drank ‘before the Lord’ at the joyful sacrificial meal. Thither were brought the tithes and other thankofferings for the good gifts of God; thither men resorted to consult the priestly oracle , to inquire of the ‘Lord’ in cases of difficulty; and there justice was administered in the name of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] . At the local sanctuary, when a campaign was impending, the soldiers were consecrated for ‘the wars of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] (see War). There, too, the manslayer and certain others enjoyed the right of asylum . But there was a darker side to the picture. The feasts were not seldom accompanied by excess ( Amos 2:8 , Isaiah 28:7; cf. 1 Samuel 1:13 ); prostitution even was practised with religious sanction ( Deuteronomy 23:13 , 1 Kings 14:24 ).

6. ‘The history of the high places is the history of the old religion of Israel’ (Moore). As the Hebrews gradually became masters of Canaan, the high places at which the local Baals and Astartes had been worshipped became, as we have seen, the legitimate sanctuaries of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] , in harmony with the universal experience of history as to the permanence of sacred sites through all the changes of race and religion. At these the most zealous champions of the religion of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] were content to worship. It was inevitable, however, that in the circumstances heathen elements should mingle with the purer ritual of Jahweh worship. It is this contamination and corruption of the cultus at the local sanctuaries that the eighth-century prophets attack with such vehemence, not the high places themselves. In Hosea’s day the higher aspects of the religion of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] were so completely lost sight of by the mass of the people, that this prophet could describe the religion of his contemporaries as unadulterated heathenism, and their worship as idolatry.

While this was the state of matters in the Northern Kingdom, the unique position which the sanctuary at Jerusalem had acquired in the south, and the comparative purity of the cultus as there practised, gradually led, under the Divine guidance, to the great thought that, as J″ [Note: Jahweh.] Himself was one, the place of His worship should also be one , and this place Jerusalem. The Book of Deuteronomy is the deposit of this epoch-making teaching (see esp. Deuteronomy 12:4 ff.). Whatever may have been the extent of Hezekiah’s efforts in this direction, it was not until the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah (622 621 b.c.) that effective measures were taken, under the immediate impulse of Deuteronomy, for the destruction of the high places and the suppression of the worship which for so many centuries had been offered at the local shrines ( 2 Kings 23:5 ff.). But the break with the ideas and customs of the past was too violent. With the early death of Josiah the local cults revived, and it needed the discipline of the Exile to secure the victory of the Deuteronomic demand for the centralization of the cultus.

7. To men inspired by the ideals of Dt. we owe the compilation of the Books of Kings. For them, accordingly, the worship at the local sanctuaries became illegal from the date of the erection of Solomon’s Temple ‘only the people sacrificed in the high places, because there was no house built for the name of the Lord until those days’ ( 1 Kings 3:2 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ). From this standpoint the editors of Kings pass judgment on the successive sovereigns, by whom ‘the high places were not taken away’ ( 1 Kings 15:14 RV [Note: Revised Version.] and oft.). This adverse judgment is now seen to be unhistorical and undeserved.

A. R. S. Kennedy.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'High Place, Sanctuary'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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