Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
High Places and Groves
As high places and groves are almost constantly associated in Scripture, it seems undesirable to separate them in our consideration.
By 'high places' we are content to understand natural or artificial eminences, where worship by sacrifice or offering was made, usually upon an altar erected thereon.
By a 'grove' we understand a plantation of trees around a spot in the open air set apart for worship and other sacred services, and therefore around or upon the 'high places' which were set apart for the same purposes.
We find traces of the custom of worshipping in groves and upon high places so soon after the deluge, that it is probable they existed prior to that event. It appears that the first altar after the deluge was built by Noah upon the mountain on which the ark rested (). Abraham, on entering the Promised Land, built an altar upon a mountain between Bethel and Hai (). At Beersheba he planted a grove, and called there upon the name of the everlasting God (). The same patriarch was required to travel to the mount Moriah, and there to offer up his son Isaac (; ). It was upon a mountain in Gilead that Jacob and Laban offered sacrifices before they parted in peace (). In fact, such seem to have been the general places of worship in those times; nor does any notice of a temple, or other covered or enclosed building for that purpose, occur. Thus far all seems clear and intelligible. There is no reason in the mere nature of things why a hill or a grove should be an objectionable, or, indeed, why it should not be a very suitable, place for worship. Yet by the time the Israelites returned from Egypt, some corrupting change had taken place, which caused them to be repeatedly and strictly enjoined to overthrow and destroy the high places and groves of the Canaanites wherever they found them (;; ). That they were not themselves to worship the Lord on high places or in groves is implied in the fact that they were to have but one altar for regular and constant sacrifice; and it was expressly enjoined that near this sole altar no trees should be planted ().
It is possible that the Canaanites had not yet fallen into rank idolatry in the time of Abraham—at least, not into such idolatries as defiled the very places in which they worshipped. We know, at all events, that their iniquity was not full in those earlier times, but that when the Israelites invaded the land their iniquity was full to overflowing. As included in this, we may with tolerable certainty infer that their religion had become so grossly erroneous and impure, that it was needful to place under ban even their places of worship, which might otherwise bring the Israelites into danger by the associations which had become connected with them.
The great object of the law was to attach the Israelites to the worship of the One Jehovah, the Creator of heaven and earth, and to preserve them from the polytheism into which the nations had fallen. Now it is certain that the Canaanites had become polytheistic, and, consequently, that their high places and groves were dedicated to different gods. By continuing or adopting the use of this custom, the Israelites would infallibly have fallen into the same notions.
The groves which ancient usage had established around the places of sacrifice for the sake of shade and seclusion, idolatry preserved not only for the same reasons, but because they were found convenient for the celebration of the rites and mysteries, often obscene and abominable, which were gradually superadded. Then the presence of a grove of a particular species of tree at the principal seat of the worship of a particular god, would occasion trees of the same kind to be planted at other seats of the same worship; whence that kind of tree came to be regarded as specially appropriate to the particular idol; and, in process of time, there was no important tree which had not become the property of some god or goddess, so that every stranger who passed by a sacred grove could determine by the species of tree of which it was composed to what God the high place, altar, or temple with which it was connected belonged.
This statement of the notions connected with religious worship in high places and in groves seems amply to support the view we have taken as to the nature of the dangers which the prohibition of it was designed to obviate. The explanation as to the special appropriation of trees to particular gods alone suffices to throw a flood of light upon the injunction to cut down the sacred groves of the Canaanites; seeing that while these groves remained it would be impossible to dissociate the idea of the god to which the trees had been consecrated; and the disgraceful orgies which were celebrated under their obscure shade, would alone suffice to explain the same injunction on the ground of the holy abhorrence with which the scene of such abominations must be regarded by One who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.
The injunctions, however, respecting the high places and groves were very imperfectly obeyed by the Israelites; and their inveterate attachment to this mode of worship was such that even pious kings, who opposed idolatry by all the means in their power, dared not abolish the high places at which the Lord was worshipped. And it appears to us likely, that this toleration of an acknowledged irregularity arose from the indisposition of the people living at a distance from the temple to be confined to the altar which existed there; to their determination to have places nearer home for the chief acts of their religion—sacrifice and offering; and to the apprehension of the kings that if they were prevented from having places for offerings to the Lord in their own neighborhood, they would make the offerings to idols. This view of the case seems to be strongly confirmed by the fact that we hear no more of this proneness to worship in high places and in groves after synagogues and regular religious services had been established in the towns and gave sufficient operation to the disposition among men to create a local interest in religious observances.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'High Places and Groves'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/h/high-places-and-groves.html.