The high places (Ezekiel 6)

Image result for megiddo altar

Illustration: Horned Altar from Megiddo

English Bible readers are often bewildered by the regular references to the “high places” of Israel. The Hebrew word for “high place” is bamah (literally “height”). The term refers to local, open-air shrines that were frequently described as being located on a hill but could in reality have been found anywhere, including a city, gate or valley (Jeremiah 7:31). Some surmise that a shrine was called a “high place” because of its location; others suggest that the name refers to its construction. Regardless, a bamah might have been either a shrine perched upon a hilltop, such as in Petra, or an elevated platform like the mound of unhewn stones uncovered at Megiddo.

A typical high place consisted of a manmade platform or altar with associated buildings (1 Kings 12:31, 2 Kings 17:29). It is likely that many high places were located in spots that had originally been sacred to the Canaanites – and that the conquering Israelites were supposed to have destroyed (Numbers 33:52). In Israel’s early history in Canaan, high places became venues for offering of animal sacrifices and incense to Yahweh (1 Samuel 9:12 ff). The rationale offered was that people “were still sacrificing at the high places, because a temple had not yet been built for the Name of the Lord” (1 Kings 3:2). It may be that Elijah chose Mount Carmel for his contest with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) because the site was sacred to both Israelites and pagans.

Gibeon was known as “the most important high place” (1 Kings 3:4), although the ark was transferred by David from there to Jerusalem, the tabernacle and bronze altar remained at Gibeon (2 Chronicles 1:3-5). Also, Gibeon was the place at which the prophet Samuel celebrated festivals and where Solomon received a vision from the Lord.

Once worship of the Lord had been centralized in Jerusalem, however, high places came to pose a threat to the purity of Israel’s faith. When Israelites worshipped the Lord away from the temple and its priestly oversight, they were at risk of being influenced by local, pagan cults and traditions. Prophets attacked high places for their syncretism: They were all too frequently locations at which the gods Molech, Chemosh and Asherah were worshipped, indiscriminately, alongside the God of Israel (1 Kings 11:7-8, 2 Kings 23:13). High places were regarded as centres of apostasy because they competed with Jerusalem for Israel’s devotion (2 Kings 17:9-11).

In the historical narratives kings are routinely evaluated by whether or not they demolished these sanctuaries. Josiah’s reforms dealt a powerful blow to the high places (2 Kings 23:15-20); even so, attachment to them survived. These locations of temptation are cited specifically as a cause for God’s judgement upon Judah (Ezekiel 6:3-7).

 


 

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