Categories: Old Testament
I've always thought that "high places" were for pagan worship, but recently I've understood them to be places to worship Yahweh. Which is true?
It is true that high places were used in both ways, but not always at the same time. The name was derived from the fact that they were generally built on hilltops or elevated locations, i.e. on "high places." The word in Hebrew is bamah (its plural is bamoth), which generally means "heights." While this fits with the perception of having them on "high ground," there were also some "high places" in the cities and villages. In this case, people had to "build them" and ultimately they were supposed to be "torn down." So it wasn't exclusively limited to geography. People could build one anywhere. Scholars think they were usually comprised of a platform on which sacrifices were offered. Specific adornments are mentioned in several texts, indicating that some were highly decorated with tapestries or cultic objects. Mostly, though, they were out in the open and not in tents or other structures.
In Genesis, the idea of building a "high place" is thought to be positive. When the Lord appeared to Abraham and promised him land, Abraham immediately built an altar to the Lord and worshipped there. Obviously, there weren't any other places to worship in the new land, but clearly, this seemed to be an appropriate response. Later on, when God instructed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he told him to go to a high mountain in order to do so. Jacob also worshipped at a high place, as did Moses on Mount Sinai. Then, too, we have Elijah going to the top of Mount Carmel to wage a contest against the prophets of Baal – more "high places."
After the Israelites settled in Canaan, the "high places" took on a more ominous quality. In their march forward, the Israelites encountered many heathen altars that the Canaanites had set on various hills. They had probably been there forever. Needless to say, the high places were a common feature of the religions of the peoples surrounding Israel, and references to worshiping at them are found in many Ancient Near Eastern texts. Biblical authors were quick to condemn the rites performed at these sites, claiming they involved ritual prostitution and child sacrifice. Oftentimes, there was a stone pillar (a symbol of Baal) and a large pole (for the goddess Asherah). Some think this is where they buried their dead (on a mound), but this remains speculative. Of course, the Israelites were supposed to destroy all of them when they moved into the land.
The writers of Deuteronomy and Kings, in particular, called for their destruction even though there are still many references to them being used by Israelites as a legitimate venue for worshiping Yahweh. Samuel was sacrificing at a high place when Saul sought out the "seer" (See 1 Sam. 9:12ff). The next chapter has a group of prophets doing the same thing. Over time, however, it became apparent that some high places were much more significant than others. Places like Shechem, Bethel, Gilgal, Shiloh, and of course, Jerusalem, had all been founded by major characters throughout Israel's history. Scholars think these had already been important, long-standing pagan sites. So by adopting these sites, the Israelites basically took over the high places and made them their own, which might have been a factor in the fusion of some of the Yahwistic and Canaanite elements of religion. The prophets were constantly crying out against the worship of Baal. Well, the Israelites were essentially worshiping on Baal's sites. No wonder there was some confusion.