The typical high place was located on a physical height; the selection of an elevated spot seems psychological, for this location put the worshiper above his immediate environment with its mundane associations and placed him nearer the skies, where the ultimate object of worship was believed to reside. In the plains of ancient Mesopotamia the feeling for a height for religious observances led to the construction of the staged or terraced temple tower, or ziggurat. A requirement for the high place was an altar, often simply made of unhewn stones, on which animal sacrifices could be slain and then offered by fire. Related to the high place was a tree or pole of wood that served as an idol or as an adjunct to worship (cf. Asherah). In Muslim areas, a weli, or shrine, of a departed sheikh, typically has nearby a tree to which the faithful may attach items that will bring the needs of the worshiper to the attention of the spiritual benefactor. Frequently the high place had a stone symbol, a kind of obelisk, or pillar (Heb. מַצֵּבָה, H5167), which also was an object of veneration or a commemorative monument. The high place could also contain images of heathen gods placed in a shrine (cf. 2 Kings 17:29). Sometimes the high place had a basin or tank where water could be kept for ablutions or libations. In addition to violating the greatest commandment, the idolatry of the high place involved the breaking of other divine laws, for the worship of certain deities demanded human sacrifice (usually of infants or children) and the celebration of rites of a sexual nature, whether religious prostitution or homosexual acts. Among the best known examples of actual high places visible today are those of Gezer and Petra.
R. A. S. Macalister, The Excavation of Gezer, II (1912), 281-411; G. L. Robinson, The Sarcophagus of an Ancient Civilization (1930), 107-171; R. Brinker, The Influence of Sanctuaries in Early Israel (1946); C. C. McCown, “Hebrew High Places and Cult Remains,” JBL, LXIX (1950), 205-219; W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, 3rd ed. (1953), 103-107; W. Albright, “The High Place in Ancient Palestine,” Supplement to VT, IV (1957); S. Iwry, “Massebah and Bamah in IQ IsaiahA 6:13,” JBL, LXXVI (1957), 225-232.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(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 Mr 9:2; Heb 12:18-24, etc.). And the choice of a hilltop for the Temple was based on considerations other than convenience and visibility. (But bamah is not used of the Temple Mount.)
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 (matstsebhah), 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 (’asherah, 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 teraphim 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 1Ki 12:31; 13:32; 2Ki 17:29,32; 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 (1Sa 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.
(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 (Ho 4:14, etc.). In Am 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 Jer 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 (2Ch 33:17, etc.).
(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 ALTAR; ASHERAH, etc. For the archaeological literature, see Palestine.