This rock-hewn altar was carved out of limestone and was approximately 8 feet on each side and 5 feet high. It is located about a mile from Shiloh, and the four corners point to the four directions on a compass (Exodus 27:1-2). The remains clearly demonstrate that animals were sacrificed on this high place. Photo: Yoel Elitzur.
The open-air altar shrine, called a bamah (plural bamot), is known through several books of the Biblical canon—but none more so than the Book of Kings, where they play a prominent role in assessing the performance of a king. Often referred to as “high places” in translations of the Bible, bamot were worship sites that usually contained an altar. A general understanding about the bamah and how it functioned can be gained by using evidence from the Biblical text as well as archaeology.
The term bamah can mean back, hill, height, ridge or cultic high place.1 In the Biblical text it is used to mean “the back of one’s enemies” (Deuteronomy 33:29), “heights” (Deuteronomy 32:13; Isaiah 58:14; Micah 1:3; Amos 4:13; Haggai 3:19; Psalm 18:34), “back of clouds” (Isaiah 14:14) or “waves of sea” (Job 9:8).2 Because of this, eminent scholar Roland de Vaux said, “The idea which the word expresses, therefore, is something which stands out in relief from its background, but the idea of a mountain or hill is not contained in the word itself.”3 This could explain why this word is used even though some of the shrines were not located on hills. The Ugaritic and Akkadian cognate usually means an animal’s back or trunk.4 The Akkadian can also mean land that is elevated.5 In the text of the Bible they can be found on hills (2 Kings 16:4; 17:9-10; 1 Kings 11:7), towns (1 Kings 13:32; 2 Kings 17:29; 23:5) and at the gate of Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:8). Ezra 6:3 says they were in the ravines and valleys. The position of a bamah in the valley can also be seen in Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35.