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Bamah at Tel Dan, 10th century BCE

tel danExcavations at the site of Tel Dan, near modern-day Israel’s northern border, uncovered a cultic precinct consisting of a massive stone platform with an associated area for sacrifices and nearby activity and storage rooms. The dates of construction and destruction derive from biblical and Assyrian texts; King Jeroboam likely built the precinct in the 10th c. (I Kgs 12- 29) and it functioned until destroyed by the Assyrian army under Tiglath-pileser III in 734 BC. The platform built of ashlars (worked stones) was enlarged over time, measuring 60 x 62 feet at its greatest extent with a 27 foot long monumental staircase against one side. Sacrifices were likely offered at the paved area beside the podium where two stone altars were found, a small incense altar and the “horn” of a large “horned altar” for animal sacrifice (Exod 21- 14; I Kgs 2- 28-34). Bronze incense shovels were found where they were stored in the associated cult room or storeroom. The entire precinct was identified as a biblical bamah (‘high place’), a designated place to offer and consume animal sacrifice and burn incense, on the basis of the associated sacrificial altars, the podium or platform for a structure not preserved, and the cultic implements found in adjoining rooms.

Bamah (singular)/Bamot (pl.) and the Bible

Early in Israel’s history, families could offer animal sacrifices and burn incense to God at various places- at regional shrines such as Shiloh, at clan altars (eg. Manoah and Samuel), and at bamot – communal shrines built at high elevations in towns (eg. I Kgs 12- 32; 13- 32; 2 Kgs 17- 9; 23- 8; 1 Chr 16- 39) and on hilltops outside of town (I Kgs 11-7-8). Bamot ranged from an isolated stone altar to a precinct with a structure able to accommodate 30 seated guests (I Sam 9- 22). Cultic personnel officiated at the bamot. The itinerant Samuel blessed the sacrifice at a regional bamah (I Sam 9- 13) and, later, priests officiated at bamot in Bethel and in cities throughout Judah (I Kgs 12-32; 2 Kgs 23- 8-9).

Biblical testimony supports the cultic interpretation of the precinct with the podium as a bamah. Following the reign of King Solomon, the kingdom split into two nations, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom, fearing that the population would continue to worship and offer sacrifices at the Judahite temple in Jerusalem, constructed new shrines at Dan and Bethel (on his northern and southern borders respectively) (I Kgs 12- 26-31). The golden calves erected in Jeroboam’s border temples perished but the temple precinct survived (I Kgs 12- 28-29). The function of the podium is inferred from a story about the priest Samuel situated at a bamah. That bamah consisted of an altar for sacrificing animals and an associated dining hall; after the sacrifice, a chef prepared the meat and served it to 30 seated guests (1 Sam 9-1-25). While nothing remained on top of the Tel Dan podium testifying to its function, given the cultic nature of the precinct and the bamah described in the Samuel story, the podium likely served as an elevated base for a dining hall where sacrifices were consumed. The sacrificial area with altars for animal sacrifice and burning incense, the podium for a chamber/dining hall, and associated rooms with bronze incense shovels and an installation for water or oil remain from the Israelite temple at the northern border city of Dan.

For a general discussion of bamah/bamot see The Anchor Bible Dictionary entry “High Place.” The excavator of Tel Dan, A. Biran, wrote a popular presentation of the excavations at Tel Dan including the sacred precinct in his book Biblical Dan. For a synopsis read his “Tel Dan- Biblical Texts and Archaeological Data” in Scripture and Other Artifacts (M. Coogan, J. Exum, L. Stager eds. Westminster John Knox, 1994); B. Alpert Nakhai, “What’s a Bamah? How Sacred Space Functioned in Ancient Israel” BAR 20.3 (1994).

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith

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