Horned Altar

Replica of horned altar, Tel Beer Sheva. By gugganij – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2346793

How Sacred Space Functioned in Ancient Israel

Reviled by the Bible and targeted for destruction by King Hezekiah and King Josiah, the religious sanctuaries called bamot played an important role in Israelite religion

Well, one thing it’s not—or at least not only—is a high place. Jerome’s fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible (called the Vulgate) rendered bamah as excelsus, which led to the popular English translation “high place.” Unfortunately, this translation has for centuries colored our understanding of numerous Biblical passages. Bamah appears over 100 times in the Bible, primarily referring to a cultic site of some sort. Exegetes and scholars have defined it in various ways-

• A primitive open-air installation on a natural hilltop equipped with some combination of asheraha (sacred pole), mas\s\ebot (standing stones) and possibly altar(s).

• An artificially raised platform upon which religious rites take place.

• A sacrificial altar.

• A mortuary installation.

Bamot are often perceived as the site of rather bawdy Canaanite rituals. According to the Bible, the chronically backsliding Israelites revived these practices, rather than adhere to the Jerusalem-centered, “normative” Yahwism (the worship of the Israelite god Yahweh).

The Hebrew root BMH has cognates in several Semitic languages, but these cognates have no sacred associations. In Ugaritic, the cognate means the back of a body; in Akkadian the singular likewise means back, but the plural refers to terrain, possibly hilly.

Read the rest of What’s a Bamah? in the online Biblical Archaeology Society Library.