Cult Places, Israelite

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CULT PLACES, ISRAELITE , places at which sacrifices were offered to the God of Israel. Many such places are mentioned in the Bible, and modern archaeological excavations have added to the list. The definition of sacred space in the ancient Near East has seen much debate. The traditional view is that cult was characterized by permanence of location: sites noted for their sacredness, principally towns and their environs, continued to retain this attribute despite shifts in population and consequent changes in the dominant religion of the area. The Bible employs specific terms to refer to different types of cult places, although usage is not always consistent. Four general types can be identified by the terminology: Bet yhwh ("the house [*Temple] of yhwh"); Mikdash ("*sanctuary"); *Bamah ("high place," raised cultic installation); and Mizbe'aḥ ("*altar"). In archaeological contexts structures defined as temples or shrines are more easily identifiable, with the addition of objects considered "cultic," such as figurines, statuary, standing stones (maẓẓebot), and altars.

Bet yhwh

Synonyms are heikhal yhwh (e.g., i Sam. 1:9; 3:3; ii Kings 18:16; Jer. 7:4) and bet ha-Elohim (e.g., Judg. 18:31). Apart from several unspecified references, this term is applied exclusively to two places, *Shiloh and *Jerusalem (e.g., i Sam, 1:7; i Kings 3:1). The cult place established by David to house the *Ark after it was brought to Jerusalem was also designated as a bet yhwh (ii Sam. 12:20). Since Shiloh and Jerusalem represent two successive stages in Israelite religion, it seems that use of this term and its synonyms implied the belief that the God of Israel had only one "residence" at any given time. This notion is expressed in Psalms 78:60ff.: "He [God] abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh … He elected … Mount Zion which he prefers … and He made His sanctuary [mikdash] enduring as heaven, as the earth which He established forever."

Like the terms containing the element "house," the designation mikdash was also conceived of as designating a divine residence; and as in the passage first quoted, the Jerusalem Temple (and perhaps, on occasion, even Shiloh; see below) was also termed "sanctuary." All the Israelite sanctuaries so designated were founded long before the belief in a single divine residence became official doctrine in the late monarchy. Several of these sanctuaries coexisted with the Jerusalem Temple, serving specialized functions that were not in direct competition with the Temple's unique status. Scholars believe that Shiloh was either the principal sacred center in the period of the Judges, or, alternatively, following Noth, that it was one of a series of central shrines in pre-monarchic Israel, e.g., Shechem, Bethel, Gilgal, and Shiloh. The recent excavations at the site by Finkelstein suggest that Iron Age i Shiloh was not an ordinary village with a cult place but served as a religious temenos. The peak of Shiloh's prosperity was in the first half of the 11th century b.c.e. After Shiloh had been destroyed in the Iron Age i there is no evidence that it was subsequently used by Israelites for cultic purposes. Thus the belief in a single chosen residence for the God of Israel gained momentum in ancient Israel, ultimately producing a movement toward the elimination of all cult places other than the Jerusalem Temple. This could only take place after the fall of the Northern Kingdom where Beth-El, and perhaps other sites, enjoyed a particular status not accorded to any of the provincial sanctuaries in Judah. Beth-El was established as an avowed rival of Jerusalem after the death of Solomon, and, in general, political considerations produced a different cultic atmosphere in the Northern Kingdom.

While information on the Jerusalem Temple is available from biblical descriptions, little is known about the temple at Shiloh. Why Shiloh was chosen as an early Israelite cultic center is not clear. The selection of Jerusalem and most other important sites follows known patterns, but there is no evidence that the early Israelites were attracted to Shiloh by virtue of its prior religious, demographic, administrative, or strategic significance. Recent excavations, however, do indicate there were earlier cultic practices at the site during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. Shiloh is located in the Ephraimite territory, several kilometers east of the ancient main road to Shechem (Judg. 21:19). It is reasonable to assume that it was selected as a cultic center for the Israelite tribes primarily because of its imposing position, and because it was fairly central in the early area of habitation. The ancient site is surrounded by lofty hills, and encircled on three sides by verdant valleys. The top of the site gives the impression of great height, but at the same time draws the eye to the hills rising above the cult place. Some have even compared the topography of Shiloh to that of Jerusalem.


The Jerusalem Temple was frequently termed mikdash and also bet ha-mikdash. The cultic installation at Beth-El was termed mikdash melekh ("a royal sanctuary") by *Amaziah, one of its chief priests during the reign of Jeroboam ii in the eighth century b.c.e. (Amos 7:13). According to Joshua 24:26 a stele was erected "under the terebinth at the sanctuary [mikdash] of yhwh" after a convocation of the tribes at Shechem (24:1). If this is accurate, then there was a sanctuary in Shechem during the early Israelite period. However, the passage is problematic, and the Septuagint of Joshua 24:1 has Shiloh instead of Shechem. There is, consequently, no conclusive evidence for the existence of an Israelite sanctuary in Shechem at that time.

The site of Beth-El was partially excavated by W.F. Albright and further by J.L. Kelso. Massive remains were uncovered. Ancient Beth-El (now Beitin) is situated 3,965 ft. (880 meters) above sea level, about 10½ mi. (17 km.) north of Jerusalem on a site commanding major crossroads. The archaeological remains indicate the preeminence of Beth-El in pre-Israelite times and throughout almost the whole Israelite period. Among the finds was a cylinder seal with the images of a god and goddess and the name of the goddess Ashtoreth written in hieroglyphics showing that Beth-El was undoubtedly an important Canaanite cultic site later appropriated by the Israelites for their own use. Biblical sources contain ample evidence of the importance of Beth-El as a cult place in Israelite times. The tribes convened there during the period of the Judges (Judg. 20:18, 26; 21:2), and it was one of the principal cult places at which the prophet Samuel officiated (i Sam. 7:16). After the death of Solomon and the division of the kingdom, the heterodox Jeroboam established Beth-El, along with Dan, as a cultic center of the Northern Kingdom. His reasons for doing so related not only to its age-old importance as a cult place but to its location near the southern border of his kingdom, close to Jerusalem. Genesis 28 gives the origin of the sacred nature of Beth-El by associating it with the site of Jacob's dream (Gen. 35:13). Abraham also erected an altar near Beth-El (Gen. 12:18; 13:3–4). Perhaps no other cult place, with the exception of Jerusalem, achieved a comparable place in biblical tradition. The biblical account actually describes the sanctuary erected at Beth-El by Jeroboam as a bet bamot ("a temple of outdoor shrines"; i Kings 12:31–32), which suggests that Jeroboam enclosed a previously constructed bamah which had served as an open-air cult place. Perhaps the sanctuary of Beth-El mentioned in Amos 7:13 dates from this period.

In ii Kings 23:15–16 it is recorded that Josiah destroyed the "altar" and the bamah at Beth-El. The passage speaks of the bet bamot as a frequent phenomenon in cities of the Northern Kingdom, but does not specify which ones. The bamah was the prime target of Josiah's reformist movement, and it is likely that the terminology of this passage is imprecise. There can be little doubt that a mikdash, and not just a bamah, stood at Beth-El at this period, and that it was destroyed by Josiah soon after 622 b.c.e. (The implications of Josiah's activities will be discussed below under the heading of bamah.)

No other specific cult place is designated mikdash in the Bible, except the desert *tabernacle, which represents a different sort of cultic phenomenon. Assuming that there must have been many sanctuaries in ancient Israel, scholars have employed various criteria in assigning the status of mikdash to other well-known cult places. Such criteria include the elaborate nature of the cultic ceremonies performed there and the undertaking of pilgrimages to the site. It is possible, of course, but far from certain, that at one time or another a mikdash used by Israelites stood at such places as Gilgal (exact location uncertain) and Mizpah, where the tribes convened in the early Israelite period, and at other places as well. It would appear that there was a sanctuary at *Nob, the city of priests, in the days of Saul (i Sam. 21:1–10).

Excavations undertaken by Y. Aharoni from 1962 to 1967 at *Arad, a Negev town in the vicinity of Beersheba, have uncovered the remains of a building that would qualify as a mikdash by virtue of its structure and contents, and in the light of what is known about the role of Arad during the period of the First Temple. The sanctuary building measured approximately 50 × 40 ft. (15 × 12 meters), and contained a niche with at least one maẓẓevah or cultic stele, a sacrificial altar, and other cultic appurtenances. It is likely that this building was in cultic use from the tenth to the late seventh or early sixth century b.c.e. The presence of levitical personnel at Arad is attested in the personal names which occur on the large numbers of ostraca found on the site. These brief communications and archival records reveal that Arad was in close communication with Jerusalem and leave no doubt that it was a legitimate cult place. Its location indicates that it was a border installation with combined cultic and administrative functions, two institutions which often go together.

The Arad excavations are of primary importance for an understanding of the ancient Israelite cult. The existence of a sanctuary near the southern border of Judah suggests that certain religious duties had to be fulfilled on departure from the land of the God of Israel. Perhaps the accounts of votive activity by the patriarch Jacob while on his flight to Syria (Gen. 28) and on his trek to Egypt (Gen. 46:1) reflect an early feature of Israelite religion, which rendered border sanctuaries necessary.

Since 1966 excavations have been conducted by A. Biran at *Dan, the site of Jeroboam's second cultic center, situated in upper Galilee. Although conclusive evidence of a sanctuary at Dan is still unavailable, there can be little doubt of its existence in ancient times. Judges 17–18 preserves a tradition about the establishment of the Israelite cult there. Indeed, a cultic temenos was unearthed by the spring at the northern flank of the site, and maẓẓebot were uncovered in a stone-paved piazza within the Iron Age gate.


The term bamah is ambiguous. The Hebrew word (like Ugaritic bmt) means "back" or "shoulder." In many languages anatomical terms were transferred to architectural and topographic contexts, and in that process bamah ("back") acquired two related cultic connotations: (1) topographically – a high place, a cultic installation situated on a high elevation, such as a mountain top; and (2) architecturally – a raised platform, or the like.

The proverbial characterization of improper worship reflects these two aspects of the bamah: "Atop every high mountain [lofty hill] and under every verdant tree" (e.g., Deut. 12:2; i Kings 14:23; Jer. 3:6). The reference is undoubtedly to the *asherah or cult pole, which was normally part of the bamah complex.

A well preserved pre-Israelite bamah dating from the early Bronze Age stands in the temple precincts at *Megiddo. It is a large circular platform of stones, with stairs leading up to it. It is likely that the altar stood on top of the bamah at Megiddo, since large quantities of bones and potsherds were found in the earth deposits immediately above. Elsewhere the altar may have stood in front of the bamah, which was kept for cultic stelae, statuaries, etc. There are biblical descriptions of cultic activity at the bamah that provide some details of its structure. Thus, Samuel ascended the bamah at *Ramah to bless the slain offering and subsequently to partake of it (I Sam. 9:13–14, 19). When the sacred meal was over, he and those "called" to the celebration descended from the bamah and reentered the city (9:25). The descent from the bamah is also recorded at Gibeah (I Sam. 10:5, 10, 13). The text even mentions a lishkah ("chamber") where the assembled company sat down to the meal. If all of this activity actually occurred at the bamah, then it was a very large and complex installation. In any event, the place of the sacrifice itself was probably an open-air installation not intended to serve as a residence for the deity, as in the case of the mikdash, but rather as a site that the deity would visit when invoked. The same was true of the altar. The bamah could, of course, be raised to the status of a residence for the deity, which is what the term bet bamot connotes. The Moabite *Mesha stele, in speaking of that king's cultic enterprises, uses both terms, bamah and bet bamot (Moabite bmt and bt bmt), perhaps interchangeably.

The account of Samuel at Ramah also states that the bamah was located outside the city. During the 1969 excavations at *Ashdod under M. Dothan a Middle Bronze installation of probable cultic function was unearthed outside the city wall, but it has not yet been fully interpreted. In 1966 the expedition under Kathleen Kenyon in the Ophel area of ancient Jerusalem discovered a cult installation with two stelae (stone monoliths) above which stood an altar. The installation was almost immediately outside the contemporary city wall. This site dates from the seventh century b.c.e., and was apparently a pagan site, one of those condemned by the writer of the Books of Kings (ii Kings 23:4; cf. Jer. 31:39). The Bible also speaks of bamotha-sheʿarim ("the high places of the gates"; ii Kings 23:8; cf. Ezek. 8:3).

Primarily on the basis of the bamot outside the city walls, Y. Kaufmann concluded that the Israelites did not convert preexisting idolatrous cult places for their monotheistic needs, but withdrew to outside the city, or to other nearby sites, and there constructed new installations. Also citing the evidence pertaining to altars located outside the towns and in the open country, he thus minimized the extent of continuity between pre-Israelite and Israelite cultic activity. A verification of such a reconstruction of early Israelite religious practice would require greater knowledge of the history of particular sites.

Historically, the main problem with respect to the Israelite bamah is to determine when and to what extent it was considered a legitimate cult place by strict monotheistic standards. The "great bamah" at Gibeon (i Kings 3:4; cf. 9:2) was certainly legitimate when Solomon offered sacrifices and experienced a theophany there soon before construction of the Jerusalem Temple, notwithstanding the fact that the Ark had long before been brought to Jerusalem and was housed there (ibid., 3:15). The redaction of the Books of Kings regards the bamot as illegitimate from the time of Solomon onward (i Kings 3:3; 15:14; 22:43–44; ii Kings 12:4; 14:4; 15:4, 35), but these references are couched in the language of a later ideology. It is reasonable to assume that the Israelite bamah (as differentiated from the avowedly idolatrous one) came into official disrepute late in the monarchic era, at about the time of the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom, roughly the last quarter of the eighth century b.c.e. Ahaz came under Assyrian influence in cultic matters (ii Kings 16–17), and his successor *Hezekiah actually took measures to eliminate the bamah as a legitimate Israelite cult place (ibid., 18–19). There can be little doubt that Hezekiah's measures were aimed at bringing northern Israelites to Jerusalem, and at ridding the Israelite cult of foreign influences. Any success he might have achieved was temporary, because of the long period of Assyrian influence under King Manasseh, and it was not until *Josiah ascended the throne of Judah and Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, died that the attempt to eliminate the bamah, which had become a focal point for cultic pollution, could be resumed in earnest. About the year 622 b.c.e. Josiah carried out a reformation which has correctly been considered a turning point in Israelite religion. He dismissed the priests who had officiated at the bamot, proceeded to destroy and render unfit for use the bamot in Jerusalem and its environs, and in the cities of Judah, and was especially concerned to destroy the cultic center at Beth-El, which had undoubtedly kept many worshipers from Jerusalem (ii Kings 22–23).

It is interesting that Deuteronomy, which gives doctrinal expression to the illegitimacy of worship at local cult places, never uses the term bamah but rather makom ("place"; e.g., Deut. 12:3), a generic term for a cultic installation (cf. Ex. 20:21), known outside the Bible primarily in Phoenician inscriptions. There has been considerable speculation about the origin of the bamah-type cult place. W.F. Albright considers it to be primarily a funeral installation (cf. Isa. 53:9, and Abraham ibn Ezra's commentary), which later took on other functions. Indeed, Josiah destroyed a cemetery near the cult place of Beth-El, "there in the mountain" (ii Kings 23:16–17). It is still impossible to be certain of this interpretation, however, and most of the evidence in support of it comes from Greek and other external contexts.


The term mizbe'aḥ may be discussed either as a cultic appurtenance, considering its design and uses, or as the identifying feature of a cult place. It is the latter sense that will be examined here. Every cult place obviously included an altar. The problem is to ascertain whether the cult place designated as mizbe'aḥ was of restricted proportions and did not include a more elaborate installation such as a bamah or mikdash, or whether it did, in which case the designation mizbe'aḥ was imprecise. In ancient Israel a man might construct an altar at a site where he had experienced a divine revelation. Thus, Abraham set up an altar near Shechem "to the Lord who had appeared to him" (Gen. 12:7). Isaac built an altar at Beersheba after a theophany (26:25), and Jacob is commanded to go to Beth-El and to construct an altar, "to the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau" (35:1). The dynamic relationship between theophany and altar-building underlies Jacob's earlier activities at Beth-El (Gen. 28), except that more was involved than simply an altar. The same dynamics applied to *Gideon at Ophrah (Judg. 6:12, 24) and to the parents of Samson at Zoreah (ibid., 13:3, 19–20). Probably the most understandable circumstances for altar-building were the individual needs of worshipers for a place to offer sacrifice in proximity to their homes. Thus, Samuel constructed an altar in Ramah, where he lived (i Sam. 7:17), as did Abraham when he lived between Beth-El and Ai (Gen. 13:4), and when he pitched his tents near Hebron (Gen. 13:18), and Jacob when he purchased a plot of land in the area of Shechem (33:19–20).

Collectively, the Israelites constructed an altar when they were required to offer sacrifices at Mount Sinai, where no cultic installation stood (Ex. 24:4). Altars might be built in celebration of victory (Ex. 17:15; i Sam. 14:35), and abandoned altars could be restored as by Elijah somewhere on the Carmel range (i Kings 18). Most of this evidence indicates that altars were often built for particular purposes at cult places already noted for their importance. Of course many altars could be constructed at any one town, not necessarily in the same area. Yet it is significant that Samuel built his altar at Ramah where there was a large bamah installation, and the Bible clearly tells of Jacob building an altar at Beth-El, the very site where he had previously contributed to the establishment of a temple. Similarly, Isaac's altar at Beersheba was not the first "Israelite" cultic installation at that site, for Abraham had invoked God there (Gen. 21:33), and such an invocation (Heb. kara be-shem YHWH) is often associated with altar-building and evidently involved the offering of sacrifices. In some instances it can be assumed that the previous altar on a particular site might have fallen into disuse or been destroyed, but this cannot be said of all cases on record.

Building an altar could constitute the first step in establishing a site as an Israelite cult place. Thus, Gideon is commanded to destroy the altar of Baal and erect an altar to yhwh on the same site (Judg. 6:25–26). It seems clear that the Israelites did not use pagan altars, but they did tend to gravitate to localities considered sacred by the idolatrous peoples of the area. Scholars have tended to confuse these two aspects of the early history of Israelite religion, the sacredness of places and the fitness of cultic installations and appurtenances. Normally a locality was believed to be sacred in perpetuity, but the cultic installations of non-monotheistic peoples constituted an abomination. Deuteronomy (12:12) lays down the harshest legislation concerning the destruction of all of the mekomot ("places") where idolatry was practiced. Most of the information from biblical sources on the subject of altar-building suggests that it was a feature of the earlier periods of Israelite settlement in Canaan. This is certainly the impression that Genesis aims at and it is also implicit in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.


H. Kjaer, in: jpos, 10 (1930), 87–174; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, passim; S. Zemirin, Yoshiyyahu u-Tekufato (1952), 33–65; J.L. Kelso, in: basor, 137 (1955), 5–10; 151 (1955), 3–8; M. Haran, in: em, 4 (1962), 763–79; 5 (1968), 322–8 (incl. extensive bibl.); K. Kenyon, in: peq, 95 (1963), 7–8; 96 (1964), 7–13; S. Yeivin, in: em, 2 (1965), 147–53; 5 (1968), 328–46 (incl. extensive bibl.); B.A. Levine, in: Religions in Antiquity, ed. by J. Neusner (1968), 78–79; W.F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968), 193–207; Albright, Arch, 104, 163–4; idem, in: basor, 57 (1935), 18–26; Y. Aharoni, in: ba, 31 (1968), 2–32; idem, in: Eretz Israel, 9 (1969), 10–21; idem in: iej, 17 (1967), 64–65; W.F. Albright and J.L. Kelso, Excavation of Bethel (1934–1960) (=aasor, 39, 1968); New Directions in Biblical Archeology, ed. by D.N. Freedman and J. Greenfield (1969), 25–39; M.-L. Buhl and S. Holm-Nielsen, Danish Excavations at Tell Sailun, Palestine… (1964). add. bibliography: W.G. Dever, "The Contribution of Archaeology to the Study of Canaanite and early Israel Religion," in: P.D. Miller, P.D. Hanson, and S.D. McBride (eds.), Ancient Israelite Religion. (1987), 209–47; J.S. Holladay, "Religion in Israel and Judah under the Monarchy: An Explicitly Archaeological Approach," in: P.D. Miller, P.D. Hanson, and S.D. McBride (eds.), Ancient Israelite Religion. (1987), 249–99; S.M. Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel (1988); S. Ackerman, "Under Every Green Tree": Popular Religion in Sixth-century Judah (1992); I. Finkelstein (ed.), Shiloh: The Archaeology of a Biblical Site (1993); R. Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period. vol. i: From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy (1994); A.G. Vaughn, Theology, History and Archaeology in the Chronicler's Account (1999); Z. Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallelactic Approaches (2001); S. Gitin, "The Four-Horned Altar and Sacred Space: An Archaeological Perspective," in: B. Gittlen (ed.), Sacred Time, Sacred Space: Archaeology and the Religion of Israel. (2002), 95–123.

[Baruch A. Levine /

Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]