This rendering has etymological justification, as appears from the poetical use of the plural in such expressions as to ride, or stalk, or stand on the "high places" of the earth, the sea, the clouds, and from the corresponding usage in Assyrian; but in prose bamah always means "place of worship". It has been surmised[by whom?] that a semantic shift occurred because the places of worship were originally upon hilltops, or because the bamah was an artificial platform or mound, perhaps imitating the natural eminence which was the oldest holy place, but neither view is historically demonstrable. The development of the religious significance of the word took place probably not in Israel but among the Canaanites, from whom the Israelites, in taking possession of the holy places of the land, adopted the name also. In old Israel many towns and villages had their own places of sacrifice, commonly called bamot. It has been suggested[by whom?] that the plural of the word referred to places of sacred prostitution and of pagan worship.
From the Old Testament and from existing remains a good idea may be formed of the appearance of such a place of worship. It was often on the hill above the town, as at Ramah (I Samuel); there was a stele (matzevah), the seat of the deity, and a wooden post or pole (asherah, named after the goddess Asherah), which marked the place as sacred and was itself an object of worship; there was a stone altar, often of considerable size and hewn out of the solid rock' or built of unhewn stones (Exodus 20:25; see altar), on which offerings were burnt (mizbeh, lit. "slaughter place"); a cistern for water, and perhaps low stone tables for dressing the victims; sometimes also a hall (lishkah) for the sacrificial feasts.
Around these places the religion of the ancient Israelite centred; at festival seasons, or to make or fulfil a vow, he might journey to more famous sanctuaries at a distance from his home, but ordinarily offerings were made at the bamah of his own town. The building of YHWH's singular Temple at Jerusalem, which (under the Law of Moses) had a patent on sacrifices (Deuteronomy 12), did not stop the bamot sacrifices until Kings Hezekiah and Josiah proscribed them.
The prophets of the 8th century BC assail the popular religion as corrupt and licentious, and as fostering the monstrous delusion that immoral men can buy the favour of God by worship; but they make no difference in this respect between the high places of Israel and the temple in Jerusalem (cf. Amos 5:21 sqq.; Hosea 4:1-19; Isaiah to sqq.). Hosea stigmatizes the whole cultus as pure heathenism—Canaanite baal-worship adopted by apostate Israel. The fundamental law in Deuteronomy 12:1-32 prohibits sacrifice at every place except the temple in Jerusalem; in accordance with this law Josiah, in 621 BC, destroyed and desecrated the altars (bmoth) throughout his kingdom (where Yahweh had been worshipped since times before a permanent singular Temple at Jerusalem was erected) and forcibly removed their priests to Jerusalem, where they occupied an inferior rank in the temple ministry.
In the prophets of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the word bamot connotes "seat of heathenish or idolatrous worship"; and the historians of the period apply the term in this opprobrious sense not only to places sacred to other gods but to the old holy places of Yahweh in the cities and villages of Judah, which, in their view, had been illegitimate since the building of Solomon's temple, and therefore not really seats of the worship of Yahweh; even the most pious kings of Judah are censured for tolerating their existence. The reaction which followed the death of Josiah (608 BC) restored the old altars of Yahweh; they survived the destruction of the temple in 586 BC, and it is probable that after its restoration (520-516 BC) they only slowly disappeared, in consequence partly of the natural predominance of Jerusalem in the little territory of Judaea, partly of the gradual establishment of the supremacy of the written law over custom and tradition in the Persian period.
The rule of the Law of Moses that sacrifice can be offered to Yahweh only at the Temple in Jerusalem was never fully established in fact (just as the entire Law of Moses was never established in real life). The Jewish military colonists in Elephantine in the 5th century BC had their altar of Yahweh beside the highway; the Jews in Egypt in the Ptolemaic period had, besides many local sanctuaries, one greater temple at Leontopolis, with a priesthood whose claim to "valid orders" was much better than that of the High Priests in Jerusalem, and the legitimacy of whose worship is admitted even by the Palestinian rabbis.
In Jewish synagogues, the "High Place" (bemah) is the elevated platform from which the Torah is read. It traditionally had its origin from the platform erected in the Temple in Jerusalem at which the king would read the Torah during the Hakhel ceremony every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 31:10-13). The bemah is located in the center of Orthodox synagogues, and in the front of Reform synagogues.
Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches the High Place is the name used for the location of the cathedra (episcopal throne), set in the center of the apse of a temple's sanctuary, behind the Holy Table (altar). In larger temples there may be a literal elevation, but there is often not room for this in smaller temples. The cathedral is surrounded on both sides by the synthronos, a set of other seats or benches for the use of the priests. Every Orthodox temple and Eastern Catholic church has such a High Place even if it is not a cathedral.
The term High Place also refers to the central portion of the Holy Table, where the antimension and Gospel Book are normally kept. The only other objects that are permitted to occupy this place on the altar are the chalice and discos (paten) for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. On the various Feasts of the Cross, a tray covered by an aër (liturgical veil) holding a Cross and branches of basil is placed on the High Place of the Holy Table until it is taken in procession to the center of the nave. On Good Friday, the Epitaphion is set on the Holy Table until it is taken to the "tomb" in the center of the nave for veneration by the faithful. During the Paschal Vigil, this Epitaphion is taken through the Holy Doors and placed again on the High Place of the Holy Table, where it will remain until the Ascension.
- Baudissin, "Hohendienst," Protestantische Realencyklopadie (viii. 177-195)
- A. van Hoonacker, Le Lieu du culte dans la legislation rituelle des Hebreux (1894)
- V Gall, Altisraelitische Kultstadle (1898).
- Philip W. Comfort; Eugene E. Carpenter (1 October 2000). Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Explained and Defined. B&H Publishing Group. pp. 86–. ISBN 978-0-8054-9352-8. Retrieved 18 September 2012.