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Similarities in Hebrew and Hindu 'high places'

One of the biggest difficulties facing scholars of ancient Near Eastern religions is that they are no longer “living religions” — that is, religions with living believers and practitioners.

Even Judaism and Zoroastrianism, the oldest surviving Near Eastern religions, have been substantially transformed since antiquity; for example, Jews no longer offer blood sacrifices at a temple and have superimposed sixth-century A.D. Talmudic legal interpretations on Israelite biblical commandments. We therefore don’t have living people to ask for clarification about ancient beliefs and practices.

Scholars could probably learn more from discussing Egyptian temple theology with a single living Egyptian priest, if such a person existed, than we have learned from all the inscriptions and archaeology that survive from ancient Egypt.

However, that is exactly what we can do with Hinduism, where living Hindu priests still practice the ancient temple rites and sacrifices of Hinduism. Of course, there have been many changes in Hinduism since antiquity. Furthermore, there are as many significant differences between Hinduism and ancient Near Eastern religions as there are among Near Eastern religions.

But some of the practices of contemporary Hinduism show remarkable, broad parallels with the descriptions and archaeology of Near Eastern religions. Using the important though limited methodology of “anthropological analogy,” we can sometimes gain insights into the practices of dead religions known only from texts and archaeology.

With these caveats in mind, we can look at the phenomena of the “high place” (Hebrew “bamah”) as described in the Hebrew Bible. High places, or “elevated shrines,” were found in Canaanite and Israelite religions, in towns (1 Kings 13:32; 2 Kings 17:29; 23:5), by city gates (2 Kings 23:8), and in hills (2 Kings 16:4; 17:9-10; 1 Kings 11:7). These were generally open-air shrines where worship was performed, and they were generally focused on an image of a god or goddess (1 Kings 12:31; 2 Kings 17:29, 32; 23:19).

Worship at the “high place of Gibeon,” where the Tabernacle was kept, was considered legitimate. Solomon sacrificed to the Lord there, and the Lord appeared to him (1 Kings 3:2-5; see also 1 Chronicles 16:39, 21:29; 2 Chronicles 1:3-4, 13). Rituals performed at high places included burning incense (Leviticus 26:30 (Hebrew version), 1 Kings 3:3, 1 Kings 22:43, Kings 12:3, 2 Kings 16:42), sacrifice, music (1 Samuel 10:5), prophecy (1 Kings 3:3-15), offering cakes and liquids (Jeremiah 7:18), the erection of standing stone pillars (“massebah”) (see 1 Kings 14:23 and 2 Kings 18:4, where “images” in the KJV translates Hebrew “massebah,” which is a “raised stone” or “pillar”), and even human sacrifice (Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5).

High places were frequently condemned by the prophets for the illicit worship of “other gods,” idols and the King James Version’s “groves,” which are now understood as Asherah, a Canaanite goddess worshipped either at a “green tree” (Deuteronomy 12:2; 1 Kings 14:23) or a wooden pole. The high places were systematically destroyed by the reforming kings Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4) and Josiah (2 Kings 23:5-15). There has been a great deal of archaeological evidence confirming the basic nature of high places as described in the Bible, such as the high place by the eighth city gate of Dan, in northern Israel. The lower white stones form the elevated platform, creating an “elevated shrine,” with large vertical stones as the raised “pillar.”

We can see living examples of the types of practices that occurred at Israelite high places in broadly similar sites and practices of Hindu polytheism. Hindu shrines are often near “green trees,” where carved images (KJV “idols”) are venerated with offerings of incense, drinks, fruit, garlands and flowers.

Small forest shines are built near a sacred “green tree” near which a small raised platform holds two uncarved standing stones (KJV “pillars”) wrapped in expensive cloth.

A Hindu temple can contain such a “green tree” transformed into a wooden “pole” (“Asherah”), which could be “cut down,” as described at Canaanite high places.

At a stepped altar, a Hindu priest burns offering of fruits, which in Israelite (and archaic Hindu) times would have been sacrificial meat. Hindu shrines often have veils behind which priests can officiate. The haze in this photo is from burning incense and sacrifices.

While there are certainly significant differences, many of the characteristics and practices of high places as described in the Hebrew Bible can still be found among modern Hindus.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.