Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Minor, Trivial Biblical Stuff, Part 5: The High Places and the Standing-Stones

10 monumental megaliths possibly comprising a Canaanite
"high place" found in Gezer
In the Bible, we often encounter Canaanite sanctuaries (and Israelite establishments which were imitations of these) known under the name "high places", the normal translation of the Hebrew word bamot (sing. bamah). We do not know the verbal root from which the word is derived, and the noun itself may be pre-Semitic. The cognates of bamah in both Akkadian and Ugaritic mean the 'back' or 'trunk' of an animal, though it can also denote any elevated ground, such as a crest of a hill or height. In the Bible too, apart from the cultic references and some obscure texts, bamah can mean the 'back' of one's enemies (Deuteronomy 33:29), 'heights' (Deuteronomy 32:13; Psalm 18:34; Isaiah 58:14; Micah 1:3; Amos 4:13; Habbakkuk 3:19), the 'back' of clouds (Isaiah 14:14), or the 'waves' of the sea (Job 9:8). The idea which the word expresses therefore is something which stands out in relief from its background, but the idea of a mountain or hill is not contained in the word itself (note how in 2 Kings 16:4; 2 Chronicles 28:4 the "high places" are distinguished from the "hills").

It is quite true however that some, perhaps many, of these "high place" stood in the elevated areas: men "went up" to the neighboring bamah from Samuel's home-town and "came down" from it (1 Samuel 9:13, 14, 19, 25). In Ezekiel 20:28-29, the word is interpreted, by a play on words, as the name of the lofty hill where men went to offer sacrifice. Solomon built a bamah for Chemosh and Molech (received text) or Milcom (reconstruction based on verses 5 and 33) "on the mountain east of Jerusalem" according to 1 Kings 11:7. The fact that high hills seemed to be places destined for worship is a sufficient explanation of these texts, but not all bamoth were on the hills. There were some in the towns (1 Kings 13:32; 2 Kings 17:29; 23:5) and even at the gate of Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:8). The bamah of Tophet stood in the valley of Ben-Hinnom (Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35). In Ezekiel 6:1-3, we read that:

And there was a word of YHWH toward me, saying:
"Son of man, set your face toward mountains of Israel and prophesy toward them, and say: 'Mountains of Israel, hear a word of the Lord YHWH!
Thus says the Lord YHWH to the mountains and to the hills,
to the ravines and to the valleys:
Behold I, I am bringing upon you a sword,
And I will destroy your high-places.'"
An oval platform found at Megiddo (Stratum XII) made of
 unhewn stone, probably dating from 2500 BC,
approximately 8-10 meters wide and 1.25 meters high. The
platform apparently remained in use for several centuries after
its construction for sacrificial purposes - with temples later
being built beside it, as testified by the presence of
animal bones and remains of jars.
One meaning which may suit all of these references is a 'mound' or 'knoll' for cultic purposes. They may have used, sometimes, a prominent rock, but it would seem that this mound was usually artificial: this would make sense of bamoth being "built" (1 Kings 11:7; 14:23; 2 Kings 7:9; 21:3; Jeremiah 19:5), "torn down" and "destroyed" (2 Kings 23:8; Ezekiel 6:3).

Since a 'high place' was a place of worship, each one had to have its altar. The knoll itself could serve as an altar, but an altar could also be built on it, and some biblical texts do mention one as part of the high place (2 Kings 21:3; 2 Chronicles 14:2, 4 [3, 5]; Ezekiel 6:6). The altar was either built of stones separate from the bamah (2 Kings 23:15 LXX; 2 Chronicles 34:3f.) or was made as a portion of the bamah itself. This may explain the Greek word bōmos 'platform' or 'altar', which seems to be cognate with bamah.

Aside from the altar, the most important furnishings for a bamah were the 'asherah and the matztzevah (1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 18:4; 23:13f.; 2 Chronicles 14:2 [3]). To these must be added texts which, though not expressing any connection with a bamah, certainly have the same type of worship in mind (Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3; 16:21-22; Micah 5:12-13). On the other hand, such furnishings were not unique to bamoth: Ahab installed an 'asherah (1 Kings 16:33) and a matztzevah (2 Kings 3:2) in the temple of Baal in Samaria.

Matztzevah, also rendered as maṣṣebah or matstsebah (plural: matztzevot, from the Hebrew word natzab meaning 'to stand', 'to erect' or 'to set up') is the usual term for an erect standing stone. It was a sort of commemorative stele usually erected as a sign of an alliance or undertaking. These stones functioned as a sort of testimony or witness, a symbol of divine presence and a memento of divine revelation. But not only this, matztzevah can also be erected in honor of a deceased person's memory (headstones are actually also called matztzevah in Hebrew today).

In the Bible, we often hear of matztzevot being set up in commemoration of some event or in memory of someone. On at least four occasions, Jacob sets up a matztzevah in connection with certain events of his life: the most well-known is, of course, after he receives the vision of the stairway reaching to heaven in Luz/Bethel (Genesis 28:18). In Genesis 31 (v. 45-54), Jacob erects another stone, as well as a mound, as a witness of his decision to leave Laban. After his return to Bethel, God appears again to Jacob, and once more, Jacob erects yet another matztzevah in memory of this (Genesis 35:14-15). Not too long after this event, Rachel dies and Jacob sets up one last stone in his wife's grave (35:20). Also, God's covenant with Israel through Moses was represented by twelve matztzevot erected at the foot of Mount Sinai, one stone for each tribe (Exodus 24:4). Finally, the book of Joshua also records a number of times that such monuments were erected pointing to the power of God: in Joshua 4:20-24 for example, Joshua sets up twelve stones taken from the Jordan in memory of Israel's miraculous crossing of the river. Near the end of his life, after Joshua challenged the Israelites to serve God, he takes a large stone and sets it "under the oak that was in the sanctuary of YHWH" as a witness against them should they deny the Lord (24:25-27).

It was not a huge step from the idea of the standing-stone as a sign of the presence of the divine or the manifestation of a god to accepting the stone itself as a representation of the deity, and there was not need for it to be hewn in the shape of a statue: even in its crude, natural shape, the matztzevah is a symbol of the god.

We might note that the matztzevah is not, by itself, evil: as shown above, a few of the 'good' characters of the Bible in olden days erected one or more of these at some point in their lives. What was condemned in the Bible were the altars and standing-stones of Canaanite gods, which were abominations to the Lord. His covenant with Moses demanded that the Israelites tear these monuments to other deities down (Exodus 23:24; Deuteronomy 7:5). Still, in latter days, the connection between matztzevot and worship of false gods seems to have strengthened to the point that making one was eventually frowned upon altogether.

A matztzevah was the symbol of a male deity (cf. 2 Kings 3:2 and 10:26-27). Female deities, meanwhile, were represented with the 'asherah, a name applied to both the goddess bearing this name and the cultic symbol. The Ras Shamra texts mention Asherah (as Athirat) as a consort of the god El, and the Old Testament links her with Baal (Judges 3:7; 2 Kings 23:4). Interestingly, inscriptions linking YHWH and 'asherah have also been discovered, although whether the goddess or a cultic object is meant here is admittedly unclear: an 8th century BC ostracon inscribed with the phrase Berakhti etkhem l’YHWH Shomron (or shomrenu) ul'asherato ('I have blessed you by YHWH of Samaria (or 'our guardian') and His 'asherah'). Another inscription, from Khirbet el-Qom near Hebron, reads in part: 'Blessed be Uriyahu by YHWH; for from his enemies by His 'asherah He has saved him.'

All we know about these 'asherah (the cultic objects) is that these were usually carved out of wood (Exodus 34:13; Judges 6:25-26, and thus could be burned (Deuteronomy 12:3; 2 Kings 23:6, 15); alternatively, they could be live trees (Deuteronomy 16:21; 2 Kings 23:14; Micah 5:13). It is more commonly thought however that these were man-made wooden objects (1 Kings 14:15; 16:33; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3; Isaiah 17:8) that could be erected like the matztzevot (2 Kings 17:10) and standing upright (2 Kings 13:6; Isaiah 27:9), which may imply that it was a kind of post or stake. There are some who have suggested something midway between these two possibilities, saying that it could be a pruned living tree. It is impossible to be more precise about it however, and there is some doubt whether this object was actually carved with a likeness of the goddess.

Along with smaller cultic vessels like basins and lavers for ablution, ephod and teraphim, another furnishing of bamot was the ḥammanim (Leviticus 26:30; 2 Chronicles 14:4 [5]; 34:4, 7; Ezekiel 6:4-6; cf. also Hosea 4:13). The word, usually thought to derive from ḥamam 'to be hot', is never found outside bamot expect when it is with an 'asherah (Isaiah 17:8), or with an altar and an 'asherah (Isaiah 27:9).

We do not know the exact form that these items took. For a long time, ḥammanim were thought to be 'pillars of the sun', following Rashi. Ancient translations (for example, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the Aramaic Targums and the Syriac P'shitta) rendered ḥamman differently from each other - sometimes they even translate the same word differently in different contexts. This shows that the meaning of the word has already become obscure at such an age.

Unfortunately, neither archeology nor epigraphy provide a final answer to this mystery: the word appears in Nabatean and Palmyran inscriptions but they do not provide a clear indication of what it refers to. There is one theory which states that it might be incense utensils of some kind (which is thought by some to have a stela-like form), which rested on the ground or even upon an altar; cf. 2 Chronicles 34:4, which speaks of ḥammanim "that were high above" the altars of Baal. Opinions differ as to the precise identification of the utensil: they are variously thought to be similar to either the incense stands or mini-altars themselves, or the vessels which were placed over these altars or stands. Another idea suggests that a ḥamman, instead of being a sort of utensil or altar, may actually be some sort of edifice, say a canopy which was built over the main altar; the term would then refer to a sort of outdoor chapel or model shrine which probably housed the matztzevot and the 'asherim.

No comments: