Biblical Archaeology Review 20:3, May/June 1994

What’s a Bamah? 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

By Beth Alpert Nakhai

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.1 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).2

• An artificially raised platform upon which religious rites take place.3

• A sacrificial altar.4

• A mortuary installation.5

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