A high place as a permissible place of worship

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Puritan Board Freshman
I was struck when reading this passage which I will quote at length:

1 Samuel 9

10 “Good,” Saul said to his servant. “Come, let’s go.” So they set out for the town where the man of God was.

11 As they were going up the hill to the town, they met some young women coming out to draw water, and they asked them, “Is the seer here?”

12 “He is,” they answered. “He’s ahead of you. Hurry now; he has just come to our town today, for the people have a sacrifice at the high place.

13 As soon as you enter the town, you will find him before he goes up to the high place to eat. The people will not begin eating until he comes, because he must bless the sacrifice; afterward, those who are invited will eat. Go up now; you should find him about this time.”

14 They went up to the town, and as they were entering it, there was Samuel, coming toward them on his way up to the high place.

15 Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed this to Samuel: 16 “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him ruler over my people Israel; he will deliver them from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked on my people, for their cry has reached me.”

17 When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the Lord said to him, “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.”

18 Saul approached Samuel in the gateway and asked, “Would you please tell me where the seer’s house is?”

19 “I am the seer,” Samuel replied. “Go up ahead of me to the high place, for today you are to eat with me, and in the morning I will send you on your way and will tell you all that is in your heart.

I have always associated high places with Israel's apostasy and disobedience. In fact they were specifically commanded to destroy the high places. Yet here we have Samuel eating and presumably worshipping at such a place. Or was there a pagan "high place" and a different "high place" that was an acceptable place of worship for Israel?

Matthew Henry’s commentary:

That there was a sacrifice that day in the high place, it being either an ordinary festival or an extraordinary day of prayer and thanksgiving, with which sacrifices were joined. The tabernacle being deprived of the ark, the altar there had not now the reputation it formerly had, nor were they confined to it, as they would be when God had again chosen a place to put his name in; and therefore now other places were allowed. Samuel had built an altar at Ramah (ch. vii. 17), and here we have him making use of that altar.

I am not sure how he concludes that worship at such a high place was now allowed due to the ark being absent from the tabernacle. I have not consulted other commentaries. Any thoughts?


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
When Shiloh (the location of the Tabernacle) was destroyed, most likely in conjunction with the loss of the ark (1Sam.4; cf. Ps.78:60, Jer.7:12ff, 26:6ff), this event significantly upended the regular worship of Israel. It seems that, for a time--possibly for Samuel's judgeship after Eli, and for Saul's reign--worship was irregular. We know for a fact that the ark was sheltered. The tabernacle itself isn't mentioned until 2Sam.6:17 (since 1Sam.3:3), the time when David brought the ark to Jerusalem.

The priests in Nob, 1Sam.21:6, put out the showbread before the Lord; but there isn't much else reported concerning the duties they performed; and it wasn't long before they were slaughtered almost to the man by the order of Saul. So, the priesthood itself was decrepit (following Eli) and falling into in a state of disaster. Which was part of the judgment of God.

The sanctuary was gone, its substance burned and its relics scattered. But that did not mean that the people should cease to worship Jehovah, nor that they should not make sacrifices with the help of those authorized to do so. Samuel was one obviously qualified and appointed to do so, and he did make a circuit of sorts both judging and sacrificing, building altars in different places for the purpose.

As late as 1Sam.20, a young David preparing to flee for good from Saul tenders the excuse for his absence: that he is obliged to be in Bethlehem for a "yearly sacrifice." Back in 1Sam.16, Samuel had gone there by the Lord's appointment, and a "sacrifice to the Lord" was the reason to be given Saul if he demanded to know what purpose Samuel had in going there. Clearly, the central, singular shrine in and for Israel as a whole was not functioning as it was originally established.

But also, from other examples such as Elijah later on, we recognize that in extraordinary times God's mediators would raise a true altar to combat the counterfeits, or where there was none at all. Where orderly worship is established, those things are not only unnecessary; they are not to be sought. (Are you paying attention, charismatics?)

"High places" is a description, and one which can in certain places take on the characteristic of a technical term, a specific designation. These were prominent places, noteworthy. They might be natural, or man-made, i.e. an elevated stage or platform raised so that a crowd could see what was atop it. A "high place" might have no necessary use as a place of worship.

Israel was commanded to remove the "high places" of the Canaanites, Num.33:52, as part of the program of false-worship removal. That does not mean that a natural high-place (like a hilltop) was leveled; nor that every raised platform in a town or village was leveled. But the monuments of idolatry--the images and altars--were removed from them. And now it was just a public stage, or a scenic overlook.

But later, as idolatry crept back in those places were once more used for an evil purpose. Yet, Elijah made his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on the Carmel's height. Samuel made use of the local "high place" in 1Sam.9, and probably at other locations as well. It was a prominent place to conduct the Lord's business in the sight of all. But whenever reformation was called for in Israel, the purification of worship once more demanded the elimination of such places as sites for false religion.

In Samuel's day, as in Elijah's, the assault on divine worship as God ordained it in formal expression for its typical instruction, had for all intents and purposes returned the people of God (or a portion of them) to a "patriarchal" condition of worship. Not entirely, as the presence of priest and prophet office in particular persons called by God, continued; and so a familial mediatorial role (i.e. the father or head-of-house) was not the state of reduction. Such would have shown the people even further regressed.

It is significant, therefore, that with David's ascent to the throne, we also see the re-erecting and reconstitution of the Tabernacle, with all its furnishings, with all its ministry. And he associates that service with his mediatorial reign by bringing it all together at Jerusalem. Thereafter, only Absalom (2Sam.15:12) in rebellion is said to offer sacrifices elsewhere (Hebron). For a brief moment we are reminded of David's telling Saul he was heading home for sacrifices; while in fact the later event is more like a blasphemy. Which it is.

Perhaps this is helpful.

Regi Addictissimus

Completely sold out to the King
The high place (bāmāh) is usually associated with pagan Canaanite practice.48 Here it is outside of the city wall (see v. 14), a hill or an artificial platform on which a local shrine is located.49 The high places are condemned by Deuteronomic theology which emphasizes a single, central place of worship. Therefore the expression “high places” often carries “a negative connotation, suggesting non-Yahwistic, syncretistic, or at least illicit cultic practice.”50 However, the present passage has no hint of a pagan connection, not so much because of its ancient origin as because of its association with Samuel, the prophet of the Lord (3:20). When Samuel urged the people to “turn aside the foreign gods and goddesses from your midst” in 7:3, those pagan religious cults must have been performed on those high places. Even after Solomon’s temple was built in Jerusalem, the high places played a major part in the religion of Israel, especially on a popular level throughout its history; see 1 K. 3:2.51

Tsumura, David. The First Book of Samuel. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007. Print. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

Regi Addictissimus

Completely sold out to the King
TWOT has an excellent study of בָּמָה (bāmâ). I would be happy to post that entry. It is a little lengthy but most informative.


Puritan Board Freshman
Thank you both for your thoughtful and informative replies. In appreciation I will make a donation to the PB.
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