Mythic Travel at Ancient Israel’s High Places – Tel Dan

In ancient Syria-Palestine both before and after the emergence of Israel, religious worship and rituals occurred at outdoor sanctuaries at elevated places near villages, which brought people closer to heaven and to their deities. In English translations of the Hebrew Bible they are appropriately called “high places” (in Hebrew bâmôt, from a Semitic root connoting the back of an animal or person or the ridge of a hill or mountain). They were set in groves of venerable, sacred trees. There people built sacrificial altars and erected stone pillars (representing the male principle and male deity, including Yahweh) and wooden asherah poles (symbolizing the Canaanite-Israelite goddess Asherah, who became Yahweh’s consort-wife). What is now the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where King David set up the tabernacle and Solomon built his temple, was originally such a pagan high place. The biblical writers consistently condemned the high places and the polytheistic religious practices associated with them, but the old practices persisted through monarchial times. An asherah pole even stood before Solomon’s temple during most of its existence, evidencing an embracing of tradition even in official religion.

Accordingly, since I was researching high places while writing my book, when visiting Israel I made it a point to visit a few high places outside Jerusalem. Those in what is now the West Bank would be hard to access, so I decided upon those at Megiddo, Hazor, and Dan.

Megiddo’s tel is magnificent, looming high over the Jezreel valley and offering fabulous views, but the excavated high place on display nowadays is actually low: It is in a large excavation trench at a lower stratum, so I was looking down upon it about 30 feet below. It was thus hard to visualize and feel what it would have been like in ancient times.

Hazor was more interesting because its high place was indeed at the highest spot, at the top of the ridge on the edge of the town’s ancient palace complex. From there I had a 360-degree view of the surrounding lands, looking down onto what used to be the lower city. I could imagine how people felt there, close to heaven among the sacred trees (now gone) and conducting their sacrifices and other rituals.

But the best one, which transported me into a true mythical experience, was Tel Dan. The ancient city of Dan, named after the Israelite tribe that the Bible says conquered the city, stood at the northern border of the kingdom of Israel. King Jeroboam was said to have erected a golden calf here to mark that border, corresponding to another golden calf placed at the southern border in Bethel. Some scholars think these golden calves were the inspiration for the infamous golden calf story in the Bible, which was aimed against the northern kingdom. In the northern kingdom calves were considered to flank Yahweh as his throne platform. So he was figuratively enthroned over Israel between the calves in Dan and Bethel, protecting the kingdom. Thus, actually a golden calf was not really anti-Yahweh. The problem was that in the southern kingdom of Judah, Yahweh’s throne platform was the paired cherubim, as on the Ark of the Covenant, in the Jerusalem Temple, and at the end of the Garden of Eden story (Gen. 3:24). The Judahite writers’ objection to the (Israelite) golden calf was really their contesting what was Yahweh’s throne platform, which became a question of priority as between Israel and Judah. It was also at Tel Dan, in 1993, that the first extra-biblical evidence for the existence of King David was discovered, on a triumphal stele inscribed on behalf of the Damascan king Hazael mentioning Judah’s defeated king Ahaziah as being of the royal “house of David.”

Tel Dan Photo One

Personal photo of the high place at tel Dan, showing a metal frame of the four-horned altar. The dressed stone blocks are from Herodian times. My wife Elena is in the background.

Visiting a place so rich in recorded history and legend was itself fascinating, but that’s what I expected. What I was not prepared for was the richness and spirituality of the place itself. The site is located up in the hills near Lebanon, with Mt. Hermon looming in the northeast and the Golan Heights a few miles due east. Unlike most of Israel, the Dan area is bathed in a lush forest; the tel is actually in a state nature preserve having nature trails that I walked. Countless springs flowed out of the hillside – gifts of the divine – making the trails in places more like stepping stones across a creek. The stream that these waters join at the bottom of the tel is a source of the Jordan River. And up high on the back (north) side of the tel is a ridge from which I could look across to what is now Lebanon. This is truly a liminal place, and it was easy to see why ancient residents (even before the Israelites) considered the site holy and built their sacred sanctuary there on the ridge. Many of the old structures remain, and a metal frame outlining the original immense four-horned altar has been placed there to show what it had looked like. As my wife and I stood alone amongst the trees on that ridge so close to sacred waters, it was easy to feel a divine presence and appreciate how much that feeling would have been magnified by the sacred rituals that were performed there in ancient times. Anyone visiting the north of Israel and desiring a mythical experience should make Tel Dan a must.

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The top of the ridge at tel Dan’s high place, looking into Lebanon. Somewhere here stood king Jeroboam’s golden calf marking the northern border of Israel. Personal photo.

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Spring waters emerging from the side of the tel and flowing through the trail. They will then join the Dan River and eventually the Jordan.

© Arthur George 2014

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