Last week we looked at who is a priest, capable of offering sacrifices to God. We concluded that early in Judean and Israelite history the office was not exclusive to the descendents of Aharon (Aaron). This week we'll look at where those sacrifices could be offered, and again we'll see that the centralization of offering sacrifices at a single location was also something that developed over time, and only became de facto law at a period in history when all the other ancient shrinal locations were conquered or destroyed.
Last week, and in discussion of the golden calf, we noticed that there were two alternate shrines set up by Yeroboam at Dan and at Beth-el. We also know from the Tanach that there was an important shrine at Shiloh. Shmuel (Samuel) lived with Eli the priest in Shiloh, who explicitly offered sacrifices there (1 Sam 1:1-3). Shiloh was the original location of the ark (1 Sam 4:3-4). In addition to these locations, there were also priests in Nob that were slaughtered by Shaul (Saul, 1 Sam 22).
Throughout the book of Melachim (Kings), whenever the reign of a king is complete, the book's author passes judgment on the king, whether he was good or bad. Most of the northern kings of Israel are depicted as bad, Judah is more of a mixed bag. However, there is a very common complaint even about the good kings. For example, here's the ruling on the king Yehoshaphat (Jehoshaphat, 1 Kings 22:43-44):
43 And he [Jehoshaphat] walked in all the way of Asa his father; he turned not aside from it, doing that which was right in the eyes of the LORD; 44 howbeit the high places (bamot) were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and offered in the high places.This critique, that they didn't remove the bamot repeats itself often. In fact only two kings are credited with having removed the bamot. Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) and Yoshiyahu (Josiah). After Hizkiyahu removed them they were reestablished by his son. After Yoshiyahu removed them, there is no more mention of them in the rest of the book.
Before we move on, we should note that the alternate shrines, the ones outside of Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), had clear cultic significance, and historical roots. Or at least they claimed that they had historical roots. One of the purposes of various stories in Bereishit (Genesis) is to legitimizing the worship in these shrines. For example, Yaakov (Jacob) builds an altar in Beth-el. The temple at Beth-el probably claimed that they were worshiping at the very altar constructed by their ancestor. Similarly, Avraham has associations with Elonei Mamre, the oak tree at Mamre. This was probably also a cultic site of the past.
Centralization of power is one of the key goals of many rulers. One of the ways to do this would be to declare that the temple in your city was the only one in which worship was permitted. Then, pilgrimages to that temple would be required in order to satisfy religious practices. However, it's really hard to convince people to give up the convenience of their local shrine and trek all the way to a far-away capital. This is probably one of the reasons why the bamot were so pervasive. Why travel to Yerushalayim when I can offer a sacrifice to curry favor with the divine right here?
Hizkiyahu's success at removing worship of the bamot comes coincident with the largest change in territory of the kingdom of Judah. In his reign Sennacherib, destroyed the northern kingdom, wiping out the competing shrines at Dan, Beth-el, and Shiloh. Later, Sennacherib turned his eye towards Judah, and while he didn't conquer Yerushalayim, he destroyed many of the other cities and donated them to his vassals. It's pretty easy to convince everyone to worship at the temple in Yerushalayim when it's the only one left!
Yoshiyahu ruled over a kingdom far smaller than it was just one hundred years earlier. However, even he wasn't able to convince everyone that Yerushalayim was the sole holy site suitable for worship. 2 Kings 17:24-41 describes the aftermath of the destruction of the northern kingdom. Specifically it describes the Assyrians settling foreign people in the cities of Shomron. However, there was one group that claimed that they were actually members of the northern kingdom of Israel, and were not resettled foreigners. These were the Samaritans, and in fact they're still around today. To Samaritans the holy site chosen by God for worship is not Yerushalayim but rather Har Gerizim. Their version of the Torah specifically calls out that mountain as the place of worship. And they still worship on that mountain today! The schism between the Samaritans and the rest of the Jewish people would be very acrimonious throughout the second temple and talmudic eras. Nevertheless, they remain a strong piece of evidence that not everyone accepted the temple as Yerushalayim as the only place to offer sacrifices.
Now, it is possible to understand exactly what's going on with the tabernacle in the desert. We saw in a past week a piece of evidence that it is very unlikely that the tabernacle was a product of its time, and looked very much like it was written at a later date. Now we'll describe why. The purpose of describing the tabernacle was to retroject the idea that the only possible place of worship was at a single divinely designated site, with worship carried out by the divinely designated descendents of Aharon all the way back to the time of Aharon himself. In this context, it's clear that worshiping at the bamot during the monarchial period was a grave sin.
However, as with many of the retrojections, the story of the desert tabernacle with a sole place of worship makes little sense in the broad scheme of Israelite history. Namely, the pre-monarchial period, some 400 or so years by the biblical account, doesn't have centralized worship.
In the biblical account, the tabernacle loses importance as soon as the Israelites settled in the land. In fact, the tabernacle is not mentioned at all in Shmuel through Melachim. There is one key mention though of the ohel moed the "tent of meeting." It appears when Shlomo (Solomon) is bringing stuff into the temple (1 Kings 8 4):
And they brought up the ark of the LORD, and the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the Tent; even these did the priests and the Levites bring up.This has led some scholars (specifically R.E. Friedman in Who Wrote the Bible) to hypothesize that the entire tabernacle actually existed, and was brought into Shlomo's temple in its entirety. It is important to note that the author of Devarim (Deuteronomy) never mentions the mishkan (tabernacle) but he does mention the ohel moed.
The possibility I like here is that the ohel moed was an earlier conception of a central worship location, although not one with all the trappings of the mishkan. This was later equated to the mishkan by the authors of P, who use both words to describe the structure built in the desert. It is also equated explicitly by the author of Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles), in yet another one of those areas where the differences between Divrei Hayamim and Melachim mirror the differences between Devarim and Vayikra. Specifically, the author of Divrei Hayamim adds into the narrative sentences like (1 Chr 6:17):
And they ministered with song before the tabernacle (mishkan) of the tent of meeting (ohel moed), until Solomon had built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem; and they took their station at their service according to their order.and it even fills in the gap of what happened to the mishkan during all those years (1 Chr 21:29):
For the tabernacle (mishkan) of the LORD, which Moses made in the wilderness, and the altar of burnt-offering, were at that time in the high place at Gibeon.There is always a good reason to be skeptical when Divrei Hayamim inserts information into the text that doesn't appear in Melachim. It almost always appears to have some ulterior motive. In this case, it is trying to explicitly justify Shlomo's temple, by equating it back to the wilderness time. While the passage of Melachim does mention the ohel moed it makes no mention about it having been used in the desert, or being synonymous with a mishkan.
We see both last week and this week how the idea of claiming that your particular form of worship, your holy site and your appointed priests are the only appropriate ones is an element of Judaism just as much as it is a part of other religions worldwide. Rival priestly factions fought over who had the right to offer sacrifices, and rival kingdoms fought over which site had God's chosen holy site. It's only because the descendents of Aharon won the fight that they got to rewrite the story to indicate that that's the way it's always been. Similarly, only because Yerushalayim was the last site left standing (besides the Samaritans), did its supporters get to rewrite the story about how it's the only holy site.