Lecture #223: The History of the Divine Service At Altars (XXXIII) - The Prohibition of Bamot (X)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy


In this shiur we will consider the worship of God during the period of the Judges while the Mishkan stood at Shilo.


In the beginning of chapter 2 in the book of Shoftim, an angel of the Lord ascends from Gilgal to Bokhim and proclaims that God fulfilled the covenant to take the Israelites out of Egypt and bring them to the land of Israel. The angel admonishes the people for failing to obey God, for not adhering to the prohibition to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and for not destroying their altars.

Scripture reports the people's reaction to the words of the angel:

And it came to pass, when the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the children of Israel, that the people lifted up their voice, and wept. And they called the name of that place Bokhim: and they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Shoftim 2:4-5)

The people call the place Bokhim because of their weeping (bekhi) and Israel offers sacrifices to God. This raises a question: How was it possible to offer sacrifices there while the Mishkan was standing in Shilo and the prohibition of bamot, altars outside of the Mishkan, was in effect?

The Meshekh Chokhma in his commentary to Devarim 12 explains that the prohibition to offer sacrifices at bamot depends on the presence of the ark in the Mishkan. Once the ark was removed from the Mishkan, it was again permissible to offer sacrifices at bamot.

A precise reading of the Tosefta (Zevachim 13:8) and the Yerushalmi (Megilla 1:12) teaches that this allowance is valid even for a short period of time. As soon as the ark is removed from its permanent place, even the Mishkan is considered a glorified bama.


In Sefer Shoftim chapter 6, an angel of the Lord reveals himself to Gidon. The revelation is described as follows:

And the Lord said to him, Surely I will be with you, and you shall smite Midian as one man. And he said to him, “If now I have found favor in your sight, then show me a sign that it is you who talks with me. Depart not from here, I pray you, until I come to you, and bring forth my present, and set it before you.” And he said, “I will remain until you come again.” And Gidon went in, and made ready a kid, and unleavened cakes of an efa of flour: the meat he put in a basket, and he put the broth in a pot, and brought it out to him under the terebinth, and presented it.

And the angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and lay them upon this rock, and pour out the broth.” And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord stretched out the end of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes, and the fire rose up out of the rock, and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes. Then the angel of the Lord departed out of his sight. (Shoftim 6:16-21)

Gidon asks the angel for a sign, and the angel commands him to take the meat and the unleavened cakes that he had prepared, lay them upon a rock, and pour out the broth. After Gidon follows these directions, the angel of God stretches out the end of his staff and touches Gidon’s provisions. Then, "the fire rose up out of the rock, and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes." In this way, it becomes clear to Gidon that he is speaking to an angel of God.

In a certain sense, Gidon’s present for the angel turns into a sacrifice. When the fire rises from the rock and consumes the offering, the angel elevates Gidon’s meal into an offering to God

In the wake of this miracle the text describes:

And when Gidon perceived that he was an angel of the Lord, Gidon said, “Alas, O Lord God, because I have surely seen an angel of the Lord face to face.” And the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you, fear not: you shall not die.” Then Gidon built an altar there for the Lord, and called it Adonai-shalom; to this day it is yet in Ofra of the Avi-ezri.

And it came to pass the same night, that the Lord said to him, “Take your father's young bullock, and the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Ba'al that you father has, and cut down the ashera that is by it; and build an altar to the Lord your God upon the top of this strong point, on the level place, and take the second bullock, and offer a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the ashera which you shall cut down.” Then Gidon took ten men of his servants, and did as the Lord had said to him: and since he feared his fathers' household, and the men of the city, he could not do it by day, but he did it by night. And when the men of the city arose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Ba'al was pulled down. And the ashera that was nearby was cut down, and the second bullock was offered upon the altar that was built. And they said one to another, “Who has done this thing?” And when they inquired and asked, they said, “Gidon the son of Yo'ash has done this thing.” Then the men of the city said to Yo'ash, “Bring out your son, that he may die: because he has pulled down the altar of Ba'al, and because he has cut down the ashera that was nearby.” And Yo'ash said to all that stood against him, “Will you plead on behalf of Ba'al? Will you save him? He that will plead for him, let him be put to death before morning: if he be a god, let him plead for himself, that his altar has been pulled down.” Therefore on that day he called him Yeruba'al, saying, “Let Ba'al plead against him, because he has pulled down his altar.” (Shoftim 6:22-32)

It is interesting that the sign through which the angel reveals himself to Gidon is connected to the sacrifice offered in the same place. The ritual takes place under the terebinth and on top of the bedrock, and it is all directed toward God. In the wake of this revelation, out of his own initiative, Gidon builds an altar to God and calls it Adonai-shalom.

There is a transition here from serving God through nature alone (the terebinth and the bedrock) to serving God through the work of human beings directed to God (the altar).[1]

The Malbim (ad loc.) explains:

And the sign is through the present, for if he [the angel] is merely a messenger in the service of God, but his Master in not with him, the burnt-offering and meal-offering will not be accepted, "for he that sacrifices to any god save to the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed" (Shemot 22:19). This is like what the angel of God said to Manoach: "If you will offer a burnt-offering, you must offer it to the Lord" (Shoftim 13:16). And then he will either refrain from accepting it or he will consume it, as did Avraham's angels. But an angel will not allow him [a human being] to offer a sacrifice to him. And if the angel accepts the sacrifice, it is a sign that God rests within him.

            The Malbim adds with respect to the angel's stretching out of the end of the staff:

We have already explained that the angel cannot accept the sacrifice, for he that sacrifices to any god shall be utterly destroyed, unless God rests within him and the sacrifice is solely to the Lord. Therefore the command (v. 20) is through an intermediary angel. When the angel stretches out the end of the staff to accept the sacrifice, of necessity, God Himself rests within him and accepts the sacrifice. Therefore, he is not called the angel of God [Elokim], for he that sacrifices to any god shall be utterly destroyed, but rather the angel of the Lord [the Tetragrammaton] (v. 21).

The Malbim emphasizes the presence of the Shekhina itself, and therefore the angel is called the angel of the Lord, and not the angel of God. The revelation is essentially God's appearance in the sacrifice, where Gidon’s human actions become sanctified by virtue of God's appearance.

The fact that Gidon names the altar is interesting and it is possible that it is connected to the revelation of the angel. The content of the name given to the altar, Adonai-shalom, is also striking. According to the plain sense of Scripture, based on the verse: "And the Lord said to him, Peace be to you; fear not, you shall not die" (v. 23), Gidon was afraid of the revelation. When the angel says to him: "Peace be to you," he reassures him that he need not fear. Therefore Gidon calls the altar Adonai-shalom, which Rashi (ad loc.) explains to mean: "The Lord is our peace."

Rabbi Yosef Kara explains that God rather than Gidon called the altar Shalom. When God said to Gidon, "fear not," He promised him peace.

The Malbim explains the name of the altar in connection with the continuation of the passage:

According to the plain sense of the text, God called it peace. That is, since his [Gidon’s] townspeople were idol worshippers, he feared that they would interfere with his actions, just as they destroyed the second altar that he built. God called this altar Shalom [as an assurance] so that the townspeople would not destroy it, and it stands to this day in Ofra as a reminder of the miracle.

But the commentator explains that Gidon called the altar Adonai-shalom, meaning that God will bring peace to us. In other words, he recognized that God is the peace of all the worlds, He is the thread that connects all parts of the universe and allows them to stand… And for this reason He is called the King, for whom peace is His. And Chazal say (Shabbat 12): Here God Himself is called peace.

The Malbim first clarifies who called the altar Shalom: was it God or was it Gidon?

According to the understanding that it was God who called the altar Shalom, the name is connected to the promise made to Gidon that he has no reason to fear that his townspeople will destroy the altar. Therefore, it stands to this day in Ofra as a reminder of the miracle.

If it is Gidon who calls the altar Shalom, he is referring to God, the maker of peace and the King, for whom peace is His.

Here too there is no mention of any sacrifices being offered on the altar built by Gidon. It seems that this altar was not intended for sacrifice, and in fact its name indicates that its sole purpose was to commemorate God's promise to Gidon.

The two understandings mentioned above will impact on which event the altar comes to commemorate and why Scripture states: "To this day it is yet in in Ofra of the Avi-ezri." If the name Shalom relates to the revelation and Gidon's fear, then the altar was built to commemorate God's revelation, If the name relates to the future durability of the altar, it serves as a guarantee that it will stand forever despite the townspeople's desire to destroy it.

From here we see once again that, according to the plain meaning of the verses, this altar was not built for the offering of sacrifices, but rather to commemorate the peace promised through it. This is similar to what we have seen regarding most of the altars built by the patriarchs, and the altar built by the two and a half tribes.

This might be what Prof. Yehuda Elitzur means in his Da'at Mikra commentary to this verse that it should be read: "And he called it, the altar of Adonai-shalom." Since there were many altars and pillars erected in places of Divine revelation, they called each one by a different name to allude to the circumstances of God's appearance.

Yaakov's erection of an altar in Shechem can be understood in a similar manner: "And he erected there an altar, and called it El-Elohei-Yisra'el" (Bereishit 33:20). So to with respect to the altar that Yaakov built upon his return to Bet-El: "And he built there an altar, and called the place El-Bet-El, because there God appeared to him, when he had fled from the face of his brother" (Bereishit 35:7). And similarly regarding Moshe: "And Moshe built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-Nissi" (Shemot 17:15).

In all of these cases the naming refers to an altar, is essentially connected to a Divine revelation in that time and place, and varies according to the circumstances of the event that took place there.

After building the altar, God commands Gidon to take two bullocks, destroy the altar of the Ba'al belonging to his father, cut down the ashera next to it, and build an altar to God on top of the strong point. Later, the Tanakh gives a description of the reaction of the townspeople and Yo'ash to the destruction of the altar of the Ba'al and Gidon’s building of an altar to God in its place.

The Malbim addresses Gidon’s building of the altar to God on top of the altar to the Ba'al and his use of the wood of the ashera to burn his sacrifice. He writes as follows:

As for the stones of the altar of idol worship being used in the altar to God, and the ashera for wood and the bullock for a burnt-offering, this comes to teach that God will redeem them [Israel] from Midian. Further, he [Gidon] must be ready to give up his life to sanctify God's name and show that idol worship has no validity.

Using the stones of idol worship and the wood of an ashera to build an altar to God involves a full tikkun (rectification). In addition to the promise and notification regarding the victory over Midian, using articles of idol worship in the service of God demonstrates the futility of the idols.

To complete our examination of Gidon's building of altars, we must of course ask the question: How is it possible that Gidon built an altar and offered sacrifices on it at a time when bamot were forbidden and the Mishkan was in Shilo?     

According to the plain meaning of the text, it may be that Gidon's building of the first altar was done as an expression of the Divine revelation of the angel of God and not intended primarily for sacrifices.[2]

As for the second altar, it was built on direct Divine instruction, and can be seen as a temporary authorization issued under pressing circumstances. Chazal in tractate Temura 28b write:

Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: Eight things were permitted that night: [The killing of an animal] outside [the Mishkan, the killing] at night, [the officiating by] a non-priest, [without] a ministering vessel, ministering with vessels of ashera, the wood of ashera, muktzeh and ne'ebad.

The Talmud refers to our passage, pointing to eight exceptional allowances that were issued that night:

  1. Allowing an animal to be killed outside the Mishkan.
  2. Allowing a sacrifice to be offered at night.
  3. Allowing a non-priest to perform the service.
  4. Allowing the service to be performed without a ministering vessel.
  5. Allowing the service to be performed with vessels used in idol worship.
  6. Allowing the burning of a sacrifice with wood used in the worship of idols.
  7. Allowing the offering of an animal that is muktzeh.
  8. Allowing the offering of an animal that had been worshipped as a god.

All these prohibitions were permitted that night. Even though each one is ordinarily forbidden, a temporary ruling was issued relating to the special revelation to Gidon. This revelation came to eradicate the idolatry practiced by the people of Israel and also to herald the expected victory over Midian. The revelation expresses the inner connection between the eradication of idol worship and the victory over Israel's enemies.

* * *

In the coming shiurim we will continue to examine the prohibition of bamot as reflected in the books of Shoftim and Shmuel until the building of and later destruction of the first Temple.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Israel Rosenson in his book Shefot ha-Shoftim addresses this issue and mentions this idea.

[2] This is similar to God's revelation to the patriarchs and the building of altars in its wake. Thus, for example, with Avraham, who passes through the land to Shechem and to the terebinth of Moreh: "And the Lord appeared to Avram, and said, To your seed will I give this land: and there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him" (Bereishit 12:7).