Sights and Insights: More than just a pretty place

Beautiful Tel Dan bears the ancient remains of an alternative place to celebrate the High Holy Days.

September 19, 2012 18:13
3 minute read.

Tel Dan sign 370. (photo credit:


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Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land.  Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or find him at his blog at

Shady walkways. Cool breezes. Abundant streams. Luxuriant foliage. The Tel Dan Nature Preserve draws the locals as well as the travelers. It always has.

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In natural beauty, Tel Dan has few rivals in Israel. For the ancients, it had everything necessary for abundant living. That’s why tribe of Dan migrated here. That’s why King Jeroboam selected it as a place of worship for the northern tribes.

Tel Dan in history

In a land where water is life, it’s no wonder the ancients venerated this area as sacred. Tel Dan offers the largest of four tributaries that form the headwaters of the Jordan River. Only the nearby Banias Spring ranks second.

When Joshua parceled out the Promised Land, the tribe of Dan received a wide strip that extended west from the Tribe of Benjamin to the coastal plain at Jaffa (Joshua 19:40-46). But the combination of the local inhabitants who pushed the tribe into the hill country, as well as the presence of the International Highway that remained the envy of all local and foreign powers, the location proved to be more than Danites could endure (Judges 1:34).

Jordan River (

Leaving their allotted land, they migrated north and conquered Leshem, or Laish, and renamed it Dan (Joshua 19:47). In addition to abandoning their territory, they also abandoned the God of Israel and erected a graven image to worship (Judges 18:27-31).


From days of the Judges, through the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, the phrase, “from Dan to Beersheba,” represented the practical north-south borders of the united kingdom of Israel (Judges 20:1; 2 Samuel 24:2;1 Kings 4:25). But after the reign of King Solomon, the nation divided—and gave rise to a practical problem.

Tel Dan’s high place set up

Two nations—Judah and Israel. Two kings—Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Two capitals—Jerusalem and Shechem. But there was only one place the Scriptures allowed for worship—the Temple in Jerusalem.

Dan trail (

Jeroboam’s fear that his subjects would celebrate the High Holy Days in Jerusalem gave rise to the greater fear that they might also return their allegiance to the southern kingdom. So Jeroboam made two golden calves and told his people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). He set up one of the calves at Bethel on the way to Jerusalem. The other one he set up at Dan.

In addition to the alternative places of worship, Jeroboam also introduced an alternative priesthood, and an alternative month to celebrate. While the Scriptures indicated that the High Holy Days should be celebrated in the seventh month, Jeroboam instituted worship in the eighth month (1 Kings 12:31-32).

Tel Dan’s high place discovered

Archaeologists have uncovered Jeroboam’s High Place at Tel Dan. A large, excavated podium still sits at the highest point on the tell. Cultic implements were discovered there, including a small horned altar, an incense holder, and the only 8th-century incense shovels yet discovered in Israel.

High place of Jeroboam (

Archaeologists also unearthed one horn of the main altar, the proportions of which betray an altar that once stood ten feet tall. A massive metal frame represents these dimensions for visitors today. Remnants of two sets of stairs at the corners show how the priests accessed the altar.

While the Hebrews in the south celebrated the High Holy Days in Jerusalem, the natural beauty of Tel Dan in northern Israel offered an irresistible alternative. It was picturesque. It was convenient. It was invigorating. And it was a compromise of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Today, only the locals and the travelers come to the Tel Dan—just as they always have. Worshipers come no longer. Instead, what remains are springs that feed the Jordan River, stories that enrich our understanding of ancient history and remains that contribute to Israel’s archaeology.

Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land.  Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or find him at his blog at

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