Sacred Precinct Complex (Tel Dan)

By the Editors of the Madain Project

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Following the division of the kingdom of Solomon in 930 BCE, Jeroboam son of Nebat established a cult at Dan as an alternative to the one at the Temple in Jerusalem. He placed a golden calf in the city and built a house of high places. In the Hellenistic period, the cultic precinct was surrounded by a wall that is visible to this day. A bilingual (Greek-Aramaic) inscription found at this site attests to the usage of this place. The sacred precinct or temenos at Dan is a large complex over a half-acre in size.


On the north side of the Tel Dan archaeological site, above the spring and overlooking the valley with beautiful views of Mt Hermon, is the area of Tel Dan's sacred precinct. Here the excavation team unearthed and reconstructed the remains of a unique Israelite High Place. It was in use since the times of King Jeroboam son of Nebat (930 BCE), rebuilt by Jeroboam son of Joash (8th Century BCE), and reused during the Hellenistic period (3rd Century BCE) until the end of the Roman period.

Brief History

circa 910 BCE

Israelite Period
To prevent northerners from making pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, as mentioned in 2 Kings 12, Jeroboam built new temples at Bethel (on Israel/Palestine’s southern border) and at Dan (illustration) (on the northern border). At each of these shrines, he set up a golden bull calf, calling them Elohim, the gods who brought the Israelites out of Egypt.


circa 910 BCE

Uncovered in 1968, the remains of a large complex from the Israelite period are located on the north-western part of the mound. Excavations concluded that it is a bamah, or High Place, possibly an open air sanctuary. Although the temple complex features several phases of construction and adornment, the Hebrew Bible attributes its establishment to King Jeroboam I, who led the northern secession from Judah ca. 930 BCE to establish the independent kingdom of Israel.


circa 910 BCE

In the center of the Tel Dan's sacred precinct complex was a small raised stone structure; known as the altar of Jeroboam. Today a metal frame marks the spot where the altar originally stood. A massive altar base was found here, a huge 4.75 meters square, with one of the altar's four horns. It was estimated that the altar itself stood 3 meters high (the altar in Solomon's Temple is said to have been 4.5 meters high).

circa 910 BCE

Current structure of the Bema or the High Place, most likely dates back to the time of Jeroboam II, circa first half of the eight century BCE. At this time a set of monumental steps (inspect), about 27 feet long, was built against the southern face of the open-air platform. Although the Biblical record is silent concerning the specific cultic acts performed at Dan and does not even specify what use was made of the Golden Calf which Jeroboam made, the archaeological evidence suggests that a large, open-air platform was used, that there were altars, incense offerings, votive offerings involving figurines, and some kind of water purification or libation rituals.

circa 910 BCE

Until the recent discoveries, the thinking had been that the sanctuary in Dan was used by idol-worshippers, because the Danites under Jeroboam were supposed to be pagan. But for one thing, the architecture of the sacred precinct is in keeping with biblical descriptions of Solomon's Temple, in Jerusalem, including the proportions of the precinct and construction techniques. The city of Dan goes back at least 6,000 years. In the biblical period, Dan apparently posed competition to Jerusalem as a center for worship.

circa 910 BCE

Also associated with the sacred precinct at this time were two long rooms, called leshakot (“offices”; singular, lishkah), chambers that the Bible seems to associate with religious structures such as the Jerusalem Temple (Ezra 8:29 and 1 Chronicles 9:26). The finds at Dan correlate so strongly to biblical texts, even more so; possibly than the finds in Jerusalem. Perhaps it was the Israelites of Dan in the north, not the Judahites in Jerusalem, who were the source of some Judaic traditions.

circa 910 BCE

It is clear that this entire area at Tel Dan was an important Israelite cultic center. Excavations reveal that the temple complex clearly did become renowned as an important place of worship and pilgrimage not only during the Israelite period, but long after as well. With the destruction of the Solomon temple and subsequent construction of holy places on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the temple at Tel Dan is the only surviving monumental temple complex from the biblical kingdom of Israel.

circa 910 BCE

In the Hellenistic period, Dan still possessed a powerful religious attraction, best signified by the bilingual Greek-Aramaic inscription retrieved from the complex referring to the “god who is in Dan.” Most of the times the Sacred Precinct at Dan is related with the idolatry episode of Jeroboam’s golden calf rather than as the best parallel to the First Temple, with evidence from animal bones, architecture, epigraphy, and artifacts to boot.

circa 910 BCE

The purpose of this ritual place was to serve as an alternative worship site for Jerusalem, after the division of the Kingdom. As mentioned in 1 Kings 12 28-31: "Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan. And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi".

circa 910 BCE

At these high places, the Israelites made "sacrificial smoke to Baal, to the sun and to the moon and to the constellations of the zodiac and to all the army of the heavens." They had houses for "male temple prostitutes . . . in the house of Yahweh" and offered their children "through the fire to Molech" —2 Kings 23:4-10. But at Dan, these high places were likely dedicated to Yahweh.

Notable Artefacts

circa 910 BCE

Altar Kit
Another discovery that points towards the theory of Yahwistic worship in Dan, as described in the Bible, was the discovery of an "altar kit" in one of the rooms. Excavators under Biran uncovered a bronze bowl, a pair of identical shovels, a long-handled shovel like those that held incense, a sunken pot filled with burned animal remains, and a long iron handle that may have come from a fork. In the Bible, these shovels are called machtot (singular, machtah); for example, Leviticus 10:1.

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