Israel’s Sacred Pillars & Rock God
H. Abdul Al-Dahir
Two religious texts, the Quran and the Bible, mention pillars. According to the Quran Surat Al Fajr 89:6-8, the tribal confederation of ‘Ad (aka Iram in the Quran or Aram (Arameans) in the Bible) was so famous for erecting pillars that they were known as ‘’Iram of the Pillars’. (According to Deut 26:5, the Hebrews traced their origin to the Arameans.). A surviving example of these pillars can be found in the Jawf region of the Arabian Peninsula where they are known as ‘Al Rajajil’ or ‘The (standing) Men’. There are quite a few Biblical verses (Gen 25:14; 28:17-18; Ex 24:4-8 etc.) which mention these pillars erected by the desert dwellers in the Middle East; including such renowned Biblical patriarchs as Jacob, Moses, Joshua, and Solomon. The Israeli archaeologist, Dr. Uzi Avner discusses the history and archaeology of these ‘sacred stones in the desert’, which are still a part of the Middle Eastern desert landscape, in the following article:
Sacred Stones in the Desert
Take even a one- or two-day trip through the Sinai or Negev deserts and you’ll come across scores of them—standing stones erected in a variety of combinations. These stone installations may help us understand the very origins of Israelite religion.
They dot the landscape of the Bible’s desert lands. The Hebrew Bible calls them masseboth (mah-tseh-voµt; singular, massebah), usually translated as “pillars” or “standing stones.” They are unmistakably purposeful arrangements of carefully selected crude stones set vertically into the ground, individually or in groups, and are abundant in the desert, where Israel first emerged as a God-fearing nation—or perhaps more accurately, a Yahweh-fearing nation. The Bible makes it clear that these standing stones had a pervasive, if ambiguous, cultic significance in early Israelite religion.
To date, 142 independent masseboth sites have been documented in the southern Negev and eastern Sinai, and the number continues to increase. In these shrines masseboth stand alone or in groups—pairs and triads are the most common, but groups of five, seven and nine also occur. Some are only a few inches tall while others are six feet and more. Most face east and many have at their base a carefully placed circular compartment or cell. Other features, such as offering benches, altars of different types and basins sometimes accompany masseboth. In addition to these independent sites, identical groupings of masseboth can be found at hundreds of tumuli (large stone heaps that mark a tomb) and in open-air sanctuaries.
The earliest masseboth in the Near East are located in the Negev and the southern Jordan deserts and date to the 11th and 10th millennia B.C.E. Masseboth became quite common from the sixth to the third millennia B.C.E. and continued to be erected all through the Biblical period and later.2 In the fertile, non-desert areas of the Near East, however, they are much less common, especially at prehistoric sites; only in the second millennium B.C.E. do their numbers significantly increase.
The Bible and other ancient literature mention two types of masseboth: those representing gods and their abodes and those representing ancestral spirits. Archaeology confirms the existence of both types; people in many traditional societies throughout the world still erect stones of the second type for their ancestors. In the ancient Near East the best-known reference to the ancestral massebah comes from The Tale of Aqhat, a narrative inscribed on 15th-century B.C.E. cuneiform tablets from Ugarit (on the Mediterranean coast of Syria). In the story, Dan-el, father of Aqhat, repeatedly complains to the gods that he “does not have a son to set up massebah in the temple in his name.” Although the translation of the last two words is controversial, the stone is clearly understood to contain and preserve the ancestral spirit.
I will concentrate here on the first type of masseboth, those that represent deities and their abodes. One Biblical example is the story of Jacob at Beth-El. After he awakens from his dream of a ladder ascending to heaven, Jacob takes the stone that served as his pillow and sets it up, declaring, “This stone that I have set up as a pillar (massebah) shall be God’s house” (Genesis 28:22). He probably believed that the stone contained God’s power and spirit.
Three inscribed basalt stelae or pillars were discovered near Sefire, Syria, probably in the teens of the 20th century, under circumstances that are still unclear. These Sefire inscriptions, first published in 1931, record an eighth-century B.C.E. treaty between the vassal/king of Arpad and his overlord. The text, the longest intact inscription in Old Aramaic, contains over 100 legible lines. An introductory section invokes several well-known Syrian and Mesopotamian gods as witnesses to the treaty. It then identifies the stone pillars upon which the treaty is inscribed as the “house of god.”
Later Arabian sources apply the same term, “house of god,” to standing stones. Similarly, a ninth-century B.C.E. Assyrian document describing King Tukulti Ninurta’s campaign to the Lebanon coast says that “he camped by the stones in which the great gods are dwelling.”
Other masseboth offer variations on this theme. Some, by virtue of their divine authority, serve as witnesses to treaties and covenants; others oversee the fulfillment of vows and treaties, commemorate special events and bequeath divine protection upon territorial borders.
How did mere stones come to be invested with divine authority? It is important to consider that people in traditional societies, past and present, often seek tangible symbols from their surroundings to represent abstract ideas. Indeed, they see symbols everywhere and every idea can be represented by a complex system of symbols.
Looking at them from this perspective, we find in masseboth two major characteristics. First, in all groupings, the number of stones parallels the number of gods in various Near Eastern inscriptions, artistic representations and mythologies. Thus, a group of stones may represent a known group of gods. Second, a closer look reveals that most clusters of masseboth include stones of different shapes and proportions; moreover, the stones within a group are set in a symmetrical pattern or in some other order related to their shape. For example, a group of seven stones at the top of Ma‘aleh Jethro, east of the Uvda Valley, is set in a distinct pattern of alternating broad and narrow stones. The stones were brought from some distance and obviously carefully selected, so we must assume some purpose or concept lay behind this arrangement. A similar relationship between broad and narrow stones or tall and short stones is found in other groups. Perhaps a narrow or tall stone represented a god and a broad or shorter stone represented a goddess.
A triad of masseboth attached to a fourth-millennium B.C.E. tumulus in Wadi Zalaqa, eastern Sinai, includes a large, broad central stone with a smaller stone on either side. Many sites from various periods contain this arrangement, as do numerous more explicit iconographic equivalents. For example, a carved ivory box lid from Ugarit, Mycenaean in origin, shows a broad-hipped goddess feeding two ibexes, which represent young gods. This same arrangement can be seen in paintings on pottery. A similar triad of Canaanite and Egyptian gods can be seen in a New Kingdom Egyptian stela, in which the Canaanite goddess Qudshu stands on a lion, with the male gods Min and Reshef on either side. Painted jars found at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the eastern Sinai show a stylized tree7 mounted on a lion’s back; like the goddess on the Egyptian stela, the tree is flanked by two ibexes, again symbolizing the young gods.8 This example, which dates to the ninth or eighth century B.C.E., is especially interesting because, although the tree represents the pagan Asherah,a Israelites apparently drew the picture.
Pairs of masseboth are also common and usually follow consistent patterns. An early one (fifth to fourth millennium B.C.E.) stands at a site near Giv‘at Sheh\oret, north of Eilat. The massebah on the left side, through the viewer’s eye, is tall and narrow, while the one on the right is short and rounded. When seen from the viewpoint of the gods within the stones, however, the shorter one stands to the left of the taller one. Out of 24 sets of paired masseboth found to date, the right stone (from the viewpoint of the stones) is the larger in 22 cases.
This pattern also shows up in more explicit depictions of male-female couples, a sure indication that the positioning of the masseboth is not accidental. It was found in 72 percent of 125 couples randomly selected from ancient Near Eastern figurative art (most of the other 28 percent had a reason to stand reversed). Placing the male on the right and the female to his left is comparable to Biblical references of male names before female names (“Adam and Eve”, “Ba‘al and Asherah,” etc.). Two passages in the Song of Songs also reflect this relationship: The woman says of her lover, “His left arm was under my head, his right arm embraced me” (Song of songs 2:6, 8:3). Many clay and stone votive plaques vividly echo the imagery of these passages.
Another drawing from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud may also correspond to this pattern. Many scholars have attempted to identify two figures on one of the jars found at the site. Some suggest that they are Egyptian gods;9 others opt for the Israelite God Yahweh and his consort. Above the two figures is a Hebrew inscription that mentions “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.”
The word “Asherah” occurs about 40 times in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars wonder if these figures represent Egyptian gods or Yahweh and his consort; they are also unsure whether the Hebrew inscription above the drawing means “Yahweh and his sacred place,” “Yahweh and his symbol” or “Yahweh and his consort.”
A drawing of the painting on the potsherd portrays both figures as having a tail or a penis. In my opinion, this portrayal results from an inaccurate restoration that has led many scholars to identify the figures as two male deities and to ignore the breasts on the shorter of the two figures. In fact, nothing in the painting itself indicates the presence of a tail or penis on this figure. If this erroneous restoration is removed, as in the reconstruction I propose, a male and female figure appear—in the appropriate left-right order. The pairs of masseboth that we have been examining support the view that the ‘Ajrud figures do represent Yahweh and the goddess Asherah, the former wearing a bull mask and the latter that of a cow.
Masseboth from the Biblical period (Iron Age) have been found in at least 36 sites, several of which are surely Israelite. One pair of masseboth found in the eighth- to seventh-century B.C.E. Israelite temple excavated at Arad in the northern Negev displays the same relationship of “male” to “female” and probably represents a pair of deities. At Arad there can be no doubt that the temple is Israelite because on two small ostraca (inscribed potsherds) found there are “Pashh\ur” and “Mremot,” the names of two Israelite priestly families who served there.
The recurrent pattern in the positioning of pairs of masseboth and in representations such as the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud drawing lead us to conclude that the pair of masseboth in the Arad temple represents a pair of deities. This means that masseboth were used in an official Israelite temple (and not simply as part of popular Israelite religion, if such a distinction ever existed).
When Yohanan Aharoni excavated the Israelite temple at Arad, he concluded that the Holy of Holies of the temple with its masseboth was eliminated during the religious reform of King Hezekiah late in the eighth century B.C.E., when a casemate wall was built on top of it. Later studies, however, proved that the wall was built much later, during the Hellenistic period. The only remaining point of debate is whether the Babylonians destroyed the Arad temple with its masseboth in 586 B.C.E. or whether Edomites destroyed it a few years earlier when they invaded southern Judah. In either case, the masseboth at Arad survived the religious reforms both of Hezekiah in the eighth century B.C.E., and of King Josiah in the seventh century B.C.E.
The Bible itself expresses ambivalent or even contradictory attitudes toward masseboth. In many places, the Bible vehemently denounces the masseboth because they represent pagan cults and polytheism. Thirteen different passages demand their destruction in order to separate Israel from the cult and customs of the Canaanites. For example, Deuteronomy 12:3-4 reads: “You shall destroy all the places wherein the nations worship their gods … You shall tear down their altars and smash their masseboth and burn their Asherim.” Three other passages absolutely prohibit masseboth: “You shall not erect a massebah that Yahweh your lord hates” (Deuteronomy 16:22; see also Leviticus 26:1; 2 Chronicles 31:1).
On the other hand, other passages mention masseboth with no condemnation at all. I have already mentioned the massebah Jacob erected at Beth-El; in a cultic act, he poured oil on the massebah and called it Beth Elohim, “House of God” (Genesis 28:17-18). He then made a vow to Yahweh. In what may be a repetition of this episode, when Jacob returned to Beth-El and God told him that henceforth his name would be Israel, Jacob set up a massebah and poured oil on it (Genesis 35:14). Moses erected twelve masseboth at the foot of Mt. Sinai and made a sacrifice to Yahweh there during the ceremony of signing the covenant between Yahweh and the Israelite people (Exodus 24:4-8). Joshua set up a “great stone” (even gedolah) under the sacred terebinthc in Yahweh’s sanctuary at Shechem to renew the covenant the people had just made with Yahweh, their God (Joshua 24:26-27). When the Philistines were forced to return the Ark of the Covenant that they had captured, the Levites offered sacrifices to Yahweh before “the great stone” at Beth Shemesh (1Samuel 6:14-15). Samuel set up a stone called even ha-ezer (the “stone of help”) in gratitude for God’s help in protecting the Israelites from the Philistines (1 Samuel 17:12).
In 1 Kings 3:4 we are told that Solomon sacrificed a thousand burnt offerings at Gibeon. The text makes no mention of a massebah, but we learn elsewhere that there was also a “great stone” at Gibeon (2 Samuel 20:8). In 2 Chronicles 1:3 we find that the Tent of Meeting Moses had made in the wilderness reposed at Gibeon. It is not surprising, therefore, that King Solomon went here to sacrifice at the “large bamah.” There is no hint of condemnation of the “great stone” of Gibeon.
Despite his aggressive religious reform against the bamot (high places), King Josiah himself renewed the covenant between Yahweh and the people “at the ‘amud” (pillar)(2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31). This covenant ceremony resembled the covenant at Shechem mentioned above, as well as other Near Eastern examples in which masseboth witness the signing of treaties.
Even in the books of the prophets, where we might most expect to find them, there are almost no words of condemnation of the masseboth, great stones or sacred pillars. On the contrary, in a couple of places they even seem to be approved. For example, while condemning Egypt and predicting that someday the Lord will be worshiped there, Isaiah foretells: “In that day, there shall be an altar to Yahweh inside the land of Egypt and a pillar (massebah) to Yahweh at its border” (Isaiah 19:19). One possible exception to approval by the prophets may be a sarcastic comment in Jeremiah, where the prophet castigates the people for worshiping other gods (he does not specifically mention masseboth), “They [the Israelites] said to wood, ‘You are my father,’ to stone, ‘You gave birth to me’”(Jeremiah 2:27).
Especially surprising is that all these references to masseboth are directly connected with the name of Yahweh and his cult. Moreover, these references survived the Deuteronomistic editing (in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) of the late seventh century B.C.E., even though Deuteronomistic theology demanded devotion to Yahweh alone, only in Jerusalem, and with many strict prohibitions. After all, Deuteronomy tells us that Yahweh “hates” masseboth (Deuteronomy 16:22). How can we explain this contradiction?
In my opinion, masseboth were deeply rooted in the Israelite cult and culture throughout the First Temple period (c. 960–586 B.C.E.). This was not because of Canaanite influence, but rather because of the common desert origin of both the masseboth cult and the major body of Israelite religion.
There is a very clear connection between masseboth and the desert. Although they were erected in most parts of the ancient Near East, they were especially plentiful in the desert, particularly in the southern Negev and eastern Sinai. In fact, the masseboth discovered to date in these areas outnumber those in all the rest of the Near East combined (this desert area encompasses only 1 percent of the Near East as a whole, however).
Another statistic: 89 percent of the desert masseboth face east, which means that they follow a dominant sacred orientation. In the fertile areas, on the other hand, only 38 percent face east. The desert masseboth appear in attached, ordered groups, consistent in numbers and shapes; those in the sown areas are usually detached and inconsistent in numbers, orientation and relative position.
Israelite culture and religion had deep roots in the desert, and these desert roots shaped Israelite consciousness, as many studies have shown. Even during the Israelite monarchy a “desert ideal” still prevailed. An interesting episode occurred in the last days of the Judahite kingdom that the Babylonians destroyed in 586 B.C.E. On instructions from the Lord, the prophet Jeremiah took to the Temple the Rechabites, a group probably originating in the Negev, who had joined the Israelites. The Rechabites are held up as an ideal example of obedience to the law. The text describes them as living in tents, not houses, and without agriculture. Jeremiah offers them wine but they refuse, for that is against their law. Long after leaving the desert they still lived by its ideals. Jeremiah then proclaims to the Israelites in the name of the Lord, “You can learn a lesson about obeying my commands [from the desert Rechabites]” (Jeremiah 35:13). In short, the Rechabites are praised because they preserved the “desert ideal.”
Israel’s god Yahweh clearly originated as a desert god. In addition to the theophany at Sinai, various Biblical passages associate Yahweh directly with the desert. For example: “Yahweh came from Sinai; He shone upon them from Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran”(Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5:4-6; Habakkuk 3:3, Psalms 68:8-9). These are all desert sites. Yahweh is associated with the desert even in Egyptian records. Three Egyptian inscriptions found in Egypt and Nubia (modern Sudan), dating to the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E., mention various districts in the desert. One is “the land of [nomad tribe] Shasu [named] YHW in the land of Seir.” So even before the Israelite Exodus from Egypt (assuming a 13th-century B.C.E. Exodus) some desert tribes in Seir (that is, Sinai, the Negev and Edom) named their territory after Yahweh.
In Israel the only sacred orientation was east. The tabernacle faced east; the temple of Arad faced east; and so did the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The dominant orientation of desert masseboth, as we have seen, is also east, but in the sown land all over the Near East during all periods both masseboth and temples are oriented in various directions. The sacred eastern orientation, therefore, is only shared by desert masseboth and Israelite cult places.
In the desert almost all masseboth are crude, natural, unhewn stones, while in the fertile lands of the Near East the majority of masseboth are stones that were deliberately shaped. Desert peoples clearly had the technical capability of shaping stones, had they wanted to. Indeed, two out of three masseboth dated to the 11th millennium B.C.E. were carefully shaped, although the later ones were not. Hence desert masseboth reflect a principle enunciated in several Biblical passages: “If you make for me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them” (Exodus 20:22, Deuteronomy 27:6; Joshua 8:31; 1 Kings 6:7). Crude stones, shaped by nature or God and not by man, were specifically chosen for cult purposes both for the prehistoric desert people and later for the Israelites.
Masseboth are therefore an abstract representation of gods, directly associated with aniconic theology, which bans the portrayal of gods in human or animal form. This followed a desert tradition that later developed in Israel into “programmatic aniconism,” as Tryggve Mettinger has termed it, embedded in Deuteronomistic theology.
The aniconism of prehistoric desert religion and of Israel also characterized later Nabatean and Muslim religions, both of which have desert roots. Today it is widely recognized that the formation of ancient Israel was a much more complex process than is described in the Bible. Various groups were involved, including ‘Apiru, Canaanites and Shasu. Some were already in Canaan and neighboring countries before the Exodus. Others, of diverse origins, came from Egypt. Social and political circumstances united them into a single nation called Israel. Each group contributed to the formation of a common culture. The desert groups, although obviously poorer in material culture, exercised a powerful influence on Israelite religious ideology.
The ancient desert origin of Israelite religion may explain why the masseboth played such an integral part in the Israelite cult and why all Biblical passages referring to masseboth are associated only with the name of Yahweh and not any other of God’s titles. It is true that in the seventh century B.C.E. opposition developed against the masseboth cult because of the rise of Deuteronomistic ideology, as expressed in the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah. The desert origin of Israel’s religion and the ancient connection with Yahweh, the abstract, aniconic desert god, may explain why these aggressive reforms failed to obliterate masseboth from Israelite cult practice. Only after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile and the formation of the Jewish religion did masseboth disappear from their cult practice.
End of Article
Avner mentions that Jeremiah 2:27 condemns those who name wood and rocks as their father: “They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ They have turned their backs to me and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble, they say, ‘Come and save us!’ However, Avner fails to mention that the Hebrews named the Rock as their sire in Deut 32:18: “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
According to Strong’s Hebrew & Greek Dictionary, the word masseboth derives from the word ‘ntsb’ which means to erect. The word nsb (spelled with the letter ‘sad’ in Arabic) also means to erect, raise up etc. However, there seems to be a pun here as the word ‘nsb’ (spelled with the letter ‘seen’ in Arabic) means ‘to derive one’s origin’ , ‘to trace one’s ancestry to its origins’. Since, Classical Arabic is used to reconstruct the Proto-Semitic language it is important to consider the Classical Arabic meanings of Semitic words whose roots predate classical Hebrew. So, it appears that the erection of pillars or masseboths was a method by which the Hebrews honored their origin from their ancient rock god Tsur ( Deut 32:18) who seems to have preceded Yhwh as the desert god of the Judeans.
Yhwh’s name means both Yh the living and Yh the snake (‘hw’/’hy’ are the ancient Semitic words for both life and snake) and he is depicted in the Negev inscriptions as a serpent, a form in which he was worshiped by the Judeans according to 2 Kings 18:4. The Biblical authors made a concerted effort to condemn the worship of Rocks as is indicated in Jeremiah and to draw a distinction between Yhwh, who was a living god, and the Rock who was a symbol of idolatry (Deut 5:26, Jos 3;10, 1 Sam 17:26 & Lev 26:1, Deut 7:5 etc. etc.). However, it seems that the worship of pillars persisted as they continued to be erected and anointed as the ‘houses’ or ‘physical body’ of the spirits of both El and Yhwh. In addition, the reference to the Hebrews’ origin from a rock remained a part of their sacred script in the Song of Moses in Deut 32.
Another consideration would be that rocks were very important sources of water (Num 20:11) and tools for the desert dwellers before the discovery metals. From Biblical evidence, it appears that the most ancient god of the Hebrews was Tsur or Rock whom they regarded as their sire. Tsur was succeeded by Qynn, the copper smith god (Gen 5:9) who became their sire during the Bronze Age. Qynn (Cainan) is listed as the son of Enos (meaning man) and the grandson of Seth (Egyptian desert god) in the 5th chapter of Genesis. Qynn, the copper smith god, is listed as an ancestor of the Hebrews according to this chapter of Genesis.
Yah, the snake sacred to the Moon god Wadd, became associated with the Egyptian moon god Iah while the Edomites/Hebrews/Midianites, who were the Shasu of Yhw, were enslaved by the Egyptians to work in the Timna copper mines. After the Egyptians conceded control of the mines to the locals, Yah, the serpent/moon god of the Judeans, became the new father of the Hebrews (Isa 63:16). This serpent/moon god was merged with the Canaanite moon god, El, after the Assyrian defeat of Israel and the massive emigration of Canaanites/Israelites into Judea. At this time Yhwh became Yhwh Elohim often translated as Lord God in English. So, the Bible names a progression of gods whom the Hebrews regarded as their sire: Tsur, Qynn, El/Elohim, Yh/Yhwh, and finally, Yhwh Elohim. Under Roman cultural influence, the Jewish god became Deus Pater or God the Father. Deus Pater’s origins can be traced to the Hindu pantheon, where he reigned as Dyaus Pita, a Hindu sky god.