Biblical Archaeology Review 27:3, May/June 2001

Sacred Stones in the Desert

By Uzi Avner

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.

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