Biblical Archaeology Review 32:2, March/April 2006

Mysterious Standing Stones

What Do These Ubiquitous Things Mean?

By Doron Ben-Ami

Standing stones are still a puzzle. They’re hard to understand. Standing stones have been found in the Near East from as early as 10,000 B.C.E.,a and they continue through the Biblical period. Massebah (plural masseboth) is the Hebrew word usually translated “standing stone(s).” Massebah and its variants appear 34 times in the Bible.b Sometimes the stones are mentioned in a positive light, as when Moses set up 12 masseboth at Mt. Sinai at the ratification of the covenant between God and Israel (Exodus 24:4) or when Joshua erected a “great stone” at Shechem (Joshua 24:26–27). Sometimes they are referred to in a neutral context, as when Jacob set up a massebah upon awakening from the dream in which he saw a ladder (or stairs) to heaven (Genesis 28:18). But most of the time the Bible violently condemns masseboth: “You shall not ... erect a massebah, which the Lord your God detests” (Deuteronomy 16:22).

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