Archaeology Argot: Massebah

Gezer’s high place. MUJADDAR A, CC BY-S A 3.0, Via Wikimedia Commons

The practice of erecting stones is very ancient and widespread, documented worldwide with such iconic monuments as Stonehenge in England and the moai statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

In Near Eastern archaeology, standing stones are called by the Hebrew word massebah (plural: massebot) and are attested from many sites throughout the region, including the Bronze Age Canaanite “high places” at Hazor and Gezer and then later in Iron Age shrines and temples associated with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They can appear as individual pillars, in pairs, or as several stones arranged in a particular pattern. Although the practice predates the emergence of Israel in Canaan, both archaeology and the Bible offer many examples of massebot erected by the ancient Israelites and their ancestors.

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Although the precise meaning of these monuments remains elusive, scholars generally ascribe to them either a cultic or commemorative function. Stone pillars set up in temples or near sacred places could have divine associations and may have played a cultic role. Though the Bible explicitly prohibited such use (Leviticus 26:1), the Israelites erected similar monuments as symbols of Yahweh or to commemorate his appearance at a certain place (Genesis 35:14-15; Exodus 24:4). In this commemorative role, massebot were typically located at open-air sites and could serve to mark a treaty (Genesis 31:44-48) or victory in battle (1 Samuel 15:12). In this way, some standing stones also functioned like stelae, which themselves are effectively inscribed massebot.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

Saudi Arabia’s Mysterious “Stonehenge”

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Mysterious Standing Stones

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