The standing stone or stele PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
The Canaanites, the Israelites, the Nabateans and even older peoples found numinous power in a standing stone, called a matzeva or masseba in Hebrew (from a Semitic root meaning "upright, steady").  Some scholars call such a stone a betyl . Others prefer the term stele , which I shall use here. 

Stelae on Tel GezerThe best examples are at Gezer. They are usually attributed to the Canaanites. Pictured here are two that belong to a row. We find ancient assemblages of such stelae throughout the land. There are many around Mount Karkom in the Negev, dating from the third millennium BC. We find them as well in the Midianite tent shrine at Timna. Examples from Canaanite Hazor, from Israelite Arad and from an Edomite temple near Hazeva are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. We see them in the Israelite gate at Dan. The Nabataeans focused on such stones - and they would also carve them in relief, so that the forms projected from sandstone, as at Petra.

The most famous instance is at Shechem – it may be a piece of the stone mentioned in Joshua 24:26, "And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord (Heb., mikdash yhwh)," literally "the temple of Yahweh."

Earlier, after receiving God's promise, Jacob set up a stone and called it Beth-El, the "house of God." (Genesis 28: 18-22.)

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top. He called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.


There are variations in the sizes of these stones and in their shapes at the top. Sometimes they are rough and sometimes hewn. Basically, though, the form is longer than wide, resembling a person dimly seen. This similarity brings us, perhaps, to the secret of the stele's numinous power. For what is a god? A god is a person, but unlike us, a god is immortal - permanent. When a nomad erects a stone in the desert and stands facing it, the result looks like the encounter of two persons, one of flesh and the other permanent. It may seem ridiculous, of course, for a man to worship a thing he has set up with his own hands. Here is a description by the Muslim historian Ibn Sa'ad (9th century), describing the custom of the Arab tribes of central Arabia before Islam (quoted in Patrich, p. 66):

When some part of the tribe, while encamping in a certain new place, does not have an idol, one man goes and looks for four stones which he erects - three are used for the pot while he chooses the nicest stone for the idol, which he then worships. If, later on, he finds a nicer one, he replaces it; at the next stop he takes another in its stead. 

If the stone is so easily replaceable, it seems clear that it was not the object of worship - any more than the stones in the Western Wall are worshipped by Jews who pray toward them, or the cross by Christians or the Kaaba in Mecca by Muslims. The faithful venerate the wall or the cross or the stone, but they worship the deity. It is as if one said to oneself, "Here is the place to stop what I'm doing and focus on God." In a similar way, the standing stone would have brought the divine presence into focus. (We can find a contemporary equivalent of the stelae in the late paintings of Mark Rothko.)  

Shrine in the Uvda Valley, Negev