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The biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (as well as the prophet Moses, something of a transitional figure between the age of the patriarchs and that of the later prophets) are depicted as wandering nomads. They generally worshipped their god, Yahweh (“Jehovah” or “the LORD”), in the wilderness, where they built temporary shrines, often located near a tree, consisting of altars and sacred raised pillars.
The fundamental ritual of the patriarchal age was the offering of animal sacrifice on an altar, which was generally a raised platform of uncut stones on which a fire was made (Exodus 20:25).
In Hebrew, the altar was called “mizbe’ah,” meaning “a place of slaughtering (an animal) as a sacrifice.” Altars were erected by Noah (Genesis 8:20), Abraham (Genesis 12:7; 13:4; 22:9), Isaac (Genesis 26:25), Jacob (33:20; 35:1-3), and Moses (Exodus 17:15, 24:4).
The most detailed description of a patriarchal sacrifice occurs in the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. Abraham, we’re told, brought prepared wood, a knife and fire (presumably coals in a pot), but he built an altar of stones on the spot chosen for the sacrifice (Genesis 22:3, 6, 9, 19).
Many of these altars seem to have been temporary. However, Moses eventually made a permanent bronze altar (Exodus 27:1-8) that could be carried along with the tabernacle (a portable temple) during the Israelites’ many years of wandering in the wilderness.
The other important element of a patriarchal shrine was a raised pillar, called a “massebah” (plural “massebot”) in Hebrew. Archaeology has shown that the massebah/pillar was essentially a rough, uncut oblong stone, with its long end raised to create a pillar. The Mosaic prohibition of graven images (Exodus 20:4) meant that the patriarchal pillar lacked any carving, but it could have been painted or inscribed with words, as the pillar raised by Joshua was (Joshua 8:32, 24:25-27).
The fundamental purpose of the massebah was to serve as a memorial of a theophany (a manifestation of God), and for covenant ratification. When Jacob had his vision of God and the ladder or stairway to heaven at Luz, he raised a pillar thereafter and consecrated it with oil, calling it “Bethel” (“the house of God”) (Genesis 28:18–22; 35:9–15).
For Jacob, the pillar represented the presence of God and, hence, it was the “house of God,” or temple. Pillars might also be set up for more mundane memorials — as, for example, a grave marker (Genesis 35:19–20), a personal memorial (2 Samuel 18:18), or to commemorate a covenant between humans (Genesis 31:41-52).
Samuel erected what was undoubtedly a massebah (which he named “Ebenezer” or “Stone of Help”) to commemorate the theophany in which God granted Israel victory over the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:12). Hence the phrase “here I raise my Ebenezer” in the beloved hymn “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing” — a hymn filled with rich Old Testament symbolism.
Moses ordered each of the then nomadic 12 Israelite tribes encamped before Sinai to bring a stone so that they could erect a circle of standing stones around the tabernacle altar (Exodus 24:3-8). Each tribe’s massebah thus commemorated both the Sinai theophany and the tribal covenant ratification. And again, when Israel first entered the promised land, each tribe likewise carried a sacred stone and created a similar stone circle at Gilgal, their first camp across the Jordan River (Joshua 4:19-20). Gilgal remained an important ritual center until the time of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 7:16, 10:8, 11:14-15).
Ultimately, the practice of raising such sacred standing stones did not survive among the Israelites. This may be related to the fact that non-Israelite peoples also erected sacred pillars as idols or as images of their gods as part of their worship (Jeremiah 43:13; Exodus 34:13; Leviticus 26:1; Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10).
Notably, the erection of sacred pillars to honor Canaanite gods by Israelites was condemned and eradicated in later Israelite times by Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4) and Josiah (2 Kings 23:14), two kings of Judah. Long before the time of Jesus, sacred pillars had ceased to be part of Jewish worship.
More information on the subject of pillars or standing stonescan be found in the entries on “Massebah” and “Gilgal” in the “Anchor Bible Dictionary” the “Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible,” or most other standard academic reference works on the Bible. For an archaeological evaluation, see Uzi Avner’s “Sacred Stones in the Desert“.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.
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