Masseboth and Stelae
mat-zey-VAH, plural masseboth, mat-zey-VOTE
Derived from the Hebrew root “to set up” or “to stand,” the term massebah is used to describe the upright stones erected to commemorate important religious events or sacred covenants in the lands of the Bible during the Bronze and Iron Ages (3150–1200 B.C. and 1200–586 B.C., respectively). In the patriarchal narratives of the Book of Genesis, masseboth are mentioned both as burial monuments—“Jacob set up a pillar at Rachel’s grave” (Genesis 35:20)—and as memorials to direct encounters with God—Jacob “set up a pillar at the site where [God] had spoken to him” (Genesis 35:14).
Their significance as physical representations of sacred covenants is also stressed, as in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 24:4), where 12 masseboth are erected at the foot of Mt. Sinai to symbolize the divine covenant shared by the 12 Israelite tribes. It is clear from the Bible that the Canaanites also revered standing stones, which the Israelites were ordered by God to tear down (see Exodus 23:24, 34:13). Later Israelite and Judean kings, however, apparently continued to erect masseboth for use in traditional Canaanite-style worship (see, for example, 1 Kings 14:23, in which Judah “built for themselves high places, and pillars … on every high hill,” during the reign of Rehoboam [928–911 B.C.]).
Although no masseboth explicitly connected with the ancient Israelite cult have as yet been discovered, archaeological excavations in the land of the Bible have uncovered several groups of standing stones in the Bronze Age levels of Canaanite cities. The most impressive of these is the Middle Bronze Age “High Place” at Gezer, where a row of ten large upright stones was aligned in a north-south direction and surrounded by a low wall. The excavators of Gezer speculated that these stones were erected about 1600 B.C. to commemorate an alliance of Canaanite princes or city-states.
At Tell Balatah, the site of the Biblical city of Shechem, excavations uncovered several large standing stones that had once been fitted into grooved stone bases at the entrance to one of the city’s most important temples during the Middle and Late Bronze Age (c. 1650–c. 1200 B.C.). Arrangements of smaller, carved standing stones, apparently used for cultic purposes, have also been uncovered at Tell Kitan in the Jordan Valley and in a small Late Bronze Age temple in the lower city of Hazor.
STEE-la, plural stelae, STEE-lee
Derived from the Latina word “to set up” or “to stand,” stela is used by archaeologists to describe virtually every type of freestanding stone slab or tablet set up for memorial or commemorative purposes. In contrast to most masseboth, stelae are usually elaborately carved and often are inscribed with symbols, images and text. The earliest known stelae come from Mesopotamia and were used to commemorate military victories and to announce royal legislation: examples include the victory stela of King Naram-Sin of Akkad (c. 2254–2218 B.C.) and the stela inscribed with the law code of King Hammurabi of Babylon (1792–1749 B.C.).
A similar use of stelae arose in Egypt, and one of the most famous examples—the Israel Stela of Pharaoh Merneptah (c. 1236–1223 B.C.)—records Egyptian victories over Canaanite city-states and, among others, the people of Israel. At Serabit el-Khadem, in the Sinai, a large collection of Egyptian stelae bearing reliefs and hieroglyphic inscriptions once stood in the temple of Hathor, the patron goddess of the turquoise mines at the site; the inscriptions detail the mining expeditions sent by each successive pharaoh, ending with the expedition of Ramesses VI (1151–1143 B.C.). (See “Fifteen Years in Sinai,” BAR 10:04.)
The custom of erecting royal stelae apparently became common throughout the ancient Near East; around 830 B.C., for example, King Mesha of Moab erected a carved stone to commemorate his victory over King Omri of Israel. (See “Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son,” BAR 12:06.) In the later Assyrian empire, highly elaborate stelae bearing long texts in cuneiform characters were regularly used to commemorate victories and to mark imperial boundaries. Fragments of a basalt stela erected about 712 B.C. by the victorious armies of Sargon II were discovered in the excavations of ancient Ashdod.
Stelae were also used in many places around the ancient Mediterranean as gravestones or to announce the fulfillment of a religious vow. During the New Kingdom period in Egypt (c. 1560–1050 B.C.), small stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts and sometimes the image of the donor were often placed in cemeteries and temples to symbolize a personal prayer or request. A similar custom can be seen in the hundreds of stelae erected from the eighth to the second centuries B.C. in the Tophet, or sacred precinct, of ancient Carthage, to commemorate the sacrifice of children and animals to the goddess Tanit and the god Ba‘al Hammon. (See “Child Sacrifice at Carthage,” BAR 10:01.) In Greece, the use of stelae to mark the graves of individuals became common from the sixth century B.C. and spread throughout the Mediterranean region during the Hellenistic period (fourth to first centuries B.C.).
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Masseboth and Stelae Massebah mat-zey-VAH, plural masseboth, mat-zey-VOTE Derived from the Hebrew root “to set up” or “to stand,” the term massebah is used to describe the upright stones erected to commemorate important religious events or sacred covenants in the lands of the Bible during the Bronze and Iron Ages (3150–1200 B.C. and 1200–586 B.C., respectively). In the patriarchal narratives of the Book of Genesis, masseboth are mentioned both as burial monuments—“Jacob set up a pillar at Rachel’s grave” (Genesis 35:20)—and as memorials to direct encounters with God—Jacob “set up a pillar at the site where [God] had spoken […]