Photo by Hershel Shanks

A seemingly random cluster of rocks within a circle marking a burial place near Eilat, in the southern Negev desert, is actually a painstaking arrangement of carefully selected standing stones, or masseboth, erected some 7,000 years ago. Author Uzi Avner suggests that although most of the standing stones at the tomb represent ancestral spirits, two broad stones at the eastern edge of the circle (at extreme left), which differ from the other standing stones in size, shape, orientation and relative position within the group, served a very different function. He believes these stones, like numerous others throughout the Negev and Sinai, belong to a distinctive type of masseboth that represents ancient deities. Masseboth occupied a central role in ancient cult practices; the Bible mentions them more than 30 times. Jacob, Moses, Joshua and others erected them to seal pacts, witness covenants and commemorate sacred events, but later sources usually excoriated them. What clues do these enigmatic remnants offer about the desert origins of ancient Israelite religion?