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Stones, Sacred (in the Bible)


As among many other ancient peoples, so among the Israelites, too, sacred stones played an important cultic role. The Old Testament uses the term maēbâ (literally, an erected thing) to designate such a sacred stone, usually in the form of an uninscribed stele. Sacred stones were regarded approvingly in early Old Testament texts; later they were forbidden because of their association with idolatrous Canaanite rites.

Sacred stones were used during the ceremonies of covenant ratification at Sinai (Ex 24.4). Moses erected 12 maebôt as a sign of the acceptance of Yahweh's covenant by the 12 Israelite tribes. A stone became sacred also by reason of its association with a theophany. After his vision at Bethel, Jacob took the stone on which he had slept, anointed it with oil, and set it up to commemorate his vision (Gn 28.18). When Bethel later became a popular sanctuary, anointing the stone became part of the rites celebrated there (Gn 35.14).

The maebôt, however, were not always directly related to divinity. Sometimes they were used as funeral monuments (Gn 35.20) or as steles commemorating an agreement, like that of Jacob and Laban (Gn 31.4454). The erection of stones was a natural method of delimiting the sacred territory around a sanctuary; eventually the stones themselves came to be regarded as sacred. For example, after crossing the Jordan into Palestine, Joshua ordered the erection of 12 stones from the Jordan as a memorial (Jos 4.19). These stones may have been used to enclose the area around the Galgal (Gilgal) sanctuary, for in Hebrew, gilgal means circle of stones.

In monarchic Israel the maebôt took on evil connotations because of their relation to Canaanite fertility cults at the high places. The characteristic appurtenances of these sites were the sacred stone pillar (maēbâ ) and the sacred wooden pole (ašērâ ). Sacred pillars have been found in Palestinian archeological sites, such as Mageddo, Beth-San, and Sichem. The pillar, sometimes in phallic form, was linked to the pagan male deity; the pole, with the female. Such associations made the use of the maebôt repugnant to orthodox Yahwism. Numerous texts forbade the erection of maebôt (e.g., Lv 26.1; Dt 16.22) and ordered their destruction (Ez 23.24; 34.13; Dt7.5; 12.3). The diatribes of the Prophets against idolatrous worship also implied the condemnation of maebôt see Mi 5.1013; Hos 4.13; 10.12; Jer 2.20.

On the Kabah, the sacred stone of the Muslims, see mecca; h : ajj; islam.

Bibliography: r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 285287, 290, 303, 314,414.

[a. suelzer]

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