Stonehenge in Sinai

The monoliths at Gezer near the foothills of Jerusalem, featuring ten standing stones or matzevot (usually spelled “masseboth”). Gezer was a major fortified city in Israel’s Bronze Age, occupied from 3500 BCE until Roman times. Image credit: Ori via Wikimedia Commons

As I continue working on my realistic retelling of Exodus in the voices of non-biblical characters, I am always interested in archaeological finds that illuminate the religious beliefs of my forebears from 4,000 years ago. The Hebrew Bible as we know it today, which academics agree is a heavily redacted document, is mostly a product of reforms that took place in the 7th century BCE during the reign of King Josiah — about 500 years after the events that come down to us as the story of Exodus took place. Since I want to place my protagonists in the correct social, historical and religious context, I’m always reading up on 13th century BCE beliefs among the Israelites.

A few weeks ago, Biblical Archaeology Review sent me a featured article from 2001 on the phenomenon of standing stones in the Sinai desert. I knew that they existed — the Bible describes them in both condemnatory and praising terms — but I hadn’t had a clue of how widespread the discoveries have been, or how much many of them have in common. According to the article’s author Uzi Avner, who worked for more than 20 years for the Israel Antiquities Authority in Sinai, more than 140 sites — many of which feature multiple standing stones — have been documented. These standing stones are commonly called “masseboth” in the incorrectly transliterated biblical text; a more accurate transliteration would be “matzevot.”

The eponymous ancestor of the Israelites, Jacob himself, sets up two of them in Genesis (one after he dreams of the ladder to heaven and another after he makes a covenant with God). But Avner says that the desert matzevot predate the biblical era by thousands of years. “The earliest masseboth in the Near East are located in the Negev and the southern Jordan deserts and date to the 11th and 10th millennia B.C.E. Masseboth became quite common from the sixth to the third millennia B.C.E. and continued to be erected all through the Biblical period and later” (Avner, 2001). Since Jacob says that his standing stone, anointed with olive oil, shall be “God’s house” (or Bethel, meaning “house of El”), Avner theorizes that “[h]e probably believed that the stone contained God’s power and spirit.”

A reconstructed Holy of Holies from the city of Arad in the biblical territory of Judah, featuring a standing stone, or matzevah (usually spelled “massebah”). The display stands in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Image credit: Nick Thompson via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Avner then relates this to 24 pairs of stones found in the Sinai, 89% of which face east and 22 of which place a large stone on the left and a smaller, rounder stone on the right. A reasonable interpretation of this arrangement, Avner believes, could be that these stones represent “Yaveh and his Asherah,” a divine female consort or the cow-goddess wife of the bull-god El/Yaveh. The word “Asherah” comes up 40 times in the Bible, according to Avner, although I should add that some scholars translate “Asherah” not as the name of a deity but as meaning a holy place where Yaveh is immanent.

Avner also points out that most of the matzevot in the Sinai and Negev deserts are not carved in any way, “shaped by nature or God and not by man,” in accordance with the biblical prohibition against using chisels or other tools to carve the stones used to build altars. This, he says, follows a “desert tradition” that later developed into an abhorrence of most figurative art for Jewish places of worship.

So the self-concept of Jews as a nomadic people, making and anointing altars of stone in the wilderness wherever God speaks to us, can be traced to these very ancient matzevot — millennia before the Israelites were expelled from their lands by the Babylonians and Romans and were made wanderers by force. The matzevot could be at the roots, as well, of the Jewish cultural tendency to eschew magnificence in religious worship, building simple structures easily abandoned whenever necessity dictates. This didn’t apply to the great Temple in Jerusalem, of course, but that is the only place in the world that the Jews have clung to with such fervor.

Divine female figure, possibly Asherah, made of pottery, from around the 13th century BCE. She is on display at the Israel Museum. The carvings on her torso represent twins reaching for her breasts, while an ibex and a tree of life are on her thighs. Image credit: Nick Thompson via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Riddle me this. I was looking for a way to demonstrate the precocious wisdom of a young man who is the son of one of my protagonists and the nephew of the other (the two voices who tell the story of the Exodus are twins: Aram is a family man and Tal, his sister, is a childless widow). There are many Western examples of guessing riddles as a way to prove one’s mettle, from the Greeks onward, although riddles aren’t featured prominently in the Hebrew Bible. Still, there is a long rabbinic tradition of using them to explicate the meaning of biblical stories; one of the most famous involves Hillel, a rabbi around Jesus’s time, who solved a non-Jew’s riddle of how to teach the whole of the Torah while standing on one foot by coming up with the Golden Rule. So I decided to see if I could find a riddle that could have been told in 1300 or so BCE.

I came upon a very fun site called Riddlewot where users can post riddles of their own devising. Riddlewot also features an AI riddle generator, which came up with the following when I prompted, “A biblical-era riddle by a shepherd”:

I am the protector of the flock,

With woolly coat and sturdy stock.

My horns curl like a question mark,

Guess my name, it’s not a lark.

Needless to say, I went with something else.

Rabbi Hillel Teaches the Whole Torah On One Foot.” The Aramaic inscription (which concludes this story in the Talmud) reads: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow; this is the whole law. All the rest is a commentary; go and learn it.” Image credit: darklordpfeiffer via DeviantArt, Creative Commons license 3.0.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *