(An)iconography? What’s the Deal with the Massebot?

A few years ago I dug (no pun intended) into scholarship on the massebot, which put most simply are unhewn stones set in an upright position, ranging in size anywhere between 10cm to 10 feet.  They can occur in groups of varying numbers–usually two or three, with assemblages of five, seven, nine, twelve, and sixteen also in existence–or single stones. 

The word massebah occurs 35 times in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 28:18, 22; 31:13, 45, 51, 52 (x2); 35:14 (x2), 20 (x2); Exo 23:24; 24:4; 34:13; Lev 26:1; Deu 7:5; 12:3; 16:22; 1 Sa 14:12; 1 Ki 14:23; 2 Ki 3:2; 10:26-27; 17:10; 23:14; 2 Ch 14:2; 31:1; Isa 19:19; Jer 43:13; Eze 26:11; Hos 3:4, 10:1-2; Mic 5:12; Zec 9:8).  Among these multiple occurrences are a variety of attested uses and functions.  Trygvve Mettinger assigns a cultic usage to all excavated massebot, seeing them as representing a certain type of aniconism he calls “material aniconism” (in juxtaposition to “empty-space aniconism”).  Carl Graesser, however, posits four distinct functions:
       1) memorial (remembering the deceased)
       2) legal (witnessing to a legal transaction)
       3) commemorative (recalling participants in an event)
       4) cultic (pointing to a place where the deity is ‘cultically immanent’)

The difficulty then naturally presents itself: how is one to discern the function of a given, excavated massebah?  Compounding the difficulty is a discernible movement from Bronze Age multiple stone assemblages to Iron Age single stones.  Some have taken this as indicative of a movement towards Israelite monotheism, yet it seems to me historically that monotheism is a relatively late innovation within ancient Israel.  However, it has been posited that the multiple stones of the Bronze Age assemblages correspond to a variety of deities (compare the shape of ILL 1 & 2). 

Five massebot from Wadi Dabe‘iyah

ILL 1: Five massebot from Wadi Dabe‘iyah

Statue of five Sumerian deities from Tell Asmar

ILL 2: Statue of five Sumerian deities from Tell Asmar

Perhaps buttressing this point, a grouping of seven stones from Ma’aleh Yitro exhibit a visible pattern (see ILL 3), alternating between ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ stones, which has led some (Avner is one such proponent) to aver that the
Group of seven massebot from Ma‘aleh Yitro

ILL 3: Group of seven massebot from Ma‘aleh Yitro

more broad stones represent female deities–in comparison with the shapes of female figurines–and the more narrow stones male deities.  Coupled with the attestation of several broad (female?) stones facing west (identifying with the sunset and thus the realm of the dead, where the fertility goddess played an integral part) set against the propensity of massebot to face east may support this gendering of stones all the more.  But it does seem clear within scholarship that in the Bronze Age, despite its use, the stone in some way was meant to ‘stand for’ the deity/ies.  Could the same be the case in Iron Age Palestine?
Many Iron Age single stones are found in locales believed to be sanctuaries.  These single stones within a ‘cultic’ context lend themselves to the initial possibility that these stones are meant also to stand for a deity. 
Among the most important discoveries for this period is the single massebah in the Holy of Holies at the Arad (an Israelite fortress) sanctuary (see ILL 4).  Aharoni unearthed three stones at this site, yet a progression seems to be in evidence.  Aharoni posited that in the first stage of existence the three stones stood side by side, in a second stage only the two larger stones stood, and in a final stage was a movement to a single, large stone.  
Massebah in Holy of Holies at Arad, standing before an altar?

ILL 4: Massebah in Holy of Holies at Arad, standing before an altar?

It is striking that the other two stones appear still to have been treated with great respect–perhaps even having been buried!–evincing the possibility that they were connected with the deity in some way.
Another seminal discovery in this area is a single stone massebah at Lachish (see ILL 5).  What makes this find unique is the presence of a pile of ashes in front of the stone, which most have taken to have been an asherah
ILL 4: Lachish massebah with pile of ash (burned asherah?)

ILL 5: Lachish massebah with pile of ash (burned asherah?)

If one can equate the Lachish massebah with the Kuntillet Ajrud inscription speaking of YHWH “and his asherah” (whatever that means!), one may see evidence not only of YHWH and asherah worshiped together–and asherah worship is certainly not unattested in the Hebrew Bible–but that this stone was meant to ‘stand for’ YHWH.  Supporting this connection all the more is the steady connection in the Hebrew Bible between tree trunks and massebot.

So what is one to make of this movement from multiple to single stones?  Does it reveal something about Israelite monotheism?  Monolatry?  Can (and should?) it be connected with Hezekiah’s reforms, or perhaps those of his grandson, Josiah, assuming one ascribes historicity to these reforms?  Do the four uses for massebot outlined above cohere in a sensible way with the stones as ‘standing for’ the deity in some way?  And if so, in what way?  Are they places of divine residence, supported perhaps by the bet-il elsewhere in the ancient Near East (cf. biblical Bethel in Gen 28 and 35, where Jacob erects . . . . a massebah!).  Are they, as Mettinger suggests, a way to image the deity in an imageless society?  Or do they mean nothing at all?  And, most importantly, what kind of synergy can one construct with this evidence and the biblical text?
What are your thoughts?

7 thoughts on “(An)iconography? What’s the Deal with the Massebot?

  1. Duane says:


    This is an interesting set of questions that I’ve kinked around myself for time to time. I rather doubt that aversion to images was a motivating factor in Iron I or Iron IIa (to use A. Mazar’s scheme), even in Iron IIb and perhaps even latter in some places normally associated with Judah. It almost certainly wasn’t an issue in LB or earlier. I also agree that monotheism was late and I think even monolatrism was not uniformly observed until quite late.

    I can say with complete certainty that the massebot complex at Gezer (if that is what it is) was a place of rather wild parties and occasional heavy drinking in the late 1960s and early 1970s CE.

  2. John Anderson says:

    Duane: Good stuff, thanks. Were you perhaps at said parties? ha!

    The Gezer line of massebot is quite impressive . . . . very large and numerous. A fascinating site for interpretation.

  3. Duane says:

    Rather than reminiscing about Gezer, I probably should have directed you to Zevit’s discussion of “standing stones, bamot, hammanim and asherat” in his The Religions of Ancient Israel (256-65). You may already know it. Also interesting and relevant is his understanding of epigraphic ‘šrath. He, 400-404, takes this as an otherwise unknown form of the name Asherah and not as “his Asherah.” I don’t necessarily agree with Zevit on every point, but he’s hard not to take very seriously.

  4. Alice Petrie says:

    The massebot probably do stand in for deities, and I agree about Yahweh and
    Asherah. There also are some that seem to be astronomical in nature, bigger, more northern. Do you have any observations about what might be the reason for the difference? Has anyone done research in the Negrev or Sinai, about the masseboth indicating any star patterns? –or even some of them–?

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