Standing Stones - Early Israel's Struggle With Paganism

April 24, 2018

Stone Megaliths at Tel Gezer by Mboesch - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0


The discovery of “Standing Stones,” a possible form of cult worship, at Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Ela valley, which was built around the early 10th century BCE, is a striking example of the process of social and religious transition taking place as the Jewish people settled Eretz Yisrael.


The initial stages of political consolidation as a monarchy accompanied a process of ritual centralization which culminated in the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, and attempts to establish authoritative Jewish worship - primarily when, where, and how animal and incense could be offered, and prohibiting cult and idol worship. Making a clear distinction between pagan Canaanite practices and what was Jewish was critical. Depending on how stones were used, two categories were delineated: matzevot (single stone pillars/monuments) and mizbehot or bamot (altars for ritual offerings).


Worshipping standing stones (matzevot) seem to have been a pagan Canaanite custom and Jews were commanded to destroy them (Exodus 34:13). Erecting pillars to worship violates Torah commandments – for example, Exodus 20:21-2 and Devarim 16:22 – but using stones to commemorate spiritual encounters is different. Jacob erected a stone pillar in Beit El, where G-d spoke to him (Genesis, 28: 18 and 35:14); Moses erected 12 stone pillars at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus, 24:4); and, after making a covenant with the Jewish people in Shechem (Nablus) and writing down what took place, Joshua “took a great stone and set it up there under the oak tree that was by the sanctuary of the Lord… [as] a witness to us for it (the stone) has heard all the words of the Lord… and therefore it shall be a witness to you, lest you deny G-d.” (Joshua 24: 25-27)


The socio-historical transition from a group of people that had been desert wanderers to settled dwellers is discussed in the Talmud (Bavli and Yerushalmi) in tractate Zevachim. One of the key questions was whether private bamot would be allowed. Bamot were used by many different people in ritual practices, and Jews were no different, although they are specifically prohibited in Torah. Because the Jewish people at the time was composed of many different elements, moreover, it’s impossible to know who was using them, and for what purpose.


Once the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary) was constructed in the Sinai desert, however, bamot were prohibited and ritual worship was centered in the Mishkan. But when the Jewish people entered Eretz Yisrael, camped at Gilgal (outside of Jericho), and established a ritual center there, and during the following fourteen years of conquest and settlement, bamot were again permitted. This was allowed because Gilgal was considered only a temporary place for the Mishkan while the Jewish people were engaged in conquering the land. It remained an important national political center, especially in rallying the Jewish people to fight.


When the Mishkan was brought to Shilo (north of Jerusalem), and Shilo became the new national ritual center, bamot were again prohibited. Shilo remained the capital of the Jewish people for 369 years until King David established Jerusalem as the political and religious center. The Ark of the Covenant, which contained the whole and broken pieces of the Ten Commandments, was located in the most sacred area of the Mishkan, but was taken out to accompany Jewish armies in battle. In one famous incident, the Philistines captured the Ark (I Samuel 4:11) and destroyed Shilo. The Ark was eventually returned via Ekron and the Soreq valley through Beit Shemesh to Qiryat Ye’arim in the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, where it remained for 20 years.


The return of the Ark sparked a religious revival in which the Prophet Samuel admonished the Jews to get rid of the “foreign gods” (idols) and ashterot (trees worshiped as pagan symbols). The Philistines launched another attack on the Jews (at Mitzpe) but were saved by Divine intervention. “Then Samuel took a stone and placed it between Mitzpe and Shen and called it 'Even Ha’ezer,' for G-d helped us (I Sam 7:12).” Using large stones to commemorate historical events, however, is different from worshiping them.


The return of the Ark and the defeat (albeit temporarily) of the Philistines also prompted a new political stage: Samuel appointed Saul as king at Gilgal. The Philistines continued to attack the Jews, and in a famous battle, challenged the Jews with their huge, giant warrior, Goliath. The Jewish contender, the child-soldier David, agreed and slew him in the Ela valley, “between Socho and Azeka in Efes Damim” – where later, during the reigns of David and Solomon, Khirbet Qeiyafa was built in the foothills.


Ten megaliths were found at Tel Gezer, near Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Shfela in the Ayalon Valley, but it’s not known who set them up, or for what purpose.


Bamot were again permitted when the Mishkan was moved to the priestly town of Nov, where it remained for 13 years, until King Saul destroyed the town for supporting David’s revolt. The Mishkan was then moved to Givon, north of Jerusalem, where it remained for 44 years.


Bamot were forbidden when Jerusalem was established as the national center of the Jewish people under King David and, once the Temple was built, bamot were never allowed again – even when a Temple no longer existed.


The “standing stones” may represent a form of worship during the tumultuous period before the Temple was built and religious and political consolidation established. The problem of cult worship, however, did not go away. Jews continued to build altars and worship “in high places,” as they had been doing for generations. King Solomon was also part of the problem, building bamot for his foreign wives, and even worshipping “Ashtoret, the goddess of the Zidononians, Kemosh, the god of Moav, and Milkom, the god of the children of Ammon.” (Kings I 11:33). This led to civil war in which Yarov’am, leader of the ten northern tribes, built golden calves and placed them in Beit El and Dan (Kings I 12:29).


But the tribe of Yehuda also relapsed into idol worship: “They built high places, and pillars, and Asherim … and there was prostitution in the land and they did according to all the abominations of the nations” (Kings I 14:23). Later, King Hezikiah tried to wipe out idol worship: “He (King Hezikiah) removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles” (Kings II 18:4).


With a few exceptions, the struggle against paganism and idol worship persisted throughout the First Temple period. Unity regarding religious worship was, apparently, as elusive then as it is now.


The exhibition featuring the Standing Stones, “In the Valley of David and Goliath,” was created by the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem and is currently at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.


It displays rare and important artifacts seen by the public for the first time. From recent excavations in the Ela Valley site, known as Khirbet Qeiyafa, finds have been dated to 1,000 B.C.E. Discovered not far from where – according to the Bible – the epic battle between David the Judean shepherd and Goliath the Philistine giant took place, some scholars believe Qeifaya was the ancient city of Sha’arayim, mentioned in the book of Samuel, because it has – uniquely for this period – two city gates.


Among many exciting artifacts on display is a unique cultic shrine carved from stone. Cultic shrines were discovered in a number of buildings, but this particular shrine model is significant for its detailed carved façade that is similar to the architectural design described in the biblical accounts of King Solomon’s Temple and his Palace on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A virtual tour of the exhibit is available here.

The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. His book of short stories, “As Far As the Eye Can See,” was published by the New English Review Press in 2015. This article, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared in The Jerusalem Post.

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...הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָרִימִי אַל תִּירָאִי אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה הִנֵּה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם! (ישעיה  מ:ט)

...Raise your voice with strength, herald of Jerusalem; raise it, do not be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your G-d!"

(Isaiah 40:9)

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