Considering the attention garnered by the megaliths, menhirs, sarsens, and dolmens of Europe, I find it fascinating (and a little disappointing) how little attention has been paid to the ancient stone monuments of Palestine. Standing stones have been an element of the culture of the Levant from the earliest times (from Jacob’s day, in the 17th century B.C.E., according to Genesis 28 and traditional Bible chronology). They played an important role as remembrancers for the people of Israel both before and after the conquest.
In 1761 B.C.E., the patriarch Jacob ben Isaac had a dream in which he saw a ladder going to heaven. On that location, near the ancient city of Luz, he set up a stone pillar (using the stone that had served as his “pillow”) and named the place “Bethel,” or “House of God” (Genesis Chapter 28). Later that same year, Jacob and his father-in-law Laban concluded a covenant at a place north of the Torrent Valley of Jabbok which Jacob named Galeed, or “Witness Heap.” Again Jacob erected a stone pillar, this time having his brothers to pile stones around or near the pillar in the form of a table, upon which a communion meal was eaten with Laban (Genesis Chapter 31).
Centuries later, in around 1473 B.C.E., the nation of Israel crossed the Jordan River and began their conquest of the Promised Land. The flooded river was miraculously stopped up for this event when the Priests carried the Ark of the Covenant out into its waters. After the crossing, Joshua had twelve stones set up in the middle of the river to commemorate the event.
Sometime afterward Joshua followed through on Moses’ instructions as recorded at Deuteronomy Chapter 27. An unspecified number of “great [uncut] stones” were to be whitewashed with lime and erected on Mount Ebal next to an altar. After offering sacrifices on the altar, the words of the Torah were to be copied onto the whitewashed stones, “making them quite clear” (Deuteronomy 27:8).
Joshua Chapter 24 records Joshua’s speech to the nation just before his death in 1450 B.C.E. After the people vowed to obey the words of the Torah, Joshua concluded a covenant with them near Shechem. The Tabernacle was set up near a “massive tree,” and beneath it Joshua erected a “great stone” as a witness: “Look! This stone is what will serve as a witness against us, because it has itself heard all the sayings of Jehovah that he has spoken with us, and it must serve as a witness against you, that you may not deny your God.” (Joshua 24:27, New World Translation).
It would be many centuries before the Scriptures recorded the next stone being put up. This time it was done by the Prophet Samuel to commemorate Israel’s victory over the Philistines in a campaign that stretched from Mizpah to the Plains of Philistia itself. The stone was erected by the prophet “between Mizpah and Jeshanah,” and was named “Ebenezer,” or “Stone of Help.”
Of course most of the stone installations in the Levant are not recorded in Scripture. One of the more fascinating ones (to me) is a set of giant concentric rings of stacked stone in the West Bank region. It is traditionally known as “Gilgal of the Rephaim.” Ancient Jewish tradition says that it was constructed by the race of giants sometime before the 16th century B.C.E. I have included a photograph of it below; it is, to me, Palestine’s Stonehenge.
The standing stones of Palestine are every bit as significant and fascinating and ancient as the various henges and dolmens of Europe, and often illustrate important turning points in the history of the Israelites. I hope that more information is forthcoming on these structures.