When contemporary hikers traveling the backcountry encounter places where the well-worn path gives way to solid rock, they often find cairns to guide their footsteps on an otherwise invisible path. Cairns are made from natural stones that have been stacked on top of one another in an unnatural way to catch the hiker’s eye. The ancient world had something similar, but it had nothing to do with hiking.

In the ancient world, a single stone or pile of stones set up in an unnatural way was called a masseba in Hebrew. This word is translated in a variety of ways, including “pillar,” “standing stone,” and “sacred stone.”

A single masseba could function as either a memorial stone that invited the viewer to recall a past event or a sacred stone that was employed in worship. The memorial pillar could function in three different ways. First, it could mark the last resting place of a person who died. For example, Jacob set up a pillar at the tomb of Rachel (Gen 35:20). Second, the pillar or memorial stone could invite the viewer to recall an important event that happened near its location.

Jacob set up such a memorial stone as a reminder of the theophany he experienced at Bethel (Gen 28:18, 22; 31:13; 35:14).

And Samuel set up a stone to commemorate the victory God gave Israel against the Philistines (1 Sam 7:12). Third, the memorial stone could be put in place to commemorate an agreement that was struck near its location (Gen 31″45-47, 51-52; Exod 24:4; Josh 24: 26-27). END OF PART 1

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