On a cliff 650 meters above my kibbutz next to a trail called Ma’aleh Yitro (Jethro’s Ascent) is a semicircle of 7 standing stones, or what the Bible calls matzevot. They are approximately 6,000 years old and predate any record that can tell us who erected them or why. They are certainly not alone. In fact, the Uvda Basin (a mere 60 square kilometers), hosts over 120 prehistoric cultic sites, a world of ancient devotion, from a time when hundreds, perhaps thousands lived and farmed this desert. I recently visited these stones on a moonlight hike.
In the moonlight, they’re particularly intriguing. These ancient pillars glow with a religious fervor that transcends millennia. I can imagine the Chalcolithic peoples of what is now my neighborhood making an offering to their gods in hopes of a good growing season or a healthy child.
These ancient Semitic sites predate – but also foreshadow – the cult that became the religion of the Children of Israel. Israel himself (Jacob) created a simple matzevah after his vision of the angels ascending the ladder. (Genesis 28:22). For Jacob, this pillar was an instrument of his communication with God. He anointed it with oil and promised to give a tenth of all that he has to God if he is successful on his journey, and named the place of the matzevah “Beit El”, or “House of God.”
The stones of Ma’aleh Yitro face east, the direction of the rising sun and the direction in which the mishkan [tabernacle] and ultimately the Temple would open up to the rising sun. Just as a Jew prays in thanks to He who “renews in His goodness each day the act of creation” so these stones have, for thousands of years, stood on this cliff and faced the sunrise across the valley in silent gratitude.
The stones are unshaped and unsculpted. The only thing that humans did to them was to turn them upright and plant them in the ground. This is consistent with the commandment given to Moses and later to Joshua to build an altar untouched by iron.
In the Bible, the builders of altars, matzevot, and sites of worship are commanded to build using “whole stones over which no man hath lift up any iron.” (Joshua 8:31). And here in this desert is a fully formed physical manifestation of this idea. But why? What would be wrong with chipping away at them a bit with a flint rock, smoothing the sides, a bit of artistic handiwork?
The easy answer is to suggest that they didn’t have the technology, and to view these ancient devotees as Stone Age primitives whose creative minds had not advanced beyond taking a vertical stone and turning it on its end. But we know that they did have the technology, both fine stonecutting skills for making small tools, and the ability to build houses, carve threshing floors, and design sophisticated stone leopard traps.
Perhaps the matzevot of my moonlight hike, as well as those of Jacob, Moses, and Joshua were a step in the direction of the first commandment. “You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” The stone in nature, after all, is the work of God. The moment that any carving or chiseling happens, it becomes the work of a human being…a graven image.
Human beings are made in God’s image, but since the beginning of time, we have had the impulse to try to make God in our image. That is the true sin. God should not be made to resemble the king, as in ancient Egypt. The king – or the peasant, for that matter – in his finest moments may, perhaps, resemble the Creator in some small way. The Rock of Israel is just that: the thing upon which we depend, not the thing that we shape according to our own whim to make us feel better about ourselves.
Of course, in later periods, the Bible is no longer ambivalent: The matzevot are a negative thing in every way, and our duty is to tear them down as they too, carry the whiff of idol worship. But here in the shadow of these beautiful ageless pillars, I can contemplate what must have been sublime moments for the locals, looking beyond themselves, and feeling eternity.
Or, as we will be saying these High Holy Days, “On this day the world was called into being.”