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OT usage.

In Solomon’s palace complex was the “Hall of Pillars” (RSV), but the more accurate tr. would be a porch of columns (1 Kings 7:6). These were made of cedar, but Solomon also used rare almug wood for columns (10:12). The twin bronze pillars, named Jachin and Boaz, stood before the Temple and may have held up the architrave of the vestibule, or they may have been free-standing memorial pillars, recalling the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire of the Exodus days. Note that they were given specific names (7:15-22, 41, 42). There is a possibility that one of the columns was the pillar by which the king stood on crisis occasions, as when young Joash was proclaimed king at the close of Athaliah’s usurpation (2 Kings 11:14) and when King Josiah made his great reformation covenant (23:3).

The columns in the Philistine temple that Samson pulled down on the assembled crowd were “the two middle pillars upon which the house rested” (Judg 16:25, 26, 29). The pillars referred to in Ezekiel 40:49 were more likely pilasters. Esther 1:6 tells of the marble columns in the Pers. palace of Susa. Jeremiah was to stand like an iron pillar against wicked Judah (Jer 1:18). When wisdom built her house she used seven pillars (Prov 9:1).

The first use of מַצֵּבָה, H5167, in a good religious application is in Genesis 28:18ff., where Jacob took the stone he had been using as a pillow and set it up as a memorial pillar to his vision of God. He anointed it with oil, made a vow, and named the place Bethel, i.e., the house of God. Moses erected twelve pillars (Exod 24:4) representing the twelve tribes of Israel beside the altar he built at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The Messianic message of Isaiah 19:19 predicts an altar and a pillar to the Lord in Egypt.

The same term is used for pagan religious practices. Israel was commanded to destroy the pillars used in Canaanite worship (Exod 23:24). They were used both in their outdoor sanctuaries (2 Kings 17:10), and their temples (10:26), and were specifically called pillars of Baal (3:2). The term “pillar” also referred (Jer 43:13) to the obelisks of Heliopolis. Abimelech was made king at “the oak of the pillar at Shechem” (Judg 9:6). Archeologists recently have found and reerected a pillar that was in front of the temple of Baal-berith; and this may have been the same pillar. Israel was commanded never to erect a pillar as any part of worship (Lev 26:1).

This same term, מַצֵּבָה, H5167, may be used as a memorial stone. Absalom, since he had no sons, set up a pillar as a memorial and gave it his name (2 Sam 18:18). The same term is used of Rachel’s gravestone (Gen 35:20). It was a boundary marker between Jacob and Laban (Gen 31:45ff.). The term also has a rare usage as the stump of a tree (Isa 6:13). נְצִיב, H5907, is the term used for the pillar of salt that had been Lot’s wife.

NT usage.

The NT usage of the word pillar (στυ̂λος, G5146) is rare, and each is used in the fig. sense. James, Cephas, and John were pillars of the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:9). The Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). In John’s letter to the church at Philadelphia is the phrase “he who conquers I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God” (Rev 3:12). The angel of Revelation 10:1 has “legs like pillars of fire.”

Archeological data.

The Israelite Tabernacle was actually a mobile temple—a building that could be dismantled easily, moved to a new site, and erected quickly. Architecturally, it was based on the use of pillars and interlocking boards. The use of pillars was also the ideal way to handle the curtains used in the Tabernacle. Ramses the Great, the pharaoh of the Exodus, used a mobile temple in his campaign against the Hittites, and there is a picture of that temple in his records of the campaign.

The pillar as a feature of a permanent building developed as soon as rooms were built too large to be covered by the timber span available. Two types of pillars were mainly used in Bible times—wood and stone (if no stone or wood was available, columns were made of mud bricks). The timber normally used was grown in the immediate neighborhood, except for such major buildings as those of Solomon. Solomon’s Temple-palace complex used cedar imported from Lebanon. The entire ancient Near E considered cedar the finest timber. Archeologists have found many stone bases upon which the wooden columns stood. The stone columns are usually composite—made of stones of various heights placed one upon the other to give the necessary height. Large buildings might use a single stone, which often was roughly squared, as a column. Sometimes the column seems to have been composite with the lower part of stone, and the upper segment of wood. Plaster covered the irregularities of the stone pillars and gave them a finished pattern. Pilasters were also used in public buildings. In Megiddo and Samaria, proto-Ionic capitals were found in use with pilasters.

The houses from the period of Joshua are recognized easily by the primitive multiple-stone pillar that they used. The post-Solomonic house often had the semi-dressed stone pillar, usually of several members or a stone-wood pier. By NT times, the Gr. and Rom. types of columns were common in Pal. Herod the Great was a more prolific builder than Solomon; he was a constant user of column architecture. Columns lined the colonnaded streets of Rom. times (NT). Jerash is the best example of these, although it is post-NT.

The Canaanite religious pillar (מַצֵּבָה, H5167) seems to have been originally a natural stone of a rough obelisk form. Later, it was quarried and semi-dressed. Such a large stone is seen at Adder in Moab. Occasionally these pillars were given a finished dressing, as those at Shechem. High in artistic form was the Egyp. obelisk. Occasionally the pillar might better be described as a stone slab. Two were used at Shechem in front of the temple of Baal-berith. One is almost twice as wide as it is thick, and the width of the other is three and one-half times the thickness. Both slabs are broken and without any clue as to their original heights.

The Canaanite pillars were used originally in open-air sanctuaries. When the city of Shechem grew in size, the old sanctuary was incorporated within the new city walls and thus the pillars are adjacent to the temple of Baal-berith. At Beth-shan one pillar was actually inside the temple. These pillars sometimes were taken as the major booty in war and dragged to the sanctuary of the conqueror. Some of the sacred stones were meteorites. The most famous one is the ancient sacred stone that fell from heaven at the Ephesus shrine of Artemis (Acts 19:35). A black meteorite is built into one corner of the Kaaba at Mecca, and it is the most sacred spot in that most holy city for Moslem worshipers.


G. A. Barrois, Manuel d’Archéologie Biblique II (1953), 346-348, 358-363.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Pillar of Cloud and Fire: