“set it up as a standing-stone.” Jacob set up four standing stones. His first was a small one here at Bethel (Gen. 28:18.) His second was when he made a covenant with Laban (Gen. 31:45). His third was when he went back to Bethel after being gone to Syria where he married and had children (Gen. 35:14). He erected a fouth standing-stone over Rachel’s grave, no doubt as a memorial for her (Gen. 35:20).
The Hebrew word translated “standing-stone” is matstsebah (#04676 מַצֵּבָה) and matstsebah can refer to a standing-stone or to a garrison or army, but it almost always refers to a standing-stone (some 34 times in the Old Testament). It was a quite common practice in the ancient Near East to set up stones to commemorate events or to represent gods or goddesses. Sometimes the stones were worked or shaped, but many times they were simply natural stones that happened to be somewhat cucumber-shaped and were simply stood up on end, as Jacob did here in Genesis 28:18. However, in specific contexts matstsebah can refer to a specific type of standing stone, such as an obelisk (Jer. 43:13). Hundreds of standing stones have been discovered by archaeologists and historians, and they range from little stones that are only a few inches tall to huge monolithic stones that are several yards high.
If the standing-stone is carved or shaped at all, some of them face east, and some of them have little hollows or shelves for small offerings. Standing-stones are often found in a cultic setting, for example, in or near temples or sanctuaries, and they are often found with altars, benches, and basins close by. Also, there are often two, three, or more standing stones set up close to each other. When a number of standing-stones are found grouped together, they may have represented known groups or families of gods. Also, when the stones are grouped together there are bigger and smaller ones set in close proximity and it is theorized that this may represent more powerful and less powerful gods, and similarly, when there are two stones side by side and one is wider and the other narrower it is theorized that the broad one represents a god and the narrower one represents a goddess, but we do not know for certain.
Sometimes the meaning of the standing-stone would not be apparent, which would be the case here in Genesis with the one that Jacob set up to commemorate his encounter with Yahweh, and then people had to be prepared to pass down the reason for the stones from one generation to the next (cp. Josh. 4:6, 21). However, there were times when the location or shape of the standing-stone might indicate its purpose, for example if it represented a specific god.
A standing-stone could be a godly thing or an ungodly thing depending on its purpose. Many godly people set up standing-stones as memorials or witnesses. Jacob seems to especially have liked setting up memorial standing-stones, and set up four of them. He set his first one up to commemorate his meeting with Yahweh (Gen. 28:16-22; 35:14-16), and it would have been quite small because he had used it as a pillow (Gen. 28:11, 18). He set up his second standing-stone as a witness to the covenant that he had made with Laban (Gen. 31:45), and his third when he returned from Syria to Bethel, which was the second one that he set up at Bethel (Gen. 35:14). He set up his fourth on Rachel’s grave as a memorial (Gen. 35:20).
Moses erected twelve standing-stones at the foot of Mt. Sinai where God made the Old Covenant with Israel, one stone for each of the tribes of Israel (Ex. 24:4-8). Joshua erected a standing-stone as a memorial and a witness of the covenant that he made with Israel in Shechem (Josh. 24:26). Samuel erected a standing-stone that he named “Ebenezer” (“Stone of Help”) as a memorial that God helped Israel defeat the Philistines (1 Sam. 7:12). These memorial standing-stones helped people remember their history and the great works of God. Isaiah 19:19 says that in the future kingdom of Christ on earth, the Egyptians will erect a standing-stone to Yahweh on their border.
In contrast to the godly standing-stones that were set up mainly as memorials, the majority of standing-stones were set up to worship pagan gods. Standing stones often represented specific deities, and sometimes it was even thought that the deity resided inside the stone. That is why Israel was strictly commanded not to set up those kinds of standing stones (Lev. 26:1; Deut. 16:22).
Also, there may have been many more standing-stones in Israel due to its Canaanite past, but God commanded that Israel destroy the pagan standing-stones (Exod. 23:24; 34:13; Deut. 7:5; 12:3) and some of the kings obeyed that command (Joram of Israel, 2 Kings 3:2; Jehu of Israel, 2 Kings 10:26-27; Hezekiah, 2 Kings 18:4 and 2 Chron. 31:1; Josiah, 2 Kings 23:14; ). However, when the worship of Baal and other pagan gods grew in Israel, sometimes kings of the people set up standing stones for those gods (1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10).
It is likely that there was a large standing-stone at Gibeon (2 Sam. 20:8), although nothing is said about who set it up or when. Gibeon was a Hivite city (Josh. 11:9) so the standing-stone was likely set up long before Israel invaded the Promised Land.
Although many versions translate these standing-stones as “pillars,” that translation can give the wrong impression. We usually think of a “pillar” as something man-made, sculpted, and tall. In contrast, most standing-stones were not shaped much if at all. Some of them can be seen at archaeological sites today, for example, there is still a broken standing stone at the site of the temple of Baal-berith at Shechem. Tel Gezer also has impressive standing stones.